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Incentivizing Statistics; Positive or Negative?

What do fans love about sports? They love it when players prove they care about the game they are playing. Whether it be diving for loose balls, relentlessly scavenging for a single rebound, or chasing down a player on a fast break, fans appreciate the effort. What do fans hate about sports? They hate it when the players are not committed to the game. When it looks like they are more interested in receiving their paycheck rather than winning. Money plays a significant role in the sports industry. Most athletes play for the love of the game, but the financial aspect is extremely crucial as well.

Professional athletes get paid millions of dollars to put on the best performance possible. Sports is in fact an entertainment business; therefore, the best product is always expected to be put on display. It is obviously not possible to get the finest of every athlete each game, but knowing they gave it their all is what really matters. When there is a lack of effort present, it enrages the dedicated fans who pay top dollar to support their idols day in and day out. One aspect of basketball that has become more apparent as the game has become more analytical is the value of statistics. More importantly, incentive-based statistics that allow players to earn additional bonuses for reaching certain milestones. These sorts of incentives are added to contracts to motivate players to strive for greatness, but as a result, it has destroyed the integrity of the game in some areas.

Houston Rockets: 3 goals for Clint Capela in 2019-20 season - Page 2
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The most common kinds of incentives in NBA contracts revolve around awards, recognition, and numerical statistics. No matter how likely a player is to reach their potential bonus, teams must offer a semblance of an incentive for guaranteed contracts. Statistics like free throw percentage are often included in deals relating to players who struggle at the line. Big-name centers like Clint Capela, Andre Drummond, and DeAndre Jordan are infamously poor from the charity stripe, therefore their respective franchises added clauses in their contracts to galvanize the players to shoot better from the line in order to receive additional bonuses. 

Free throw related bonuses are more of a rarity, but since opposing teams began implementing the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy on these players, exceptions were made. This tactic is done when a player is extremely dreadful from the line and the opposite team continues to intentionally foul them in an attempt to take away their possessions. “Hack-a-Shaq” was initially used for clock management, but as the game evolved, coaches like Don Nelson realized it could be used as a comeback strategy. With the shooting folly of too many players becoming detrimental to their teams, organizations had to create incentives to force their players to improve. 

Capela was an awful free throw shooter when he entered the league in 2014. He shot an atrocious 17.4% during his brief first year, and an abysmal 37.9% in his first full season. Capela would lose minutes because of his horrendous struggles at the line, which is why the Houston Rockets, and now the Atlanta Hawks have included incentives for him to reach a certain free throw percentage. Under his current contract, Capela can earn an additional $500,000 if he shoots upwards of 65% from the line. He has improved over the years, now shooting 52.5% for his career. Despite only shooting 50% this season, the existence of this incentive has served its purpose.

Other players like Drummond and Jordan have raised their free throw percentage by over twenty percentage points. Jordan even shot an incredible 70.5% from the charity stripe in the 2018/19 season. That number was right below league average and tremendous for a player like Jordan, who had shot as low as 37.5% from the line in a season. These situations are what incentives were meant for; with players working hard in the off-season to produce meaningful results, therefore earning them the money they deserve.

Blazers: 3 goals for Maurice Harkless to achieve next season
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On the contrary to the free throw fiasco that has somewhat died down, there is the overconcern with field goal and three-point shooting percentage present in today’s NBA. It is an enigma that nearly every player in the league always has in the back of their mind. During the 2016/17 season, Portland Trailblazers forward Maurice Harkless was entering the final game of the season with a 35.1% three-point percentage. This was the first time in Harkless’ career he had even shot close to this marker and his contract stated he would earn an additional $500,000 if he could maintain a three-point percentage above 35% for the season.

Not wanting to risk losing his bonus, Harkless intentionally shot zero three-point attempts in the season finale. A player who averaged a career high 2.5 three-point attempts per game that year flat out refused to pull the trigger outside the arc. It was a logical decision by Harkless, but Portland did end up losing by only three points. The game had very little meaning, though the decision to not shoot was still questionable when taking into account the competitiveness of the game. 

Players are built to have the drive to win at all costs. Situations should not dictate effort, as players should be giving their all every game. Athletes get paid to win, not to pad their statistics. Finances should not be at the forefront of a player’s mind during a game. People who work a 9 to 5 have a right to do it for the money, but when athletes get paid millions to play a sport, they should always put forth their A game.

Harkless made a debatable choice by not shooting any three pointers from a competitive standpoint, but it was a miniscule decision with no real consequences. A very frequent trend that may not seem significant, but actually does play a role in NBA games is the lack of shot attempts at the end of quarters. Full court prayers, half court heaves, or even deep three-point attempts are taken drastically less in the modern league.

This has happened because players do not want their shooting percentages to drop on a shot that is unlikely to go in. The odds of making one of these shots is basically equivalent to throwing a hail mary at the end of a half, but there is always a chance. Basketball possessions are not as valuable as football possessions, however, the main goal remains the same, to score the most. Teams cannot score without having possession, therefore not shooting at the end of a quarter is like giving up a free opportunity to capitalize on potential points.

Incentives play a major factor in the decreased number of shot attempts. Similar to Harkless, most players fear losing out on huge bonuses because of a few missed shots that could have been avoided. Once again, the issue of game integrity comes into play, as it makes viewers wonder where the players priorities are at. Do they want to improve their chances at winning the game or do they want to collect a bigger paycheck. It may sound ridiculous to overvalue two or three possible possessions, but when a game is close down the stretch, it can be attributed to possessions that were literally thrown away.

Two-time MVP Stephen Curry is one of the best players in the sport, often chasing historical feats like the 40-50-90 club. Shooting defines his career and each percentage point may play a crucial role in him achieving his goals. Though despite being such an illustrious player, he will always take the opportunity to throw one at the rim from 50 feet away. Curry could care less about statistics, as he is only interested in winning and helping his team score the most points possible. You really do miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. It may be a dumb shot, but if it goes in the crowd will go insane, the bench will explode, and their team will have additional points. Shooters are supposed to shoot the ball.

There is no denying that players do not deserve the money they earn or that incentives cheapen the rectitude of the sport. However, it does appear, especially in recent years, that financial gain has somewhat overridden the passion for the game. Incentivizing statistics have its drawbacks, but they are implemented to drive players to do better. There are flaws within every contract, but in the end, incentives will do more good then bad. Money is a legit motivator, though it should not be the only one.

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