Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is the Problem with NBA Players That They Are Not "Selfless"?

I am a big New York Knicks fan, so with the recent hiring of Phil Jackson as president on the Knicks, I am reading his book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Succes.

There are a lot of strange references to  American Indian mysticism  in the book but, if you ignore that, there are some pretty good observations about basketball.

The one thing, though, that really annoys me about the book is Jackson's emphasis on the importance of what he calls "selfless" play.

Without a good coach, some great players such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant---and Carmello Anthony of the Knicks---tend to hog the ball and not get other players on their team involved in the offense.

There are a number of technical reasons, that I am not going to get into here, why, in order to consistently win, it is necessary in the NBA for a superstar to get other players on his team involved in plays. Jackson, like many coaches, calls superstars getting other team members involved "selfless" play. I prefer to think of it as being a good employee.

If I hire a kid to cut my lawn, and he considers himself an "artist," and cuts designs in the lawn instead of cutting the entire lawn the way I want, I don't necessarily want him to be "selfless." Instead. I want him to be a good employee and do the work I hired him to do. It is about what the stated and implied agreement is about. It is about what the exchange is about, money for a specific kind of work. I do not want the kid to be selfless, I want him to honor his agreement. It's really about respecting one's self to honor a contract.

It's the same with NBA superstars, owners pay top players multi-millions so that they can  help bring winning play and championships to a team. To do this, they shouldn't be ball hogs. They should be good employees and do what is necessary for the team to win. That's what the exchange is about. It is not about "selfless" play, it is about following through on the stated and implied agreement. It is about great self-respect and honoring contracts. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, when they played, seemed to get this instinctively, as did the Boston Celtic great Bill Russell. With Jordan and Bryant, it took Jackson to get them to understand what management and ownership wanted out of them. It wasn't selflessness, it was about meeting the terms of a contract.



  1. I agree 100% RW.

    Jackson has always floated towards his "Zen" approach IMO because he's got the challenge of keeping big egos with big talent focused on winning.

    I think he's used to "softening" things intellectually so the players play to win.

    What he's really doing is appealing to their self interest, in this way:

    "If you want to win, you have to involve other players no matter how great your talent. Otherwise the other team will focus on you and we are done."

    So it's really that Jackson has to convince them it's in the talented players self interest to "share" the ball with his team mates. To me it's very capitalist in function.

    I think he uses the term "selfless" as a marketing tool even though it's quite obvious that it is anything but. He's appealing to their self interest but can't outright state it in today's society because it's somewhat considered taboo in many parts of our society to be "self interested".

    I, myself was caught up into that crap until I read Atlas Shrugged and thought about it a while. To me, that is the greatness of that book(despite other parts in it not so great) is the championing of self interest and how it benefits society as a result.

    1. Yup, it's in their "selfish" self-interest to win games. BTW, Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness" is a great read.

  2. An interesting point. But I would make the argument that Phil Jackson's approach is similar to the leadership styles you see in the business world every day. Managers don't simply tell their subordinates to be "good employees" and neither the manager nor the employee wants to focus on that aspect. Why? Because having to work for a living is not that enjoyable. It's much more effective to get employees to buy into a sense of togetherness. Not everyone is a libertarian, or understands the concept of self ownership. If they did, the only thing business managers would have to say is "be a good employee" and we wouldn't need management anymore. Phil Jackson was not the business owner of the Bulls. He was a manager and acted accordingly.

    David B.

  3. Another example in Clipper land.

  4. Under Doug Collins in the 1988-89 season, Michael Jordan had a usage rate of 32.1%. Basically, it means he took a shot, got fouled, turned the ball over, or got an assist on 32.1% of his team's possessions while on the floor.

    Under Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan used the ball more often in 8 of 9 seasons. Essentially, he had the ball in his hands even more often than he did before Phil Jackson arrived. The whole 'superstar learned he had to trust his teammates and sacrifice his own achievements for the good of the team' sounds nice and warm and fuzzy, but it's factually untrue. Michael Jordan was historically efficient, and able to maintain that efficiency at massive volumes. This is why the Bulls were good when he was on the team, and when Scottie Pippen arrived - another excellent player - the Bulls went from good to great.

    To use a current example, the Miami Heat would not be better off if LeBron James used fewer possessions and Norris Cole used those possessions. They would be far worse.