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February 29, 2012, 01:19 AM ET
To Timeout or Not

by Kevin Pelton

Over at TrueHoop, friends of BBP Henry Abbott and Beckley Mason are in the midst of a crusade against the automatic late-game timeout, arguing that the defense often benefits more than the offense by stopping play.

Offensive coaches can’t use a timeout to make people better shooters, or to make them jump higher. But they really can use that time to decide how five players will work together to cope with the most likely scenarios. If they run a high pick-and-roll with less than five seconds left, we’ll trap the ball-handler. If they isolate, we’ll double on the dribble. That kind of stuff drastically limits open shots, and really works.

Before we saw any numbers on the issue, I put forward a theory to another TrueHooper, Ethan Sherwood Strauss: Offenses shoot a lower percentage out of timeouts in end-game situations, but also turn the ball over less frequently. My logic goes like this. The same unpredictability and chaos that can produce open shots for the offense also means extra miscues. Mason actually wrote in praise of a play that ended up like this during Sunday’s All-Star Game. When the East recovered a missed shot in the closing seconds down one and Tom Thibodeau opted not to call timeout, LeBron James threw away a crosscourt pass.

As it turns out, when Mason got the stats from the NBA stats department, they showed that offenses shoot much worse after a timeout. In the final minute, when tied or trailing by three points or fewer, teams shoot an effective 36.4 percent after a timeout and 39.1 percent on the fly. (These stats don’t include fast breaks, so as to remove easy scores from the equation).

Alas, the stats did not include turnovers, so we can’t definitively determine whether timeouts make sense on average. However, the shooting difference is so substantial that on balance, not calling timeout is probably the best option in general.

I think my theory still could explain why coaches prefer to call timeout, even if it’s a less effective strategy. Along the lines of my discussion of the conclusions in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the fumbled plays mentioned earlier tend to be more memorable for coaches than missed shots. If a player misses a contested attempt, well, that’s basketball. To not even get a shot up, however, seems like a failure for coaches.

As with most strategic decisions, there’s also a heavy situational element. As Abbott noted, one reason it often makes sense not to call timeout is because the defense cannot replace its weakest players, leaving mismatches to exploit. Sometimes, however, the matchups favor the defense.

Another key factor may be how the play in question starts. You see, one explanation for the discrepancy in the numbers besides timeouts being more valuable to the coach on defense is that offenses generally score less efficiently against a set defense. Unfortunately, specific numbers on the issue have been lost to the APBRmetrics crash, but the least efficient possessions start from an inbound pass, especially if the defense is already back (dead-ball turnovers, start of quarter). The most efficient, naturally, start with a turnover or a missed shot, when the defense is likely to be caught out of position.

So it’s possible to have a rule of thumb that favors calling timeout when the offense would be taking the ball out of bounds anyway but allows play to continue without a timeout after a missed shot.

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