pop a shot

Brook Lopez entered the NBA as a reliable low-post threat with a clunky, yet effective, hook shot. It took almost 9 years before Lopez would attempt more than 0.2 three-pointers per game— not because his low-posts skills were declining but because the game was changing. He, like many other players, adopted a deep shot later in their careers to stay relevant, the same way a mid-level manager might learn JavaScript to survive in the future of work. Otherwise, these lumbering big men would find themselves at the end of the bench, or worse, unemployed.

So, what caused this change? Many teams hired math whizzes in upper management roles to improve operations in both the back office and on the court. They soon found out that the expected value of a three-pointer exceeded a mid-range shot, and this edge, no matter how small, wrote the blueprint for the new NBA. The earliest adopters, like the Warriors and Rockets, trotted out players with three-point shots once reserved for a game of HORSE. As more teams adopted a similar strategy, more have purged the mid-range jumper from their playbooks. Almost one in every three shots are now a three-pointer compared to 13% at the turn of the millennium.

Types of FG Made from 1979 to Present

FG Made Chart

It’s clear that analytics gave teams and players an incentive to change, but it also created a moral hazard; the death of the post-up. This same situation plays out everywhere in economics, where incentives (good or bad) serve as the primary motivation for decision making.

A Lesson in Economics

Most people feel apathetic or unsatisfied with what they do at work each day. This can be for a number of reasons; low pay, meaningless work, and difficult colleagues. And yet, companies in America employ almost 158 million people, according to the latest employment data. Economists think incentives play a major role in why people get out of bed in the morning. That is the explicit or implicit motivators that influence certain behaviors. For millions of disgruntled workers, they simply can’t afford to sit on the couch all day. Food costs money, rent costs money, even toilet paper costs money, and the only way to make ends meet is by working.

Another common real-world incentive shows up in politics. For instance, the government provides companies with tax breaks to tackle sustainable projects or reinvest profits back into the business. But sometimes, especially in public policy, incentives can turn awry or create a moral hazard. Look at communism. The Soviet Union turned a blind eye to what motivates people and instead established negative incentives that made everyone worse off.

Back to the Court

In 1979, the NBA introduced the three-point line to give shorter players a fair shot at competing with the dominant big men of the time. But a decade would pass before the deep shot gained traction. Even then, few players attempted more than a handful per game. Reggie Miller, the first true deep threat, averaged less than 5 three-pointers per game over his 17-year career with the Indiana Pacers. That number sauntered along as great shooters came and went through the NBA. Players like Ray Allen and Peja Stojakovic each averaged about 5.5 attempts per game over their careers, only slightly higher than Reggie’s career marks.

Fast forward to today, and Steph Curry and James Harden, arguably the two best shooters, each attempted 10 three-pointers per game last season, while over 60 players took more than 5 deep shots. Far too many players just loiter behind the arc without any discernible offensive moves beside the ability to hit an open shot. In a way, this relentless pursuit of efficiency also started the trend towards strategic homogeneity in the NBA.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

James Harden recently said he was working on a new move “that looks like a travel, but it’s not.” Fans have criticized his style of play in the past for teetering on the edge of illegal and fair, and this time should be no different. But the onus to police questionable moves falls on the NBA, not Harden. The league’s complacency in restoring more variety back to the game allows players like Harden to continue to exploit (follow) the rules. Maybe the NBA should take a lesson from the past—when they introduced the three-point line—and change the incentive structure. Move the three-point line back, incorporate a four-point shot, or anything else. Until then, fans should expect to see more “step backs” and blatant flops around the three-point line.

Because in the end, incentives matter.

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