If It’s Not Broke, Doesn’t Mean It’s Optimal. Even in the NBA

Probably one of the most annoying things  I have to deal with in business is that people never question the status quo. It doesn’t matter what business it is. I doesn’t even matter if its something that applies to how I do things, that I have become set in my ways on.  It is rare when people just ask questions or apply some critical analysis to the things right in front of them.  

The NBA is the perfect example. So many things are the way they are, because thats the way they always have been.  I guess it was the old adage, “if it’s not broke, don’t not fix it”. But not being broken, doesn’t mean its optimal.  Yet, just the smallest bit of critical analysis can lead to changes. Fortunately, the NBA is evolving into an organization that will change.  There is a new management style that has evolved over the past few years, which  has lead to valid changes initiated by me and others which I think have benefited the league and our fans.

Here are a couple examples of  things that used to be “conventional wisdom” in the NBA rule book that to the NBA’s credit, when I brought it to their attention, were changed quickly and easily

1. Clear Path Foul

It used to be that when there was a clear path foul, (a defensive player grabs a player in front of him thereby preventing a probable layup) the offensive team was awarded 1 free throw and possession of the ball on the side. One day I decided to do some basic math. What was the percentage of a conversion on a layup. The play the defender was trying to prevent. What was the percent of conversion for a free throw from the average NBA player. And what was the conversion on the typical NBA possession.

I don’t have the exact numbers here, but the following are pretty close:  .70 for a free throw plus .45 x 2 points or .90 for a regular possesion, when added together gave a probably value to the posession of 1.6.  The probability of making  a break away  layup with no one between you and the basket was 90pct or higher, x 2 points, or a possession value of 1.80.  Which meant that under the rules, the advantage went to the defending team for grabbing the offensive player to stop a break away. 

Once I offered this math to the league, the rule was changed to 2 free throws and the ball. Which gave the advantage to the offense with a value of .7 x 2 FTs plus .45 x 2pts for the possession or a total of  2.3 pts for the possession.  The team that was fouled now received a significant benefit to reward their defensive effort.

Along the same lines of playing the advantage, for a long time the guideline for officials was to reward the offensive player if a defender created contact that didn’t fully impact the offensive players Speed, Balance, Rythm and Quickness (SBRQ). In other words, give the guy with the ball the benefit of the doubt and don’t take away their ability to score if the contact is marginal.

So a few years ago, Im watching the Pistons beat the Lakers in the Finals.  I’m seeing Larry Brown’s Pistons fully take advantage of the rules. It was impossible to stay in front of Kobe. He could get anywhere he wanted on the court. The Pistons knew it as well.  So every time he tried to get to the basket, they would body up and bump him. The officials did just as they were supposed to. Since Kobe had the advantage on the defender, they didn’t call a foul. However that little bump slowed Kobe down just enough that it gave Ben Wallace a split second more to on a pre rotation to the Paint, to be in a better position to defend the basket. Kobe still scored, but not quite as often as he may have otherwise. 

At that point it dawned on me that the concept of playing the advantage in a one on one matchup had nothing to do with which TEAM gained the advantage. After all, its the team that scores the most points that wins. Detroit had a brilliant strategy and was playing it to perfection.  After the finals, I sat down with the league and discussed with them the difference between player and team advantage.  The discussion lead to changing the rules so that perimeter contact was called far more often

The point of the story is two fold:

1. To make it clear that not everything I do in the NBA results in or from a fine:)

2.  That sometimes even the most fully engrained rules or processes should have critical analysis applied to them.  Just because something isn’t broken doesn’t mean a business can’t benefit by looking to do something different. Strong organizations encourage the change and great employees always are looking to find ways to take even the basics and make them better

42 thoughts on “If It’s Not Broke, Doesn’t Mean It’s Optimal. Even in the NBA

  1. Hi Mr. Cuban,

    I was looking up the phrase “If it is not broke don’t fix it” for a question I have to answer in my Ph.D. program. It involves leadership and I was reminded as I read your blog of the same quote as it was used by Colin Powell when he said “if it is not broke dont fix it” is an excuse for non-action, a slogan for the complacent. I know my response has nothing to do with the NBA per se but it has everything to do with everyday people who skim through life using that same quote and making their life so much easier. Whatever happened to “challenging” oneself and allowing oneself to grow. You can’t do that if you are willing to accept the status quo.

