Leadership, Group-Orientation, and Chemistry:

Celtics Basketball from a Psychological Perspective

As ardent sports followers, it is often easy to raise the figures we see on the basketball court as being somehow super-human, or above the idiosyncrasies of normal human behavior. We both deify our heroes of the hardwood for their triumphs and are quick to vilify them for their perceived failures. No matter how impassioned we become over the exploits of the athletes that we follow, it is crucial to take into account the human element latent in all that we see.


Though the execution of a particular play or the strategy inherent in a game plan is designed to operate with machine-like precision, the personalities behind the figures who take the field of battle plays a significant role. While psychology doesn’t yet play a prominent role in the management and construct of a team it has begun to make an impact on an individual basis and looks to grow in the years going forward.

Overall personality assessment has been used in the formation of other team-oriented occupations such as police, firefighting, and military units. The aim is always the same, put the best group of people together in order to execute the objectives of the job at hand. Every sports fan knows that this takes more than just a physical skill-set to accomplish. Chemistry is obtained through communication and effective communication takes the right mix.

While the breadth of the world of psychology is too vast to cover here, one particular facet may prove to serve as an interesting theory for studying the Celtics. Paul Pierce’s absence has helped to provide a foil for this analysis as it pertains to the effects of “Group Oriented” behavior.

“Group Oriented” behavior as classified by Dr. Heather Cattell defines an individual’s propensity to “decide on the correctness of their performance by comparing themselves to others rather than relying on their own judgment.” Put simply, it is a personality trait that describes a person who actively seeks the approval of his peer group before making decisions. As Ryan Gomes put it a few weeks ago when asked after the game about his individual performance, “We had 23 assists and only 14 turnovers, when we do that we’re going be in a good position to win.”

Group Oriented individuals tend to view themselves as a collective entity; that is they view their actions and objectives within the context of the unit as opposed to the individual. A quick reference back through the archives of interviews with the Celtics players will show a high frequency of “we” statements even out of the context of team-oriented questioning such as thoughts on defense or team performance. These types of statements are consistent with the responses found in the research.

A recent example of this behavior was Al Jefferson’s impromptu post game response to Mike Gorman asking about the Allen Iverson trade rumors. Jefferson stipulated his fear of being included in such a deal, but he referenced this feeling by talking about how the group didn’t want to be separated and how they all vehemently desired to grow together as a team. Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins, Delonte West, and Gerald Green have all made similar statements about their shared ambition to stay together, mature, and succeed as a group. It’s been a common theme amongst the younger players of the team to talk about being the core of this team and their professed camaraderie both on and off the court is further evidence of this.

But, what’s really brought this notion into perspective is the recent injury to Paul Pierce and how it has affected the look of the team on the court as well as their answers off of it. Assuming that the younger players on this team all rate highly in “Group Oriented” behavior, it is not surprising that the team has struggled. The Celtics would struggle no matter what their personality traits were with the loss of such a physically dominating player, but the errors and inconsistencies in areas that don’t directly correlate with Pierce production are intriguing.

“[Players] suffer from self-imposed restrictions, such as over conformity to group norms, unwillingness to take initiative, and avoidance of open disagreement or any assertive behaviors that threaten their social standing.” â€" Cattell

Disecting the quote above, there have been many manifestations of this type of behavior in the teams play this season. How many times over the past few seasons has Doc Rivers or Paul Pierce been quoted as stating that one of the youngsters needed to be more aggressive? Rivers just recently called Ryan Gomes out before the Golden State game for not being assertive. Both he and Pierce got on Al Jefferson for not demanding the ball when in the post before Pierce finally took the initiative on the court during the New Jersey game some three weeks ago.

Over this past season it seems that “lack of assertiveness” and not ability has been the biggest issue facing this group. With the exception of Tony Allen, whose liveliness-another measure-seems to supercede his need for approval play to play, most every youngster in this group has to be prodded into action. They are too unselfish as a group more often than not and early in the season Pierce commented that each player had to “know when to get theirs” before they could easy the burden placed on him.

With Pierce out, the team went through a withdrawal period of sorts. Group Oriented individuals seek consensus on their actions before acting because they fear disapproval and alienation from the group. The one thing this group does have collective agreement on is Pierce himself and all the evidence is there to confirm that. They have been over reliant on his production in tight situations throughout the season and it has taken his personal plea for any player to step up in a situation they view as his by hierarchal right. It was Pierce’s actions that brought Jefferson to fruition almost instantaneously. He stated that Jefferson would be fed the ball, followed suit with his play on the court, and subsequently every other player began to do what Celtic Fans had been howling for all season long-feeding the post consistently.

Yet, with Pierce absent for the entirety of the road trip the team began to exhibit signs of regression. The team was blowing assignments they had not previously had as much difficulty with, sometimes triple-teaming players who were a minor threat or passing up driving lanes and holding the ball longer than necessary. Early on in the first game after Pierce’s injury and after being an absolute force for the previous six games, Jefferson showed signs of this behavior by stating “We don’t have to go to me…I wouldn’t say the offense has to go through me at all.” Jefferson showed reluctance to take the mantel of “go-to guy” even though he was by far the second most productive player and the only other who demanded a double team. He was the obvious choice to run the offense through but was hesitant to anoint himself.

This is a league filled with young players who clash with established veterans because it is a sport driven by strength of ego and conviction in ones ability. These Celtics are a selfless bunch in a sea of selfish individuals. Which is why Doc Rivers’ recent statement about Pierce contributing to the team off the court could bode well for the squad as he rehabilitates his bruised foot.

“I’m thinking of having him sit in on some of our coaches meetings to give him an idea of what we do. We’re also going to get him out on the floor during some practices - maybe have him break some film down; it could be a few things. But he’s going to be around for good now.”

For a collection of group-oriented personalities to be suddenly without their on-court leader is a recipe for disaster. Lack of effective communication between Pierce and the other youngsters on this team has probably contributed to some of the inconsistencies that we’ve seen over the past two months, if the theory is correct. While the team’s players respect Coach Rivers and his leadership it is essential for Pierce to give his consent to the players around him before they will execute without conscience.

As arbitrary a difference as it may sound like, many personalities don’t respond to general encouragement as much as they respond to specific, strategic instruction. In the case of Al Jefferson, he didn’t begin to assert himself until Pierce empowered him with that authority in the eyes of the team. The same could be true for the other youngsters as well. If Pierce takes active part in coaching and facilitating game strategy to his young disciples, they may respond far more quickly than if the team had simply continued to encourage and instruct. Pierce has the power and influence over these players to make the group decisions that become part of the collective conscience of the team.

By assigning roles and helping Rivers to break down specific game scenarios he can ensure that he has the help he needs. He can’t guarantee effective execution, but he can increase the assertiveness necessary to succeed in situations where previously all eyes became focused on him. The thing about group oriented individuals, they may be slow to take the individual initiative before approval, but once obtained they can become greater than the sum of their parts.
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