Kevin Love and the Fight for Identity

I love the NBA.  I love that I can enjoy the game itself, the beauty of the ball zipping around, finding the open man and hearing the sound of the swish.  I love that I can enjoy somebody like Hubie Brown break down the X’s and O’s and explain to me how a specific screen led to a layup or how an adjustment in the pick and roll defensive strategy slowed down a team that was hot in the first half.  I love how I can read about the economics of the game, about how the new TV deal will affect the NBA economy.
Similarly, I love the discussion of organizational issues.  I’ve been running a family business for some years now, I’m a few months away from graduating with my MBA, and what I’ve enjoyed most is the discussion on how to manage people in an organizational setting.  Most recently, we witnessed Mike Malone being fired from the Kings in what seemed to be a perplexing move after a great start. Similarly, last year saw Mark Jackson depart a team that he had brought back relevancy too.  It’s not always about the results, it’s not always about the money, it’s not always about the X’s and O’s, sometimes it just comes down to something as simple as certain personalities not being the right “fit” for the organization.

The same thing can be applied to players.  In one of my classes, we discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. (This website does a good job of summarizing what Maslow was talking about)
The gist of the theory is this: people are motivated by their needs, and their needs can be broken down into a pyramid with 5 basic stages of needs (from the base up):
  1. Physiological Needs- air, food, shelter, sleep, etc.
  2. Safety Needs – protection from the elements, security
  3. Love and Belonging Needs – friendship, intimacy, love
  4. Esteem Needs – Self-Esteem, achievement, mastery, status, prestige, responsibility
  5. Self-Actualization – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth, and peak experiences.
NBA players are unique, I think it is safe to say that #1-3 are reasonably taken care of, so when I look at situations with players, I focus my analysis on #4 and #5.  While the financial angle can be extremely important (Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks, for example), I think players are generally all well taken care of enough that we are moving up Maslow’s pyramid at an interestingly rapid pace.
I believe that players will continue to choose situations that align with their identity more and more going forward.
For example, the Dwight Howard situation with the Lakers.  In the 2012-2013 NBA season, most analysts noted the conflict between Kobe and Dwight but were also quick to point out that there is NO WAY that Dwight would leave all that money on the table to switch teams as the Lakers could offer much more than any other team in the market.  I don’t blame anybody for saying that at the time, because for Dwight Howard to leave the Lakers that summer, it would go down as an unprecedented financial sacrifice for a “happier” situation.  Here’s the thing though, Dwight Howard had esteemed himself as a franchise cornerstone, as a player who’s used to being mollified by his front office and adored by his fans.  He wanted to be a focal point on offense just as much as his coaching staff has wanted him to be the focal point on defense.  This is his identity.  It’s not for an organization to decide whether or not it is logical.  It is for the organization to figure out how to not harm an employee’s identity while achieving overall success. There’s a reason why Jalen Rose offered a hypothetical Dwight Howard trade in January of 2013:
There’s a reason why Goran Dragic demanded a trade from the Phoenix Suns that had everybody, including his own front office, scratching their head.  Goran Dragic was a POINT GUARD. He wanted the responsibility of being the POINT GUARD, not sharing the back court with Bledsoe or Thomas.  Was he going to get paid the same in Phoenix as he is about to in Miami? Probably.  But it’s not about that, it’s about Goran maintaining his identity that he holds valuable.  Things were great last year with Bledsoe out enough games to where Goran was able to take charge of that team and impose his identity.  Goran Dragic will be playing with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade next year, his stats will potentially be lower, and he will be a third option next year. But he sure as hell will be happy running that offense.
Now, Kevin Love. Kevin Love’s identity? Big time scorer and rebounder, integral part of the offense, great passer, comes through in clutch situations.  Kevin Love’s stats difference between last year and this year are meaningless to me.  It is expected that everything would drop, most obviously Field Goal Attempts and Points. What I never expected is that Kevin Love’s identity would ever come into question.  Why is Kevin Love not closer to the basket? Why isn’t he on the court in 4th quarters?  Why is he standing around waiting for the ball in catch-and-shoot situations? It makes sense from an X’s and O’s perspective, LeBron James needs space and optimally plays the same position as Kevin Love. Does this mean this can never work? No way.  I think the game against Memphis was a great example of how beautifully this can work.  Kevin Love was instrumental in that win, he stretched the floor and made Memphis’ bigs come out.  Games like that are great building blocks, which seems funny to say with 10-12 games left in the regular season, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will the Kevin Love integration into this team.
The thesis: there’s no coincidence that on championship teams you can go down the roster 1-12 and pinpoint the players identity and how it’s being fulfilled.  As free agency and the amount of stars grow in the league and more “super teams” are formed, taking into account the identities of the players at the top will become more and more important, and the chemistry experiments will be fun as hell to watch.

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