    Comment by Sharon Williams -

  2. I say let them play physical D. In the NBA every time anyone drives to the lane it’s either a layup or a foul (especially if they are a superstar) which gets really old really quick. This is why I haven’t watched an NBA game from start to finish in over 5 years, and I used to watch every home game on TV of the Pacers, but now I would much rather watch a grind it out 45-47 college game any day.

    It’s a pleasure to watch the tough battle of college defense and it’s a bore to watch NBA players shoot open jumpers or get easy fouls because the defender can’t touch them.

    Comment by Chris -

  3. optimal it ain’t. From the recent news about the NBA being in debt and taking out more loans, it would appear some franchises are a hand to mouth existence. Mark probably knows of a few that will fold or move as the recession deepens. The league likely will be optimized by less teams and a more competitive balance in the East.

    Comment by Shake -

  4. Pingback: Optimizing basketball rules should be ongoing

  5. If you want to know what’s killing the beautiful game, it’s crappy rules/calls on initiating contact anywhere in the paint, and especially in the circle. That has to be one of the dumbest rules in sports. The rule should read: IF THE DEFENDER IS IN THE CIRCLE, THE OFFENSIVE PLAYER IS PERMITTED TO RUN HIM OVER AND KICK HIM IN THE FACE FOR GOOD MEASURE. 2 FREE THROWS AND POSSIBLY A FLAGRANT FOUL.

    As good as many refs are, as a bunch, they ruin the game with seemingly arbitrary calls. Consistency is the only thing fans want.

    Comment by Val -

  6. Mr. Cuban, I was wondering your views on repetitive fouling at the end of the games. I don’t really mind it (i grew up playing/watching basketball this way), but taking a step back this does seem like a flaw/distortion of the intended operation of the rules. As an owner/fan/etc do you like the fact that close games generally become a free-throw contest?

    I don’t have a solution other than stricter enforcement of intentional fouling rules.


    Comment by DCB -

  7. Pingback: Money Young Weekly Roundup: Mom’s Birthday Edition | Money Young

  8. HI all,

    From Spain, i think it is a nice post about how a manager take care of their business with numbers. I think in Europe we have a lack of that in some sports and maybe in some other kind of business.

    Congratulations for your blog 😉

    Comment by Jordi -

  9. Hi, Mark, big fan. I just wrote a blog on why King James is broadway bound, would love to your hear thoughts on the subject.

    Comment by Josh Kornbluth -

  10. One that gets me is giving the defense the opportunity to foul the offensive player in the last few seconds of a game then they are down by 3 points so that they can only shoot 2 free throws. I say if a team is leadng by 3 or more points and they foul the team that is down by 3 or more points in the last 15 seconds then it is an automatic 3 free throws. This will make them actually play the game rather than using a foul call to their advantage.

    Comment by Brawley3612 -

  11. Awesome analysis! So how big was the sample size you used to come up
    with that?

    It’s definitely no fun to watch a team work the rules and not let
    the players play.

    Comment by Hyrumster -

  12. Defense wins Championships. The NBA to me should not be who can score
    the most points, but who can stop the other team. In the case of Pistons vs Lakers,
    It was destiny for the Pistons to win. The fact that no one gave them a chance. Even
    after the first win, second win was a joke. Remember this, “ANYONE, can be beaten at ANY given time.” And after the Pistons won, what happen? Every NBA team saw that to win championships
    You need Defense more then offense. In my personal opinion, people that run the NBA don’t want
    teams like the Pistons who use to play the best D to win. They want “Lakers vs Celtics” or Lakers vs Cavs. That is what makes them money, and it all comes back
    to that. MONEY.

