Sudden Death? A New NBA Overtime Rule Proposal

The NBA, like basketball leagues at most levels of the sport, uses a timed overtime period—five minutes—in order to decide games tied at the end of regulation. If the game’s still tied after that, another five minute overtime is played, as long as it takes to decide a winner at a snapshot moment at the 53, 58, 63, 68-minute mark, and so on.

Quite a few folks have expressed their dissatisfaction with this, and in 2020, the NBA All-Star Game adopted the “Elam Ending”, first popularized by The Basketball Tournament.

The short version of how it works is, at the first stoppage after the three-minutes-remaining mark of the fourth quarter, a “target score” is set of the leader’s score plus 8. So if a team’s winning 92-90, first to 100 wins. The game is then played out for as long as it takes for someone to get to 100. It could be nine seconds if someone on the leading team pulls a Reggie Miller, it could be all night if the shots go cold and nobody can get a shot to go in—there have been plenty of cases in NBA history, even in the 3-point era, where a team doesn’t score eight points in a quarter.

It’s a nice enough system, although it’s got its share of flaws. Nobody wants to watch a game that involves one team up 110-70 go on to 118, especially if the team on 70 makes it interesting for a bit but still loses by 25. Sure, they made a run, but all they did was prolong the inevitable when they could’ve just run out the clock.

There’s also the insanity of trying to track advanced stats (which rely on per-48-minutes) like pace or WS/48 or any stat that is pace-dependent (which is just about every other advanced stat.) Overtime already mucks this up by putting 53-minute games into 48-minute calculations, but at least you can cleanly account for them.

But the current system is bad enough when NBA teams foul in desperation in the final minute or two and downright unwatchable when college teams do it.

We need something that is both simpler and, if I may say so, more exciting than the Elam Ending.

We need sudden death overtime.

Well, sort of. If the first team that gets the ball can simply race upcourt, hit a midrange jump shot, and then it’s game over, that’s no fun.

Even if you give the other team a possession (one they can tie with a two or win with a three or even lose at the free throw line if they hit the first and miss the second), that’s still a bit capricious and way too advantageous to the team that wins the jump ball.

Instead, let’s take a page from tennis.

When a tennis game goes to “deuce”, a new scoring system independent of the “15-30-40-game” system takes over. The first point you win puts you at “advantage”. Win another point and it’s game. If your opponent wins the point, you’re back at “deuce”, repeat until someone with advantage wins a point and seals the deal.

In the NBA, we can do this by saying “first to a 2-possession game wins.” And since we’re going to consider the four-point play vanishingly unlikely (no matter how wild it would be to win in one go that way), that means first to a 4-point lead wins. As soon as that happens, game over, could take 9 seconds, could take all night, but first to go up 4 wins.

And, so games do not in fact drag on deep into the night, a time limit of 7 minutes is put on the overtime. When the clock strikes 55 minutes elapsed total in the game, the team that is ahead wins. If the game is tied, next score wins.

Why 55? It’s a fairly neat number and the possibility for “speed limit” metaphors makes a nice handy narrative device for announcers and a meme-able number for NBA Twitter. It’s fan-friendly.

Also, for a twist, there are no timeouts, all defensive fouls are shooting fouls, substitutions are allowed only at the same stoppages in play where they would be in a normal game. And if a player picks up his sixth foul in overtime, he’s still fouled out just like any other situation.

This means that once points are put on the board, the team that is behind has to score on their possession or they risk the other team ending the game the next trip down the floor. Likewise, if a team is up two and they get a steal and a walk-off dunk, that’s wildly entertaining, the best you could hope for in terms of a basketball game ending.

A team up one has to decide whether to make a 2-point shot to go up by three and give them a little bit of cushion or to can a 3-pointer and end it with one stroke. If that 3-pointer bounces off the rim four times and then drops in, so much the better.

In essence, every shot that goes up with the lead in overtime has the chance to be a walk-off buzzer beater in a sense.

And by not assigning an arbitrary number of points to be scored as with the Elam Ending, we’re taking two teams that start the overtime tied and using playground win-by-2 rules.

Everyone loves sudden death. The other three major North American sports all use some variation on it—the home team can walk off in any baseball game that goes to extra innings, the NFL uses a “both teams get the ball but otherwise sudden death” overtime, and the NHL uses a dead-simple next-goal-wins rule that, if it doesn’t produce a winner in the regular season, then goes to a shootout.

Hockey even preserves the tradition of the eternal sudden death in the playoffs, and the sport has always been better off for it.

When every possession is full of ultimate high-stakes drama, sports are more entertaining.

The NBA needs to adopt a “first to a four-point lead wins” overtime rule. Because especially in the playoffs, it’d be fantastic and fan-friendly.