Less than three weeks before the NBA playoffs, the Indiana Pacers couldn’t get their offense to stay hot. Center Roy Hibbert was clearly frustrated, muttering after a particularly depressing loss: "Some selfish dudes in here ... I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month."
Well, the Pacers did end up in the playoffs, but sportswriters seem to think that selfishness will doom them. And while it’s a widespread sports axiom that teamwork wins championships, the “hero ball” attitude—complete disregard for teammates in favor of individual glory—is plaguing the league.
New research published in PLoS One reveals just how perverse the NBA system is when it comes to rewarding individual performance over team play.
On the mind-boggling side of things, NBA players are actually paid $6,116.69 less for every assist they make.
Researchers conducted three statistical analyses to test how teamwork affects game play. First, they collected data on assists per field goal of NBA teams from 2004 to 2013, which they used as a measure of teamwork. They found that teams generally exhibited a significant decline in teamwork, or fewer assists per field goal, “in the high-stakes context of the playoffs in comparison to the regular season.” Classic hero ball.
That’s bad news because the stats show that teams exhibiting more teamwork are more likely to win during the playoffs—a lesson Phil Jackson and the Lakers learned painfully during the 2004 finals.
Surprisingly, though, the effect did not hold true for regular-season games.
So why are NBA players so selfish if it means they'll lose playoff games? Researchers examined contracts signed from 2003 to 2005 and compared salary to individual field goals and assists
As you might expect, players are paid more based on how many field goals they make. How much? A whopping $22,044.55 per field goal scored.
On the mind-boggling side of things, NBA players are actually paid $6,116.69 less for every assist they make. But it’s not the direct effect of GMs looking at the “assists” column and thinking, “Let’s pay this guy less.” By its very definition, the assist is a sacrificial move—the player with the ball in his hands relinquishes his opportunity to score by passing to another teammate, who scores in his stead. The stats indicate that players with more assists are paid less because they also score less.
Of course, assists per field goal is not the singular measure of teamwork. Some statisticians are fond of the plus/minus stat, which measures how well a team does when a player is on the court versus on the bench. Good defense isn’t easy to measure, but it’s essential to a well-rounded team. And, of course, there’s the cheering-from-the-bench element.
Researchers also point out that the NBA stats may represent our national culture of awarding individualism and downplaying collectivism. The findings might not apply to basketball leagues in China, Japan, or India, for instance.
It’s a different way to look at the game, though. The next time you’re screaming at a player to pass to a teammate, imagine $6,000 leaving his hands along with that basketball.