The Miami Heat's New Incentives

The Miami Heat has been on fire lately, with a 10-game winning streak. This was how things were supposed to go when the team put together its holy WadeBoshJames trinity, but the season didn’t start out so well. What’s happened since? One change: a new incentive system instituted by coach Erik Spoelstra. Players are rewarded for defensive plays with offensive freedom: “If Dwyane Wade grabs a defensive rebound, he has the green light to do whatever he wants offensively. If LeBron James makes a defensive stop, he controls his own game on the other end of the court.” Spoelstra, it should be said, reads books. (HT: Onyeka Obiocha) [%comments]


Or it could be they played mostly bad teams during the streak.

Cash McDollar

Your Defense is writing checks your Offense can't cash.

This free entrepreneur offense is showboating and selfish. The Best Defense players in the league specialize in Defense, and are impotent on Offense.

Basketball is a team sport. A well coached team acting as one unit, will prevail over a team of individualists.

Seems like Coach Spoelstra does not have the coaching skills or strategy to handle his talent...He just unleashes them. And this is not Plan B or C but Plan Z, from a disastorous start. A circus clown can outcoach him. I predict he will be a short termer--maybe he can be a Chicago School Economist. Talent will not last in the NBA Finals without really smart coaching.

Now give me the Rock!

chris markl

couldnt this be correlation not causation? There is no evidence to show that this freedom has resulted in increased aggressiveness on the defensive end and better offense on the other end.

Bobby G

@ Cash (#2),

I guess we'll have to see what happens. If they end up winning the championship, who are you to say they were wrong? If they don't make it into the playoffs, then you got a pretty strong case.

@ chris (#3),

Pretty tough to find hard evidence of "increased aggressiveness" that is objective. Certainly an incentive structure like this in place has at least some small effect on behavior right? More so than not having it at all? Maybe at least for guys who like to control the offense at least?

Cash McDollar

I take it back. This is good coaching. He realizes the egos on his team will not let traditional coaching/teamwork tactics be successful.

Vinny B

I wonder how long this will last, and if opposing teams will respond accordingly. That is, if Lebron makes a defensive stop, then the other team will know that he'll be running the offense the next possession. So I wonder if other teams catch on and are smart about it, if this incentive scheme will take an element of strategy/stealth away from the Heat if the defense knows what's coming.


Point differential. It matters (in pretty much every sport). The Heat actually started the season off fairly well and were unlucky - better predictors of how a team play (better in that they better predict future W-L than actual W-L does) indicated they were playing well early in the season despite their poor record. They're playing better now, but it really wasn't that unexpected. A lot of the turnaround can be explained by doing a better job of measuring performance than simple W-L. If you want to objectively evaluate them, it helps to know that...

Cash McDollar


There is someone else using my moniker, Cash McDollar, changing my message flippantly.

I abandon my former name of Drill-Baby-Drill Drill team for the same reason.

Freakonomics should have a policy reguarding counterfeit opinions, personal attacks and deceptive use of submissions.

Please target this foe of free speech and deny their submissions. Thank You.


Traditionally there are some statistics that measure effort and aggressiveness on defense. These are not perfect indicators but unless other evidence is provided to say otherwise, it's rational to accept them as the best indicators. Those stats are rebounds, blocks and steals. All of which have been increased since the incentive system proposed.

There are also explanations why planned offense is not as valuable to a very talented team as it is to a not-so-talented team. This is not to say that you can win championships without a plan, but rigidity is not as beneficial to a relatively more talented team. For one thing history has shown that the best are the best because of their ability to respond to changing situations. Some of these changing situations happen in a split second.

This phenomenon is particularly true for the Miami heats. Right now I dare say they are one of the fastest if not THE fastest team. Wade is probably the fastest moving shooting guard. Lebron is probably the fastest moving small forward, and even Bosh is likely the fastest power forward in the league. That makes for a very quick team. In the recent dynamic plays that made them successful in blowing out other teams, it's hard to imagine a planned and orthodox basketball scheme fitting in with those traits.

If you disagree, try honestly imagining how many developed, time-tested, traditional plays in any teams play book, including: reverse-behind-the-back blind passes in mid air, consecutive touchdown-style passes from full court, hard-knocking blocks that lead to near-impossible back and forth lobbing alley oops. The reason why is because rarely do teams have such talent to work with. An a coach's main job is to take from tradition, take from statistics, and inform the team. How can coach spoelstra take from tradition and statistics, when such things have rarely ever happened in history? In admitting that he truly has nothing, he made the smartest choice given the situation: just leave it to the conditioning and basketball IQ of the elite players. And when you watch the clips of these plays, it's truly hard to imagine any team, even if trained to do such stunts, with playbooks with X's and O's, could pull it off so seamlessly.

That said, i believe in the future, as Spoelstra watches these types of sequences more and more, he'll be better suited to advise on offense. For now I believe credit should be given to an unorthodox coaching method to deal with an unorthodox team composition.



i tend to agree with the first commentator:
if you look at their schedule during the win streak,
only new orleans, atlanta, and utah have winning records.
it would also statistically bear out that most measures of offensive and defensive aggressiveness/ success would go up against such out-matched opponents, regardless of whether or not there is a reward-incentive system set in place.
i'm unimpressed.
indeed, i hope that they keep these rules, which imply that the only reason to work hard on defense it to have selfish play offensively, through the play-offs to make it easier for a team like boston, which seems to genuinely love playing both sides of the ball.
but, hey, if there's a 3-on-3 tournament at the all-star game, my money's on miami.

Cash McDollar

There are two kinds of NBA players:
1. Run-of-the-Mill Competent Players.
2. Franchise Players. These are superstars who lead the team in scoring, almost accounting for half of the points, half of the rebounds, and half of the assists singlehandedly. It includes luminaries as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Lebron.

By economic factors, most teams cannot afford more than ONE franchise player. And that one player can elevate the play of his teammates such as Kobe Bryant and the lesser Derek Fisher.

Miami has a unique triple ecclipse with THREE Franchise players: Lebron-Wade-Bosch. With such talent, most fans expected a dominating Miami Basketball Machine. But the engine stuttered out of the gate.

Each additional franchise player only seems to marginally improve overall team victories, not double or triple the rate. And Miami is being outplayed by lesser teams with one or NO franchise players such as San Antonio, Dallas, Orlando, OKC, Utah and New Orleans.

In theory, Miami should be in a super class of teams, but in reality it is UNDERACHIEVING and struggling in a tight competitive field.

Someone paid TOO MUCH money and is getting a poor return. It is like expecting the Beatles and getting Herman's Hermits.

It does not look like an annointed Kingship. Nor a Dynasty. More like a DieNasty.

-The Real Cash McDollar



If they do not have a defensive specialist, then there must be an incentive system for offensive players to defend their court. But if making stops takes away energy from players, this incentive system may work poorly, as it gives more offensive freedom to players who are more out of gas.

So they should reward not with ball handling but with something else, like, salary, as other teams do? This indicates Pat Riley did not do a good job.