The Wisdom of Red Auerbach

About ten days ago I posted a comment on Red Auerbach at The Sports Economist. I am not sure the readers of The Wages of Wins Journal also read what we write at The Sports Economist, so I thought I would repeat my comments on Auerbach in this forum.

Legendary basketball coach Red Auerbach passed away last Saturday. In reading and watching about his life on Sunday I was struck by his take on the game of basketball. Consider the following from a biographical sketch posted at ESPN.com.

Auerbach didn’t focus on the individuals on his teams. He looked at the “whole package.” While many of his players were outstanding, the Celtics were the first organization to popularize the concept of the role player. “That’s a player who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done in order to make the whole package fly,” Auerbach said.
…. Auerbach said that the Celtics represent a philosophy that in its simplest form maintains that victory belongs to the team. “Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them,” he said. “We have never had the league’s top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league’s top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics.”

Auerbach also bemoaned in an interview broadcast on ESPN Classic that the focus of today’s players is on statistics, as opposed to winning. In Auerbach’s view, Bill Russell was a great player because he didn’t obsess on his own statistics, but rather sacrificed his stats so the team could win.

If we look at Russell’s career, though, Auerbach’s viewpoint seems a bit hard to understand. Russell averaged 22.5 rebound per game in his career. Only Wilt Chamberlain bested this mark. From what I can tell, rebounds are a stat. And clearly Russell must have thought these to be important to spend his time on the court capturing so many.

Russell did average a mere 15 point per contest, and looking over Auerbach’s quote it does appear that for Auerbach statistics meant scoring. And Russell, as Auerbach claimed, did not appear to focus on scoring.

One wonders, though, if Auerbach’s view with respect to players today is correct. Do players today put scoring ahead of winning?

Economics teaches that people respond to incentives. What incentives do players face in the NBA? Certainly players would prefer winning to losing. But players probably also prefer getting paid more to less. And when we investigate what determines pay in the NBA we see that Auerbach was on to something.

Economists have offered numerous studies examining what determines wages in the NBA over the past two decades. Most of these investigations were designed to measure the prevalence of racial discrimination in The Association. Although the results with respect to race are quite mixed, these studies did return one clear finding. The primary determinant of pay in the NBA is scoring. And factors like shooting efficiency, rebounds, and turnovers – all factors that impact wins — were not found consistently to lead to higher wages. No, the basic finding is that the more a player scores, the more likely he will score a big payday (for a quick summary of this research and other NBA findings one can look HERE).

Regression results are nice, but one can illustrate this finding by just looking at the highest paid players in the NBA. CBS Sportline – via hoopshype.com – reported the thirty highest paid players in the NBA this season.

It is interesting to note what these players do well. Looking at the career per-minute averages of these players (through the 2005-06 season and adjusted for the position these players have played), we see that 67% are above average with respect to shooting efficiency. With respect to rebounds, 70% are above average. For turnovers and steals, 30% and 40% are above average (turnovers are a negative stat, so this means 30% were below the average at their position).

When we turn to scoring, though, we see that 93% are above average scorers. The two exceptions – Brian Grant and Joe Johnson – may have career scoring averages that are below the mean, but scoring is still a part of their stories. When Grant signed the contract that gave him his major payday he had a career scoring average above the mean for his position. Johnson has a similar story. He was not a prolific scorer early in his career, but the year before he signed his major payday he was also above average.

Perhaps no player illustrates the focus on scoring more than Allan Houston. In his career Houston was below average with respect to every statistical category except points scored and shooting efficiency. Except for these two stats, he did nothing else well. Yet he received more than $100 million in his career to play NBA basketball.

Certainly NBA coaches, like Auerbach, are aware that rebounds, shooting efficiency, and taking care of the ball are important. But players can see that the highest paid are the scorers. And players also see that the money still comes even if they perform poorly with respect to many of the other parts of the game Auerbach knew led to wins and championships.

So next time you see a player focus more on how many touches he has and less on winning, remember the incentives the players face. And ask yourself, what would you rather do, collect millions or win a basketball game?

- DJ

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