What If Basketball Adopted Tennis Rules?

Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez /

In the Brooklyn Nets’ blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs last night, the quarter that stuck out was the third where the Nets got massacred and scored a franchise low amount of points in a quarter, 5, while giving up 30 points on defense. This got me thinking about the quarter system and if it is good for the game of basketball. What if the NBA changed its rules to tennis rules? In the major men’s tennis tournaments, the players play 5 sets and the player who wins more sets wins the match. So sometimes, a player can score less points overall in the match can still win the game.

If those rules were applied to the game last night, we would have had a tie game. The Nets actually outscored San Antonio in both the 2nd and 4th quarters, but lost the 1st and 3rd quarters. Of course, the Nets won their quarters by a total of 3 points while San Antonio won their quarters by a combined 34 points and San Antonio played much better in the game, but a rule change like this could make basketball games more interesting.

First, let’s go into some details of a rule change like this. Instead of four 12-minute quarters, there would be five 10-minute sets. The first team to win 3 sets wins the game, so games could last as short as 30 minutes or as long as 50. If a set is tied, the “tiebreaker” (or overtime) could be either one or two minutes. Another way to do overtime which could make it more interesting is a sudden-death 3-on-3 game. There have been rumors that the Olympics want to add 3-on-3 basketball for 2016 and maybe the NBA would consider doing something like this to test it out. If they decided to do 3-on-3 sudden death overtimes, it would obviously add a lot of excitement to the games. If the 5th and final set goes to overtime, though, overtime should not be sudden death.

Another change to the rules if the NBA went to use a set format would be foul limits. Now, players are allowed 6 fouls per game before fouling out. With the set format, players would be allowed 2 fouls per set, including the overtime. This would give players more total fouls per game (10 instead of 6) but with all the added drama of the set format, players will probably need extra fouls. Even if a player records two fouls and fouls out of a set, he can come back and play in the next set.

Why would the NBA want to make this rule change? Well, first of all, it will bring much more drama and excitement to their games. Even if a team has been playing terribly and is trailing 2 sets to none, they are never really out of the game because all they need is to win one set and they are right back in the game. In the NBA now, there is a lot of “garbage time”, and it is not only in the fourth quarter of blowouts. In games between two mediocre teams, such as last year’s New Jersey Nets and a team like the New Orleans Hornets, even the second quarter can be garbage-y. Games get into boring lulls where not much happens and there is very little excitement. With the set format, just about every moment will be exciting and every possession matters. The set format will also require fans to get to games on time. Teams like the Knicks, Heat and Lakers (and even the Nets this year) have late-arriving fans. With the new format, if a fan comes late, he or she might miss the most exciting play of the game, a buzzer beater at the end of the first set!

There are also some disadvantages to the set format. One of the good things about the NBA is that games are all around the same length unless they go into overtime: 2 1/2 hours. With sets, games could be much quicker, maybe as short as an hour and a half, if they are 3 sets long, but could be longer than 3 hours if they go to 5 sets. The NBA may not want this. However, tennis matches have had the same issue and it hasn’t hurt that sport. Some matches are as short as one hour and many go longer than 3. Just last year or so a tennis match spanned 3 days (although that would never happen in the NBA obviously).

Perhaps the biggest problem with the set format would be ruining the tradition, history, and record books of the NBA. All the records would be altered and retired players would probably not be in favor of the rule changes. Additionally, winning a scoring title or rebounding title would be more difficult because players who play more sets have a greater chance of scoring or rebounding more. For example, if Lebron James and the Heat win most of their games in 3 sets, he would not be able to score as many points as someone like Kevin Love, who is on an average team and therefore would likely play more 5-set games.

Will the NBA ever consider making this rule change? Probably not in the next 10 or 15 years. However, I think a set format could add a lot of excitement, especially to the more boring teams in the league and this is something the NBA should consider for the future.