To reach the NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder needs to pass more, especially to his teammate Kevin Durant. That would be the message that two researchers would send to Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, if given the chance. Matt Goldman, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and Justin Rao, a research scientist at Yahoo Labs recently named Westbrook as the biggest “chucker” in the NBA because of statistics showing that he shoots much more often than he should, while Durant is classified as an undershooter, whose team would benefit from him taking more chances.

While their statistical theory builds a case for how to achieve optimal efficiency on the court, they don’t explain why elite players make the in-game decisions that they do. For that matter, what about the high school ball player or the weekend warrior at the gym; how do they make the decision to pass or shoot? For that, Markus Raab and Joseph Johnson, both sport scientists, have some insights from their research.

First, let’s do the numbers. Goldman and Rao dug into the NBA stats archive to analyze over 400,000 team possessions over the last four seasons, 2006-2010, across the entire league. In a paper and presentation at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they presented a model that compares the difficulty of a shot taken in relation to the time remaining on the 24 second shot clock. Then they compare this with a concept called “allocative efficiency”, or the benefit of equally distributing the ball to any of the five players on the court and also “dynamic efficiency”, or deciding whether to “use” the possession by taking a shot or “continuing” the possession by making a pass. As the shot clock winds down, the marginal difficulty of a shot considered will need to rise or they risk getting no shot off before the 24 seconds expires, wasting the possession.

They found that most NBA players are very efficient in their shot selection. Surprisingly, several elite players are actually not shooting enough, according to their model. Here is the list of all NBA players analyzed and their score, where a negative number (at the top of the list) represent overshooters. Joining Westbrook at the top of the list were well-known names like Lamar Odom and Tracy McGrady. Even bigger names like LeBron James, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Joe Johnson actually show up at the bottom of the list and may hurt their team with their unselfishness.

So, what goes on in these very well-paid athletic brains? Are the trigger-happy players selfish, over-confident and in need of attention? Markus Raab, professor at the German Sport University-Cologne, and Joseph Johnson, professor at Miami University of Ohio, have spent the last ten years studying the decision-making processes of athletes in several different sports, but especially fast-paced games where quick decisions are critical.

Let’s imagine the Thunder point guard, Westbrook, bringing the ball up the floor. He crosses the half court line and his decision making process kicks in. The Raab/Johnson process first recognizes that perception of the situation is required before the player can generate all of the different options in his brain. Just like a quarterback examining and identifying the defensive alignment as he breaks the huddle, the point guard in basketball has to visually process the scene in front of him. From there, his brain, based on his vast memory of similar basketball experiences, begins to make a list of options. These can be spatial options, like move the ball left, ahead or right, or functional options like pass or shoot.

Through research with basketball and team handball players, the researchers found that the most effective strategy is to “take the first” option that the player conceives as that is most often the “correct” choice when analyzed later by experts. Much like going with your first answer on a test, the more that you deliberate over other choices, the greater the chances that you’ll pick the wrong one.

However, each player will have their own library of choices stored in their memory and this magical sorting of best options can be influenced by several unique variables. One of these pre-determined factors is a personality preference known as action vs. state orientation. According to Raab, “An action orientation is attributed to players if they concentrate on a specific goal and take risks, whereas a state orientation is attributed to players if they have non-task-relevant cognitions and reduce risk-taking behavior by considering more situative considerations and future behavioral consequences.” In other words, someone who has an action mentality is more likely to shoot first and ask questions later, while a state oriented player is going to consider more options with more long-term outlook.

For this and similar experiments, Raab and Johnson showed first-person videos of many different basketball in-game scenarios to players of different skill levels and personality types, then froze the scene and asked them to make a quick decision of what to do next with the ball. They recorded the decision and the time it took to make the decision. They found that those players who have more of an action orientation, according to a personality test given prior to the drill, were more likely to shoot first and more quickly. Clearly, Russell Westbrook must fall in this category.

Raab followed up this study with a similar one that measured the difference between intuition-based decisions and more cognitive, deliberate decisions. A player who “goes with his gut” was shown to make faster and more successful choices than one that over analyzes. This may help explain the list of elite players who tend to pass more than shoot. They have more experience and patience to rely on their intuitive feel for the game. While Goldman and Rao may ask them to be more action oriented, these players have learned that they are often just one more pass away from a much higher percentage shot.

Certainly, this is the tip of the iceberg regarding the psyche of a player at any level. There are many more variables, some fact-based (I’ve missed my last 5 shots, so I’m going to pass) while some are more emotional, (I don’t want my teammate to get all the glory.) For now, Thunder fans can only hope that their point guard learns to share.

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