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Especially Ineffective Interventions: The Basketball Timeout

One of my longstanding mantras is that “too many leaders do too much.” The logical extension of this mantra is that leaders should endeavor to Do Nothing!

I am also a big fan of the game of basketball, as well as a big fan of the lessons that we can learn from games like basketball, where team play can trump raw talent. Thus, I have often marveled at the strategies of basketball coaches who must live with particularly frustrating constraints: they’re not allowed to shoot the ball or actively defend the players on the other team, however much they might want to. In some sense, you might think that these constraints would help coaches do less. Instead, coaches still seem to find ways to do too much. In particular, far too many coaches pace up and down the floor during their team’s games, losing their voices by barking commands at their players even while they are trying to do their jobs and play the game.

Thus, my archetypal Do Nothing! basketball coach-slash-leader has always been Phil Jackson, who was renowned not only for being incredibly successful but also for sitting on the bench with his arms and legs crossed during his teams’ games. I have recently learned (due to a suggestion from my colleague, Adam Waytz) that there is another Do Nothing! basketball coach who is currently active, Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat. (Please note: it is particularly difficult for me to say anything positive about the Heat or about any team that hails from New York, as I am a particularly avid fan of the Chicago Bulls.)

The Heat were recently embroiled in a particularly close game against another powerhouse, the perennially effective San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had called a timeout, with 32 seconds remaining. This is a great time for great coaches to put their imprint on a game, as people remember the end of a game much more than they remember the beginning (even though late points don’t count any more than early points do). Spoelstra used the time-out to organize his team’s defense. With two of their own possible timeouts remaining, he also could have told his team members to call their own time out when they got possession of the ball so that he could orchestrate their next, and possibly last, offensive play. This way they might be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (as they say). This is crunch time in basketball, and for professional basketball coaches, who are often the epitome of the term, ‘control freak,’ this is their time to shine and show that they are worth the big salaries that they receive.

But Spoelstra is also a data-oriented coach, and it turns out that the data on late time-outs is very clear: teams shoot more poorly after they take a time-out – by a sizable degree. Data over a 3½ year period shows that shooting percentages in the pros fell from 40.4% to 33.5% during the last 5 minutes of a game when a team that was tied or behind by less than 5 points took a time-out. When they took a time-out within the last minute of a game, the percentage change was less severe but still notable, from 35.1% to 32.1%. (Note, too, that both percentages dropped as the clock wound down – even professional players are affected by time pressure). And when they took a timeout within the last 9 seconds of a game, the percentages dropped from a particularly poor 27.4% to a truly abysmal 20.9%. It is clear that time pressure is not a shooter’s best friend; it is also clear that a team’s chances of winning a game at the very end go down even further if their coach has called a time-out.

The irony, of course, is that most coaches don’t really believe this. Instead, they think that their players need their help even more when times get tough. (They also believe that a player who has made three or more shots in a row, i.e., someone who has a ‘hot hand,’ will be more rather than less likely to sink their next shot, even though the data doesn’t support this either. But that’s another story.)

You might argue that Spoelstra can afford to do nothing, as his team is stacked with stars: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, and their teammates. Phil Jackson was similarly blessed, and similarly scorned. But the history of basketball also shows that many teams with great players still don’t win championships. In other words, like any focal leader, coaches matter; it’s not just the skills of the players that wins games.

Calling ineffective time-outs seems to be the result of the same kind of human nature that pushes leaders in all sorts of situations to do more than they should and to interfere with their team members’ ability to display their skills naturally and without having to think too much about them. It’s just incredibly hard, for leaders and coaches, to sit on their hands and Do Nothing! But when they do, what are their teams’ likely reactions? To realize that their coach/their leader has confidence that they can do the right thing.

In basketball, taking a timeout also lets the other team organize their defense. As Shane Battier – an amazing defensive player and an incredibly important role player for the Heat – put it, “Defenses aren’t as prepared after a late bucket to tie or take the lead because emotionally teams aren’t as prepared to get that stop. If you call time-out you allow a team to set up their defense, focus in.”

In other words, leaders who do too much not only send the wrong signal to their own team members, they also don’t recognize the effects of their behavior on their competitors. In this case, by calling a time-out, a basketball coach lets his opponents organize their defense. This makes it that much harder to surprise them or get them out of position, making it much harder for their team to win a close game.

This is one more example, of so many, of a particularly ineffective intervention by leaders – and one the rest of us can keep in mind as well.

Note: Background information for this blog came from two articles at ESPN.com
1. Beckley Mason, “Evidence: Timeouts can hurt scoring.” February 21, 2012
2. Henry Abbott, “Erik Spoelstra for coach of the year,” April 2, 2013

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Especially Ineffective Interventions: The Basketball Timeout

  1. First of all I would like to say terrific blog!

    I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Thanks!

    Posted by DLH Cat | July 4, 2013, 11:52 pm
    • Thanks for your kind words! As to the difficulties of writing – this is true for almost all of the writers i know. how to get over it? just write! then rewrite and rewrite again. even if the first things you write down are lousy, you then have something to work with – and you can keep making it better until you are happy with it. in other words, this is another of those areas where perseverance wins in the end. best of luck!

      Posted by keithmurnighan | July 6, 2013, 5:27 pm

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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

“Do Nothing! will stand out as among the most imaginative, fun, and useful leadership books ever published. Murnighan uses rigorous research to provide detailed advice that will help leaders do their jobs better, develop more adept and committed followers, and to suffer from less stress and overwork. Even though most business books present new wine in old bottles, Do Nothing! is the rare book that provides a refreshing perspective and tangible advice that isn’t available anyplace else.”

Robert I. Sutton, Author of THE NO ASSHOLE RULE: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

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