Pay Them By the Made Free Throw

On today's New York Times Op-Ed page, Thomas Friedman contrasts golf and basketball:

Golf is all about individual character. The ball is fixed. No one throws it to you. You initiate the swing, and you alone have to live with the results. There are no teammates to blame or commiserate with. Also, pro golfers, unlike baseball, football or basketball players, have no fixed salaries. They eat what they kill. If they score well, they make money. If they don't, they don't make money. I wonder what the average N.B.A. player's free-throw shooting percentage would be if he had to make free throws to get paid the way golfers have to make three-foot putts?

As I have written about before, there has been, in recent years, a lot of research into mastery. As in, what it takes to become the best in the world at something.

Instant, meaningful feedback and tons of practice are key elements.

It would obviously be tough to pay players of a team game wholly by their accomplishments (the Kings would starve!) but I do think the NBA suffers a little from the wide gulf between what you may do well today, and when you will get a financial result. Think about it: You could be a rookie, and helping your team tremendously (Hello, Leon Powe!), then get hurt and never really see any difference in pay compared to a similarly drafted rookie who didn't do squat.

The distance between how you perform tonight, and how you get paid tomorrow is almost non-existent in the NBA, which may hurt the sport a little.

One small step: stat geeks can play an important role in informing what bonuses and incentives teams give players. Instead of hitching those things to pretty dumb and very subjective metrics like points per game or all-star appearances, teams could reward players for doing things that really contribute to wins, like a power forward getting a certain percentage of offensive rebounds or a point guard who runs a team with good offensive efficiency.

At least in these ways, the Leon Powes of the world could see some short- and medium-term rewards for their nightly efforts. I'm all for players on the court having financial incentives, beyond their next contract, to play the right way and really help their teams -- not because I'm worried about how they'll pay their mortgages, but because if you're going to pay all that money, you might as well dish it out in a way that inspires everybody's best efforts.