This is the part of year where I have the time to laboriously explore a single topic at my own pace and you have the time to read about it. Welcome to the 2016 Summer Series. This off-season I will be digging into the issue of foul trouble.

Many smart people (mostly non-coaches) believe that benching a star player due to foul trouble is a bad idea. And many smart people (mostly coaches) believe that believe that benching a star player due to foul trouble is a good idea. It is one of the more vexing strategic issues of the sport.

Unlike similar issues in other sports – whether to go for it on 4th down in football, when to pull the goalie in hockey, or just about anything in baseball – there hasn’t been much data-driven work on this issue. The major strategic issues in other sports are able to be analyzed in a way that the motivated human can understand. And those issues have well-accepted solutions that are supported by solid research. 

The relative lack of work on foul trouble is at least partly because there are a lot of moving parts to this problem. As a coach, you want to maximize a player’s impact on the chance of winning. Having your best player unavailable for the closing minutes of a tight game can be a big handicap. But sitting a star player for too long early in the game can render the closing minutes meaningless as the opponent increases its lead.

There’s also the issue of a player losing effectiveness while in foul trouble. The foul-troubled player is typically going to avoid picking up another and that would figure to limit his effectiveness. And all of these decisions are made against the backdrop of just how foul prone the player is anyway and what is available on the bench. Other things may need to be considered as well, such as the relative skill level of the competing teams and the score of the game.

So I don’t want to mislead you – it’s unlikely that my upcoming series of posts will end with a grand proclamation on how to handle foul trouble. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but given the variables involved and how much interaction there is between those variables, just getting to a point where we can understand what might affect a coach’s decision would be a step forward. You’d really need some sort of basketball simulator to get close to the right answer, and once you’ve created that, you can basically solve any basketball problem you can think of. And that would be a ridiculous thing to promise.

But this is also the rare strategic issue in basketball where an analytical approach figures to be superior to gut instinct. I have to admit that this is a large reason why I’d be opposed to changing the existing personal foul limit. The argument against the current rule is that basketball is the rare sport that disqualifies its players due to the accumulation of common fouls. And you’d like to have the best players available at all times. However, it adds an element of strategy where the best approach is difficult to evaluate with our puny human brains. Even in the sparse academic discussion of the topic, it’s not difficult to find conflicting viewpoints.

There’s a tendency to be critical of how coaches rush to bench players that get into foul trouble. On the one hand, I can sympathize with the critics. While I don’t know the right answer, the tendency for coaches, or even people in general, is to prefer a strategy that postpones losing over one than maximizes the chance of winning.

An example that comes to mind in college hoops is an end-game scenario where a team trails by four or five. Conventional wisdom says the trailing team should take the “easy two”. But history shows that teams attempting a three in that situation win more often. Of course, the three is a lower percentage shot and if you miss it, the game is likely over. The easy two is never as easy as it sounds, but it’s more likely to be successful than a three, and if you make it, you’ve postponed losing a little while. However, in terms of improving one’s chance of winning, the extra point on a three-point shot is worth the trade-off in shooting percentage.

On the flip side, I think coaches are pretty good at their jobs in aggregate. I’d like to believe that over time, the coaching consensus on how to handle foul trouble has evolved towards the optimal approach. Wisdom of crowds and all that. With such a disparity in resources across college basketball’s 351 teams, all sorts of diverse approaches are used by coaches. Yet every single one limits a starter’s participation when they pick up a second foul in the first half. I love a contrarian argument, but it stretches reason to think that all of them could be wrong.

Then again, basketball coaches could be wrong in the same way that every college football coach is too conservative on fourth down. And even if coaches are on the mark on average, there is at least some diversity in how they handle foul trouble. You’ll find a lot of room between gentlemen like Tom Izzo and Tony Bennett, who employ the auto-bench for two first-half fouls, and Jim Boeheim and Bryce Drew who are pretty liberal about letting guys play through it. But who’s right? Maybe all of them are correct given certain circumstances, or maybe none of them are.

Don’t expect the Summer Series to provide a definitive answer, but hopefully when the season starts we’ll have a better handle on the variables involved.