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Basketball players richly rewarded for selfishness in playoffs

Money trips up teamwork in NBA championship tournament

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8:30am, May 2, 2014

SCORING DOLLARS  Basketball selfishness, defined as a high ratio of field goals to assists, increases in the NBA playoffs, thanks in large part to financial rewards for prodigious individual scoring in the championship tournament, a new study suggests.

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Expect solid team play to suffer in the ongoing National Basketball Association playoffs. Teamwork declines relative to the regular season, perhaps because players earn bigger future paychecks when they play selfishly in the playoffs, scoring points rather than ensuring their team wins, a new study suggests.

Dishing the ball to teammates who have open shots ups the chances of winning NBA playoff games, but team cooperation of that kind actually declines in the championship tournament, Eric Uhlmann of HEC Paris School of Management and Christopher Barnes of the University of Washington in Seattle report April 24 in PLOS ONE.

Players may be reacting to simple economics: Those who rack up a lot of points are rewarded with more lucrative future contracts than those who frequently pass the ball to teammates who then score, an action counted as an assist. Uhlmann and Barnes estimate that every field goal scored by a player during the NBA playoffs increases his future salary by an average of $22,044.55, while every playoff assist decreases future earnings by an average of $6,116.69.

“Assists are incompatible with personal scoring, so they lead to lower pay,” Uhlmann says. “There is an incentive to shoot instead of pass in the NBA playoffs, even at the cost of team success.”

The study highlights a decline in assists during the playoffs, remarks business professor and teamwork researcher Christopher Porter of Indiana University in Indianapolis. But other forms of cooperative play in basketball were not accounted for, including helping teammates on defense and, on offense, screening out defenders to give teammates open shots. Moral support and instructions among players also provide crucial help in basketball, Porter says.

Uhlmann and Barnes analyzed statistics for all 30 NBA teams from the 2004–2005 through the 2012–2013 seasons. The researchers measured cooperative team play as the ratio of field goals — baskets made other than free throws — to assists. High numbers of field goals per assist indicated selfish play; low ratios reflected substantial teamwork.

That measure, along with a statistical adjustment for the number of turnovers caused by opponents, helped the researchers control for the pace of games and the intensity of defensive play.

In playoff games, the more cooperative team tended to win, the researchers found. That advantage was smaller in regular season games, possibly because stiffer playoff competition demands greater teamwork, Uhlmann suggests.

The researchers also examined labor contracts signed by 131 NBA players following the 2003–2004 and 2004–2005 seasons. Field goals and assists for these players were tracked, controlling for variables including number of minutes played and number of turnovers committed.

The link between individuals’ scoring totals in the playoffs and ensuing salary hikes supports the notion that team owners and coaches value players who boost television viewership, fill stadiums and sell merchandise, Uhlmann says. These factors may be as important to owners and coaches as winning championships. An emphasis on individual scoring in big games may have started in the late 1980s as NBA players’ salaries skyrocketed, he says.

As to the players’ motives to increase selfish play, Uhlmann and Barnes suspect that a focus on scoring over assists proves contagious in the playoffs. No one wants to be suckered into feeding money-making field goals to others and getting none in return.

Coaches and players probably expect star performers such as the Miami Heat’s LeBron James to take more shots than usual in playoff games, although that’s not necessarily a winning strategy, Porter says. James, for one, seems to know the limitations of a one-man show and frequently lets teammates take last-second shots in close games, he observes. “Last time I checked, LeBron wasn’t hurting for cash.”  

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