    Comment by Jon -

  13. Mark Cuban,

    Please get in touch with me. I am the CEO of the 3D Source, Inc., the inventor of the digital projector, the first to tell Darpa to make HDTV digital (and received the first contract from them to develop it, and now the inventor of the most advanced 3-D technologies for cinema and consumer TV. You can contact me at info@the3dsource.com . I look forward to talking with you.

    Comment by Gene Dolgoff -

  14. What in the world is wrong with giving the defense an advantage? The unexamined assumption here is that only offense matters in basketball. I disagree with that premise.

    Comment by David -

  15. I bet you came up with it all by yourself and nobody wrote this pice either, righ

    Comment by david -

  16. Thank you !!

    NBA fans sitting at home have the advantage of instant replay on just about every play. It is so frustrating to see things called wrong…or not called at all. Two things really bug me about the NBA; 1) help defense guys stepping in front of an offensive player driving to the hoop and getting a charging call, and 2)the total lack of traveling calls…ever.

    Comment by mahser -

  17. Great logical thinking. I wish the same logic were used to tackle the problems of public education. Imagine the possiblities and impact on future generations.

    Comment by Faith -

  18. But now it is a foul shooting contest and the NBA is hard to watch at
    times b/c of all the fouls called. The refs think the fans are out
    to see them call fouls thirty feet from the basket. I think you should
    sit down with NBA and do what hockey does. The ref raises his hand
    when the foul occurs but if the off doesn’t lose the ball or anything
    play on. But if there is a foul and the def gets the ball the foul
    is taken. Watch a game tonight and see how many tic tac calls there are
    where I think yeah if you follow the letter you call it but really
    does anyone benefit.
    This way you will be able to get the flow going and it will be a more enjoyable game to
    watch. A foul shooting contest is not fun to watch. It is like watching

    Comment by Eric Ward -

  19. All I have to say is I am a die hard celtics fan. I see them actually
    not as good as most think due to current rules that they get away with.
    Its about time for many rules to change in the NBA.

    Comment by JAZD Chemicals -

  20. Interesting analysis on the clear path foul.

    Comment by Brandon -

  21. I’m glad to read that the league is willing to listen to good ideas and make changes for the benefit of the game, even if they originated from the notorious Mark C.

    My biggest complaint about the NBA, and the reason I watch far less of it than I used to, is that the officiating plays far too big of a role in the outcome. Realistically they could call a foul on virtually every possession. What constitutes a foul by contact is so murky that it’s nealry impossible to call them with any consistency. In the play-offs it seems to be much more of a “let them play” attitude, so why some fouls go uncalled, unless it’s flagrant, the officials seem more inclined to let it go. (I have the same problem with the holding in the NFL)

    Too bad there’s not a way to automate officiating so that the same metrics are applied to everyone.

    And speaking of “If it’s not broke…” well the comment control IS BROKE with firefox.
    So please use some of your considerable influence to get whoever to fix it.

    Comment by l.a.guy -

  22. I like Mark’s post and agree with the premise. If more companies adopted the “just because it’s not broken doesn’t mean it’s optimal” mentality we’d see more expectations for excellence.

    How about adding this corollary: Just because it’s working doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

    My problem with the NBA (in addition to the traveling calls Don mentions) is the superstar calls. I know it’s blasphemy to say anything against Michael Jordan but the guy got so many calls it made me sick and diminished his greatness. These players are already great and don’t need any additional help. Why do such blatant problems persist and lessen the impact of this great game?

    Comment by Luis Antezana -

  23. NBA officials are the worst of any professional sport. The NFL has the best system and best officials. The NFL use of instant replay and coaches challenges is the best innovation in sporting rules I have ever seen.

    NBA fans sitting at home have the advantage of instant replay on just about every play. It is so frustrating to see things called wrong…or not called at all. Two things really bug me about the NBA; 1) help defense guys stepping in front of an offensive player driving to the hoop and getting a charging call, and 2)the total lack of traveling calls…ever.

    In the old days the defensive player had to establish position and remain there to draw a charging foul. The advantage was always to the offensive player. Today a defensive payer can step in front of an offensive player for a split second and draw the charge call. That is poor defense in my book…and it is rewarded by the refs in calling a foul on the offensive player. It is rewarding the “floppers” and that doesn’t feel right.

