The Boston Celtics basketball team entered this season with much promise and high expectations. Last year, with two of their top players missing, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, with superstar Kyrie Irving back from injury and former All-Star Gordon Hayward back from injury as well, many analysts and fans expected a trip to the NBA Finals. However, they have struggled through the first 21 games. They have won 11 and lost 10. What’s wrong? Many people have pointed to the fact that they are trying to sort out their roles. Young players who played a ton of minutes in last year’s playoffs have had to adjust to the return of two veterans. The veterans have had to adjust to the fact that some of these young players developed into major contributors and expect more playing time and more shots. It seems as though they haven’t figured out their roles, and they don’t fully understand how they fit together. Many teams struggle when the members don’t have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and when members don’t understand how they complement one another. We should not be surprised if it takes a few months for the Celtics to settle into a groove and become a cohesive unit.
Research also shows that some level of hierarchy can be beneficial on teams. A “team of equals” does not always perform best. Consider research by Nir Halevy and his colleagues. They have demonstrated some of the benefits of hierarchy. In fact, they have studied NBA teams. They collected data over 11 seasons. They examined the dispersion of salary and playing time among players on each team. They found that teams with wide dispersions tended to win more games than those with what appeared to be more egalitarian structures. In short, it helps if all the players recognize who the superstars are, and who the role players are, on the team. A team of people who all think they are roughly equal doesn’t perform best, according to this research. The researchers argued that a clear pecking order led to more cooperative behavior among teammates. In fact, they showed that the more hierarchical teams had more assists – a statistic that measures when one player helps a teammate score a basket.
Could the Celtics have too “flat” a structure? Perhaps. Analysts have described them as having lots of interchangeable parts. They have extolled the virtues of having players who can play “positionless basketball” because that means they can switch on defense all the time (a strategy that can be effective in today’s NBA). Are they right though? Is a team of interchangeable parts who play positionless basketball really best?
In the November 28th episode of the Celtics Beat podcast (start at 26:00 minute mark), legendary sportswriter Bob Ryan argues this very point about having a clear pecking order. He describes great teams of the past as having a clear starting five, a few well-defined role players or “specialists” off the bench, and a few players at the end of the bench who know that they aren’t going to see much playing time.
What’s the lesson from the Celtics’ struggles? Knowing who the star is and who the role players are can be important in certain kinds of teams. Clear roles and responsibilities are very important for a team to excel. An adjustment period is clearly needed when you are trying to integrate new members or re-integrate former members who are returning to a team. It’s not just about putting together the most highly talented set of individuals. It’s about figuring how they fit together, and helping each member understand how they fit with their fellow team members. Getting people to buy into their role is a key job for a coach and for any team leader.