The Rewards of Selfishness: How Young Players Are Incentivized To Look Out For #1

September 27th, 2013 | by Andy Larsen

Rumors swirled around Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins all summer regarding his availability for an extension this summer, and finally last night, the news came through: according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Cousins signed a 4 year, $62 million maximum extension that will lock him up with the Kings through 2017-2018.

Reaction on Twitter and in basketball circles was swiftly negative: in short, very few observers think that Cousins adds enough to a team to justify a maximum salary contract. In what’s probably the definitive Cousins piece at this point, Zach Lowe argues that he’s a net negative on the floor, largely because of his inadequate defense. As Lowe says:

We tend to think of selfishness as something ball hogs exhibit on offense. But Cousins, to this point in his career, has been a selfish defender in lots of ways. He tries to minimize the amount of energy he expends executing the team’s scheme, and as a result, he stays very close to his own man when his team really needs him to be helping more aggressively.

If his passivness and selfishness were only downfalls of his defensive game, a max extension for Cousins wouldn’t be too shocking. After all, the NBA is riddled with bad defensive players, even among its stars. His offensive play isn’t completely selfish, as Cousins is a willing if unwise passer at times. But Cousins’ decision-making torpedoes his efficiency, leading him to take far too many long range jumpers at bad times and commit iffy turnovers trying to do too much with the ball. And of course, the off-court stuff is the stuff of legend: his run-in with Sean Elliott, the 17 technicals last season, the various unexplained suspensions are all symptomatic of a player who doesn’t buy into the team concept.

And yet, it’s all been rewarded with a maximum contract, the highest statement of confidence a team can put into a player. Why?

In 1999, another monumentally talented player was frustrating his small-market team. Stephon Marbury was unhappy with the huge $126 million extension the Minnesota Timberwolves signed fellow star Kevin Garnett to, limiting Marbury’s possible extension to just $71 million. Instead of dealing with the inequity, Marbury decided to force a trade, ending up with the New Jersey Nets, where he signed his maximum money deal. This cemented his reputation as a selfish player. In a conversation with New York Magazine, he would respond to his critics:

“If I didn’t play the way how I played, I wouldn’t have gotten no max contract [sic],” he said. “They can talk about whatever they wanna talk about me, because I got maxed. I’m a max player. Don’t get mad at me, because I’m telling you what’s real. One plus one is two, all day long, and it’s never gonna change. And that’s factorial.”

Marbury and Cousins aren’t alone: young players who go out and “get theirs” are usually rewarded, no matter the efficiency. Steve Francis shot just 41.7% in the season before extension eligibility, but he managed to shoot enough to get 21.6 points per game. He signed a 6 year, $80 million extension. Baron Davis shot 41.7% in the season leading up to his maximum extension with the Hornets. He signed for 6 years, $60 million. Charlie Villanueva’s albatross deal came after he shot just 44.7%, and his usage jumped up to 28.5% in his contract season. Larry Hughes’ contract year was another example of increased usage and lower efficiency being rewarded: he only shot 43% for 22 PPG before he signed his 5 year, $70 million deal. The list goes on.

On the other hand, young players who fit within a team concept are subject to myriad factors beyond their control, factors that may get in the way of their millions. Teammates using a majority of possessions, coaches limiting a young player’s time on the court, and minimal media attention to those who help in other ways besides scoring can all artificially lower a player’s contract value in relation to his value on the floor. For every rewarded Roy Hibbert, there’s an underpaid Paul Millsap.

The NBA and the metrics movement have gotten smarter about recognizing the difference between perceived and actual value, but the Cousins contract shows that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. In the meantime, those young players who treat their contextual situations selfishly are more likely to receive more money, despite the negative consequences those actions have on their team’s win-loss record and overall success.

While the max contract game might make as much sense as “one plus one is two, all day long” to the selfish Stephon Marburys and the DeMarcus Cousins of the world, the truth is that the same math doesn’t apply to the teams who spend too much money on players who end up taking value off the table.

And that’s factorial.

Andy Larsen

Andy Larsen

Andy Larsen is the Managing Editor of Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate for the Utah Jazz. He also hosts a radio show and podcast every week on ESPN700 AM in Salt Lake City.
Andy Larsen


  1. casey says:

    Last nights twitter conversation about this got me worried for the first time about our young guys. After Andy and other pointed this out, Peter, Dan, Amar and others talked about how if our season starts out really rough, it will be really tempting for our young guys to “get theirs”. Derrick Favors sees people like Cousins signing max contracts and I imagine has to think that if he just scored more points he could get one too.

