Pass or shoot? What the basketball playoffs teach us about teamwork

, Product Marketing | June 09, 2017

We’re in the thick of NBA championships—two great teams, many great players. But the media has continually harped on the differences between the two teams: one team strongly reliant on one player, the other reliant on passing and teamwork.

We could shrug this off as “just sports,” “just entertainment.” But the lesson of this story is one that we shouldn’t ignore. This simple, but powerful lesson is one that can aid all of our teams. And there’s science to back it up.

Scientists measured the interactions between basketball players during the 2010 NBA playoffs by looking at who passed the ball to whom on each team. They studied 16 teams in eight matchups, with two games per matchup. In each game, they recorded every time the ball was passed from one player to another and the outcome.

Looking at the graph below, we see how they measured passes and outcomes for two teams, the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Each team created a unique pattern. The Bull’s chart is star-shaped, showing the ball coming mostly from one person (the point guard).

The Lakers’ graph looks quite different, with more triangles, showing the ball coming from various players. This type of organization is designed to distribute players across the floor so that they can be used interchangeably, depending on open lanes and defense.

In this strategy the, point guard becomes less central to the decision process, because all players have the ability to make decisions about ball distribution depending on immediate context.

The issue may be obvious: If you have a centralized team like the Bulls, what happens when the point guard gets injured or kicked out of the game? There is a high risk-factor in this structure.

However, if the point guard were eliminated from the Laker’s lineup, the team could more easily absorb the hit and place the responsibility of passing onto other players.

Because each player passes the ball to multiple other players, the team is more flexible and less predictable. Teams with a distributed network has many options for changing strategy and can use this to their advantage against less adaptable teams. 

Based on the analyses from the 16 different teams, the scientists found that teams with less centralized (more distributed) interactions were more likely to win, because they are more difficult to guard as well as the minimized risk factors.

The year of their analysis, the Bulls didn’t make it past the first round of playoffs, whereas the Lakers won the championship.

So, tonight as you watch the championships, think about how these structures and cultures help or hurt your teamwork. Sometimes taking the shot is fun, but so is winning…and that comes from passing the ball.