    NBA players travel on just about every posession. As a coach for youth basketball it is frustrating to try to teach kids the rules…then they watch the NBA and say “what do you mean coach?, Kobe does this all the time.”


    Comment by Don Dodge -

  24. Mark,

    So here’s your next study for your staff to analyze.
    The number of possessions lost by not playing “two for one” at the end of
    each quarter.
    For the un-initiated, an example.
    If there are 45 seconds left at the end of the quarter and the Mavs have the ball.
    Its CLEARLY in the Mavs best interest to run a “quick hitting” play that leaves them
    with MORE THAN 24 seconds left on the shot clock. This guarantees, barring an offensive rebound,
    that the Mavs will get a second possession before the quarter expires.
    Multiply the “2 for 1” by 3 ending quarters (and leaving the final quarter as unique unto itself)
    that is 3 extra possessions per game. That can easily be the margin of victory.
    I am stunned at how many times that doesn’t happen in the NBA or even at the college halftime.
    Its a very real phenomenon that some say might be able to be manipulated for dead ball/media time outs.
    Its at least worth some “critical examination”

    All the Best,

    Comment by JH -

  25. Thanks for not seeing this BEFORE the Lakers played the Pistons in the Final.

    I kid.

    Thanks for all you do, Mr. Cubes.

    Comment by Allen -

  26. I think You Are the best owner in the NBA today. The best thing about you is you didnt stop being A fan just because you became an owner. Your enthusiasm for the game and your team is unmatched by any other owner in professional sports. You are the only NBA owner that did not become A robot in a suit standing in the press box showing no emotion.

    Comment by erik -

  27. This is why they didn’t let you buy the Cubs. The old farts that run MLB don’t welcome this type of thinking.

    Comment by Nelson -

  28. Mark- Why don’t you get Stern to punish all the (European) floppers? It’s taking away from the integrity of the game!

    Comment by Alex -

  29. One thing I’ve always thought would benefit the game, and it slowly seems to be coming into play(replays on specific plays) is to have at least one, but maybe two refs in a booth or somewhere watching the game strictly on monitors.

    You already see moments where the refs will look to each other trying to clarify a call, or who last touched an out of bounds play. Have the head ref wear an ear bud that is fed by a mic on these booth refs, and when there is a call that the refs get together to discuss or clarify, the booth refs can chime in with what they saw.

    If it’s a particularly complicated call (one that the refs presently take more time to make resulting in the arena usually playing Jeopardy theme), these booth refs would even have time to review replays as it’s being discussed.

    All this within the flow of what presently takes place in game, so this shouldn’t add too much as far as game length. It would however go miles to increasing fan faith in refs.

    Comment by Juncti -

  30. Mark, great post. I like to hear these kind of inner workings that go on in the NBA offices.

    A rule I think that teams exploit too often is after a basket is made, the scoring team’s player passes the ball to the referee standing on the baseline instead of just leaving it alone. If a team is built on the fast break type offense, this slows them down incredibly, allowing the other team to have time to set up a defense. I am sure it hurts teams like the Suns, and is probably taught. I would like to see a rule implemented that the ball cannot be touched by the scoring team after it falls through the basket. If they do that, it is a delay of game warning and then subsequent technical fouls.

    Comment by Dave -

  31. Mark:

    Thanks again for leading by example. Your posts are inspiring because
    you are unafraid to have an opinion, to challenge the status quo,
    and to put forth provocative ideas in the interest of stirring debate.

    Great minds think alike, my Mom always says…

    Howard Lindzon and Mark Cuban hold hands: http://tinyurl.com/ant6d3

    Comment by mattschulte -

  32. I bet it would be a benefit to the average fan if the commentators would speak about rule changes so as the ones you mentioned more often during telecasts of games.

    Comment by tommybloggingsports -

  33. Interesting, and good work. You are on point about what the Pistons did to my Lakers that year, and I’m glad an owner like you recognized this and helped in getting changes made.