    My biggest worry about this stems from the precedent we saw last year. A lot of vets trying to “get theirs”, but their wasn’t accountability for when they started jacking/stopped playing D. We all saw it. I’ve heard Ty gave them a long leash to keep peace in the locker room, but it seems like the negative impact could extend to this season. What’s to keep our young guys from behaving the same way when they saw last years starters got away with it?
    Somebody tell me that this is irrational, because I’m kind of a worried jazz fan right now…

  2. Matthews Bantsijang says:

    It is now political era of accounting to previous years selfish deeds is South Africa
    By Matthews Bantsijang, Pretoria

    I am certain that we have entered an era of accounting to previous years of selfish deeds in our country. Taking stock now, the reflection of the present charging of some government leaders and release of investigation reports by different accounting institutions including Public Protector reports by Adv. Thuli Madonsela is pure sign of era of leaders to account for previous years deeds. The biblical doctrine of rewards teaches that God takes very seriously what we do, and that He acknowledges that our final destiny is determined by what we truly want. What I know is good Christians get rewards of going to heaven, and I am sure also that corrupt leaders on earth must account here or upstairs of their bad deeds. Hoping you remember: ‘don’t steal’ as the basic law of Torah.
    I believe we agree that there has been an increase of selfishness by our leaders in previous years and for me being selfish means that you look out for yourself and you don’t sacrifice, you only want ‘instant’ gratification mainly wealth. Further, misuse of government power for other purposes which has led to serious sickness of political corruption and manipulation of judiciary by the executive. I now belief we are in this era where we need start to cut off our selfishness and think how to grow together as the Bible say on proverbs that ‘One cannot make a sound with one hand’ is not only a saying but we mean it. Our country have everything in raw; money, natural resource, open mind, etc, but we are all using them the wrong way, to build self-pride. We need to use our democracy well, and we need to use this era to let that selfish individuals or groups account for their deeds for the previous years.
    It is true that in previous years our political culture has become more and more based upon materialistic values and prior commitment to supporting progressive social policies has also diminished. Social policies to transformed the societies into a model progressive “participatory democracy” is also disappearing. Priority of addressing the poverty situation that prevailed, supporting the quality-of-living of our citizens inclusive of education, health care and food irrespective of personal access to financial resources, but in previous years, those values where secondary. The political culture of this country has been built on adversarial, confrontational politics without regard to the national interest. Our politicians have missed the wood for the trees.
    I will always belief that the future of all political parties should be decided by the four main factors being politics without corruption and lies, rooting out the hate culture, promoting communal amity and good governance. Our political leaders must come to terms with the fact that no political party or group of politicians are forever and it is in their interest to think in terms of the generations to come; in this regard they need to perhaps refine and implement the principles that gave rise to the 17th Amendment and create independent statutory institutions to enthrone good governance, democracy and the rule of law in this country. As stated earlier, politics in the early years of our democracy was more value driven; the politician valued his self-respect. That was a time when our politicians both of the ‘left ‘and the ‘right’ would stand-up and defend unswerving commitments to civic commitments. Such a cadre of politicians would stand-up for a core of such progressive convictions; defending areas of national sovereignty in general, irrespective of personal self-aggrandizement considerations.
    Corruption and international perceptions on corruption in South Africa can be damaging to the country’s reputation and create obstacles to foreign investment, flows to the stock market, global competitiveness, economic growth and ultimately to the development and upliftment of our people. There is a widespread belief that the level of corruption in South Africa has worsened significantly over the past few years. For example, on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country dropped 31 places from a ranking of 38 in 2001 to 69 in 2012. Public concern around the need for government to prioritise tackling corruption has increased in recent years. The March 2012 Afrobarometer survey results rate the figure at an all-time high of 26%. Moreover, according to the survey, the proportion of people who thought that most or all national, provincial and local politicians were corrupt has more than doubled since 2002. Only 33% of respondents thought that government was doing a good job in fighting corruption, a decrease from the 45% who thought so in 2006. The challenge now to turn corruption around and remedial actions are now more than just urgent or the global view of South Africa will continue to become increasingly negative.
    When we can do self-introspection, we will discover that we lost Mandela’s moral impact. We need to move from Class-Based to Value-Based Politics, unlike now Politicians fighting for power, instead of being service oriented. Presently people are tense as they are after money, property and are always trying to fulfill their material needs. In this context it is important for young people to read holy books about ideal politics that talks of some ideals like truthfulness, welfare of the people, faithfulness and oppose individual benefit. When the political parties or political leaders follow the above-mentioned policies, then their politics will be called value based politics. Lastly as we vote, lets vote good principles instead of blind patriotic to individual comrades or parties.
    In conclusion, as we will be entering leadership change, let’s just know that South Africa needs leaders with good values once again, like Tata Mandela, and I believe we have them. I believe that if we can study the personalities of emergent leaders, there will be group of bad leaders who believe in monetary incentives, self-enriching cadres, forced corrupt due to positions or patriotism, but there are leaders also who are prepared to do good to the people of this country no matter what, and those are our leaders. It is about time we say no to leadership group that have adopted a culture of capitalism and lies by negatively benefiting from followers or voters while potentially it is costly for the people of South Africa. As a country we need to address selfishness so that we can change and benefit on the faith of eliminating selfishness. We need to start recognising the role of good ethics and the role of faith in dealing with this bad selfish leadership. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are not born selfish for the better future of our beloved country and let us use this era well for changing to value- based leaders and those who have previously practiced selfishness should account for their deeds. Yes, we are now in a political era of accounting to previous years selfish deeds, and let those who are responsible account so as we can learn lesson.

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