‘The Secret’ is the central theme of Bill Simmons’ epic book about the NBA. As revealed to him by Hall of Fame player Isaiah Thomas, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball”. That is, while the collective skills of a basketball team are important, what is most important is the collective, the interactions between those skills and the personalities of the players. If you ask virtually anyone close to basketball, or any other team sport, his opinion on the topic, I am extremely confident that virtually all would agree with Thomas’ sentiment.
‘The Secret about the Secret’ is that while virtually all agree that it’s not about (name your)ball in the abstract, almost no one actually takes it into account in practice. In the vast majority of cases, clubs do not build teams, but collect players or, even worse, ‘assets’ or ‘pieces’*. While clubs talk about the importance of the team, they will always, always take the slightly better player or slightly bigger name regardless of how they fit into the current team and without considering the mix of personalities**.
I have had the extreme good fortune to spend a large portion of my career working with Scott Touzinsky. Scott was a pretty good player, especially in reception and defence, but by no means a top level player. However, every group that Scott was involved in became a team, and most likely won or came very close to winning. His list of (team) achievements includes championships in five different countries, and an Olympic gold medal in 2008. Yet I personally experienced two different clubs not re-signing him after the team had a great season, because he was not good enough. The drop off in performance on both occasions was catastrophic, but at least in the second case the club was smart enough to correct their mistake. One of the highlights of my career was being able to bring him to Poland, and listen as real volleyball experts instantly recognised his contribution.
The reason that clubs don’t take into account The Secret is really simple. Their goal is not to win. Logically if someone acknowledges the importance of an element and yet systematically ignores it in practice, then they cannot have the goal of winning. Their actual, hidden, motivation’ is not to look stupid or be criticised for their decisions. If a club takes a ‘worse’ player over a ‘better’ player, they will instantly be criticised and if they also lose, they will likely be sacked. Karch Kiraly, picking the roster for the 2016 Olympics acknowledged The Secret and took a third setter instead of a fourth receiver. This was questioned at the time, and continues to be questioned after his highly favoured team faltered in the semi-final. But the reality is his team led that semi-final 11-7 in the fifth set. The presence or otherwise of a fourth receiver would not have made a difference in that match. If you look at the playing time of the fourth receivers in the men’s tournament, you will find they were essentially meaningless (in terms of points scored). And yet he is still criticised for making that decision.
As he had the first word, so should Isaiah Thomas have the last word. He knows The Secret, but as the General Manager of the New York Knicks he aggressively ignored it in building historically bad teams, including signing multiple stars who played the same position. He himself could have predicted the outcome***.
*In the case of the AFL, they don’t even call them ‘teams’ anymore. What the f*** is a ‘playing group’?
**It goes without saying that it becomes the responsibility of the coach to mould these disparate, ill considered pieces into a team.
***He was criticised at the team for his team building. It is still not clear what his hidden motivation was. One writer judged him as the second worse General Manager of all time.
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