Friday, May 3, 2013

effect of the rules changes

Before this season, the NCAA instituted a very extensive set of rules changes for lacrosse.  It was probably the most extensive set of rules changes in any sport since, I would guess the new overtime rules in football, which are almost 20 years old now.  Certainly more so than the new bats in baseball.  I've been a vocal advocate of never ever instituting a shot clock for lacrosse, not even for a stall warning only (which is what they did for this year) because I figured it wasn't a great idea to put that burden on the judgment calls of the refs.  But now that a full season is over, or almost over, or over from our perspective anyway, how about a look to see what the effects of these changes really were?

Some of the rules were kind of invisible to the fan.  They tweaked the rules about stick stringing, which, OK, sure.  If you wanted to get into the stick, the one that a lot of people often have a burr up their butt about is the pinched heads, and there would be some that would celebrate if they were outlawed.  This little tweak to the rules, though, went almost totally unnoticed.

On faceoffs, a lot of changes were discussed but the main one that got through was that it became a 30-second penalty to have three faceoff violations in a half.  It seemed like an answer to a question nobody asked.  Anecdotally, I guess I noticed a couple times where a team had two violations and played tentative and lost some subsequent faceoffs, but was there a really quantifiable effect?  I'd say not really.  A 30-second penalty isn't much of a deterrent when you get down to it.  It's not all that common to score on those.  Simply not having the ball - which is the punishment for any violation - is more of a deterrent than the penalty, I think.

The other faceoff change was that on pre-whistle faceoff violations, the offending player was no longer required to leave play.  Which is fine.  I always thought it was a little bit of a silly exercise watching the FOGO guy execute the GO portion of his role as fast as his legs would let him while the offense prodded to see if it could find a fast break chance in the eight or so seconds they'd have before the defender hit the field.  Now the FOGO guy often has to play some lacrosse before he can sub off, which is a minor improvement to the play.

Restarts were another rather minor improvement.  Essentially the Steele Stanwick quick restart became legal.  Dude was always trying to get a step and more often than not would get away with it.  Now the rules encourage it instead of try to limit it, which is fine.  Goalies don't get a five-second grace period to mosey back to their nets, which makes them think twice about running to back up a shot and slightly speeds up the game.  Also fine.

Having more of an effect in the speed-things-up department is the abolition of the substitution horn.  To make up for that and throw the coaches a bone (no horn means less control, which coaches hate) the substitution box got bigger.  I tell you what, I did not miss that damn horn.  I've always liked the idea of having the best offensive and the best defensive players on the field at once, which the horn allowed you to do, but I'll bet it added 10 minutes to the game's elapsed time.  Still no quantifiable data that I've seen, but the combination of no horn, and faster (and more flexible) restarts meant that balls going out of bounds slowed down the game considerably less.

And then we have the one rule change that everyone was actually talking about: the shot clock.  The old keep-it-in rule on stall warnings was replaced with a 30-second shot clock, which would disappear only on a shot on goal (or hitting the post) or change of possession.  Lots of people proclaimed that this was really speeding up the game.  Announcers could hardly get through a game without declaring in a very satisfied manner that the stall warning shot clock was making a real difference.

Did it?  Kind of.  Used to be, the stall warning didn't actually end the possession; now, it practically guarantees the possession will end after 30 seconds.  Theoretically you could shoot on net and get a rebound, and the stall warning would be over, but that's rare.  Stall warnings basically end with either a turnover, save, or goal - and the goal is actually pretty rare too.  So possessions per game go up, right?  Actually, no.

According to both the numbers I have and the ones at Tempo Free Lax, possessions per game rose by a little over one.  Well, that's team possessions, so it's about two and a half.  Basically, each team has gotten one more possession this year than they did last year; it's nowhere near the greatly increased back-and-forth game envisioned by shot-clock proponents.

Possessions are only one way to measure pace, however; shots will also serve.  There are some that prefer shots as a measurement.  Shots are indeed up, and more so than possessions: this year has seen about five shots more per game than last year.  Scoring is up slightly too, though not so's you'd notice.  Teams are scoring an average of 10.24 goals per game, up from 9.92 last year.  That's not a real difference.

So what the shot clock has done is increase shooting as teams try to avoid the 30-second clock.  With good reason: it's proven exceedingly difficult to score once that happens.  I have only anecdotal evidence (i.e. from the games I've watched) but scoring with the 30-second clock on basically didn't happen.  So teams smartly want to avoid that, which means more shots - and worse ones.  Shooting percentage is down from 29% last year to 28% this year, which isn't a major gap, but it's there.  The drop occurred mostly at the bottom of the chain where games aren't being watched, though.  The best-shooting teams this year have similar shooting percentages to the best-shooting teams of last year.  Teams shooting worse than 25% increased from 5 in 2012 to 13 in 2013.

The lesson I take from this is that the shot clock as currently set up is a net success, but with a cautionary tale.  I do like that offenses are doing less hanging around.  I think everyone likes that.  The stall warning has a great deal more teeth than it used to.  However, once that stall warning hits - you know as the defense you're getting the ball back.  That's what it amounts to.  Nobody scores on stall warnings.  A good reason not to include a shot clock in regular play; the effects you see here would be compounded quite a bit and distorted to grotesque effects.  I think shooting percentage would plummet.  Shot clock proponents suggest that teams would go into fast breaks all the time because they'd want to avoid settled situations, but there are all kinds of reasons this is wrong.  If fast breaks were so easy to pull off, teams would use them more now.  Lacrosse coaches are no different from regular coaches: they're all risk-averse, and fast breaks are risky.  And we did see a few more fast breaks this year, if you believe the announcers, but the problem is many of them involved long-stick guys, and a long-stick guy on offense is a frightening sight, as apt to fail spectacularly as to be useful.

So have they found a good balance?  For now, I think so.  I haven't seen anything in these rule changes that've changed things for the worse; if I had to pick one I'd say the three faceoff violations thing, but that's more just unnecessary rather than deleterious.  Let's hope they leave things alone for a while and let us get a long-term look at the way the game settles down.

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