Is Ben Wallace Shirking?

Ben Wallace – relative to the old Big Ben we saw in Detroit, Orlando, and Washington – is not producing much this season for Chicago. Is he shirking?

Here is the first sentence from a paper Tony Krautmann (DePaul University) and I published in Economic Inquiry last summer.

Opportunistic behavior can arise in the employment relationship between a principal (the employer) and agent (the employee) when the labor contract is incomplete or when the principal is unable to distinguish shirking behavior from below-average realizations of a stochastic process.

For those not accustomed to reading journal articles in economics, let me translate: When workers take money without trying to produce, economists say that worker is “shirking.” And workers can take money without working whenever employers can’t tell the difference between not trying and bad luck. We see this in academia when professors take money from colleges and universities without publishing. We also think we see this in sports.

In the article we offer the case of Vin Baker, a player who appeared in four NBA All-Star games from 1995 to 1998, was named to the All-NBA second team in 1998, and won an Olympic gold medal in 2000. After signing an $87 million contract in 1999, Baker’s per game scoring went from 16.6 points for the 1999–2000 campaign to 12.2 in 2000–2001. For the 2002–2003 campaign he averaged only 5.2 points per contest. What explains this rapid decline in performance? According to Paul Westphal (Baker’s head coach from 1999 to 2001), Baker’s decline was caused by a ‘‘lack of professionalism off the court.”

Vin Baker is currently not employed by an NBA team. Ben Wallace, though, is an employee of the Chicago Bulls and currently in the first year of a $60 million contract. Basketball-Reference.com reports that Big Ben was paid about $36 million over the first nine years of his career. So the four-year contract he signed with Chicago is clearly a significant increase in pay for Wallace. Given his age, this contract will likely be the last contract Wallace will sign in the NBA. And since this money is guaranteed, whether Wallace produces or not he will still get paid. Hence, all these circumstances might lead one to ask what incentive Big Ben has to play very hard for Chicago.

Through 13 games this year Wallace has posted a Wins Produced per 48 minutes of 0.223. A mark of 0.100 is average, so Wallace would be described as “very good.” Thus if we compare Wallace to the average NBA player it is hard to believe he is shirking.

Wallace, though, has always been far above average. After his first two seasons – when he played less than 20 minutes per contest – Wallace has posted a WP48 in excess of 0.300 every single year. Given what he did for his three previous employers, the Bulls must wonder what happened.

Shirking may not be the only explanation. Wallace might be getting old. Or his troubles with his new coach might also be causing his decline in productivity.

It is important to note that, despite what the stories of Baker and Wallace might suggest, Tony and I failed to find much evidence of shirking in the NBA. Our study looked at player performance after a player signed a long term contract in the NBA. Controlling for such factors as injury, age, coaching, roster stability, and quality of teammates, we were unable to find systematic evidence that signing a long-term contract leads to less productivity. So in general, NBA players do not slack off after the guaranteed money starts rolling in.

Of course, that is the result in general. What is true in general for a population may not be true for each and every member of the population. So Wallace might be still be shirking.

Even if that is the case, Wallace is not the sole cause of Chicago’s disappointing performance thus far. Given what these players did last year, the Bulls should be closer to 9-4 as opposed to 4-9. In addition to Wallace performing poorly, we also see declines in the production of Andres Nocioni and Ben Gordon. Gordon’s decline is especially perplexing since his consistently poor play in the NBA suggested he could not perform much worse.

It is important to remember that our sample is only 13 games. And these 13 games were against an especially brutal collection of opponents. So by the end of the season the thought of Wallace shirking might seem quite laughable (heck, it might even be quite laughable today).

I should close by disclosing that Ben Wallace is on my fantasy team. And if he doesn’t starting getting me the rebounds and blocked shots I need, I will not hesitate to bench him. Hopefully just knowing that will get him playing again.

– DJ

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