Basketball Teams Play More Selfishly During Playoffs

By Elizabeth Preston | April 29, 2014 10:22 am

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There may not be an “I” in “team” but there are two in “championship,” and basketball players going after one of those play more selfishly. That’s what researchers found when they analyzed nine seasons’ worth of NBA games. Players who hog the ball might have the right idea—every shot they make leads to a higher salary in the next year.

The study was undertaken by two management professors, Eric Uhlmann of HEC Paris and Christopher Barnes of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. They crunched numbers for all 30 NBA teams between 2004 and 2013, from the regular season through the playoffs, which every team except one* reached at some point.

For each game, they measured “cooperative play” by calculating the ratio of assists to baskets made. This way, a higher- or lower-scoring game wouldn’t affect the measurement. They also controlled for the number of turnovers in the game, so that it wouldn’t matter if a game was against a tougher opponent. (More on that shortly.)

When comparing the regular season to the postseason, Uhlmann and Barnes found that cooperation dropped during the playoffs. There were significantly more assists per made basket in the regular season than there were during the playoffs.

Looking at each team’s wins and losses, the researchers also found that teams playing more cooperatively in the playoffs had more success. But— “unexpectedly,” the authors write—the same relationship didn’t quite hold up in the regular season.

It seems possible that teams facing harder matchups (as they do in the playoffs) don’t have as much freedom to pass the ball around the court. Against a tough defense, they might have to rely more than usual on, say, one guy muscling his way over several defenders for an awkward layup. Uhlmann says he and Barnes accounted for turnovers “to control for intensity of play.” But a defense could force an opposing team to change its style of play without necessarily causing more turnovers.**

Whatever the reason—practicality, selfishness, or a little of both—teams make fewer assists when games matter more. And this makes a difference on players’ salaries in the next season. Uhlmann and Barnes broke down cooperative play on an individual level, counting up players’ own assists and scores. They compared the salaries of 131 non-rookie players over the first two whole years of their dataset, controlling for minutes played and whether a person played center (the best-paid position, if you’re considering a career change).

They found that every basket made by a player increased his salary in the next year by about $22,000. Each assist, though, decreased  his future salary by about $6,100, because it resulted in fewer opportunities for him to score.

Uhlmann and Barnes (a soccer fan and a basketball fan, respectively) hope to learn more about selfishness in sports. “We are particularly interested in the extent to which teamwork and selfish play are contagious,” Uhlmann says. “If a player notices his teammates are playing selfishly, does this make him more likely to play selfishly as well?” They’re also curious about whether selfish play is ever punished—do teammates stop passing to a ball hog?

Another open question is what happens in other countries and cultures. Do non-Americans also play more selfishly when the stakes are higher? And what about women’s sports? “Women are more relationally oriented than men” and thus might be more consistent team players, the authors write. Of course, women in the WNBA are also playing for vastly lower sums of money than NBA players are. There’s really no “I” in “salary cap.”


Image: by AaronY (via Wikimedia Commons)

Uhlmann EL, & Barnes CM (2014). Selfish Play Increases during High-Stakes NBA Games and Is Rewarded with More Lucrative Contracts. PloS one, 9 (4) PMID: 24763384

*Minnesota Timberwolves.

**Credit for this analysis goes to Doug Hammond, my husband and a serious sports fan, who said he “actually could probably write this post himself” but didn’t.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also Editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she frequently writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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