The problem with macho decisions in hoops

Being a guy is a weird thing.

You are almost playing a part in how you’re supposed to act in life. Be tougher than the hurt. Never back down from anything. Don’t show people you’re scared.

Our existence is almost built out of acting the part of a superhero, and if you don’t then you’re probably going to be labeled as effeminate or a coward.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Being a guy in sports is even a weirder thing. If you’re a professional basketball player, your physical and mental machismo is already in the top percentile. You’re more man than just about everybody. You’re bigger, faster, strong, meaner, and more of a “killer” than your average male.

But is being the most macho player in the league going to make you the most successful?

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, TrueHoop's own Henry Abbott discussed how “bad decisions in sports skew macho.” And it many ways, he’s correct.

The famous example, especially when discussing Henry Abbott dealings, is Kobe Bryant during crunch time. Whether you agree with the assertion that Kobe is a clutch player or not, I think we can all agree that he often takes unnecessarily tough shots during these moments. Maybe they’re not tough for him. Maybe he’s practiced these so many times that they’re almost second nature to him.

But shooting a fadeaway jumper over two players doesn’t seem like the best decision to make. It’s a macho decision. It’s a selfish decision. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong decision, but if you’re not as skilled as Kobe Bryant then it’s going to be difficult to be successful making those macho decisions.

During his presentation, Henry offers up seven examples of how skewing away from macho tendencies in the NBA could actually lead to more success. He runs the gamut by discussing granny-style free throw shooting, meditation, crunch time decisions, selflessness, physical contact amongst teammates, skinny players and female leaders.

Shaq never made concessions with his free throw shooting because he didn’t want to look silly by shooting like Rick Barry. It’s possible he could have had a more successful career if he was willing to make such a concession. Kobe Bryant has seemingly rarely made these concessions at the end of games. Yes, he wins games, but if he was more willing to pass up the difficult shot for the “correct shot” would his final résumé be even more impressive than it is?

Making concessions is probably the hardest thing to ask athletes to do. The best players will often want to leave their mark on the game their way. It’s a way of being macho and asserting yourself as the best. It’s a way of showing that you’re tough.

Being tough isn’t always a necessary thing, but if you’re conscious of your image in the NBA then you’re probably afraid of being labeled as a fake tough guy. Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett have seen a big hit in their public image because of labels like this. If they’re comfortable with their role and who they are then it won’t affect their respective games. But how many people are going to be unwilling to take that bait?

As we move into a more analytical era of viewing, judging and executing the NBA game, we see more examples of how sacrificing the image of machismo can be a successful venture. Looking at how Chris Paul runs the Hornets’ offense at the end of games shows that selflessness and not having to prove you’re the man (even when you’re often the most talented player on the court) is a perfect example of how unnecessary being macho is in the NBA.

Teams can’t just identify grabbing the 12 best players onto a team as a legitimate strategy. If you build a team like it’s a fantasy basketball roster, you’re going to face a philosophical discord between teammates when it comes to deciding who fills certain roles of the team. You need players who want to comfortably fit into their roles. You want guys that are willing to sacrifice personal glory for the greater good of the team.

Basically, you want the San Antonio Spurs of the last 12 years. And even though it sounds weird to say, you want the Lakers of the last decade as well. Both of those teams had their stars. And even though those Lakers teams had the two biggest stars with the two biggest egos, they had role players intent on doing their designated jobs with an offense that was designed to promote selflessness.

Both of these teams showed that there is a definitive balance needed between having a sense of being macho and knowing when to sacrifice for the team.

Henry left this discussion with a line that I found as poignant as anything in the NBA. He said, “Macho can be very important; it’s just not everything.”

Finding that balance can be a very weird thing.