    Comment by Sola.G -

  34. Good article, thanks

    Comment by Beal -

  35. I am reminded of something I’ve heard in leadership conferences – Leaders challenge the process. Managers just try to keep things going the way they have been. It is the leader who leads the organization forward, constantly challenging the processes currently in place to be ever adapting to new challenged and generations, and never satisfied that they have “arrived: finally and they can stop progressing.

    Comment by Jeremy -

  36. Fascinating approach Mr.Cuban you are a true Maverick.

    The media portrays you as a rebel out of control GM. However they
    fail to discuss that you want beneficial change to the game and will
    do whatever it takes to be get it.

    That statistical analysis you gave is a breakthrough for the game.
    It will and has made the game more exciting. Like when Kobe scored 81
    points in T.O, or 61 at Madison Square Garden. This type of scoring
    brings more attention to the NBA.

    The league should want and promote more scoring in games. Give that
    .2% advantage to the offense, and they will get more bang for the buck.
    More slam dunks to the basket with a slight deterrent against the
    defensive side blindsiding a star to the open lane.

    I myself was getting tired of the Piston’s stifling defense and
    never realized there statistical edge. It’s time to reward more
    offensive teams like the 1.Lakers 5.SUNS and 11.Mavericks.
    Instead of the boring Pistons and Spurs.

    My only reservation is, Why didn’t you keep this statistical edge
    to yourself and get a bunch of dirty players like Bruce Bowen to
    lead you to the promised land?

    M Farwell

    Comment by Mark Farwell -

  37. Rob, what a great idea. And Mark, I don’t think it would make things too complicated for the refs or players… it’d be just like hockey. The ref puts his arm up when the defense commits a foul, and blows it when the defending team touches the ball. If the offense scores on a delayed call, the call is gone.

    It would be great to see teams with the ball who had a delayed call against them go for a “free” play and just kick it out for a three-point attempt or something.

    Of course, if LeBron James has 5 fouls and commits his sixth on a defensive foul, it would be funny to watch his opponents not even try to score and instead, literally hand the ball over to the Cavs 🙂

    On an unrelated note, Mark: your readers have commented for months that the comment box here is broken (at least on Firefox). One cannot see about 2/3 of a comment before posting, because the text in the comment box disappears behind the right hand margin. I’m done commenting here until this is fixed; apologies if it’s out of your control to fix, but it’s just plain rude to keep it like this.

    Comment by Mike -

  38. Isn’t it kind of ironic, how you pushed for more perimeter contact to be called. Then two years later, Wade gets almost every perimeter foul called for him on his way to a championship. Sorry, couldn’t resists.

    Comment by Matthew -

  39. What do you think about changing the rules regarding when play is stopped for a foul to be similar to penalties in hockey. If the defense commits a foul, play continues until the ball exchanges hands. Some people like the foul-to-stop-the-clock game and it does work sometimes. It would have a huge impact on the game but would it be for better or worse?

    From MC> I actually like the idea, but i think it would complicate things too much

    Comment by Rob -

  40. That’s good work, Mr. C. The rule changes you’ve proposed and helped pass reward good play and punish bad play.

    I’ve been wondering for a long time, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts, but how many years away do you think we are from the inevitable widening of the court? I think this should have been considered as early as 1979, when the NBA added a three-point line that featured an arc that was too wide for the court as it was. Today’s players are too big to be playing on this court; a wider (and perhaps even longer) court will open up the floor and increase good team basketball. You’ll see fewer players driving to the lane with the sole purpose of “initiating contact” (we all know how you feel about that lol).

    I hope to hear what you have to think (and how it will affect my Hornets!).

    Comment by Adam Wilson -

  41. Nice to see an NBA post again!

    Comment by Mike -

  42. I agree, there needs to be more innovation to existing systems and ways of doing things in traditional business. It’s kind of like a gentrification process though, you need to sometimes get rid of old ways or people to accomplish this, or at least I am assuming on a level like the NBA…?

    Comment by Capitalist Cookbook -

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