Is the ‘Elam Ending’ the future of the NBA?

Yahoo Sports

A groundskeeper for the Cincinnati Reds, a card-carrying Mensa member and middle school principal stroll into your inbox. There’s no punchline. Nick Elam is one man and on Aug. 16, 2016, he cold-emailed Jonathon Mugar, a former comedy writer turned founder of The Basketball Tournament (TBT), under a different badge: concerned basketball fan.

Elam loved basketball but loathed intentional fouling at the end of games. “This practice of deliberate fouling was truly a fundamental flaw,” Elam told Yahoo Sports this week. “It’s something we don’t see in any sport, where a team’s only recourse to try to stay in the game was to overtly and deliberately break the rules of the game.”

On March 10, 2007, after watching one too many games get ruined down the stretch, Elam found the culprit right under his nose: the game clock. His proposal? Turn it off in the final three minutes — to prevent leading teams from stalling and disincentivize the defense from intentionally fouling — and create a target score that’s seven points on top of the leading team’s point total.

Elam was looking for TBT, a winner-take-all tournament with a $2 million prize, to be his guinea pig.

For a decade, he pored over tape, envisioned in-game consequences, refined his analytical case and labored over how to frame his pitch as self-evident. Should he accentuate the problem first, or present the solution? He always made clear it was love, not contempt, that drove him to advance the game. Elam had been cold-contacting international, semi-pro and tournament leagues for years. But in the summer of 2016, he tinkered with the medium, switching from plain text to PowerPoint.

“It was a very word-laden presentation,” recalled Elam. Not a whole lot of fancy graphics or anything like that but I was like, ‘Ah, you know, maybe this will make it a little more visually appealing, digestible.’” 

In August, he sent out his first batch of pitches. Mugar, confused but intrigued by Elam’s résumé, scanned the email for typos, looking for reasons to dismiss it. Then he opened the 67-page PDF. Its big blue bullet points over the orange background hit him like a gust of wind. Mugar scrutinized the “hybrid duration” format. Could it really be that obvious? He decided it was and, before implementing it in TBT, renamed it “The Elam Ending.” At Sunday’s All-Star Game, the basketball world wondered the same thing and largely came away with the same answer, when a variation of the Elam Ending resulted in the most entertaining half-hour of the regular season.

“I don’t know if this did the trick or not,” Elam said of the switch to PowerPoint.

“It probably did,” Mugar told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, I enjoy bullets more than prose.” Some solutions are hard. Some are just a matter of changing the format. 

Nick Elam is trying to help the game of basketball. (Ball State University)
Nick Elam is trying to help the game of basketball. (Ball State University)

The roots of innovation

On Jan. 23, 2020, the outsiders got a hand from their insider. Oklahoma City Thunder star Chris Paul, a TBT fan, pitched NBA commissioner Adam Silver on the Elam Ending. Elam got the news from the NBA, as well as an invitation to Chicago for All-Star Weekend for him and Mugar. 

“I don’t consider it a gimmick,” he said. “I consider it an anti-gimmick.” For Elam, the clock is the gimmick, distorting decision-making at the ends of quarters and games. Teams stall. Players slow down and jack up bad shots. They wait before pressing the accelerator. Guards try to set up two-for-ones, even three-for-twos. The clock is something to be manipulated, managed. It’s right there in the name.

The 12th of James Naismith’s 13 original rules for basketball legislates two 15-minute halves. “At the time, I think he was absolutely right to do that. There’s a common characteristic of sports governed by time, whether it’s football, soccer, ice hockey,” Elam said. “[They] have a low scoring rate and they don’t have any other accomplishment that can be used in place of the clock. Basketball was the same way in the early days.” Today’s game is unrecognizable. Dribbling hadn’t been conceived back then, let alone allowed. Rules 9 and 10 involved umpires.

“Basketball is much more aligned now with sports like tennis or volleyball, where points are racked up quickly,” Elam said. “Basketball is the only sport that could have the best of timed and untimed worlds. I hope they take advantage of it.”

Prior to Sunday’s game, the Elam Ending — having a target score to finish a game — was roundly criticized for being too confusing. Byron Spruell, NBA president of league operations, told Yahoo Sports it was all part of the territory. “That's really the environment we choose to be in — the entertainment business, to a large extent. When you try new things, there could be some concern or anxiousness, but you gotta try it. Otherwise, how would you know how it’s gonna play out? Adam [Silver] really pushes us to test innovative ways around the game and continue to evolve.”

The NBA’s roots are in staying unrooted. The All-Star Game, a low-stakes playground for innovation, could guard them against the risk of becoming too big to experiment.

In hindsight, the success of the Elam Ending makes perfect sense. Follow Elam’s logic all the way down the wire, and the late-game clock has done the sport a disservice, cutting the game at its knees right when the stakes are highest. Nick's primary motivation in creating it was to eliminate the free throws that happen at the end of the game and make more efficient, possession-oriented basketball,” Mugar said. “But the byproduct is what you actually saw on Sunday night, which is to create this very acute, definable moment at the end of a game. Everyone sees the target score in sight. All the players see it. They feel it and the fans feel it, too.” Defenders have to defend. Buzzer-beaters get eliminated, but there’s always a game-winning shot. “It's a really hard experience to try to describe,” said Mugar, who watched 134 Elam Endings before Sunday. “When you're in the arena, you finally get it for the first time.” It took 129 years, but we finally caught a glimpse of raw, unfiltered professional basketball, free of the stifling clock, stripped down to a hoop and a ball and a score. 

