Why do coaches sit players who are in foul trouble?

Last night the Wisconsin Badgers had a five point lead early in the first half when Jared Berggren, their most productive big man, picked up his second foul.  Coach Bo Ryan replaced him with his much less experienced substitute.  Coach Ryan did the same when Wisconsin’s other productive big man, Mike Bruesewitz likewise picked up his second foul.  Neither played for the rest of the first half, and Syracuse was able to open up a ten point bulge and maintain a six point halftime lead.  Both players finished the game with additional fouls available to them.  Berggren picked up only one more foul in the rest of his action.  The Badgers rallied to take the lead in the second half, but ultimately lost the game by one point.

My question is why on Earth didn’t Coach Ryan leave his best players on the floor?  By removing them for the greater part of the first half, he may have cost Wisconsin the game (Berggren is one of Wisconsin’s top MWS win producers).

I realize Coach Ryan was simply following conventional wisdom, but why is that strategy considered accepted wisdom?  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  There is no necessary reason to disqualify one of your best players from long stretches of a game when the rules do not require you to do so.  What you are doing is effectively taking out one of your more productive players and artificially limiting his minutes without good cause.

So why do coaches follow this practice so blindly?  Let’s examine and debunk the most oft-heard rationale:

1. We must have him available “for later”

Often coaches will justify removing a player who is in foul trouble on the grounds that doing insured that the player would be available to play the latter minutes of a game.  This rationale rests on the faulty premise that certain minutes in a game (the last ones) are more important than any other minutes.  They are not!  I can make a strong argument that Wisconsin would have won easily and would not have needed a last second heave by Jordan Taylor had Berggren remained in the game in the first half.  In order to “be in the game” late, you must put yourself in position.  No minute, and no possession, is more important than any other.

Besides which, coaches cannot predict when a player will foul again.  How does the coach know that the player won’t commit another foul for forty minutes?  The problem is one of perception.  When a player commits fouls more rapidly than usual, the coach’s perception becomes skewed.   Suddenly the player appears “foul-proned” and the coach, believing this, will miscalculate the likelihood of the player committing another foul.

2.  “They’ll attack him for easy baskets”

This rationale is also based on a faulty premise — that a player cannot play aggressive defense without fouling, or alternatively, that a team can induce fouls on a player by “going at him”.  If the first premise were true, teams ought to shoot much higher percentages, and/or we ought to be seeing more players foul out.  If the second premise were true, why don’t teams simply target the other team’s star players immediately?  If fouls are so easy to induce, why not try to induce them?  Because, its not that easy, that’s why.

The simple fact is, the “2 foul rule” is another example of conventional wisdom that is not wise at all.  Its one of those unwritten rules that coaches are afraid to break for fear of looking “foolish” (like when Packers coach Mike Sherman cost the team a playoff game because he didn’t have the stones to go for it on 4th and a millimeter).  Following the “foul trouble” removal practice is actually foolish and detrimental to the teams whose coaches follow it.  Like the Badgers last night.  (Can you tell I’m bitter… read the preceding post).

FOOTNOTE — There’s one scenario I will accept for removing a player early in the game because of foul difficulty.  If the player in question is a primary ballhandler who is also one of the team’s best foul shooters, then I will accept the excuse that he was removed early because “we need him at the end”.  The reason I create this exception is because I recognize that there is one legitimate difference between the ending minutes of a game and every other minute in a game.

In the ending minutes of a close game, the trailing opponent will often deliberately foul members of the leading team in an attempt to regain possession of the basketball in a timely manner.  Rarely will teams employ such a strategy at any other point in the game.  So that’s a tangible difference.  That I will accept.  And I will also accept that if such a strategy were employed, then yes, you would want to insure that your best ballhandling foulshooter were eligible to play those minutes.  That was not the case last night with either Berggren or Bruesewitz.

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One Response to “Why do coaches sit players who are in foul trouble?”

  1. TWF Says:

    I have wondered that myself so many times. The goal is to maximize the time the players are in the game, and the only way to do that is to let them play until fouled out.

    And fans may complain if they foul out 10 minutes into the second half, but never mention the 15 minutes they sit waiting to come back into the game.

    How many times is the player taken out, then commits one or even no more fouls. The goal is to have the best players play as many minutes as they can. Should be taken out at 5 fouls, and only then. It is the only way you can maximize that.

    Good article.

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