The Beginning of the Ending

The Elam Ending has been the buzz of the basketball world since the 2020 NBA All-Star Game. First theorized in the mid-00s, the Elam Ending sought to reduce intentional fouling at the end of games by having teams play to a target score rather than to the end of the clock. The Basketball Tournament (TBT) has been using the Elam Ending since 2017 to great success. In more casual, pick-up environments, it provides an exciting end to games that otherwise could turn into foul-filled slogs.

The All-Star Game provided proof of concept. It’s time to have real conversations about how to implement it for all games.

Setting the Target

The classic Elam Ending turns the clock off late in the 4th quarter and sets a target score based on the leading team’s score. TBT’s ending follows this formula. It starts at the first whistle after the clock drops under 4 minutes and adds 8 points to the leading team at that time to set the target.

The All-Star Game modified it, setting the target at 24 points above the leading team at the start of the fourth quarter rather than setting it late in the game. Playing to a target score creates excitement by setting a tangible finish line that cannot be moved by intentionally fouling the other team. As we saw in the All-Star Game, the un-timed period creates additional urgency that can make for a much more exciting finish.

It would be a significant change to a rule that has been in place since the very first NBA game, but not all change is bad. Should the NBA switch to the Elam Ending for all games?

The Pros of a Target Score

The Elam Ending’s goal was to make the end of games flow better. The biggest benefit of any target score system is a more optimized game flow.

Intentional fouls would largely become a relic of the past, as there would be no need to extend the game and trading 3 for 2 would be a bad play. Truly terrible free throw shooters might still be fouled to try to stop opposing offenses, but that is a problem with those players, not the rules. 

Garbage time would also become far rarer. High scoring blowouts would end sooner, while low scoring blowouts would require the leading team to continue pushing towards the target score. Watching 8 minutes of third stringers is not particularly entertaining to anybody.

Replays to determine time remaining would thankfully cease to exist as well. Sitting through two minutes of refs staring at a monitor to determine how many tenths of a second should be on the clock is a miserable experience for all involved. Eliminating those replays would be a very welcome change.

A target score changes the end of games from reactive to proactive. Rather than trying to hang on to the lead down the stretch by holding the ball for 23 seconds before shooting, the leading team in a target score game has to continue pushing to maximize their points. This creates a much more exciting end-game product.

The Cons of a Target Score

While there are significant benefits to a target score system, it is not without flaws.

Ending games on free throws sucks, as all NBA fans discovered at the end of the All-Star Game. There have been proposals that any game ending FTs would instead take a point from the other team, but that defeats the purpose of having a target score in the first place and reintroduces intentional fouls. Games will end on free throws.

It also eliminates the single most exciting play in basketball: the buzzer-beater. There may be more excitement leading towards the final shot, but nothing in a target score system can replace the pure euphoria (or horror) of a buzzer-beater. Replacing the buzzer-beater with the game-ending free throw would be one of the bigger downgrades in sports history.

One common complaint about basketball games is that only the last few minutes matter. The Elam Ending amplifies this effect. It truly says that only the last few minutes matter. As 3 point attempts have proliferated, large runs have increased due to the increased variance. By switching from a clock to a target, it truly does become “last run wins.”

The on-court length of the ending period could vary wildly. Teams can easily score 8 points in less than 90 seconds, as the Sixers did multiple times against the Nets on 2/20. Or it could take 11 minutes, as it took the Sixers against the Nets on 2/20. In practice, perhaps this would not be quite as bad as it could be in theory, but it is certainly something that the NBA would want to test before implementing this.

Looking to the Future

The NBA has the perfect testing ground for the Elam Ending with the G-League. While the above benefits and drawbacks are immediately apparent, there are certainly others that will only become known through more rigorous testing. It may prove to be less popular on a game to game basis or in more serious games. Only time and real game testing will tell.