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Group Think – The NBA

I’ve long been fascinated with the works of behavioral scientists, which are devoted to trying to answer the question of why we humans think and do as we do. I’ve learned how hard-wired we are to be influenced by media and our peers, and how truly difficult it is for us to think “outside of the box,” or to avoid Group-Think. This blog will be the first in a series on this topic and will be dedicated to one of my favorite topics – NBA basketball.

This season, thanks to my daughter Julianna who has become a Lakers fan and has gotten me back into the NBA, I’ve been paying much more attention to the NBA season, and have already attended five regular-season games. I see a few very annoying aspects of Group-Think playing out in the NBA.

The first one involves the heralded rookie Laker guard Lonzo Ball, who the Lakers and the NBA continue to try to push on fans as an upcoming star.  He came to the NBA with perhaps more fanfare than any rookie in recent memory, with popularity soaring from his family’s reality TV show, his own sneaker contract, and glowing endorsements from the likes of Magic Johnson who proclaimed that “Showtime Basketball” is now back in LA with Lonzo.  There is only one small problem – Lonzo is not an NBA caliber player. Yes, you read that right. I predict that Lonzo will not be in the NBA at all soon. He is the single worst shooter that I’ve ever seen – NBA, playground, wherever.  His 2-point field goal percentage is stuck in the 30% range and even his free throw percentage is hovering in the 40% range. And, he cannot play defense too well either, being a practitioner of the matador style of inviting penetrators to run right by him. As a Laker fan, it is particularly painful to watch as the Laker management refuses to bite the bullet and sit Lonzo, instead of giving him valuable minutes and costing them game after game, while they have a team stacked with young talent that rivals, or even exceeds that of the 76er’s. Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Kuzma make up an unrivaled foundation upon which the Lakers will build for the future, and Kuzma would be a leading Rookie of the Year candidate if not for the continued commitment to Lonzo. With that nucleus plus solid players like Brook Lopez and John Randle, their early season futility is inexcusable.

A second, less noticed version of Group-Think is also at work with the Lakers, and that regards their coach, Luke Walton. I’ve read about something called the “Halo Effect” concept, whereby we look at a person and think “He looks the part,” or “He’s got the pedigree,” and we project qualifications and skills that may not exist. Luke Walton looks like he should be a wonderful coach. He’s tall, athletic, and handsome. He also has the pedigree, having played in the NBA, assisted Steve Kerr at champion Golden State, and is the son of Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton. The thing is, he’s clueless as the Lakers coach. This will all ultimately change, Lonzo will be gone and so will Coach Luke, and the Lakers will indeed be an exciting and top-level team soon. And many will be scratching their heads wondering how they could have been so wrong on these two. For now, Laker fans will have to suffer some more before the blinders of Group-Think are lifted.

Item #2 in the NBA Group-Think category is the sad career of Carmelo Anthony, which I accurately wrote about 3-4 years ago in these pages. Like Lonzo, Melo has always been a college star who has a game that doesn’t really fit the NBA. He’s always moved too slowly and has never been a good jumper, passer, penetrator, or defender. If he gets 20 shots a game he’ll average more than 20 points, but who in the NBA other than Lonzo would that not be true of? When he moved to OKC, I wondered how long it would take for Russell Westbrook to sit him down and tell him he’s never going to be the number one or number two option on offense, and maybe not even number three either (Steven Adams). It seems that this conversation has happened recently as Anthony has begun to see his shots decline precipitously. Yet, as of this writing OKC’s record remains below .500, and with a worse record than the Knicks, who must be celebrating daily since unloading Melo for Ennis Kanter who is averaging a double-double. Melo will never play an important role on an NBA winner, and if OKC hopes to be a contender they’ll need to either part ways with him or sit him deep on the bench.

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