Ball State University professor Nick Elam was surprised to receive an invitation to attend All-Star Weekend in Chicago.
It had to do with the league adopting Elam’s decade-plus-old idea on how to change the ending of games. Elam, a basketball nut and mathematics teacher, devised a way to end every game with a winning basket, and avoid overtime and the slew of intentional fouls in the waning minutes.
The NBA will use a form of the “Elam Ending” during Sunday’s All-Star Game at the United Center. Elam’s original idea, which is used in the summertime The Basketball Tournament, turns off the game clock with four minutes remaining and adds 7 points to the leading team’s score to determine the target final score.
If Team A is leading Team B, 80-75, with four minutes left, the first team to 87 is the winner. On Sunday, the NBA will turn off the game clock for the entire fourth quarter and the team that scores 24 points higher (in honor of Kobe Bryant) than the score of the third-quarter leader will win the game.
Elam believes his idea ensures more exciting endings, avoids the final three or four minutes of games lasting 20 real-time minutes because of constant fouling and subsequent free throws, and avoids overtime. It’s a radical idea, but the fact that the NBA is experimenting with the “Elam Ending” at the All-Star Game, and that Elam received an invitation to discuss his philosophy further, could be an indication the league is considering this concept as more than a novelty.
“The idea is not to change basketball but exactly the opposite, to preserve a more natural style of play though the end of every game,” he said. “Because under the current format, that’s when we really see basketball change during the late stages and we see a totally warped style of basketball, which quite frankly I feel is an inferior type of basketball.”
Elam is correct. The NBA has tried to preserve the culture of the game by encouraging scoring. The league’s most recent idea was to shorten the shot clock to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound, increasing possessions and ensuring that teams can’t run down the clock for a total of nearly 50 seconds in one possession if there is an offensive rebound.
“[The Elam Ending] is a solution that could ultimately lead again to that natural style of play during the final stretch of the game,” Elam said. “With the NBA, cutting out the clock in the entire fourth quarter is one possible version of the Elam Ending. I actually prefer a version to eliminate the clock from the final few minutes of the game.
“The NBA told me they feel like if they were to shut off the clock mid-quarter, that might be a little too confusing for casual fans. I think what fans are going to notice with the scoring rates of All-Star Games so high, I think the fourth quarter is going to go pretty quickly.”
The NBA has been seeking ways to revive interest in the All-Star Game itself. While the weekend has turned into a league-wide family reunion, the game has turned into a dud with All-Stars ignoring defense and playing not to get injured.
The league decided to abandon the East vs. West format a few years ago and now is trying to add excitement by limiting the number of opportunities for the trailing team to rally in the fourth quarter, which may result in a more competitive, defensive-minded game.
“I think we’re going to see some great basketball, more intense basketball, than we would normally be used to seeing during an All-Star Game,” Elam said. “Somehow, someway, the game’s going to end with the swish of a net, so again you have that memorable game-ending moment to seal victory for one of those teams.”
Elam said the reasons he chose the four-minute mark for shutting off the clock were 1. that’s when teams that are in the lead usually try to start milking the clock on possessions and 2. for college basketball, that’s the time of the final media timeout (the first stoppage under four minutes), which allows teams to alter their strategy.
“You can’t wait too long to shut off the clock or you’re just going to run into the same problem,” Elam said.
For NBA games, Elam said he would like the clock shut off at the three-minute mark, and 7 points be added to the leading team’s score to determine the target score.
“All of this would require some experimentation,” he said. “I absolutely think this would work, 100 percent. And I’ve been championing that idea since 2007. I knew it would take awhile to gain some acceptance, and it’s still in that stage now. For 10 years, I had to speak on behalf of the concept, and in 2017 [The Basketball Tournament] finally gave the concept a chance to speak for itself. I think it will continue to be implemented more widely.”
So, it should be an interesting weekend for Elam, as he attempts to pitch his idea at the highest level of basketball. Perhaps the best-case scenario is the NBA implements it in the G League.