The end of the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday was considered a success. (Photo by Lampson Yip - Clicks Images/Getty Images)
The end of the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday was considered a success. (Photo by Lampson Yip - Clicks Images/Getty Images)

But the man behind the plan was the opposite of a streetball regular. “I hung up my sneakers for good in fifth grade,” Elam said. “If I had known I was gonna grow up to be 6-3, I would have at least played through high school.” Baseball he related to as an insider; basketball as an outsider. “I think sometimes that adds an extra mystique or admiration, knowing that any athlete on a basketball court is doing something I try to do but could never come close to doing well at all.”

He was fascinated by both, and offered solutions to fix baseball as well. “I was watching ‘SportsCenter’ when other kids were watching cartoons,” Elam said. When the 1996 World Series was rained out, the 14-year-old wondered how going up against ‘Monday Night Football’ would impact Game 2’s ratings. In college, boring ends to basketball games rankled him. He had his a-ha moment in 2007, but “spent a good portion of the time thinking I was doing this exploration just to talk myself out of this idea. OK, when am I gonna find the fatal flaw?” Thousands of hours of NBA, NCAA and Olympic crunch-time footage later, he’s still searching for it.

From 2008-10, Elam taught high school math by day and delivered pizzas, worked Reds games, and attended graduate classes by night. He became an assistant principal, athletic director, principal and, upon earning a Master’s and doctorate, a professor at Ball State University.  In what spare time he could cobble together, he tinkered with his formula. 

“I don’t have a lot of downtime,” he said. “I’ve always had this addiction to being busy, I guess.”

Mugar couldn’t relate to Elam’s résumé, but he felt an affinity toward him. Mugar was only two years removed from being that cold-emailer, the unknown interloper with an idea he couldn’t quit. Besides, he had enough appetite for risk to try Elam’s format. When nobody would back TBT, Mugar raised $500,000 through self-funding, family and friends as a prize and launched the tournament on his own in 2014. “Whether it's sponsors and broadcasters,” he recalled, “no one wanted to take a risk on somebody who hadn’t done anything before.” (Luckily, ESPN called the morning after the first game.)

Elam and Mugar both attest that if they knew how long achieving their disparate goals would have taken, they probably wouldn’t have stuck to the plan. Mugar, who had burdensome stakes in his enterprise, saw his plight as more of a grind. “I was a pitcher in college,” Mugar said, “and I used to basically give up a lot of hits and home runs. It sounds like a joke, but I actually developed a pretty good short-term memory and ability to move beyond it. I think that was key: just throwing the rejection aside, not taking it personally. Looking forward to the next step.

“I think it was foolish inexperience and optimism. We just got in very naive. And I think that was the key. We were naive to begin with and we just kept going.”

Elam, on the other hand, was just having fun. “Back then, I didn’t know how long it might take. I always felt like I was one day away, one letter, email, one call away from somebody in the basketball world finally giving it a chance. This has been a blast. It’s one of those things where you kinda wake up on a Saturday morning and you just wanna keep moving forward, find some way to research it and promote it, whatever it might be.” 

Will change happen?

Eight million people tuned in for the set-score fourth quarter in the All-Star Game. You have to see it to believe it. Now that the NBA has, the question is whether it will expand it.

“Not necessarily,” said Spruell, when asked if the NBA could implement the Elam Ending to combat ratings dipping. “We will certainly discuss elements of it, and any potential way to apply it in the future, whether it’s in the All-Star Game or other ways, but right now, we're just fresh off it. We'll have it in our discussion, but there isn’t any guarantee we will continue to use it.”

The league is already discussing cons, on the bright side. “It couldn’t completely eradicate free throws,” Spruell said. Team LeBron won on an Anthony Davis free throw, after Kyle Lowry wrapped him up below the rim. The foul was a byproduct of natural actions — arguably not a flaw —  but the NBA has already heard some ideas on how to subvert it. If the NBA uses the Elam Ending again, a defender who fouls a shooter on the last potential possession of the game could get sent to a hypothetical penalty box or his team could be penalized one point.

Until then, with multiple stakeholders invested — players, coaches, referees, sponsors, TV networks — the NBA will be doing its own debriefing, collaborating and analyzing. “Nick talked about a lot of his data and the history with it,” Spruell said, “but we have to have our own NBA data and history with it, so absolutely we’ll be continuing to monitor it.”

In 1954, the idea of the shot clock was scrawled onto a napkin and tested in an exhibition game in a high school gym, filled with a series of league power brokers. After the game, enthusiasm was so high they voted to include the shot clock in the upcoming season. An intuitive decision saved the NBA once upon a time, but the days of one-game samples dictating change are long gone. 

Even the TBT, lighter on its feet than the NBA, set up a play-in tournament for the sole purpose of trying the Elam Ending. Perhaps the NBA could do the same thing. “It's so hard for someone like the NBA that's enjoying massive success every way possible to make a change,” Mugar said. “Everyone in basketball sees the problem [the Elam Ending] is addressing. But to actually do something about it, you just have to be in the right position. And the more success and momentum you're carrying, the harder it is to do so. I think that really was probably the biggest factor in [TBT] adopting it.”

Try as they might to grow with the times, large institutions lumber along slowly. The NBA, a billion-dollar institution in need of a freshener, now faces the challenge of winning the war between evolution and inertia.

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