Professor Gives NBA Executives a Lesson on Teamwork

Chester Spell

Chester Spell

Coaches and athletes always say that team chemistry can’t be quantified; that it can’t be measured by a statistic found in agate newsprint or an online box score. A Rutgers University–Camden professor begs to differ, and his work has grabbed the attention of the NBA’s general managers and coaches.

Chester Spell, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden, spoke about how group dynamics impact team chemistry and on-court success during a meeting of team executives from the National Basketball Association on Sept. 20 in Chicago. Spell delivered a similar talk in Las Vegas in July to about 80 NBA summer league leaders.

“The notion of how to develop team chemistry is desirable for all athletic teams, but no one has ever been able to develop a formula for it,” Spell says. “Determining the best mix of people in a team to get good team chemistry is one of the things people who work in organizational behavior or organizational psychology try to do.”

In an age in which sports general managers are shifting their focus to numerical data to build their teams, Spell and his research colleague, Katerina Bezrukova, an assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, say they have built a team chemistry algorithm that combines three factors: clubhouse demographics, trait isolation, and “ego factor,” which is dependent on the number of highly paid superstars on the team.

“It goes beyond, ‘do you like each other,’” Spell says. “All of these factors contribute to how well a team works together.”

Team demographics Spell considers are age, tenure, nationality, and race. Teams with the most diversity in these categories score the highest in Spell’s analytic formula. But if a team is composed of a majority of older players, for example, a younger player may feel isolated, which is more detrimental to team chemistry. The same goes for players with big money contracts — Spell’s “ego factor” — which can create a rift among lower-salary teammates.

Which pro basketball team exemplifies team chemistry in Spell’s model?

“Clearly, the San Antonio Spurs,” the Rutgers–Camden scholar says. “We’re just now analyzing our NBA data, but the Spurs are known for their team chemistry and they just won another championship. They fit our model. ”

But what happens to team chemistry if there are issues with management? The Los Angeles Clippers and the Atlanta Hawks have been in the news because their owners made racially insensitive remarks. Spell says that can certainly upset a group dynamics, but can also bring a team together.

“I haven’t done research on this issue, so this is speculation, but at least in the Clippers case, the players made good out of a very bad thing,” he says. “There was team unity. In our baseball research, we found that conflict can bring a group together.”

Spell’s formula doesn’t just apply to pro basketball teams. His research on team chemistry was cited last year in an article about the Oakland Athletics and in an ESPN the Magazine issue previewing the 2014 Major League Baseball season. Furthermore, the group dynamics formula can be applied to any workplace and in any industry.

“These concepts hold up everywhere, even though our focus is on sports,” Spell says. “Sports teams are just one example of many when looking at the overall success of a group.”

A Maple Shade resident and Georgia native, Spell’s research focuses on employee health and wellness and how organizations respond to those issues. He is the author of numerous published articles including, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Baseball Players, Shocks to the System, and the Unfolding Model of Faultlines and Employee Turnover,” which focuses on employee turnover on Major League Baseball teams.

Spell teaches courses on human resource management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. He earned his bachelor’s degree and his doctoral degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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