April 3, 2013 4:00 pm
The slow-down of minor injuries aside, former Rookie of the Year and multiple-time Most Valuable Player award-winning basketball player LeBron James “belongs in the company of some of the greatest players in the history of the game.” Playing for the NBA’s Miami Heat, James is a scoring, rebounding, assisting machine.
But while James’ individual prowess may garner him a lot of attention, new research suggests that, as a small forward, the flash of his accomplishments may be outweighed by the more subtle roles played by others on the court when it comes to what really matters—winning basketball games.
Analyzing 16 play-off basketball games from the 2010 season, the “researchers graphed player positions and ball movement among players, as well as shots taken,” says Arizona State University. “Then, they used that data to find out whether network metrics can measure team decisions in a useful way. The study involved more than 1,000 ball movements and 100 ball sequences.”
According to Inside Science, the team found that players that control the ball, like the point guard, are disproportionately important. And the center, the big guys that hang out down by the net, play a less flashy but highly effectient role. According to the scientists, “in the context of the 2010 play-offs, the values of clustering (connectedness across players) and network entropy (unpredictability of ball movement) had the most consistent association with team advancement.”
More than just a guide for the subtleties of what to watch for in this weekend’s March Madness games, the research could help understand how people work in groups, turning the theories of network dynamics on human behavior.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.