Monday, May 7, 2012

Race and Ethnicity in the NBA 2011-12 Season

Disclaimer:

Yes, I know that talking about race is stupid. There is only one race: the human race. Skin color has nothing to do with a person. Racial groups were created years ago in a different world and today they’re hardly used. Etc. However, the discussion of race in the NBA lives on, and I thought it’d be interesting to put some numbers behind things. It might be best, also, to think of this as an analysis of the background of NBA players, not race.

Background

The basis of this study is to find average "race" of each team weighted by minutes played, meaning bench warmers have less of an influence on the statistics. For example, if there is one white player on a team and he plays 10% of the total team minutes, then the team is 10% white. If a player had parents of different ethnicities, I allocated the weight accordingly. I separated the groups into African, Caucasian, Hispanic, East Asian, Native American, and Indigenous Australian.There are numerous issues that arise when dividing people into these groups, but this was the best I could do to make sense of it all. I also have numbers for international and European players. That's decided by the country of birth, not where one has spent most of his youth, with the exception of those born on a military base like Carlos Boozer.

As for the specifics behind racial classification, Hispanic, which is an ethnicity and not a race, is a catch-all for Spain and Portugal’s influence over the western hemisphere, where otherwise it would be very difficult finding the right numbers for, say, the amount of white and black ethnic roots for Al Horford. This means that Spanish players were not Caucasian but Hispanic in this study. The Caribbean islands were a difficult bunch of countries to set a “race,” so I used the historical background of each one – Hispanic like Puerto Rico or West African like Jamaica. Caucasian included middle-eastern and Semitic groups like Iranian giant Hamed Haddadi. I understand that Native Americans have genetic similarities to East Asians, but culturally there’s a clear divide and when the average person thinks about race today that person doesn’t group them with Asians.

Additionally, please note that I do not have comprehensive information on the background of each player, and I'm sure there are more players with a Native American background than what I have (just Delonte West though a couple others like Andrew Bynum allegedly have some as well.) Indigenous Australian seems like a group that’s too specific, but anthropology differentiates them from East Asians or Africans. There are also issues where most African-Americans have some Caucasian blood, and many Americans have some Native American. However, I do not have a DNA test for each NBA player; I worked with what I could find.

This is the second season I've down with this topic. I may have errors in the database, and any help is appreciated. Some players had difficult backgrounds to discern, and I imagine like some people, especially in the US, a few NBA players don’t know their ethnic makeup. Also, if you have any problems with the categories I have, please contact the US government census since their system is very similar, and what they're doing is more important than what I'm doing. The first question in the census about race/ethnicity asks whether or not you're Hispanic, and the next what specific race -- American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian, black, Pacific Islander, or white.

Results

Nearly three-fourths of the minutes during the 2011-12 season were allocated to black players. At 75.6%, it's 0.1% more than last year, while the percentage to Caucasian players increased to 18.6% from 17.7%. Mostly because of injures to Nene, Brook Lopez and Horford, Hispanics decreased from 6.4% to 5.4%. All other races added up to less than a fraction of a percent. In contrast to the trend seen in the early part of the last decade, there were less player-minutes for European (10.5% to 10.1%) and International players (18.7% and 17.4%.) Part of this was undoubtedly the lockout swaying some to stay overseas like Kirilenko, but it's something to watch in the future since both the last draft and the next one are devoid of international talent.

