Can The NBA’s Experimental Endgame Make It To Games That Count?
Damian Lillard collects a long offensive rebound beyond the 3-point line, shuffle-steps to his left and drains one of his patented deep triples. It’s another game winner to add to his extensive collection.
This one is a bit different from his others, though. For starters, the stakes are lower: It’s the 2023 NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, and one of the least competitive midseason showcases in years at that. Lillard also hasn’t beaten any buzzer with this particular game winner; that’s because for the fourth straight year, the NBA is using what’s known as the “Elam Ending” format for its All-Star main event.
Instead of playing to the end of a timed period, the Elam Ending utilizes a score target the winning team must hit — just like every pickup basketball game you’ve ever played in. In the case of the All-Star Game, 24 points are added to the leading team’s score through three quarters; whoever gets there first wins. Lillard’s trey brought Team Giannis to 184 points, winning them the game as they passed the “target score” of 182.
The format has mostly been a fun curiosity at past All-Star festivities, but it held some extra weight this year: It’s being formally tested throughout various G League competitions all season, the first big sign that it could move from a cool sideshow to actual use in the world’s biggest league.
Before that can happen, though, what do players at both the NBA and G League level think about it? What does league data on G League trials tell us, and is an NBA adoption of this unique endgame alternative on the horizon? I spent some time around the All-Star festivities to find out.
The Elam Ending owes its original name to Nick Elam, a professor at Ball State University who was frustrated with the way teams waste time near the end of close games (which often devolve into free-throw contests instead of “true” basketball). So Elam decided to create his own solution, in which the clock was no longer a factor for either team.
The concept initially rose to prominence for its use in The Basketball Tournament. This winner-take-all summer competition used the format for play-in games in 2017, then adopted it for all games the following year — meaning every TBT game ends with a “game winner” of sorts.
At the urging of star Chris Paul, the Elam Ending was added to the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, using a 24-point fourth-quarter target score to honor the late Kobe Bryant. Each All-Star Game since has featured the format, with 24 points added to the leading team’s score after the third quarter.
The approach is now gaining steam in games that count at the professional level, too. The Canadian Elite Basketball League tried it out for its summer series in 2020, then permanently adopted the format the following year. Most notably, though, the G League has incorporated it — using the “Final Target Score” moniker — into games for the 2022-23 season.
Throughout standard G League play, any game that heads to overtime immediately enters into a Final Target Score setup, with the teams aiming for seven additional points scored. Per data provided to FiveThirtyEight by the NBA (as of Feb. 22, 2023), 32 such overtimes have taken place so far this season.
At the Las Vegas G League Showcase in December, the league went a step further: Every fourth quarter (31 in all) was played in this format as well. At the end of the third quarter, 25 points were added to the leading team’s score to become the target.
How the G League’s Final Target Score games have ended
Total number of 2022-23 G League games ending with a given shot type, for both regular-season OT games and Showcase fourth-quarter games
|Final Shot Type||No. of Games|
|Made free throw||16||
“It makes it really competitive,” says Scoot Henderson, G League Ignite star and projected top-three pick in the 2023 NBA draft. “Teams are locking up on defense. It makes it way more fun, I think.”
Some of Henderson’s G League peers, in Salt Lake City for the NBA Rising Stars Challenge, echoed his sentiments.
A prevailing take: The Final Target Score format is truer to “real” basketball than the traditional one, where trailing teams foul opponents to extend the game and earn extra possessions. Instead, the organic game continues through to the end.
“When you’re losing, you don’t have to go by the time,” says Kenneth Lofton Jr. of the Memphis Hustle. “At the end, it’s just about getting buckets and getting stops.”
There’s also the excitement factor to consider. Game winners are some of the most exhilarating events in basketball; guaranteeing one every game ups the ante, and not just for fans.
Ignite player Mojave King recalls an overtime game where his team was tied at 113 with the South Bay Lakers — and the target score was 114. That kind of “next point wins,” pickup-style atmosphere can’t really be found anywhere else in professional basketball. “We lost that one, so that one hurt, but it was still a lot of fun,” King says. “Every possession down the stretch was a big play.”
The NBA has been looking for ways to shorten games for a decade now, often utilizing the G League as a laboratory for experimentation. The Final Target Score method could be helpful here, also.
