Posted by Neil Paine on July 6, 2010
I didn't see this back in April, but an econ blog called The Leisure of the Theory Class had several posts about the underlying philosophy behind benching players who are in "foul trouble":
ESPN's Eamonn Brennan also had a reaction here. The basic premise (one which I happen to strongly agree with) is that by benching a player on pace to foul out before the end of the game, a coach has voluntarily exacted the very same penalty -- not being able to use the player -- that he's afraid of having happen if the player fouls out. In other words, the coach is so afraid of something that might happen at the end of the game (Player X getting his 6th foul), he's willing to guarantee that the player doesn't play a certain amount of time in the middle of the game -- often more time than the player would have missed if he had not been subbed out!
Obviously, there are more complexities to the argument than that, so you should read both posts (and the comments). But the core idea remains that coaches: 1) overestimate the "risk" of leaving a star in, 2) overvalue the final minutes of the game at the expense of minutes in quarters 1-3, and consequently 3) give themselves a harsher penalty in the middle of the game than the one they're afraid of the referees giving them in the 4th quarter.