“It’s continuing to grow,” Elam said. “I see the opportunity for testing grounds. I think the whole concept is meant to evolve.”
HIS BIGGEST REBOUND
Hawks supported suspended Collins
Atlanta forward John Collins is considered one of the league’s emerging big men. He is one of 12 players averaging a double-double (points and rebounds) and he has blended in flawlessly with All-Star point guard Trae Young, forming one of the league’s best pick-and-roll combinations.
But it’s been a disappointing season for the Hawks, partly because of Collins’s 25-game suspension for using a human growth hormone. The Hawks are 10-20 with Collins but 5-21 in his absence.
There is a gaping hole in the middle of Atlanta’s defense and Young is missing a valuable scorer in the paint.
Collins, 22, was emerging as a force before the suspension. He was turning himself into a star and then he made a mistake, taking something he claimed he didn’t know was a violation of the league’s drug policy.
“It was good for myself to have a group of guys here supporting me the way they did and the team was able to rally around me and give me support,” he said. “I think that was the biggest thing for me, that kept me going. I want to come back and help my team win.”
The hardest thing for Collins was actually watching his team play, knowing he couldn’t even be in the arena. Suspended players are allowed to practice but not play, and they must depart the arena before games. Collins felt like an outsider.
“As soon as you get the call [about the suspension] you start thinking about your guys and then when you actually have to sit there and watch, that’s probably the worst part because you’ll see a rebound and go, ‘Man, that’s mine. That’s my job,’ ” he said. “You see somebody drive the ball and you’re just like as a leader as one of the guys, you feel like that’s your responsibility to be out there and help the guys win.”
Now that he has returned, the Hawks are enduring growing pains. They score easily but can’t stop anybody. Younger players such as Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter are understandably inconsistent. And the Hawks have been besieged with injuries. It’s a difficult road to respectability.
After finishing strong last season with Young and Collins turning into a formidable pair, the Hawks have crashed under second-year coach Lloyd Pierce. Like many NBA teams that have decided to go young and hope their core meshes into a contender, emerging from perennial lottery status is difficult.
“That’s probably the toughest thing to do in this league is figure out a way to consistently win,” Collins said. “With that target on your back, while being young, it’s tough and I feel like the biggest thing, although we are young, I feel like we have the talent, we have the grit, we just need to figure out how to close it in those tight moments.”
The good news is Young has developed quickly into one of the league’s top scoring guards, with Stephen Curry-like range. Collins is a problem for teams on most nights because he’s a tireless worker under the boards who is developing a 3-point shot.
The Hawks are promising, but it’s going to take time.
“I feel like mentally that’s the next step for us,” Collins said. “Honestly, I felt like when I first met [Young] and played with him, just his skill set and what he’s able to do, the way he’s able to get open, get open on drives downhill makes it so easy to play in my dunker area, cash the open lob, catch the easy bunnies as well as playing my regular game. He just creates so much. Being the athlete that I am, our games fit like puzzle pieces together, so I feel like the chemistry was immediate.”
General manager Travis Schlenk has compiled cap space, moved unwanted veterans, and filled the roster with young talent. The club just acquired Clint Capela from the Rockets and have enough cap space this summer to add a maximum player and another quality piece.
“I feel like now we have our length, we have our athleticism, we just feel we can do whatever we want, but it’s that mental edge of locking in on game plans, knowing how to play certain guys in mismatches, I feel like that’s the next step for us, which goes into closing out games as well,” Collins said. “I feel like having us in these conditions is very beneficial for our growth, but I feel that the thing is most hindering is this league. If we keep this core group together and this nucleus yes, we’re gonna grow, we’re gonna build, we’re gonna become a force.”
But Collins is understandably apprehensive. Sacramento, Phoenix, New York, and Cleveland have thrown together a bunch of lottery picks and hoped they would jell into contenders. Those plans failed miserably.
