#TBT: Who’s the Best Player? The One Who’s Open

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Who’s the Best Player? The One Who’s Open.

In basketball, the whole game sometimes comes down to a single, final shot. This is that critical moment that people like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant built their careers on. They got reputations for being able to make that big shot, sending their team to victory in the “clutch.”

"LeBron James," © 2014 EDrost88, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

The best man for the shot is not the superstar, but the guy who’s open. “LeBron James,” © 2014 EDrost88, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

From there, people started to believe that it was important to have your “clutch” player take the shot in that situation, pretty much every time. Naturally, if that’s what the offense is doing, the defense responds by swarming that one guy, making life — and that final shot — pretty hard for him.

But don’t worry, the thinking goes, if you’ve got a “clutch” player, he’ll find a way to make it. On the surface, there’s a bizarre kind of movie hero appeal to this. Superman doesn’t call in the National Guard when the bridge is about to collapse. There’s no time for that! Get into the phone booth, rip off the suit and let’s fly, Superman. You’re our clutch guy!

Well, it works for him. But in the NBA, it appears that statistically the best player on the court, the one in the best position to seal the victory in that last second situation, is The Guy Who Is Open. That’s right. Whoever is standing by himself (because the “clutch” player is being defended by two or even three players on the other team) and is in a good position to shoot becomes an all-star — statistically.

Here’s what the study I linked to above discovered: Superstars in those last-second situations shoot 42.2%, which is pretty darn good considering they’re being gang-tackled. BUT, the Open Guy (non-superstar who happens to be open and in position for a shot) gets a basket 54.2% of the time. That’s a huge deal, and a huge difference.

But what does it mean to you or me, who are not likely to be suiting up for either role on an NBA team anytime soon?

It reinforces for me the idea that good management (and good organizational design) fundamentally focuses on putting people in positions where they can make outsized contributions. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the general who ran the first Gulf War, used to say that “it doesn’t take a hero to win a war.” I think what he was getting at is a similar idea: A group of people who contribute in different ways, with different people taking star turns as the situation requires, all supported and made possible by good leadership and group culture, is the formula for success.

Yet, the desire to put someone in that hero role is strong. Funnily enough, a couple of NBA players do somehow seem to elevate themselves in those last desperation moments (most notably Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, in case you’re interested), but all the biggies (Kobe, LeBron, etc.) are average, or at least no better than they normally are.

So here’s the lesson for me: Something about the way our brains are wired makes us believe that the “stars” around us are not just the best, but the best at everything, all the time. This is demonstrably untrue, but our brains refuse to let us believe that. If we build organizations that rely on these heroes, they’re ultimately likely to fail, because what we should be doing is building organizations where a superstar’s performance enables a strong team to go that little bit further from strong to extraordinary.

You don’t have to Be Like Mike to be “clutch.” You just have to be ready when it’s your moment to win the big one for your team, and it’s your team’s job to make that possible.

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