June 02, 2004

Three Point Play

by Nick Morgan

One particularly important bit of wisdom I've gained as a summer associate is that being a Lakers fan is prerequisite to making partner at the firm where I work. This puts me at a special disadvantage because my general interest in sports is on par with my interest in drooling. But once I made an effort to say something about basketball, in my law-geeky sort of way, it occurred to me that the "three point play" rule is a rather interesting compromise between deterrence and compensation rationales of doing justice. (If you're already laughing, do yourself a favor and skip the rest of this post.)

For those of you who don't know what a three point play is: ordinarily players who are fouled when attempting a shot are given two chances to make free throw shots (each worth one point). The idea is to give the fouled player something like the opportunity he may have had but for the foul. However, if the fouled player makes his attempted shot anyhow, he still gets one (instead of two) opportunity at the free throw line. Ideally, a player would score three points (two from the original shot and one from the free throw); hence "three point play."

But why should the fouled player who makes a shot get a chance to score one more point? His opportunity to score was fulfilled. On the other hand, why shouldn't he get two additional free throws? The person who fouled him did the same wrong, and presumably there's the same need to deter would-be-foulers. I suppose it may be the case that successful fouled shooters get only one free throw because they are less likely to have been fouled flagrantly, but I prefer to think that the rule picked a convenient compromise between competing rationales of addressing foul play in the game.

June 2, 2004 11:22 PM | TrackBack

To throw more gasoline on this fire, what about the theory of the "efficient foul"? Late game tactics often dictate the fouling of good players in order to prevent the perceived greater possibility of a two-point score. The fouling team trades its player's foul count for a possible net gain of one point on a missed free throw (or even two, if the player misses both free throw opportunities). Thus, a wrong is committed and a penalty exacted, but this is the prefered way to play.

Ah, more foul theory! Another way to look at it is that fouling may simply carry high transaction costs, as the teams would endlessly debate the possibility of scoring, or the propriety of particular contact. Privately negotiated remedies under a property rule would never occur. Thus, since the first Coase theorem fails, the league has adopted a liability rule and basketball teams may happily complete their contests in an efficient manner and raise the fans' enjoyment quotient.

They should rename this sport "efficiency ball."

Posted by: Matto Ichiban at June 3, 2004 01:45 AM

Shaquille O'Neil often looks as though he is touching a basketball for the first time when attempting to make a free throw. Perhaps he lacks concentration at the line, thinking instead of the various foul theories explaining why he is there taking the shots.

Posted by: Sean S at June 3, 2004 02:08 AM

I am thoroughly amused in the nerdiest possible way at both your theories.

Posted by: Nick Morgan at June 3, 2004 02:51 AM

To complete your thesis, consider the 4 point play.

Also, does this tie-into "fowl" play suggested by you in an earlier post on crude dining prizes?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at June 3, 2004 08:05 AM
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