NBA Timeouts

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The timeout discussion I have been having here is a very interesting one and has inspired / provoked some very interesting discussion (for example here).  A few days ago I was having a social conversation with some high level volleyball personalities and somehow (I don’t remember exactly, it was late 😉 ) the topic came up.  These highly experienced volleyball people could not believe the idea that timeouts do not have an effect. I should rephrase that… they could not believe that evidence exists that timeouts do not have an effect, because it doesn’t confirm what they see with their own eyes.

Faster than you can say ‘confirmation bias’, this article appeared in my consciousness (or rather was linked in another article that came into my rss feed).  To save you from reading it, it shows that there is no condition in which a timeout near the end of a game improves the chances of an NBA team scoring on the subsequent possession.  To put it another way, in every situation that they studied, taking a timeout reduced the likelihood of a team scoring.  They postulated several reasons why that may be so, and also of why a coach would consider a tactic with such a poor expected outcome.  One commenter suggested that coaches need those timeouts to put their imprint on the game and to improve the quality of play, a proposition which fairly aggressively ignores the evidence.  The author linked another article in which he himself proposed an alternative, if slightly less flattering for the coach, explanation.

“…part of staying hired is not just knowing what you’re doing, but looking like you know what you are doing. …
In reality, coaches can have smart game plans and diagram killer plays, but the only times a coach inarguably and directly impacts the game are when he calls timeout and when he substitutes.
It’s the most obvious point at which fans, the media and his bosses can tell how well a coach is doing his job. So if you’re a coach, you’re expected to make a difference through these actions. And at the end of games, you’re supposed to exert control over the outcome by outwitting the opposition with a clever adjustment or timely play call.”

For the record, I just did a quick calculation of my season so far.  In 22 league and cup matches this season, I have taken 56 timeouts.  The effect of those timeouts has been to reduce the sideout percentage of my team by more than 14%!  Probably not statistically significant.

Hopefully not statistically significant…


  1. Really interesting again Mark. A couple of quick thoughts;

    – Generally when you take timeouts you are already losing! Which means that, regardless of what how you feel about momentum, your opponent is in a position of strength. So it is not inconsistent that your opponent often wins the next point.

    – couldn’t agree more that at times coaches call timeouts to be seen to be doing something, not necessarily to be doing something.

    – one of the things I have always loved about Phil Jackson’s ‘Sacred Hoops’ is the idea of doing nothing. And that it is very difficult at times to do nothing, but that a coach needs the courage to do this in order to achieve things in the future.


  2. I heard Russ Rose the Penn State head coach (hopefully jokingly) once say that time outs can be used if you are angry at the referee. Since the refs are getting paid by the game, if you use all your time outs it makes the game last longer and reduces the dollars per hour the ref is making…


    1. My favourite timeout story is the coach who was leading 10-0 in sideout scoring, took a timeout, turned to the coach on the other side and said ‘this is for you, you need it!’


  3. I love that story. I would never have enough guts to actually do that.

    I had a great time out experience this weekend. I am helping out with a U18s team and I had to take them to their tournament this weekend. Their regular coach is very animated and vocal (in a good way) on the sidelines. When they are in a huddle, she is the only one who talks. This was the third tournament I have had to coach these girls and we are all getting used to each other.

    The day before the tournament I told their captains that if we were playing well, and our opponents call a time out, and I have nothing specific that I need to say to them I will turn the huddle over to one of them. I wanted them to embrace this as an opportunity to develop their leadership skills. All they needed to do was keep the team focused on the game. Keep everyone’s spirits up, attitudes positive and to have some fun with this.

    As the day progressed we were playing well and our opponents were using their timeouts. I alternated turning the huddles over to the two captains. They started out a little unsure of themselves but with each huddle they got a little more confident and comfortable.

    Then in the first game of our final match we had a 6 point lead and things started falling apart. The rallies were getting long and tense and we quickly gave up four points on boneheaded plays. I called a time out and stepped over to the sidelines to tell the girls to settle down, play their game and to not let the opponents set the pace and tone of the game. But before I could say a word one of the team captains threw her arms around the girls on either side of her and in a panicky voice said “It is really frantic out there.”

    The other captain put her arms around the shoulders of the girls on either side of her and responded “We all need to take a deep breath and calm down.”

    The other girls all grabbed onto the players on each side of them and one of them said “we need to talk, and listen to each other.”

    Another voice said “Play our game our way, not theirs.”

    And their setter chimed in “They are hitting a lot of balls to the deep one, if I stay back on defense you all need to pass a little higher so I have time to get to it.”

    The other setter replied “don’t worry about the sets – you defend that corner, I’ll pick up the set if we need to.”

    About that time the ref blew the whistle and they all turned to look at me. Except that I wasn’t in the huddle. They had closed that huddle into a small tight group hug. I was standing about 6 feet away watching them. They all got very guilty looks on their faces and the captain shyly said “Sorry, what did you want to say?” I just smiled, shook my head and said “Nothing. Go play.” and shooed them back towards the court.

    They gave a cheer ran back onto the court and won that game close and the next one big to take the match and first place in our pool.

    I had to go home afterwards and warn their coach that her team isn’t made up of the same girls that she sent me out of town with that morning. And that she may have to rethink how she handles time-outs from now on…


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