CLEVELAND, Ohio – It was the spring of 2004, and Nick Elam and his housemates were seniors at the University of Dayton.
Elam and his friends were hanging out at their house and watching March Madness. An Elite 8 game was on, and as they saw the game’s end approach, they noticed how the quality had changed for the worse.
“It was like so many games we had seen before, where it’s a highly intense, highly competitive game, and then you get to the final stretch of the game and all the air just goes out of the arena,” Elam said over the phone. “The quality of play deteriorates, and the outcome just seems predetermined.”
Elam, now an assistant professor of educational leadership at Ball State University, didn’t come up with a solution that day with his housemates. But in 2007, Elam started working on the project that’s gained him some recognition before the NBA’s shutdown.
What he created was the “Elam Ending,” a format that takes away the game clock at some point in the final quarter. Instead, both teams play to a target score. Whether at the start of the fourth quarter or perhaps the last three minutes, a target score is created by taking the winning team’s score and adding a number.
How it works
For example, the winning team leads 100-90 after three quarters, and the target score is set to 110. In order to win, the losing team must score 20 points before the winning team scores 10.
“If you just look at the games where a team resorts to that fouling strategy, they only come back and win the game about one percent of the time,” Elam said. “And so not only can it have an unsightly, unnatural strategy, but it hardly ever works.
“I would just like to give them a better option of being able to rely on stops and scores.”
From the NBA to a men’s league in Egypt, the Elam Ending has been used. If it’s ever widely adopted, it could change the way basketball is played.
The Elam Ending and the NBA
The Elam Ending gained its most national traction in February’s NBA All-Star Game. A midseason exhibition, the game had deteriorated over the years to a glorified scrimmage lacking defense and – perhaps worse – any real competitive drive.
That changed this time around. The league and the All-Stars agreed to try the Elam Ending, with the clock abandoned after the third quarter. On a day that honored the late Kobe Bryant, the number 24 was added to the team that led after three quarters, producing the target score.
LeBron James’ team was down, 133-124, against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s squad after three quarters. Whichever team reached 157 first, with no game clock, would be the winner.
What spawned was one of the most high-octane All-Star finishes in NBA history. James and his team won, 157-155.
“I didn’t know what to expect because it was a new format, new year. None of us knew what to expect,” James said after the game. “But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’”
Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse led Antetokounmpo’s team, and he liked how the Elam Ending kept his team engaged and competitive throughout.
“I think with the cumulative score, even though we were down in the first quarter, we thought we had to keep plugging to keep it close so it doesn’t get too far away,” Nurse said. “Then when we were on the other side of it, we said let’s keep increasing our lead and get as big of an advantage going into the fourth.”
Starting in TBT
The format was first used in The Basketball Tournament (TBT) during the summer of 2017. Jon Mugar, the founder and CEO of TBT, is grateful for Elam’s idea because it helped his tournament improve at a critical time in its history.
“We had had several years of semifinals where the point differential was between four and 12, and there was just nonstop fouling,” Mugar said. “And it was so frustrating, to be in my shoes now as someone who’s responsible for putting on an entertaining product.”
Mugar said Elam emailed him three days after TBT’s 2016 championship game. Mugar considers himself to be a basketball purist. He played Division III college basketball at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He thinks rule changes are often done just for attention’s sake.
But he thought the Elam Ending was different.
“The thing that he pointed out that really resonated to me was that how the possessions would become more pure,” Mugar said. “And when I say pure, I mean there’s no stalling. Once you get rid of the clock, there’s certainly no fouling. The act of intentionally fouling another player is very odd to me now that there’s a solution for it.”
Elam and Mugar were both invited by the NBA to Chicago to witness the All-Star game, and both enjoyed seeing many fans positively receive the format.
The Elam Ending has spread to international basketball. Elam said he’s heard of a league in Egypt using the concept.
“That always makes my day,” Elam said. “No matter what level or league it is, that somebody’s trying out the concept, and that they want me to know that they’re trying it out. Because again I put a lot of time and energy into this project, so it’s always nice of them to let me know that they’re trying it.”
The concept could eventually be used throughout basketball.
“I honestly think it’s inevitably going to be everywhere, which I’ve been saying for about a year and a half now, and it used to be a crazier statement a year and a half ago,” TBT’s Mugar said.
Could it work in college basketball?
Kent State men’s basketball coach Rob Senderoff is familiar with the Elam Ending, as he’s watched it in TBT and saw how it played out in the NBA’s showcase in Chicago.
Senderoff thinks the alternative format was effective for the All-Star Game, and acknowledged how it’s helped TBT be entertaining. But when it comes to the Elam Ending potentially being used in college basketball, Senderoff thinks the current model is fine as is.
For Senderoff, implementing the Elam Ending wouldn’t be comparable to a minor rule change such as putting 30 seconds on the clock instead of 35, which the NCAA did before the 2015-16 season.
Senderoff said if implemented, the Elam Ending would be a “fundamental” rule change that would lead to him and other coaches having to see how they would strategize.
“I’ve watched some times when teams are, they’re three points away from winning, and all they do is shoot threes. And I’ve watched it hurt them when I watched the TBT,” Senderoff said. “Sometimes that seems to hurt them more than maybe playing two possessions and trying to get to the basket. I’m not an expert on that strategy to where I would even be comfortable telling you exactly what the right strategy would be. I think you’d have to really study it.”
DeUnna Hendrix is the Miami University women’s basketball head coach, and she also thinks the current college model is a solid product. She mentioned how she’d also have to examine what kind of strategy would be best.
“I know that they were going back and forth on, ‘Does a free throw count to end it?’ ” Hendrix said. “I think the first strategy that I thought of is you would just want to foul that free throw shooter, and maybe they make it, maybe they don’t. But if that rule changes to where you can’t end on the free throw, I’m curious what other strategies there really are.”
An offensive-minded coach, Hendrix said the way recruiting is done could be changed if the Elam Ending is implemented. The Elam Ending places a greater emphasis on defense, as teams can’t use the clock as a form of late-game defense. Having several quality defenders who could consistently earn stops would be ideal.
“I think most offensive-minded coaches would have to think about becoming defensive-minded,” Hendrix said. “Because those defensive possessions at the end of the game are probably more crucial even than trying to score. And so maybe you just recruit better defenders. Maybe you become more of a defensive mind. I would think that would have to shift a little.”
Hendrix is interested in the Elam Ending, but she would like to see it tested in preseason scrimmages or exhibition games.
“I would be interested to see it implemented more just so we can test it out,” Hendrix said. “Because the game is always evolving, so I’d be interested. And I’m not completely opposed for sure.”