Selfishly Efficient

A difficult but essential responsibility of any basketball coach is to get his or her players to “buy in.”

By whatever psychological tactics necessary (with some famous coaches showing little-to-no bounds in their exploration), a coach needs to teach and convince players to make floor decisions that prioritize team ahead of individual.

Basketball fans have a better opportunity to psychoanalyze players than their counterparts in football do. The players are exposed without helmets or masks to cover their reactions to plays of the game. Modern HD television rarely fails to capture a Kobe Bryant sneer or Ricky Rubio smile. Also, the game has fewer players, and most offensive plays are trimmed down to 1 or 2 man action. Most basketball plays boil down to a player’s distinct choice to either shoot, dribble or pass; as fans, we watch for trends and form opinions about what they were thinking on a given play.

When a player’s decisions don’t align with his team’s interest, the criticisms that follow often involve faux mind-reading and assumptions of intent. Sometimes the assumptions are questionable, muddied by questions such as “Why should he pass if his teammates can’t make a shot?” (The Al Jefferson Question) or “Is there such a thing as a selfish rebound?” (The Kevin Love Question).

But other assumptions are plainly correct, such as when a player stands behind the half-court line with the ball as the buzzer sounds, refusing to shoot it and [almost] inevitably lower his field goal percentage with an airball or brick from 65 feet. In this instance, the individual interest of the player (his efficiency stats) is at odds with the interest of his team (a chance–however small–at 3 additional points).

This is just one example of what seems to be happening with increasing frequency in the NBA, as advanced stats–centered largely around efficiency instead of only volume–replace the basic aggregate numbers in mainstream player evaluation. How should we feel about this trend?

Ethan Strauss recently analyzed the issue over at HoopSpeak, using LeBron James as an example of a great, tremendously-efficient player who chooses not to damage his advanced stats with Hail Mary buzzer-beater attempts that have little chance of going in.

Strauss makes a point I’ve made myself on Twitter, that buzzer heaves should not count as field goal attempts (unless they go in, of course). Why not fix the incentive problem and let players try to help their team without punishing their stats? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

But more interesting in Strauss’ piece is his conclusion about LeBron James using this selfish tactic:

I do not view LeBron’s buzzer clutch as proof that he isn’t a winner or that he is unwilling to sacrifice. I see it as indivisible from his unselfish, smart, process-over-result style of play. LeBron James knows that his true value isn’t conveyed in raw point totals; It’s conveyed in efficiency. He wants you to know that, and two or three halfcourt makes per season isn’t worth clouding the message.

In a micro sense, the buzzer clutch is the result of bad incentives. By statistically punishing a risk-neutral attempt at an exciting long shot, the league compels players to go a boring, team-hurting route.

In the macro sense, the ever-popular buzzer clutch reveals that players are responding to good incentives. These guys are aware of how their value gets considered, and efficiency vanity speaks to a want towards producing in a way that helps a team. LeBron isn’t a loser. He reveals winner-qualities in hewing his game to the stats that win. The buzzer circumstance just represents a strange, fairly unimportant glitch where efficiency is at odds with “efficiency.”

While I would never argue that LeBron James is a “selfish player” (his basketball greatness is much closer in style to Kevin Garnett than Kobe Bryant), I think it is inarguable that refusing a buzzer-beater attempt for the sole reason to protect his individual stats is selfish. It is, without question, proof (on however small scale of importance) that LeBron is unwilling to sacrifice himself for his team, in this limited instance.

The issue of buzzer beaters is but one of countless examples where players are faced with a decision that stands at an intersection of individual stats (yes, even advanced ones) and the team goal of winning.

Another example: When the shot clock is winding down, a talented player faces the choice of creating his own shot or passing it off to somebody less able. The shot is usually something off the dribble, unlikely to go in. The pass makes it somebody else’s efficiency problem. On a selfishly unselfish team, it could be like a game of “hot potato,” with nobody wanting to take that difficult shot.

Speaking of passing instead of shooting, what about guys who make assists a key priority? I think it has been written somewhere (Bill Simmons book, probably) that Wilt Chamberlain would get mighty upset if his pass wasn’t immediately followed by a potential assist-creating shot in the season that he (wouldn’t you know it) led the NBA in assists.

More recently, Rajon Rondo has come under scrutiny for being an “assist whore” passing up not-quite-wide-open layups for passes that might become assists. Rondo leads the league in assists per game by a wide margin. He also shoots over 50 percent from the floor; a high rate for a guard. Great efficiency, right? Meanwhile, his team is 13-13, playing below the expectations that many analysts set for them this season, barely removed from a conference finals appearance.

What about big men who are challenged to defend on the perimeter? Whether it be showing hard on a pick-and-roll, or getting a hand up on a “stretch 4,” when bigs get pulled away from the basket to defend, they have a choice: Work hard and help the team get a defensive stop, or stay down low where there is a better chance at collecting a rebound.

Another example of this efficiency versus winning tension is with turnovers. The Timberwolves are a good example of this because their best shot creators, Rubio, Shved and Kirilenko, navigate the tightest of seams in ways that often create dunks and layups but will inevitably result in some turnovers. On some nights, any or all of those players will appear out of control and inefficient. (I knee-jerk reacted to a 10-turnover night of the Russian Duo against Charlotte, along these lines.)

But on the whole, a team without an A1 Go-To Guy benefits hugely from the risky passes of these talented gents. It would be selfish of any of them to be more careful in the name of efficiency and limiting turnovers.

The team of players entirely without a conscious separate from team goals has never existed and probably never will. Each player is an individual whose athletic feats can be tied largely to instincts but also to quick decisions. I don’t bring up these efficiency versus team issues to take a shot at advanced stats. (If you analyze basketball by the numbers, efficiency and the other updated metrics are much better than the old methods.)

I just think it’s important for the mind-readers among us to consider that not every selfish player is the “ball hog,” and that certain players might be more conscious of their PER or Win Shares than others.

Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko, for example, take the 60 footer at the buzzer. In Shved’s case, maybe he’s just a little green, and “He’ll learn.” But I kind of doubt it, after watching him play this year going back to the Olympics. He’s that kind of player.

And Kirilenko, a seasoned vet, certainly understands what efficiency means to player evaluation in America. Every time he shoots that buzzer beater, score one for him in the imaginary column of unselfishness.

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