I don’t have experience signing players—the only perspective I hold is that of the fan. As fans, we love to jump on hype-trains, to apply past accolades to current rosters, and to fantasize about how this new team is going to win a hundred rings and be mentioned in the anals of history alongside the discovery of fire, the invention of the submarine, and the Flint, Michigan Mega-Bowl. (Yes, Semi-Pro is a reputable-enough movie to be quoted in this article.)
But, often the signings we see over summer—such as Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—fail to reach such lofty expectations. We have a slew of soft-science approaches to explaining why: There’s not enough ball to go around, it takes time, 2018 Melo isn’t ‘08 Cornrow Melo and only a shell of Hoodie Melo, etc.
In Adam Grant’s Give and Take, the Wharton professor outlines two studies which give context to why we repeatedly place expectations upon newly formed “super teams” that often fall flat. Here’s a quick Sparknote-esque version of these studies for those who are interested:
Researchers followed the performance of surgeons who conducted surgeries at one location. As time went on, their success rate increased. Typical, because practice makes perfect—right? Well, sort of. The interesting thing was that as the surgeons moved from their original hospital to another hospital, their success rate dropped back to its original percentage, not because they all of a sudden forgot all of their practice – but because of the “Expertise is Portable” fallacy.
As the surgeons spent more time in one environment, things began to fit together like puzzle pieces. Their comfort level with the hospital began to increase, which allowed their muscle memory to take over and improve their overall performance. They got to know each co-worker and learn what they expected, as well as how to best operate alongside them. When the surgeons relocated, however, all of these comfort levels reset—leading to the reset in performance level.
For basketball terms, it’s the comfort zone that affects performance. Coming from home, the commute to the stadium, the practice facility, the trainers, the city itself, the teammates, coaches—it all matters. To take a player from that comfort level, which in part allowed said player to become a super star, and expect that player to maintain their performance level in a new environment, is proven to be illogical.
A second study by a Harvard researcher focused on security analysts within investment banks. Analysts were ranked on effectiveness and the top analysts were tracked over a nine-year period. These analysts were labeled “star analysts” and touted as great acquisitions (Sound familiar?) with the assumption that despite a relocation, their level of effectiveness would hold steady and they would bring the new firm to higher levels. However, when they moved, their performance dipped, and stayed lower for almost five years. Researchers concluded that “hiring stars is advantageous neither to the stars themselves, in terms of their performance, nor to hiring companies in terms of their market value.”
So, to look at the “Expertise is Portable” theory and take the context above, maybe we can discern why super teams such as the 2012-2013 Lakers, or 2017-2018 Thunder didn’t pan out as hoped.
The 2012-2013 Lake-show of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Kobe flopped harder than Jordan Peele in that old Key & Peele soccer skit. They were going to give the Heat a run for their money—or so we thought. But we bought into the hype of names and didn’t look at the team as a whole.
Pau and Kobe lost the longtime Laker point in Derek Fisher, and head coach Mike Brown was changing systems. Dwight Howard was leaving the Magic amidst a public breakup and his ego was starting to become bigger than his shoulders. He was headed west to call LA home after spending the entirety of his eight-year career in Orlando. Steve Nash has flourished in the Mike D’Antoni “run and gun” style that gave him back-to-back MVP’s but was now D’antoni-less, older, and leaving Phoenix for the first time in eight years. It’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks.
The surrounding pieces that had pushed each individual to success elsewhere, or previously, had been replaced. The team underwhelmed with a first-round playoff exit and subsequent departure of Howard, and a front row seat on the injury-bus for Steve Nash over the next two seasons.
Even though the team had two MVP’s and five all-stars on the starting roster, LA found out the hard way that, to quote Kid Cudi, “Everything that’s shine ain’t always gonna be gold.”
Next up, the 2017-2018 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Russel Westbrook, Hoodie Melo, and Yung Trece (aka Playoff P aka Paul George). A team with an MVP, a 2k cover, and a hooded alter ego equally as mystifying as the Dark Knight himself. The result? A first round playoff exit. The Thunder could never quite function the way they were supposed to, with not enough ball to go around for three ball-dominant players. It was a consistent rotation of “my turn” basketball where Westbrook, George, and Melo took turns at isolation.
Melo is years past his Cornrow Kenny self that elevated the moniker “Melo” to the upper echelon of the NBA greats. His productivity has consistently dropped over the last five years and he is appraised based on his past achievements rather than the current value that he brings to a team. Fans and front office workers alike were overestimating the capabilities of the Thunder based on the principle that since Melo did this or that in Denver and New York, he can do the same in OKC—the same thing they did for for Paul George, who was coming from Indiana.
This analysis isn’t to say that this core can’t contend for a title. But, as players, they have to change to new supporting or leading counterparts. They’re at different places in their career than they were five or ten years ago, and maybe the way the game is played today has changed enough to force an adaptation from them.
And don’t forget: Oklahoma City also once had three (future) MVP’s on their roster at the same time, and even they couldn’t bring home a chip.
Timing is always important, too. Remember, the Heat didn’t win until D-Wade was ready to give the reins to LeBron. The timing didn’t fit for OKC, or LA, or countless other attempted super-teams and big name acquisitions that fizzled out along the way.
Now this observation is coming from someone on the outside, sure. But look no further than Carmelo Anthony vehemently denying the possibility of coming off the bench in this Bleacher Report article, calling it “Out of the question.”
Unfortunately, so are their championship aspirations.