The Truth About Foul Trouble

Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka picked up his second foul just 4:44 into the Thunder’s Game 4 loss in the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks immediately subbed him out, presumably to spare Ibaka from the purgatory of late-game “foul trouble.” In OKC’s Game 3 loss, Brooks likewise removed his star Kevin Durant when he picked up his fourth foul with 5:41 to go in the third quarter—the Heat took advantage of Durant’s absence to go on a huge run that put them in the lead. In Game 2, however, Brooks allowed Durant to play on after he was whistled for his fifth foul with 10:30 to go in the game. In that game, the Thunder were down by 11 when Durant got his fifth foul and ended up losing by four.

Neither Ibaka nor Durant ended up fouling out in any of these games. So, what were the right moves for Scott Brooks—should he have benched these guys or let them stay on the floor and risk getting more fouls?

NBA statheads have reasoned for years that it doesn’t matter when a player plays as long as he maximizes his court time. In Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim’s 2011 book Scorecasting, the writers note that coaches are too risk-averse when it comes to foul trouble. 

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