Study: NBA Whites Are Not Underpaid (Counterpoint: Are They Overpaid?)

OK, hold on, just—just wait a second. This does actually make sense. A new study from the University of Toledo has found that white American NBA players are not discriminated against in their wages. We do have a question, though.

Economist Olugbenga Ajilore has taken the mostly recent contention that white players are underpaid in the NBA and disproven it by comparing players' PER and Win Shares to average salaries. You can read the full paper here, but the conclusion is that, given comparable statistical output, there is no evidence of racial discrimination in the NBA.

Of course, PER and Win Shares don't capture the defensive side of basketball very well. Modern Defensive Win Shares, which are part of Win Shares, depend on defensive rebounds, blocks, steals, and minutes played, as well as the marginal defense estimated for a player. PER uses blocks and steals as its main defensive metrics, but has rebounds built in as well. A quick glance at WS leaders for this year has Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, Steph Curry, and David Lee in the top 10. James Harden is 11. Anthony Davis, a singular defensive planet destroyer this season, is 15th. Davis fares better by PER, but so then does Carmelo Anthony. (Yes, WS is a counting stat and AD was out with injury, but even by WS/48 Davis trails Brook Lopez, and just edges out JJ Redick.) As tools for measuring defensive effectiveness, Win Shares and PER kind of suck.

All of which is to say, these are an improvement over economists plugging in the traditional box score, but in this case they raise a counter proposition: If white American NBA players are substandard defenders, which is not captured in the metrics used in this study, then, given the fact that by those metrics they are paid relative to their performance, might they actually be overpaid? We aren't ready just yet (yet!) to get into a statistical analysis of that (though take a look at Kevin Love's SportVU stats some time if you want to dose yourself with lithium), but we'll just say, anecdotally, white American NBA players tend to be... not the best defenders. It's why Larry Bird was upset when a white guy would check him, and maybe why Kirk Hinrich is the only American white guy to pop up on recent All-Defense teams.

A final note on the paper: The average salary for white NBA players is actually higher than black players, $4,757,039 to $4,585,249, but this might actually be more compelling evidence of anti-white bias than the other stuff, since this suggests a possible survivorship bias. That theory would be that if the average white player is in raw terms better paid than the average black player, that suggests that marginal NBA players, the ones at the ends of benches and who get the last spots on teams, are more likely to be black than white. While the reverse used to be true, in recent years that trend has died out, so who knows what the hell is going on now.

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