Team
African
Team
Caucasian
Portland Trailblazers
93.8
Milwaukee Bucks
38.3
LA Clippers
92.5
Minnesota Timberwolves
36.2
Boston Celtics
91.9
Orlando Magic
33.7
Washington Wizards
91.1
Phoenix Suns
30.7
Miami Heat
90.6
Houston Rockets
30.2
Detroit Pistons
89.7
New Orleans Hornets
27.1
Philadelphia 76ers
88.8
Chicago Bulls
25.2
Oklahoma City Thunder
87.9
LA Lakers
24.7
Sacramento Kings
87.9
Charlotte Bobcats
23.1
Indiana Pacers
82.6
Golden State Warriors
23.0
Memphis Grizzlies
82.4
Atlanta Hawks
22.5
New Jersey Nets
80.4
Denver Nuggets
20.7
Utah Jazz
78.7
San Antonio Spurs
20.6
Dallas Mavericks
78.1
New Jersey Nets
19.1
Golden State Warriors
77.0
Dallas Mavericks
19.0
Cleveland Cavaliers
77.0
Toronto Raptors
18.2
Atlanta Hawks
75.4
Cleveland Cavaliers
18.1
Charlotte Bobcats
75.2
Utah Jazz
18.1
Chicago Bulls
74.8
New York Knicks
15.8
San Antonio Spurs
70.7
Indiana Pacers
14.7
New York Knicks
70.3
Oklahoma City Thunder
12.1
Denver Nuggets
69.8
Philadelphia 76ers
10.9
Phoenix Suns
66.4
Miami Heat
9.4
Orlando Magic
66.3
Detroit Pistons
9.2
LA Lakers
60.2
Boston Celtics
8.1
Toronto Raptors
60.2
LA Clippers
7.5
Houston Rockets
56.9
Sacramento Kings
7.1
Milwaukee Bucks
52.0
Washington Wizards
6.8
New Orleans Hornets
51.1
Portland Trailblazers
6.2
Minnesota Timberwolves
48.5
Memphis Grizzlies
2.1

The most African team was, surprisingly, the Portland Trailblazers, and the results would have been even stronger if they didn't give up midway through the season, freeing minutes to Babbitt, and Pryzbilla didn't come back from retirement. The Clippers, however, have a stronger hypothetical case. If it weren't for Blake Griffin's mother, the LA Clippers would be completely black. They didn't even have a bench scrub who wasn't black. The reason for the big spread in the percentages is that it only takes a couple players to dramatically affect the numbers. If Utah had drafted an African-American in place of Gordon Hayward, they would have been the fourth on the most African teams list.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Minnesota Timberwolves are the only team who are less than half black. The frontcourt featuring Love-Pekovic-Milicic-Brad Miller was almost completely white. In fact, since their two Hispanic players, Rubio and Barea, are white-Hispanics, they are in actuality the only team with the distinction of being more white than black including last season. Classifying Hispanics in a separate category, the Milwaukee Bucks are the most Caucasian team, and that's with another injury-riddled season from their Australian center Bogut. The Magic are an unexpected case, and if one of the Lopez or Gasol for Howard type trades went through they could have taken the title of whitest. Memphis almost gave no minutes to non-Hispanic white players, and only an Iranian center Haddadi and Josh Davis, who played just 130 minutes, prevented that.

Team
Hispanic
Team
East Asian
New Orleans Hornets
21.8
New York Knicks
5.9
Toronto Raptors
21.7
Dallas Mavericks
1.3
Memphis Grizzlies
15.5


Minnesota Timberwolves
15.3
Team
Native American
LA Lakers
15.1
Dallas Mavericks
1.6
Houston Rockets
12.9


Milwaukee Bucks
9.7
Team
Indig. Australian
Denver Nuggets
9.6
San Antonio Spurs
1.6
New York Knicks
8.0

San Antonio Spurs
7.0
Sacramento Kings
5.0
Cleveland Cavaliers
4.9
Utah Jazz
3.2
Phoenix Suns
2.8
Indiana Pacers
2.7
Atlanta Hawks
2.2
Washington Wizards
2.1
Charlotte Bobcats
1.7
Detroit Pistons
1.1
New Jersey Nets
0.4
Philadelphia 76ers
0.4
Boston Celtics
0
Chicago Bulls
0
Dallas Mavericks
0
Golden State Warriors
0
LA Clippers
0
Miami Heat
0
Oklahoma City Thunder
0
Orlando Magic
0
Portland Trailblazers
0

While not every team has a Hispanic player, the influence is growing. The Hornets, surprisingly, head the top of the list, but it's probably only surprising because no one was watching them. Venezuelan Greivis Vasquez and notable find Mexican Gustavo Ayon were the main Hispanic influence. The Gasol brothers have a large influence here since Pau is the only representative on his team yet the Lakers are fifth, and Marc nearly the only one if it weren't for Gilbert Arenas' Cuban heritage. Renowned for its international flavor, the Raptors' starting point guard is another Spaniard, Jose Calderon, and the "Brazilian Blur" Barbosa was a bench weapon. One interesting result is that some cities with a large Hispanic influence like Miami and Dallas don't have any of those players, suggesting that race is not an important determinant in the hiring process.

