Calling Foul on George Karl: Strategies from Scorecasting

Game Theory, Personal Fouls and Scorecasting

Scorecasting was a great book. A bit of insider information from our own David Berri is that books about multiple sports have trouble in book stores, as its hard to find an exact category to put them in. Thus, it may be forgivable that not everyone read Scorecasting and it seems George Karl has never cracked the cover. Scorecasting, in addition to rehashing some great stories from Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins (Stars matter, go for it on fourth down!) had some great insight into the problem with sitting players in foul trouble.

Here’s the classic dillemna. In the NBA if a player gets 6 personal fouls they are removed from the game. And this tends to happen near the end of the game. Thus, in games that may be close, it can be very costly to lose a good player if they are in foul trouble. So, if a good player gets into foul trouble (the classic measure is if the player gets one more foul than the quarter they are in) you can bench them until the next quarter. It turns out this strategy is not optimal, at least according to Scorecasting and George Karl is going to give you a lesson as to why.

Another Lesson in How Not to Coach from Karl

Seriously, I couldn’t live without popcorn-machine

It turns out in a four point loss to the Hawks, this is exactly what happened. Near the end of the first period Faried picked up his second foul. Now, he was benched but this isn’t so bad. Normally starters get a rest near the end of the quarter, so no harm despite the foul. Alright, here’s where it gets bad.  Karl left Faried out for the first five minutes of the second quarter. After a 23 second stint, he racked up his third foul and was benched for the remainder of the 2nd. Karl started him in the third, but after three minutes and 45 seconds he racked up his fourth foul and again stayed on the bench. Finally Karl came to his senses and left Faried in for almost the whole fourth. So to break it down:

Quarter Time Played
1st 10:45
 2nd  0:23
 3rd 3:45
 4th 11:07
 Total 26:00

Because he was afraid Faried would foul out, he kept him on the bench, which had in essence the same effect as him fouling out! Now, it’s possible if Faried played he would have fouled out. It’s also possible he would have played more than 26 minutes. And in a game where the Nuggets were out-rebounded by 7, maybe it’s a bad thing to lose a player top 10 in total rebounds and top 2 in offensive boards for most of the game! So we see that the strategy of sitting your star to “save them” for the end of the game doesn’t help if the byproduct is you leave them out most of the game.

In a related note, even with Kosta Koufos out with the flu, Karl still didn’t like the idea of starting JaVale McGee or playing him more than 24 minutes. Either the Nuggets made a huge mistake signing McGee, if he can’t play more than half the game, or Karl just can’t play the right players (or both)

Karl does share the blame

There were two areas the Nuggets got beat pretty bad. As much as I’d love to yell at Timofey Mozgov or Corey Brewer, they played alright. The Nuggets had trouble on rebounds, which we can blame on Karl’s minute allocation. The other area the Nuggets hurt was in turnovers. While Lawson did suffer a bit with turnovers, the rest of his game was actually very strong (could he be back?) No, sadly the blame here lies a lot with Andre Iguodala, who had 7 turnovers! And the rest of his game was pretty abysmal too. So, yes I point the finger squarely at Karl for this loss but sadly he got a lot of help from Iguodala. Of course, on the whole Iguodala plays well and has an occasional bad game. George Karl, night in and night out, shows me why he’s not a quality coach in the NBA.


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