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Coach’s Playbook: On the clock

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The National Federation of State High School Association recently approved a proposal to allow the use of a 35-second shot clock in high school basketball. In rural Montana, where team depth varies school-to-school and year-to-year, the implementation of a shot clock may only emphasize inherent disadvantages. 

 The NFHS did not require the use of a shot clock and has instead left the decision up to each individual state. Currently, eight states use a shot clock for high school basketball, but those states had to previously resign from the NFHS rules committee to implement the shot clock.

Shot clocks have been used for years in professional and college basketball games. The NBA introduced a shot clock in 1954, revitalizing a game that was losing fan interest as some teams chose to utilize a stall tactic on offense. NCAA men’s basketball added a shot clock to college play in 1985 after experiencing similar challenges with slower play which was likely impacting ratings. Professional and collegiate women’s basketball leagues also employ shot clocks, though none of the leagues seem to agree on what is the optimum possession time—times currently vary from 24 to 35 seconds. 

Proponents of a shot clock in high school point to its success in professional and college basketball when advocating for one. The shot clock has elevated the action both in college and professional basketball, which many would argue makes the games more exciting to watch. In a society that demands constant stimulation, basketball scores of 142-138 are more desirable than 42-38. Add to that equation revenue generated by television ratings, and it becomes easy to understand why the rules were changed to meet fan interest.

Some also might compare the shot clock proposal to the addition of the three-point line, which followed a similar progression through professional, then college, then high school and eventually middle school levels of basketball. I’m sure there are a few basketball purists out there, including John Wooden, who still think adding the three-point line was a bad decision, but most would agree that it changed the game for the better. 

But besides adding excitement to the game with more scoring, the three-point line also enabled players or teams that weren’t blessed with height to compete. No amount of time in the gym will make a player any taller, but a good shooter only needs to make two-thirds as many shots from behind the three-point line to be just as effective as a player who plays in the paint. The three-point line also increased the probability of those “Cinderella” upsets that basketball fans cherish so much during the NCAA tournament.  

The shot clock proposal brings a variety of challenges. The technology to add the shot clocks is expensive, and many Montana small school athletic budgets are already spread thin. There is also the need to find another volunteer to operate the shot clock during games from a volunteer pool that is equally thin. Modern basketball is already played at a faster pace than when the NBA and NCAA decided it need to increase the speed of play, so it may be difficult to justify the added cost and volunteer time when that shot clock will likely impact very few possessions in most games. 

The biggest disadvantage to a shot clock that I rarely hear mentioned is that is will benefit the larger schools with the deeper benches. High schools (mostly) don’t recruit their players; a school’s player pool is supposed to be limited to the students who live in their school district.  Unlike the professional or college levels, where coaches can draft or recruit players who fit their system, high schools play with who they have. The talent level and number of interested players can vary year to year.

One of the great challenges in coaching Montana Class C basketball is determining the best strategy each season. I had great respect for the coaches that could adapt their approach to complement the strengths of their players rather than making their players fit into “their system”. At Lone Peak, our strategy often varied from game to game and routinely considered a comparison of our depth versus our opponent’s depth. In those early years of our program our depth rarely compared favorably, but I believed our starters could compete with anybody.

A shot clock will add to the advantage that the teams with more depth already have. More games will be impacted negatively with the deeper team having the ability to establish and maintain a faster pace. Forcing weaker teams to shoot the ball quicker will result in possessions that end in poor shots without the defensive team having to take risks. I’m not convinced these games will be any more entertaining to watch.

In evenly matched games, why shouldn’t the team who establishes the lead get to dictate the pace? Shouldn’t that be the reward for earning the lead in the early part of the game? That may mean the trailing team has to adjust their defense accordingly and experience what basketball teams from small schools do all the time.  

If I were a representative of a small Class C school in Montana, I would vote against the implementation of a basketball shot clock when it gets proposed. Best case, the shot clock will have very little impact on most games, but worst case, it will emphasize the depth advantage some schools already have. 

Al Malinowski has lived in Big Sky for over 25 years. He has coached middle school and high school basketball at the Big Sky School District for 22 of those years. He believes participation in competitive athletics has been critical in establishing his core values.

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