G League experimenting with game-play changes that could one day be implemented in NBA

The G League has long served as the NBA’s de facto laboratory, the perfect space to test professional basketball’s wackiest ideologies and even changes to the game’s rules.

Coach’s challenges were first experimented within the G League, then Summer League, before the NBA incorporated the tactic into its regular-season gameplay for the 2020-21 season. Resetting the shot clock to 14 seconds following a foul or offensive rebound was also examined in the G League before reaching the NBA level, too. This year, the annual G League Showcase in Las Vegas from Dec. 19-22 staged the NBA’s greatest pilot program yet — which the league is dubbing a "target score."

In 31 games of the Showcase, which gathers each G League club for a midseason competition in front of NBA team personnel, all contests had no timed fourth quarters. Instead, the final frame was played until one team reached the target score of 25 points added to the leading team’s total after three quarters. That means every game — no matter the score differential — ended on a game-winning basket.

Several G League head coaches said they watched film of a summer staple, The Basketball Tournament, to prepare for the format. TBT brought the concept into the mainstream in 2017, thanks to Nick Elam, a professor at Ball State University who conceived the idea of stopping the clock at the first whistle within the last four minutes and then setting a target score from there. The G League is playing all of its overtime games this 2022-23 season to a “target score” that simply makes the extra period the first team to reach seven points. But the Showcase was ground zero for the entire fourth quarter being played within a target score environment.

It drew mixed reviews among coaches and front-office figures in attendance. The majority of target score detractors dismissed even entertaining it because of the widespread belief the NBA has a low likelihood of ever incorporating it for a full fourth quarter. There were other ideas, for example, broached at the G League competition committee meeting that NBA personnel found far more realistic in the NBA, sources told Yahoo Sports, such as narrowing the lane to encourage more zone defense and re-establish the value of size in the paint, players not fouling out and instead being whistled for a technical on their seventh infraction, and alternating possessions instead of jump balls like the college game.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 22: Malik Newman #14 of the Cleveland Charge is defended by Devearl Ramsey #4 of the Stockton Kings during the NBA G League Winter Showcase at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on December 22, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)
Malik Newman of the Cleveland Charge is defended by Devearl Ramsey of the Stockton Kings during a 2021 NBA G League Winter Showcase game at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)

Other doubters of the fourth-quarter target score said the G League needs to tweak its formula, and in fact make it more of a ratio than a simple matter of addition, depending on the score. In some games, a blanket 25 points felt like too many and in some instances it was too few. For a competitive 90-85 defensive battle, 25 points is a lot different than in a 120-117 track meet. After scoring only 73 points through three quarters against Fort Wayne and trailing by 36, Santa Cruz would have needed to somehow post 61 points before the Mad Ants scored 25. Not exactly grounds for an inspiring pep talk from coaches in the huddle. On the other hand, Rio Grande Valley overcame a 100-84 third-quarter deficit, storming past the Iowa Wolves for the most dramatic victory of the Showcase.

But when every game ends on a converted basket, some coaches felt it detracts from the novelty of a huge game-winner, let alone buzzer-beaters. You can’t replace the energy of an entire building seeing the numbers ticking down toward a loud-blaring horn that lights the backboard in a red blaze.

The data suggests clear benefits to the different format, however, from a sheer time-saving standpoint. According to the G League, the average wall clock time for G League fourth quarters this year has been 29 minutes, 4 seconds, while the average Showcase fourth quarter took just 23 minutes, 34 seconds for a team to reach the target score. Even the longest Showcase fourth quarter — a Mexico City vs. Toronto game that took 35:36 — was roughly 10 minutes shorter than the longest G League fourth quarter so far this season. And instead of 12 minutes of game clock, the average Showcase fourth quarter took 10:22 to play.

And the Showcase format introduced new elements of strategy. Teams were allowed to bring only a pair of timeouts into the untimed fourth quarter. So if a head coach had a third timeout burning a hole in his pocket, plenty of teams called for a huddle in the waning seconds of the third quarter to scheme an after-timeout play for an easy bucket. Several coaches said they intentionally saved a final timeout for the last stretch of the third to manipulate two-for-one scoring scenarios and maximize their final possessions before the target score was set.

The structure also virtually eliminated all those late-game whistles that result from trying to extend games within the 48-minute clock, when losing clubs can fire 3-pointers while forcing their opponents to take two shots at the free-throw line. At the Showcase, there was no incessant stretch of intentional foul calls from losing teams. You don’t want to send your opponent to the foul line for opportunities to get closer to that final score. Especially when the G League has been testing just one free-throw attempt worth two or three points depending on the spot of the foul, instead of multiple game-slowing shots — although under target score rules, when one team is within eight points of the final score, free throws revert back to standard NBA rules.

The only real late-game fouling was another strategy wrinkle. Showcase attendees often mentioned how when the winning team is three points away from the target score, the losing team benefits from intentionally fouling a shooter before he gets open for a clean game-winning look.

A constant churn to that final number also influenced coaches to play their best players for much of the final frame, as if they were entering an extended overtime period.

That is the one reason why some league figures on hand believe the target score could one day appear at an NBA arena near you. A concept similar to the current first-to-seven overtime setup in this year’s G League has strong supporters among NBA general managers and league office figures, sources told Yahoo Sports. It is clear the NBA is investigating all avenues of target-score frameworks — which has been used in the All-Star Game since 2020 — and it has been described as a staple of the NBA’s midseason tournament brainstorming sessions. But for regular-season and playoff NBA games, utilizing the target score to decide overtimes appears to be the most likely area to see some form of implementation, if the league chooses to go down that path.

League officials have yet to formally discuss the results of this latest G League trial, but target-score concepts appear to be a concerted topic of NBA planning meetings moving forward.