“Trades, contracts, injuries, that’s really what takes the wind out of a lot of stuff for me because if the organization sees a young nucleus growing together and sees the potential, they’re not going to stop it,” Collins said. “I feel like it’s always something else that sort of gets in the way and can kind of create problems.
“[But thinking about the future] is fun for me especially because I’ve been on a couple of teams that have been rebuilding, struggling, so for me to see the group of guys we have now, it’s a very positive outlook for me just comparing the previous seasons and the chemistry off the court as well. I’m looking forward to a lot of good things.”
Garnett offers his opinions
On the “All The Smoke” podcast hosted by former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, guest Kevin Garnett was asked about a variety of basketball topics, and he offered thoughtful answers on the state of the current NBA.
“I’m going to be honest, I wouldn’t change anything about today’s game,” he said. “This brand of basketball is for this brand of kids. When you play on an NBA team, you earn that position. They give you a jersey. They give you a locker, you earn that space. That’s yours.
“I don’t think it’s our place to replace it with [what we want]. This is what it is. This is a brand of basketball that these young kids love to play and we’ve got to respect that. We’ve got to find the greatness and the jewels out of all of this versus comparing it. I hate when they compare Kobe [Bryant] to Michael [Jordan] and Mike to LeBron [James].”
Garnett continued by praising James, his former adversary.
“Anybody that’s played with LeBron James, the most unselfish superstar probably in sports,” Garnett said. “He was like [Shaquille O’Neal]. Shaq could have been a lot more mean than he was. Man, Shaq was raised right. Thank you, Mama O’Neal, thank you. I had to actually adapt to what everybody is doing. As [old guys], even though it ain’t our preference, it ain’t what we’re used to, it’s basketball. It’s a good brand of basketball, so let’s see the best of it.”
On who Garnett watched as a young player: “Chris Webber and Glenn Robinson. I wanted to be like Webb. Webb was like this big [expletive] Charles Barkley, where he would talk mean and he would dunk on your [expletive]. I wanted to be like Webb. I wanted to be a better version of Webb.”
Now that Nets guard Kyrie Irving is out indefinitely with a knee injury, the chance of him playing March 3 in Boston is in question. Irving sustained a right knee injury on Feb. 1 against the Wizards, and Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said Irving will be reevaluated after the All-Star break. Irving has missed the first two matchups against the Celtics because of a shoulder injury that cost him two months, and he is not considered a quick healer . . . It’s interesting that commissioner Adam Silver created two special All-Star roster slots for retiring superstars Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki last year but did not offer such an opportunity to Vince Carter, who is playing his 22nd and final NBA season. Carter has been an ambassador for the game and should have served some type of role at All-Star Weekend. My suggestion is the NBA find more ways to incorporate its legends into All-Star Weekend besides community events. Carter should have been able to get one last All-Star nod . . . Isaiah Thomas is now looking for work after he was waived by the Clippers, involved in the three-team trade Feb. 6 that brought Marcus Morris to Los Angeles. Thomas is a free agent, but the question is whether he can actually help a team competing for a playoff spot. His numbers say he’s still capable of scoring. He averaged 12.2 points per game in just 23.1 minutes and shot 41 percent from the 3-point line in 40 games with the Wizards. By comparison, in 2016-17, Thomas averaged 28.9 points in 33.8 minutes per game. Thomas’s defensive rating this season is an alarming 121 (points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the floor), but the Washington defense ranks as one of the worst in NBA history. The Wizards are allowing 119.8 points per game, last in the NBA. Thomas has never been known as a defender, but he could potentially fill a role as a spot scorer off the bench. It’s been a difficult and rather demoralizing road for Thomas since his Celtics days, having played for four teams since — Cavaliers, Lakers, Nuggets, and Wizards — and still not finding a permanent home. The Wizards acquired Shabazz Napier to play reserve point guard and moved the effective Ish Smith into the starting role.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.