Greatest basketball innovation of all time? Yes, I suppose we all got excited when someone decided it would be good to punch a hole into the bottom of the peach basket. Sure, it put a lot of people out of jobs — now the ball could fall right through instead of needing to be fished out of the basket by a guy on a ladder. But it sped up the game — and once they decided that a jump ball was no longer necessary after each score, it was like they were moving the game to Earth from the surface of the moon.
But one innovation that wasn’t so necessary? The shot clock. First used in the NCAA in 1985, the shot clock started with a 45-second version, then transmogrified to 35 seconds in 1993. The idea was to counter those coaches who used stalling tactics — chief among them the four-corner offense — to neutralize another team’s physical advantages. North Carolina’s Dean Smith was an artist with the four-corners, but others used it as a blunt instrument. Occasional final scores such as 11-4 and 15-13 scared administrators into transforming the game with a second clock.
And that’s the way we think of basketball today, because those red numerals are pretty much all we see on TV. (Is there anything sadder than the shot clock violation buzzer? It’s the ultimate sound effect of failure … not only didn’t you score, but you couldn’t even get off a shot. I think they should actually change that buzzer to a waa-waa horn).
But believe it or not, the great majority of male basketball games played in the U.S. are played without a shot clock. From middle school and up, you’ll probably never see one as a player unless you’re lucky and talented enough to land on a college team — or you’re a girl. In prep basketball most states have no shot clock. I live in California, which does use one … but that’s only one of seven shot clock states. Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the others. Every other state, among them Nevada, where I currently coach high school basketball, have no shot clock — as God intended (citation needed).
So one could say that this is a non-shot clock nation, where strategy, muscle and fate decide the pace and the outcome — not a second clock. But among our country’s higher learning institutions, the 35-second clock rules. And some think that’s not enough. The Atlantic Coast Conference has just announced that it will experiment with a 30-second shot clock in exhibition games this coming season. The last time I actually saw a 30-second clock in action was at a water polo game … if you don’t count my time in the 100-meter dash in high school. Now the ACC is speeding up the game by an extra five seconds. Or are they?
It’s hard to compare pre-college shot clock basketball with post-shot clock, because athletes’ size and strength have changed so much over 30 years. But at the high school level it’s easy, because shot clock and non-shot clock states exist literally right next to each other.
And this may jostle your wig, but the game is actually faster in non-shot clock states.
MaxPreps.com com did a study on it. Nine of the top 10 highest-scoring states don’t use a shot clock. And the one that does — North Dakota — is 10th. Remember that two shot clock states — California and New York — don’t even crack the top 20. Also, the average winning score in non-shot clock states is 60 points. The average for shot clock states — 58.5. This would seem to prove that the shot clock has absolutely no effect at all. I both agree and disagree with this. Here’s why:
1. A delay offense is a confounding thing. You have to work on it day and night, completely master the nuances, and your players have to totally be on board. Even so, standing at midcourt with the ball on your hip can totally backfire. It can ruin momentum, destroy flow, erode confidence. Running a four-corners is like trying to defuse an unexploded bomb from World War II — it’s old and tempermental and could blow up in your face at any time. As a coach whose team has a modest lead you’re better off running your regular offense, and stressing good screening and patience. And 35 seconds is usually plenty of time for that.
2. Thirty-five seconds is also plenty of time to find a team’s defensive weakness and exploit it. I coach in Nevada (no shot clock), but play many pre-season games against California teams (shot clock). I don’t change much of anything we do when we have a shot clock, and we maybe hear a shot clock buzzer once a game, if that.
3. I would much rather play a good shot clock team than a good non-shot clock team. Shot clock teams tend to rush things — run a quick entry, then if that doesn’t work, throw up something out of their asses and run back on defense to fight another day. Non-shot clock teams play with more patience, are more precise, take the time to set good picks and take good shots. Because that red clock isn’t ticking in the backs of their minds. Generalizations, I know. But that’s been my experience.
4. Your team learns to play better defense with no shot clock. If you only have to defend your basket for 35 seconds, you can expend a lot of energy because you know there’s an end to it. But if your defensive assignment is open-ended, you have to rely on teamwork, fundamentals and stamina. I stress conditioning because I know we’ll need it on defense. There’s nothing more satisfying, as a coach, than a 50-minute defensive stand.
ACC? Call it ADD. We should probably slow down and enjoy this game. It’s pretty great when you play it right.
Look, I understand that major college basketball is a business — the Junior NBA, really — and that fans want excitement and yams and speedy transition and long threes to maintain interest and keep money flowing. In that regard a 30-second clock is probably a good thing. But in the college game I also see stretches of endless rushed shots, stupid decisions, sloppy defense and careless turnovers that likely wouldn’t happen if players were taught to treasure patience and efficiency rather that speed. Cranking the shot clock to 30 seconds isn’t going to speed up the game — it’s going to make it worse.
No one really wants to see the return of the four corners, so I guess some kind of clock is inevitable. But at some point we’re going to have to strike a balance, or we should just give everyone skates and call it hockey.
Rick’s Cafe Americain appears on Thursdays. Contact: Rickchand@gmail.com.