Would the Raptors Try Harder if Paid More Per Win?

I like to watch basketball and I live in Canada, so the Toronto Raptors are on my television a lot. This is just an observation: sometimes it seems like the players aren’t giving their best effort.

It’s understandable. An 82-game regular season is grueling, and I’m sure that a game between the Raptors and Wizards in January is just as meaningless to the players as it is to the fans. It gets even worse later in the season, too. Due to the structure of the NBA draft lottery, there’s an incentive for bad teams to lose games down the stretch: The worse your record, the better your pick. Unfortunately, tanking games isn’t exclusively about draft picks. Anyone with the foggiest memory of Vince Carter’s final season in Toronto will vouch for the fact that some players will quit on their teams for no reason at all.

The clearest evidence that players don’t give their best effort during the regular season is the very existence of playoff basketball.  It looks like a different sport. So, how can we incentivize bad teams to play their regular season games with the same intensity and effort as they would a playoff game? The answer, as usual, is money. I believe one simple change to player contracts would vastly improve the product on the court.

Currently, all contracts in the NBA are guaranteed. But what would happen if 90% of a contract’s value was guaranteed and the remaining 10% was left up for grabs? If you divide a player’s salary by 82, you get the amount he makes per game. Let’s call that a game cheque. I suggest that 10% of each player’s game cheque should be dependent on the outcome of the game. The team that wins should get the full value of their game cheque, plus they should get 10% of the losing team’s game cheque. In essence, teams would be playing one another for the chance to steal each other’s money. To add a bit of drama, I recommend that the money be paid in cash at the end of each game, and neatly stacked in a pile on the scorer’s table throughout the contest for all to see.

The NBA salary cap is $58.044 million per team and there are 82 regular season games, so any team that spends to the cap will pay its players approximately $700,000 per game. If the NBA were to adopt the system I recommend, $70,000 (per team) would be on the line each night. It may not seem like a lot of money when you consider that all these players are multi-millionaires already, that win or lose they get to keep 90% of their cheques and that the winning team must split the purse twelve ways, but money won is so much sweeter than money earned. And money lost would be especially irritating for men endowed with the pride, ego and confidence of professional athletes. Can you imagine how mad LeBron James would get at Mario Chalmers for chucking the ball into the stands if Mr. James had money on the line?

Before you dismiss this idea as nonsensical, remember: boxers make a larger portion of the purse if they win the fight; NASCAR drivers’ earnings are directly related to the position they finish in the race; and the winner of any golf or tennis tournament gets more money than the men he defeats.

Performance-based incentives are common in team sports, too. In 2009, NFL players earned $109.5 million in performance bonuses and incentives alone. It’s true that most leagues are moving away from performance bonuses (the NFL got rid of theirs entirely in their most recent labour dispute), but I would argue that all professional team sports still allow for these bonuses in the form of playoff pay. If a team makes the playoffs, the players are paid more than their base salaries. The more games they win in the playoffs, the more money they make.

One might argue that my contract idea isn’t about bonuses, it’s actually about gambling because the players have to risk a portion of their own game cheque. Sports gambling is illegal in 49 states, which is why it’s necessary to stipulate that only 90% of an NBA contract should be guaranteed. The rest could be held by the team and distributed as an incentive based on wins and losses.

So, the next time you see Jose Calderon walking back in transition or staring at a girl in the crowd during a timeout, ask yourself: Would he be trying harder to win this game if he had some money at stake?

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Samuel Kirz received an MA in Creative Writing from City University London. He writes nonfiction on the topics of sport, culture and Canada; his fiction is about sex. To contact Sam, send mail to samuelkirz@gmail.com.