Per league data, the average (non-Final Target Score) G League fourth quarter this season has taken 28 minutes, 54 seconds of real time. Fourth quarters played using FTS at the Showcase, however, took an average of 23 minutes, 43 seconds — 5:11 faster than the typical approach. Actual in-game minutes played also show a small reduction, from 12 minutes in the standard setup to an average of 10:22 using Final Target Score. The ability to shorten games and slightly limit player load? That’s a win-win the league surely wouldn’t mind.1
Not all the G League players present for All-Star Weekend shared such a rosy view of the format, though.
South Bay’s Scotty Pippen Jr. hit the game winner in that same Lakers-Ignite game King referenced, but says he’s not sure how he feels about FTS. King himself doesn’t think it’s better or worse than the prior format, just different. And Mac McClung, breakout star of All-Star Weekend with his dunk contest victory, says he prefers the traditional way.
In McClung’s case, maybe that’s due to slightly wounded pride: At the Showcase, he recalls, his memory failed him at the end of a third quarter as the target score setup kicked in. “I totally forgot what was going on,” McClung says with a laugh. “And then all the scores went down, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Given the G League’s status as an NBA testing ground, the inclusion of the Final Target Score format this year has some wondering if we could see it in the big leagues soon. While league representatives declined to discuss the key variables being evaluated here, one can hazard a guess at some of the most important factors.
Comebacks are great for viewership and fan engagement, and the NBA surely loves the plethora of double-digit leads being blown this season. More data is needed to determine whether Final Target Score makes comebacks more or less likely, but a default hypothesis of “much less likely” seems fairest, since losing teams have no opportunities to gain extra possessions via fouling. And while game-winning shots would become much more common, true buzzer-beaters would be eliminated, at least if the approach was used in fourth quarters.
Plus there’s the fact that the Final Target Score format provides for one extremely anticlimactic ending possibility: A free throw being the shot that takes a team over the finish line.
“I haven’t had any games end on free throws yet, but I’m sure that’d be a bit of a downer,” King says.
Sixteen of the 63 G League Final Target Score games (or 25 percent) have ended this way. Do fans want that for roughly a quarter of their games? TBT organizers added a rule change in 2020 that made it less likely for games to end on a made free throw — if the defense commits a non-shooting foul with the offense in the bonus, the reward is one free throw plus possession instead of two free throws — and the NBA could look at similar approaches if it wanted to limit this possibility. But to this eye, there’s no fair way to completely eliminate it.
Overtime would also cease to exist if the approach was used in fourth quarters, another unintended trickle-down effect. This dovetails with the chief concern posed by most actual NBA All-Stars surveyed for this story: not just “tradition” for the sake of it, per se, but the loss of elements that have always been part of the sport.
Thirteen of the 15 All-Stars I polled said they’d be flatly against a full-time adoption of Final Target Score in the NBA. (Only Zion Williamson expressed interest in it, while Jaylen Brown was undecided and wanted to consider it further.) Kevin Durant gave a one-word “no;” Bam Adebayo said he didn’t think it would make games more entertaining. Jrue Holiday perhaps summed up the sentiment best, though.
“Free throws [are] a part of the game,” Holiday said. “You still have to go up there and make the free throws. When you’re in the Finals and it’s Game 6, and you need to knock down free throws … It’s part of the game.”
Furthermore, multiple players I talked to considered the possibility of playoff games being decided by the Final Target Score format to be a non-starter. Luckily for them, they shouldn’t expect a change at the NBA level anytime soon.
“Experimenting with our Final Target Score at NBA All-Star competitions and in the G League has given us meaningful insight into both the benefits and drawbacks of the format,” Evan Wasch, NBA VP of basketball strategy & analytics, told FiveThirtyEight in a written statement. “While there are no immediate plans to implement a Final Target Score in NBA regular season or playoff games, we expect to continue to utilize this format in different settings as part of our continual testing and learning process.”
If FTS were ever attempted in the NBA, we’d likely see a limited trial run; preseason-only at first would be a fair bet. And even there, it would probably be confined just to overtime games, or perhaps even only to select overtime situations.2
But whatever your thoughts on it, it’s clear Nick Elam’s brainchild is much more than a novelty at this point. It’s a robust approach to endgame basketball that, while not without its own drawbacks, holds fascinating potential. The world’s largest league taking a serious look at it is just further proof of the concept.
“I think our game is continuing to change,” Brown says. “[At] first thought, it’s interesting. But I guess we’ll see where [it] goes.”
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