Rethinking Foul Trouble

Across sports, one of the common criticisms of coaches from the analytical community is that they are overly conservative in their decision making. In large part to avoid criticism, coaches tend not to go for it on fourth down as much as the statistics indicate they ought to, for example. If there’s a basketball equivalent, it is probably the way coaches handle player foul trouble. The argument goes like this: By taking out a player in foul trouble, coaches do exactly the very thing foul trouble threatens–rob themselves of the services of one of their better players.

A new study, however, suggests that the coaches might have had right all along. Philip Maymin of NYU-Poly, along with co-authors Allan Maymin and Eugene Shen, used play-by-play provided by basketballgeek.com to study how having a starter in foul trouble affected a team’s chances of winning the game during the 2006-07 NBA season. By using a model that accounted for score, team strength, time remaining and home-court advantage (as well as the number of starters on the floor not in foul trouble), they were able to isolate the impact of foul trouble on the ultimate outcome of the game.

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I’d also suggest checking out the extended abstract to see how different coaches dealt with foul trouble during the 2006-07 season, including one who gambled more with fouls than any other.

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