Sports fans LOVE their heroes, don’t they? When crunch time comes for our favorite teams, we just KNOW that our favorite superstar is going to rise to the occasion and single-handedly save the day.
And no sport creates more opportunities for individuals to become hometown heroes than basketball.
With five players on either team covering each other man-to-man, isolated match-ups pairing the two best players on the floor against one another in a showdown for sporting glory are easy to manufacture.
If you went with your heart, you’d take that match-up anytime. “Just give it to ____________,” we shout from the cheap seats. “He’ll get the job done!”
But look a little closer at the numbers — something that ESPN author Henry Abbott recently did in an article titled Hero Ball — and you’ll find that clutch performances by individual superstars aren’t as common or productive as you might think.
Take Kobe Bryant for example.
Based on years of Hall of Fame performances, Lakers fans rightly love the guy. If you offered them the chance to win a championship based on Kobe challenging ANY NBA player in a one-shot, winner-take-all showdown, they’d jump at the chance, wouldn’t they?
Sure they would — and statistically, they’d lose way more often than they’d win.
Need proof? In the nearly 300 situations where Kobe was isolated one-on-one against an opponent this season, he is averaging less than one point per possession.
Even worse, in clutch-time isolations — defined as moments in the final five minutes of a game where the Lakers were five points ahead or five points behind — Kobe is averaging a HALF a point per possession.
Now before George Couros — Canada’s biggest Lakers fan — gets all cranky with me for dogging his favorite player, it’s important to note that Kobe’s struggles are mirrored by almost EVERY NBA superstar working in isolation.
In fact, across the league, isolations are averaging .78 points per possession this season — which literally makes them the WORST strategy for generating points in an NBA game.
So what are the BEST strategies for winning basketball games?
Pretty much any play that involves peers working in tandem.
Off-the-ball cuts — which generate 1.18 points per possession — are the best. That’s more than TWICE as many points as Kobe working alone. Putbacks generate 1.04 points and pick-and-rolls generate .97 points per possession.
As NBA legend Rick Barry explains:
Why in the world do you want to put your best player in the situation to work that hard against the best defender the other team has…You run LeBron off a double-or-triple-staggered screen, give him the ball on the move, I defy anybody on earth to guard him.
So what can schools learn from Hero Ball?
Perhaps most importantly, talented individuals are always stronger when they have a little help from their friends. The fact is that succeeding in challenging work — whether that’s winning NBA championships or creating meaningful learning environments for 120 students with unique sets of strengths and weaknesses — isn’t something that any one person can consistently do alone.
Success is more often a result of the shared contributions of a group of people working towards the same aspirational mission.
When every member of a team chips in — whether that includes setting hard picks at the top of the key or making key suggestions for polishing instructional strategies for struggling students — collaborative groups become more efficient and effective.
Kobe’s struggles also serve as even more proof that the trends towards rewarding individual teachers for student performance are an #edpolicy disaster waiting to happen.
If a highly trained athlete who has spent thousands of hours practicing his craft at the highest levels can’t consistently succeed while working alone, what makes us think that rewarding teachers as individuals makes any sense?
In the end, Abbot — the author of the ESPN bit — argues that our faith in the ability of individual stars to succeed by themselves in challenging circumstances isn’t really about winning at all:
The goal of hero ball is, instead, appeasing egos, saving coaching jobs, kowtowing to talking heads and mollifying idiot owners sitting on the floor.
If hero ball is tangentially about winning basketball games, it’s about winning them only through the least efficient, most predictable means of doing so.
The first (and only) rule of hero ball: Big-name scorers must always take the last minute shot. That the numbers now exist to prove it doesn’t work is, curiously enough, beside the point.
The same can be said for schools, y’all.
Extensive evidence has proven time-and-again that working together is more productive than working alone — and policies or practices that celebrate the accomplishments of individuals instead of collaborative teams are nothing more than weak attempts to mollify professional talking heads and full-time idiots.
Related Radical Reads: