Searching for Role Players

One question I am occasionally asked is why an economist spends his time studying the NBA. Obviously this gives me a good excuse to watch and talk about the Association. But is there any real academic value?

My answer – when I am being serious (which isn’t often) – is that the NBA provides an excellent place to study how economic actors evaluate and utilize information. And as we note in The Wages of Wins , this study has shown that economic actors in the NBA make systematic errors. Specifically, teams tend to over-value scoring and under-value other aspects of player productivity. So in a small way we think we made a contribution to our understanding of economics.

Of course our work doesn’t just have value for economists. For those working in the NBA and/or just following the league, our work has highlighted the importance of role players. This point has been made frequently in this forum, but most explicitly in the following posts.

Star Power and the Washington Wizards

The Knicks and Team Chemistry

Team USA and the Importance of Role Playing

Isiah Thomas Discovers Role Players

An Allen Iverson Comment

Scorers and Role Players in the NBA

Last Thursday, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop told the same story. In a post entitled Seeking Role Players in a Star System, Abbott noted that the NBA’s pre-draft camps are primarily about finding role players.

What teams are shopping for are complementary players. Role players. Guys who can fit in to the team’s larger goals, while contributing very specific things. Playing really good perimeter defense and hitting the occasional three, for instance. Rebounding and blocking shots without getting the ball much. Players who can shine without the spotlight, and who will not be a disturbance in the locker room if they don’t get a lot of minutes.

These are guys who might play 15 years without scoring 30 points, or faking someone out of their socks.

The teams that win titles every year all have fat supplies of highly effective role players. Consider that the Spurs just waltzed to the NBA Finals getting long minutes from the likes of Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Fabricio Oberto, Jacque Vaughn, and Francisco Elson.

I talked to ESPN’s David Thorpe, who is in Orlando, and he points out that you could stick any of those Spurs I just mentioned in the pre-draft camp, and no one watching would be certain that they were sure-fire NBA players. Because they just do not have the skills to thrive in this hyper, ball-hog, show-your-moves environment.

But they are, in all likelihood, about to be key players on a championship team.

Weird, huh? You practically have to be a star to make the NBA. But then once you get there, the star jobs are almost all filled, so in most cases you then have to learn to be a role player. (No wonder so many NBA players are grumpy.)

Wouldn’t it be smarter to develop, nurture, and evaluate who will make the best role players?

Let me try and answer this question. Yes, it would be smarter to develop the best role players, but the incentives created by the NBA’s decision-makers hinder this action.

Coaches since Red Auerbach have noted the value of non-scorers. But the front offices of the NBA continue to pay most of the major contracts to the scorers. The media also gives most of its attention to the scorers. Hence players learn that their income and fame are maximized when they score, not when they do all the other things necessary to win.

The value in metrics like Wins Produced (or Wayne Winston’s and Jeff Sagarin’s plus-minus approach) is that attention is shined on the non-scorers (in contrast, metrics like NBA Efficiency and the Player Efficiency Rating re-enforce the bias towards scorers).

With metrics that quantify the value of role players, NBA coaches – who know the game is not just about scorers – might be able to get others in The Association to align the incentives of the players with the objective of the coaches – i.e. winning basketball games. At least, one hopes that having objective evidence that role players do indeed contribute to wins might force people to increase The Wages of Wins of such players (how is that for working the title into a sentence?).

– DJ

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