The Basketball Tournament's semifinals are Thursday night (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET and 9 p.m. ET). This article was originally published on June 18.
The organizers of The Basketball Tournament, the $2 million winner-take-all pickup-style challenge entering its fifth iteration, did not know quite what to expect last year when they experimented with a radical change to crunch time: shutting off the game clock and playing until one team reaches a target score.
Some coaches and players worried the tournament was bastardizing hoops with a needless gimmick. Tournament higher-ups decided they would use the gambit only in 11 play-in games.
A year later, they are going all-in, implementing the so-called Elam Ending for all of the tournament's 71 games starting on June 29 -- including the $2 million championship game on Aug. 3 on ESPN. (All games will be shown live on ESPN networks.)
At the first dead ball under the 4:00 mark, the clock will go dark as officials add seven points to the score of the leading team. The first team to reach that score wins. If Team A leads Team B, 78-70, when the clock stops with 3:58 left, they play until one reaches 85.
"Fans loved it," says Jonathan Mugar, founder and CEO of TBT. "There were instances in which they stood for the whole thing."
Trailing teams didn't have to resort to intentional fouling -- the goal of the concept. It created its own version of buzzer-beaters, including Josh Selby, once a member of the Grizzlies, hitting a jumper to meet the target score and end the game:
"It was pretty cool having that walk-off feeling," says Sammy Zeglinski, who played at the University of Virginia from 2007 to 2012 -- and in TBT last year.
(Note the giant board in the corner displaying the target score of 76.)
Even some old heads were sold.
"It was awesome," says John Wallace, the former Syracuse star who coached the Paul Champions -- featuring Earl Boykins! -- in last season's play-in segment. "It was different. It added intrigue."
The Elam Ending is the brainchild of Nick Elam, a former middle school principal (and current professor at Ball State University) who got sick of NBA games ending in an endless torrent of intentional fouls. After toying with several methods of cleaning up crunch time, he landed on the simple alternative of a target score. Under Elam's rules, trailing teams would use regular basketball -- not hacking -- to rally.
He settled on adding seven points at various trigger times -- under 3:00 in his NBA proposal, and under 4:00 for TBT, which uses nine-minute quarters and a 30-second shot clock -- because it represented a close points-per-minute match to what teams produce in typical game play. (Elam tried more complex methods of calculating a target score, including some that would vary from game to game, but concluded basic was better.)
"After seeing it in person," Elam says, "I'm more confident this concept will live on in some way."
Playing to a score appeals to the sport's pickup roots. "The games gained way more excitement," says Jake Lerner, a four-year player at Drexel University who coached in last year's TBT. "It adds a streetball element. Any player would rather play pickup to 7 than a timed game." (For what it's worth: Lerner is not 100 percent behind the concept. As a coach, he missed the strategic clock-related machinations of crunch time -- such as diagramming quick 2s and seeking 2-for-1s.)
Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey are among NBA luminaries excited to see Elam's idea play out in games of consequence. "This idea would address the number one viewer issue I see in NBA games -- the endless trips to the free throw line and timeouts at the end of games," Morey, Houston's GM, told ESPN.com last year.
The NBA knows start-and-stop crunch time can be hard to watch. The league reduced the number of timeouts during the 2017-18 season, and it has discussed more dramatic measures -- including banning consecutive timeouts and letting teams pick free throw shooters if the opponent hacks them. The timeout reduction, combined with enforcing a 15-minute halftime, shaved four minutes from the average game this season, league officials said.
But measures aimed strictly at speeding up the game don't reduce the incentive of trailing teams to intentionally foul. Proposals to eradicate fouling -- letting hacked teams pick their own foul shooters or simply take the ball out of bounds -- would make it even harder for trailing teams to come back. (Elam's research found that intentionally fouling almost never leads to comebacks.)
Elam hoped his proposal would do two things: make it a teensy bit easier for teams to overcome deficits and erase crunch-time hacking.
