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Hot Potato: Why NBA Players Lob 'Grenades' to Teammates Before Time Expires

There's an epidemic across the league: Players sticking unsuspecting teammates with the ball only milliseconds before the shot clock or regulation time expires.

Tucked inside the Bucks’ torrid 7–0 start to the season, in between Giannis Antetokounmpo’s freaky dunks and Khris Middleton deep bombs, Brook Lopez was—momentarily—pissed.

Under new coach Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s offense has hummed on 27.0 assists per game—third in the NBA—a marked improvement from its 23.2 helpers a season ago. But with an 11-point victory over the Knicks already sealed, and only two seconds separating the game and shot clock, Lopez was none too pleased when Eric Bledsoe, after nearly 16 seconds of cradling the rock, dropped a ticking time bomb on the Bucks’ sharpshooting center. Splash Mountain slammed the ball towards the hardwood in dismay, beginning a walk off the court that would make George Michael Bluth blush.

The sometimes-contentious sequence commonly occurs at the end of lopsided affairs, when a moments-from-victory offense respectfully dribbles out its 24-second clock to avoid Kyrie Irving chucking their career-high game ball into the stands. Twitter connoisseur Rob Perez has deemed the phenomenon “The Ballbonic Plague,” an epidemic infecting unsuspecting teammates across the league. NBA players will milk the shot clock down to the final second before the horn, only to stick a teammate with possession as a 24-second violation occurs. No one wants the ball as the regulation game clock expires, either. 

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In fairness, the moment can also be benevolent. When the Sixers cruised to a 130–103 Game 1 victory against Miami in last year’s playoffs, T.J. McConnell gifted Markelle Fultz the game’s final touch, as a chorus of cheers rained down from the Philly faithful. The embattled rookie had scored five points with four assists and two rebounds in just 14 minutes off the bench. 

“Markelle had played a great game and I wanted him to get the ball,” McConnell explains. “I had gotten in like two minutes prior. I wanted to kind of get Markelle that fanfare.”

Typically, however, the NBA’s version of hot potato is a sadistic crime. In January, at the conclusion of the Hornets’ blowout victory at Sacramento in the 2017–18 season, Malik Monk and Julyan Stone perniciously stick Treveon Graham with the ball with just 1.4 seconds remaining before the clock flashed zeros.

Why is this evil infiltrating NBA chemistry? “People thought it was going to be a turnover,” Graham says, chuckling. Here’s the catch: According to the league office, a shot clock violation has officially resulted in a team turnover, not an individual player’s turnover, for as long as anyone can remember. “Oh! A lot of players don’t know that,” Graham, now with Brooklyn, says upon learning this fact. “I didn’t know that.”

The incident falls under an even sharper microscope in half-court offense, when a player pounds the ball until the weening milliseconds before the shot clock sounds, only to strand a teammate with the hottest of potatoes. “We call those grenades,” says Pacers forward Thaddeus Young. Like when a hustling, does-the-little-things, locker room guy saves a loose ball, only to scramble into a double-covered floater. 

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“I’m obviously not an iso guy,” Young says. “If there are three or four seconds left on the shot clock, you better not pass me that s---.” Again, players are simply unaware that shot clock violations do not negatively impact their personal stat line. Yet all are painfully aware of the existence of grenades and the ire they can inspire. Don’t even think about dropping a grenade on Rockets forward P.J. Tucker. “Dog…” Tucker says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter when you get it. It could be the first play or the last play.”

LeBron James lobbed a grenade at Lonzo Ball on Sunday in Miami.

Blazers swingman Mo Harkless sat on Evan Turner’s grenade against the Warriors in the 2017 postseason.

When Kawhi Leonard was still a burgeoning two-way star in San Antonio, even the game’s greatest defensive talent fell victim to grenades.

“It’s one of those things where, a lot of times, too, when they give it up, the other guy doesn’t know the shot clock,” Tucker says. “So when he gets it, he don’t know it’s a grenade.” Leonard’s ignorance—assuming Tim Duncan's miss had grazed iron—in the below clip is certainly not bliss:

“If it happens, people are just like, ‘What the f---?’” McConnell says. The Sixers’ point guard was also uninformed of the team turnover vs. individual blackmark. “People don’t realize that. And they don’t want to take a terrible shot, too.” 

So why not just sit on the ball and let the clock expire? Your shooting percentage doesn’t dip and your defense can retreat and set itself. “But then the coaches are like, ‘What are you doing?’” McConnell says. “It’s not a lose-lose, but you don’t want to look like an idiot taking a bad shot, but you probably should instead of forcing it to another teammate.”

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“What a player should do is let the pass go out of bounds,” jokes Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch. “That way the turnover is on the grenade thrower and not on him.” When the shot clock reaches five seconds, most coaching staffs will yell a signal like “butter” to affirm their teams are aware of the melting possession. Coaches also drill how to respond to a grenade-induced wild shot, which often sparks a long rebound and leaves teams susceptible to transition buckets. If a player consistently doles out grenades, he will almost certainly get a talking to. But as long as grenades aren’t disrupting team chemistry, coaches understand players have never been more scrutinized, with efficiency numbers factoring into players' salaries now more than ever. 

McConnell can't recall the exact sequence, but remembers firing a wild, before-the-buzzer shot early in his rookie year, a veteran later thanking him on the bench for eating the grenade on behalf of the team. It seems the majority of role players take the detonation in jest. “When you see the videos you just kind of laugh about it," McConnell says. Adds Graham: "It's a shot. It's not the biggest thing in the world." But take this as a public service announcement for all 450 NBA players: Maintaining the ball as the shot clock sounds is not a blemish in your box score.