The NBA season is almost underway, but winning games is not all that basketball players think about on the court. There’s another game within the game.
To understand this second game, consider a recent comment from Kevin Love. This past off-season, Love left the Minnesota Timberwolves for the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he’ll play with LeBron James. Although playing with LeBron was Love’s choice, he also notes it comes with a “sacrifice,” Love said. “I think it’s going to have to be an effort throughout the entire team to do what’s best for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And we don’t know what that is really yet. But I’m going to do what’s best for this team to win, because at the end of the day that’s what we want, is to win.”
To understand what Love means by “sacrifice,” let’s think about some recent comments from Chris Bosh. For the past four years, Bosh was LeBron’s teammate in Miami. Across these four years, Bosh was paid $67.1 million and won two NBA titles. To put that in perspective, in the previous four seasons Bosh was paid $46.9 million and saw his team win a total of just three playoff games (and not one playoff series). Despite this record, Bosh argued he essentially went hungry playing with LeBron:
“You just get your entree and that’s it. It’s like, wait a minute, I need my appetizer and my dessert and my drink, what are you doing? And my bread basket. What is going on? I’m hungry! It’s a lot different. But if you can get through it, good things can happen. But it never gets easy. Even up until my last year of doing it, it never gets easier.”
Bosh’s comments were referring to — and this is also the focus of Love’s comments — shot attempts and scoring totals. With LeBron as a teammate, Bosh averaged 13.0 field goal attempts and 17.3 points per game. In the four seasons before coming to Miami, Bosh averaged 16.0 field goal attempts and 22.9 points per game.
Remember, Bosh got to win in Miami. And he got paid more money. But he went “hungry” because his shot attempts and scoring declined. And Love – who averaged 17.1 field goal attempts and 23.5 points per game in the last four years in Minnesota – expects that he will also “sacrifice” shot attempts and points in playing with LeBron.
The academic research makes it clear why players should care about shot attempts and scoring. Published studies show, of all the box score statistics, points scored (per minute or per game) is the most important determinant of:
- where a player is selected in the NBA draft
- how many votes a player receives from NBA coaches (coaches voted for this award before 2014) for the NBA’s All-Rookie teams
- how many votes a player receives from the sports media in selecting the NBA’s most valuable player
A similar story is told when looking at how much playing time a player receives. The rules of the game indicate that the primary box score statistic dictating minutes is personal fouls. But according to Stumbling on Wins (a book I co-authored with Martin Schmidt), of the remaining box score stats, it is points per minute that primarily determine how often a player actually is on the court.
And despite Bosh’s recent experience, player pay is also about scoring. A large collection of academic studies have shown that points scored – more than any other box score statistic – dominates how much money an NBA player receives. In sum, it seems that every evaluation a player faces in basketball is dictated by how many points the player scores. So it’s not surprising that players regard it as a “sacrifice” when they are asked to score less.
It should be emphasized, though, that a player’s production of points isn’t the same as his production of wins. Wins in the NBA are determined by the team’s ability to gain and keep possession of the ball (i.e., turnovers, steals and rebounds) and the team’s ability to convert those possessions into points (i.e., shooting efficiency).
Scoring totals are certainly increased by a player’s shooting efficiency. But as Bosh and Love know, scoring totals are also determined by shot attempts. And this is where the game within the game is played. Shot attempts are a finite resource and are generally not “created” by players. If fact, the numbers suggest that these attempts are really just “taken” from teammates. One of my favorite examples illustrating this story is what happened when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in 2011. With Anthony, the Nuggets averaged 80.0 field goal attempts per game, with Anthony taking 19.3 of these attempts. Once Anthony went to the Knicks, the Nuggets averaged 82.2 field goal attempts per game (and actually saw their shooting efficiency increase).
A somewhat similar story is told when LeBron left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. In the 2009-10 season – with LeBron on the roster – the Cavaliers averaged 77.9 field goal attempts per game. Without LeBron the next season, the Cavaliers averaged 81.1 field goal attempts per game. Unfortunately for Cleveland, although the team shot more without LeBron, the team’s shooting efficiency also declined significantly.
So without LeBron, the Cavalier players got to take more shots. But they also won 42 fewer games. Much of this can actually be traced to LeBron. Not only does LeBron produce wins by shooting efficiently, he also is a very good passer. And these passes enhance the shooting efficiency of his teammates (this is something Anthony does not do as well).
That means that when you play with LeBron, you get to win more often. But because a player loses shot attempts to LeBron (his career average is 19.9 field goal attempts per game), his teammates give up shot attempts and scoring.
All of this highlights the game within the game in the NBA. Yes, players prefer winning to losing. But players are also rewarded for scoring. Since a team’s shot attempts are finite, players are also competing with each other for opportunities to score. When that competition is lost, players are unhappy. And this is true even if a player is paid millions and wins titles.
It should be emphasized that the second competition – over shot attempts – can undermine a team’s ability to win the first competition (i.e., win the game). Passing the ball helps a team win. But since players are rewarded most for scoring, they actually have an incentive to pass less. So next time you see an NBA star launch an ill-advised shot rather than make the obvious pass, you should remember: players are not just rewarded by winning games, they are also rewarded when they win the other game within the game.
David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the lead author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins and continues to serve on the editorial board of both Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance.