Because of their gargantuan salaries, instantly recognizable faces and eight-figure social media followings, NBA superstars are understandably difficult for fans to relate to on an everyday basis. So when the league’s elite are faced with life-altering decisions, as they were in the summer of 2019, it’s nearly impossible for us to put ourselves in their shoes to figure out why they made the choices they did.
After all, a multi-millionaire has plenty more factors to consider than we do when it comes to choosing the next stop on our professional journey.
This summer was particularly interesting and somewhat revolutionary in NBA terms, since multiple superstars made essentially the same decision through free agency or trades — to join up with one other superstar teammate. It’s a jarring development considering the recent to win championships, and it begs the very important and elusive question: Why?
Why now? Why these particular stars? Why these particular teams?
In order to gain some insight into their motivation, we really have to start with a clear foundation that’s sometimes hard to comprehend: NBA superstars are human beings, just like us. Every day we are faced with decisions, some as small as which pair of socks to put on in the morning and some as big as whether or not to purchase a home. The motivations behind the decisions vary, but there is a basic, underlying science that fuels all of us — no matter our situations.
Richard Dec is a partner at Vega Factor, a company that uses scientific and psychological research to help organizations achieve the highest levels of performance. The company is driven by the idea of total motivation (they shorten it to “tomo”), which is thoroughly explained in the book, “Primed to Perform,” written by Vega Factor co-founders Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi.
Dec specializes in total motivation and also happens to have an extensive basketball background, having competed with and against players like Chris Webber, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley while playing AAU and high school basketball in New Jersey. He even lucked into playing a pickup game against Michael Jordan in Chicago in the late 90s.
Fascinated by this summer’s trend of NBA superstar duos, Dec had plenty of insight on the topic, drawing parallels from his extensive research in the business realm. First, he gave a quick rundown of the six primary motives which apply to every decision we make. Keep these in mind the next time you’re trying to figure out why you stood in line for 15 minutes only to inexplicably end up ordering a cinnamon raisin bagel:
- Play — Loving the activity for the sake of it.
- Purpose — When you see the impact of your work.
- Potential — When you’re doing something now to get an outcome later on.
- Emotional pressure — Fear, guilt, fear of missing out and anxiety are all examples of emotional pressure.
- Economic pressure — When you’re doing something for a reward or to avoid a consequence.
- Inertia — When you’re doing something simply because it’s what you’ve already been doing.
When looking at the decisions that superstar players made this summer, Dec views them through this lens. But he’s also quick to point out that everyone’s motivation is different. You have to take the specifics of each case and try to sniff out “the why.” So with that in mind, let’s take a look at each superstar pairing that was formed this summer to get an idea of each player’s motivation.
Leonard may be the perfect test case for this exercise, since he had a clear three-pronged choice this summer: 1) Return to the Toronto Raptors, where he has already won a title as the team’s lone superstar; 2) form the latest NBA “Big Three” with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Los Angeles Lakers; 3) team up with a second superstar with the Los Angeles Clippers. The third option wasn’t clear until the Clippers offered to bring George over from the Oklahoma City Thunder, a move that sealed the deal for Leonard.
Ultimately Leonard, along with his desire to come back to his native Southern California and team up with George, has continued to point to the Clippers organizational strength as a primary motivator. He talked about Doc Rivers’ championship pedigree as “something I wanted.” He also mentioned that he “wanted to be with people who had some pedigree in the front office.”
Seeking out a strong culture isn’t unique to professional sports — it’s also a huge motivating factor in the business world.
“I think the same is true in business,” Dec explained. “Some people are going to prioritize, you know, ‘Is this organization really well-run? Is it a highly motivated organization designed to maximize the best performance of everybody and all the teams in the organization?’ Or is it really like, ‘This organization may not be that well run, but it’s going to allow me to get better at something I love and want to get better at professionally, and they’re going to pay me really well so I’m going to go to that organization?’ “
Leonard evidently valued these factors over the economic pressure of the Raptors being able to offer him more money than any other team, or the potential of forming one of the most impressive Big Threes in NBA history with the Lakers.
For George, he’s made his factors for requesting a trade from the Thunder clear. On one hand, he felt that the team had run its course after two first-round playoff exits. On the other, he wanted to return to Southern California to be near his family.
“My parents — my mom and dad both — ever since I was little, watched all my games, made it to every game,” George said after the trade to Los Angeles. “When I was in Fresno [playing in college], they were making three-hour drives on every game day to come see me play. They’ve been just super supportive. So I think, at this point in my career, that’s me giving back to them — that they can continue on with what they started, catching every game and being there for support. They know the love I have of being back home and being here. For me to have them there on a nightly basis, it’s just special every way you look at it.”
Assuming Durant can return somewhere near the level he displayed before tearing his Achilles tendon, he and Irving will eventually form perhaps the most dynamic offensive duo in the NBA. And while it was long rumored that the two friends had been plotting to join forces, Durant said that his relationship with Irving played only a small part in his choice to leave the Warriors for Brooklyn.
“People see friendship as the way guys are teaming up. There’s nothing wrong with people speculating. That’s just what it is, but we’re just good friends no matter what,” Durant told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. “We didn’t have to play together. It wasn’t necessary. But, we were friends before anything, and we just happened to want to hoop together. But it wasn’t a thing we planned. It just came together.”
That would suggest that each player had his own separate motivation for joining the Nets, an assertion that Dec supports. He believes Irving’s primary motivation has to do with something he calls “role design.” Irving was relegated to a No. 2 playmaker in his time with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, from whom he eventually requested a trade. In two seasons with the Boston Celtics, Irving never seemed quite comfortable with his role alongside a bevy of talented co-stars.
“When we look at organizations, sports teams, we look at the model like, what creates total motivation in people? And one of the factors is role design, a key aspect of that. Are people able to do what they enjoy and see the impact of it?” Dec said. “So when we’re talking about, for example, Kyrie and how he likes to play as a point guard, and the teams that he’s been on where he either had another dominant playmaker with him, like in Cleveland with LeBron, or a team-oriented, pass-first offense in Boston, there was a disconnect between Kyrie and his role design on his particular teams.”
For Durant, role design may have been a factor since he willingly sacrificed his individual accomplishments to win championships with three other All-Stars on the Warriors, but perhaps his decision didn’t ultimately have a whole lot to do with basketball. He said he was attracted to the Nets’ style of play, but more than anything he may have been looking for a new challenge. The idea of accomplishing your goals and then moving on to something else plays itself out in the business world as well.
“We find in our research that when people continue to learn and grow, and fundamentally people are naturally wired that way, and if people feel like they’ve checked the box and they’ve climbed the mountain, and there’s nowhere else to climb, and people still love the activity, they might look for a new challenge,” Dec said.” … I think when people lose being challenged, learning, growing — that starts eroding motivation.”
LeBron James and Anthony Davis — Los Angeles Lakers
We won’t spend as much time on this one since the motivations here are pretty obvious. James’ timetable didn’t line up with the young players the Lakers wound up trading, and the addition of Davis makes them an immediate title contender even after missing the playoffs last season.
For Davis, he was obviously unhappy with his situation in New Orleans, resulting in a trade request, and teaming up with James to potentially contend for titles was reportedly what he wanted all along. On top of that, the idea of role design fits here, as the skill sets of both superstars seem to complement each other perfectly.
“When I found out I was getting traded to the Lakers, I realized it was an unbelievable opportunity for me to be here, a wonderful organization,” Davis said at his introductory press conference in July. “And then to get to play alongside LeBron … to get the opportunity to do that, and come here and play for an organization that’s all about winning — forget winning — winning championships, you know, and that’s the only goal. I think that was the biggest thing for me.”
Easily the duo that’s elicited the most head-scratching this summer is the seemingly redundant pairing of Harden and Westbrook, both ball-dominant guards in the truest sense of the phrase. Westbrook was traded to Houston after the Thunder had already dealt George to the Clippers, but by all accounts Westbrook took an active role in choosing his destination, speaking with Harden before the trade about teaming up.
“It was a collaborative effort,” Westbrook said of his trade to Houston at his introductory press conference with the Rockets in July. “It was a process that obviously came very, very quickly, but I thought it was the best decision for me and my career right now. And to be able to reunite with a brother, a friend — to be able to do that is something that you dream about and you live for, and that’s something that was exciting to me.”
Having two alpha leaders who occupy nearly identical roles on the court presents its own problems, as the recent discord between Harden and former teammate Chris Paul can attest. Dec, however, has seen in business how similar two-headed monsters can thrive, assuming they’re used in the right ways.
“Absolutely it can lead to success,” Dec said of having two leaders with similar skill sets. “I think it’s fitting into a system that is focused on maximizing the performance of the team unit.”
The fact that Westbrook and Harden chose to play together may provide that extra motivation for them to adjust their games in whatever way necessary to succeed.
The perfect storm
We may never see a summer like 2019 ever again as it pertains to NBA transactions. The market was top-heavy with star talent, teams had money to spend, the player empowerment movement was reaching a boiling point and Kawhi Leonard had just proven how one perfectly cast superstar can take your team from good to great.
On top of that, we saw how wildly different factors motivated each of the summer’s superstar pairings, a rare confluence of events that created a uniquely wide-open NBA landscape.