The foul trouble conundrum


When foul trouble hits, how should a coach handle it? That is, if the crucial player is in foul trouble, should the coach keep the player on the bench to avoid fouling out? Or does the coach risk more by keeping the player on the bench only to see a lead evaporate?

Yeah, it’s hard to open a post with three straight questions. Sorry ’bout that. But it’s the easy way to pose the question: When in foul trouble, how long should those key players sit?

Tony Gutierrez/AP

A pair of posts from The Leisure of the Theory Class raised that question the last few days and came to the conclusion that conventional wisdom – sit the player to avoid fouling out – is wrong.

(If you believe in clutch plays, those posts aren’t for you. You’ll merely tear out your hair.)

As our intrepid NBA bloggers wrote, all points scored are the same, whether they’re scored in the early or late. It’s just a matter of maximizing those minutes from players in foul trouble. An excerpt:

Conventional wisdom seems to regard foul management as a risk vs. safety decision.  You will constantly hear something like, “a big decision here, whether to risk putting Duncan back in with 4 fouls.”  This is completely the wrong lens for the problem, since the “risky”* strategy is, with the caveats mentioned, all upside!  Coaches dramatically underrate the “risk” of falling behind, or losing a lead, by sitting a star for too long.  To make it as stark as possible, observe that the coach is voluntarily imposing the penalty that he is trying to avoid, namely his player being taken out of the game!

The most egregious cases are when a player sits even though his team is significantly behind.  I almost feel as though the coach prefers the certainty of losing to the “risk” of the player fouling out.  There may be a “control fallacy” here: it just feels worse for the coach to have a player disqualified than to voluntarily bench him, even if the result is the same.  Also, there is a bit of an agency/perception problem: the coach is trying to maximize keeping his job as well as winning, which makes him lean towards orthodoxy.

Right on cue, the folks over at Rock Chalk Talk analyzed how something like this will affected Kansas sophomore Marcus Morris, a post player who dealt with foul trouble throughout the season. Safe to say, KU coach Bill Self doesn’t subscribe to the notion that all minutes are the same.

First, picking up two fouls in the first half meant he was done for the rest of the half. Second, he entered the game around the 12 minute mark with 3 fouls and just under the 6 minute mark with fouls. The team could handle that rotation this year with Markieff [Morris] and Cole [Aldrich] , though heading into next year it does worry me a little bit.

Here’s Self’s conundrum: If Marcus Morris’ foul troubles continue next season, does he bench Morris to ensure reliable late scoring, or does he roll the dice with less experienced players such as Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey?

Staring at those options, maybe all minutes aren’t the same.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.