Can the NBA Change How it Values Inefficient Scoring?

Readers of Stumbling on Wins – and The Wages of Wins – will find the following story from Kevin Arnovitz (of TrueHoop) to be extremely familiar (I am posting the entire Arnovitz column):

Last night at Staples Center, the Clippers lost their 20th game in 24 outings. There is no shortage of factors to explain just how miserable the Clippers have been over the past six weeks: The departure of Marcus Camby, nagging injuries to key players, an interim coach pacing the sidelines.

But one reason that players, coaches and management continue to cite is the unusual number of players on the roster with expiring contracts. After the Clippers’ 117-94 loss to Dallas, interim head coach Kim Hughes tried to account for his team’s careless play:

In late-season scenarios when you have as many free agents as we do, human nature takes effect sometimes. They look for points instead of the team first. That bothered me tonight. We had some guys looking for points too much. That should never occur, but it did occur. It’s not right, but it did happen. It’s not the way I like to play basketball, but when you have as many free agents as we do, I think it’s going to happen at times.

I don’t doubt the veracity of Hughes’ comments. Anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to spend a substantial portion of their life over the past two months watching Hughes’ team can affirm what he’s saying. There are a bunch of guys on the Clippers roster who, at times, have acted as personal mercenaries, throwing up shots without even pretending to survey the floor for other opportunities. The substance of what Hughes and others around the team are saying is correct, but the underlying premise is problematic. The implication here is that a guy should play a losing brand of basketball in order to advance his career.

Consider that for a second.

In an effort to secure more money in the free agency market, players are jacking up shots with impunity, presumably to tally more points, irrespective of how efficiently those points are scored. The Clippers, who resided comfortably among the Top 5 teams in assist rate for much of the season, have plummeted in that category over the past few weeks. Hughes says that human nature is driving players’ motivation to score points at the expense of team-oriented play. But in a rational universe, shouldn’t a team composed of players looking to get paid be more efficient? Shouldn’t human nature intuitively drive a player in search of a fat contract to show off the full breadth of his game to potential buyers?

Unfortunately, NBA free agency isn’t a very rational market. Points per game and scoring in general are still the gold standards when sizing up available players. With a few possible exceptions — those teams have been enumerated here at TrueHoop — those are the stats tossed out during negotiations between agents and management.

Until teams start utilizing smarter data to approximate a player’s value in free agency — things like efficiency stats, true shooting percentage, tools that measure defense — expect more unwatchable basketball from teams whose players have paydays as their primary motivations.

Let me add one observation… The Wages of Wins briefly made the Hughes free agents argument in 2006.  Stumbling on Wins goes beyond the free agent market and emphasizes how scoring totals drive a number of other player evaluations (allocation of minutes, the NBA draft, voting for awards). So we can understand why players choose to fire up ill-advised shots.  What Hughes is arguing, though, is that decision-makers in the NBA – the very decision-makers in the NBA who reward inefficient scoring – know the impact the over-valuation of scoring has on player behavior.  So why can’t these very same decision-makers just stop themselves from over-valuing inefficient scoring?  Clearly the players don’t think the decision-makers can stop themselves.  Going forward it will be interesting to see when (or if) the valuation of NBA players changes. 

By the way, I only wish Kevin would have posted this story before we finished our book.  It’s really a story that belongs in Stumbling on Wins.

- DJ

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