League officials, usually dubious of any quick fix to crunch time, were curious. "That is really interesting," Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations told ESPN.com last year. The NBA tracked all 11 TBT play-in games. They have had internal spitballing sessions about what the NBA game would look like without an all-powerful clock -- if teams took quarter breaks whenever one reached a certain threshold of points (25, 50, then 75), sources said. (This would eliminate heaves and other truncated possessions.)
Such ideas are too radical for use even in the G League, according to Evan Wasch, the league's senior vice president of basketball strategy and analytics.
"[The Elam Ending] is in a bucket of things that are interesting and innovative but not near the top of our list in terms of testing in the G League or summer league," Wasch says.
Skeptics worry it would eliminate true buzzer-beaters; two of the 11 play-in games a year ago ended on free throws. There is no overtime.
Mugar and Elam hope the excitement of one or both teams approaching the target score -- and one team reaching it with a field goal -- mimics the ecstasy of a buzzer-beater.
"You can feel the energy building," says Matt Martucci, a play-by-play announcer who called several Elam Endings last year.
"It's almost like you get a buzzer-beater in every game," Lerner says.
Elam also argues that even a mundane walk-off event -- a free throw -- is more interesting than the two teams strolling around until time expires.
Multiple coaches in last year's play-in action noticed teams with leads at first played tight, as if they were accustomed to having the clock on their side. As teams crept within one or two points of the target score with comfortable leads, some amped up their defense, gambling for steals and run-outs that would end games.
There are potential downsides beyond the fundamental strangeness of a clockless game. Elam's concept creates a weird strategic inflection point at the moment the game transitions into the untimed phase. Most leading teams called timeout at the first opportunity after the 4:00 mark -- locking the margin and target score, and ensuring they started the untimed part of the game with the ball. One team threw the ball off an opposing player's leg as the clock crossed 4:00. (Elam has thought about kicking off the untimed phase with a jump ball to minimize this strategy.)
In a game with a typical deficit -- say, somewhere from six to 12 points -- that might not bother anyone. Such games might end up more entertaining in the aggregate under Elam's rules. One team entered the Elam phase down by 13 and immediately ripped off a 14-0 run that might have been less likely with a clock bearing down on them.
But how would manufacturing a dead ball look in a close, intense game? As Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers crescendoed over a furious stretch of uninterrupted play, would anyone have wanted either team stopping the action on purpose?
Teams with big leads might stall as the Elam cutoff approaches. Elam's system introduces one high-leverage point at which it is smart to foul: when a team within one or two points of the target score is defending against a team three points below that score. (Foul to prevent a 3-point attempt and get the ball back with a chance to win.) Of course, some NBA teams intentionally foul when they are ahead by three late in games.
Some defenses trying to stop teams within one or two points of the target became so paranoid about fouling -- and yielding game-ending free throws -- that they softened to the point of complete ineffectiveness, coaches said.
Some referees said they were uncomfortable. Scorekeepers weren't sure how to log plays without a clock. Anticipating how the Elam Ending might interact with legalized sports gambling is both fascinating and a little scary.
It's unclear how much the Elam Ending juices comebacks. Only one team rallied to win. (Another trailing team took the lead, but it ended up losing.) The approximately four-minute Elam Ending lasted an average of almost 10 minutes in real time and featured six free throws -- close to the NBA's averages over the same length of game time, Wasch said.
For Elam, those are features, not bugs. He doesn't want to tilt the odds too far in favor of comebacks. Teams should be rewarded for building leads. And if it takes time to play those four minutes, at least viewers get to watch normal basketball, Elam said.
Other unintended consequences might emerge as Elam's idea gets a larger hearing. But that's part of the fun: Whether you like the idea at first glance, you will get to see how it actually plays out on national TV, with lots of money at stake.
"On Aug. 3, someone is going to hit a shot for $2 million," Mugar says. "That thought alone played a major role in the decision to implement it."