As for other races represented, Jeremy Lin caused a media firestorm and led to lots of discussion about race, specifically Asians, in the NBA. He didn't pick up playing time right away and got injured, otherwise the Knicks would have had more than 5.9%. Also, despite his hoopla, or rather illustrating the point, Asians only had 0.2% of the total minutes during the regular season. The other one is Yi Jianlian, who picked up a few minutes on an odd Dallas bench that featured the pouting Lamar Odom. Dallas also has the only Native American player, or rather the only player I could find, Delonte West, with reliable information (he's 1/4th Native American.) Another Texas team, the number 1 seed no one takes seriously as a contender in the Spurs, played Australian speedy point guard Patty Mills late in the year. It's not a completely one-man category as Nathan Jawai last played in the league as recently as 2010.

Team
European %
Team
International %
Dallas Mavericks
27.3
San Antonio Spurs
40.2
Toronto Raptors
24.4
Toronto Raptors
37.8
Denver Nuggets
22.1
Milwaukee Bucks
35.6
Minnesota Timberwolves
19.7
Cleveland Cavaliers
34.6
Detroit Pistons
18.0
Dallas Mavericks
28.6
Milwaukee Bucks
17.2
New Orleans Hornets
27.8
New Orleans Hornets
17.1
Denver Nuggets
27.2
LA Lakers
15.1
Minnesota Timberwolves
26.2
Memphis Grizzlies
14.9
Phoenix Suns
25.7
Atlanta Hawks
14.8
Oklahoma City Thunder
20.1
San Antonio Spurs
14.6
Houston Rockets
20.0
Phoenix Suns
13.3
Chicago Bulls
19.4
Portland Trailblazers
11.2
Detroit Pistons
18.0
Orlando Magic
10.4
Charlotte Bobcats
17.3
Boston Celtics
9.1
Atlanta Hawks
17.0
Oklahoma City Thunder
8.8
Washington Wizards
16.4
New Jersey Nets
8.6
Memphis Grizzlies
16.2
Washington Wizards
6.8
LA Lakers
15.2
Charlotte Bobcats
6.4
Portland Trailblazers
11.9
Chicago Bulls
6.1
Orlando Magic
10.4
Utah Jazz
5.4
Utah Jazz
10.3
Philadelphia 76ers
5.2
Miami Heat
9.8
Golden State Warriors
4.6
Boston Celtics
9.1
Cleveland Cavaliers
2.1
New Jersey Nets
8.6
Indiana Pacers
0.1
Philadelphia 76ers
5.6
New York Knicks
0.1
Sacramento Kings
5.0
Houston Rockets
0
Golden State Warriors
4.6
LA Clippers
0
Indiana Pacers
2.8
Miami Heat
0
New York Knicks
0.8
Sacramento Kings
0
LA Clippers
0

Not a total shocker, but Dallas and Toronto had the most minutes for European born players. Other than finals MVP Nowitzki, Roddy Beaubois and center Mahinmi are both French. Toronto was led by Calderon and their first overall pick Italian Bargnani, although they'll be joined next season by a seven-footer Jonas Valaciunas. Four teams featured no one born in Europe, and Indiana and New York were a Fesenko and Gadzuric away from joining them. France again had the most NBA players, and all of them were at least partly of African descent.

The Spurs climb to the top of the international list because of Argentine Ginobili, Brazilian Tiago "Log" Splitter, and US Virgin Tim Duncan (or Virgin Islander, whatever it is.) The Clippers like last year featured no international players, and in fact were nearly 100% black as previously mentioned if it weren't for Blake Griffin's mother. Cleveland and Houston, interestingly, had little to no Europeans but are high on the international list with such players as the Australian number one pick Irving, Israeli Casspi, Argentine Scola, Hatian Dalembert, and others.

There are definitely stereotypes about race and basketball talent, but are there effects in the NBA? First of all, be careful about interpreting the fact that the league is predominately black. There's definitely a cultural bias that leads more black men into basketball. The league is roughly 18% non-Hispanic white, and some of the 5% of the Hispanic players are "white," yet few American Caucasian players are elite with the notable exception of Kevin Love.

There is no correlation, however, between race, ethnicity or place of birth and winning. Teams that have more black people do not win more often, and vice versa. The atrocious Bobcats, for instance, are near the league averages for percentage of minutes given to Africans, Caucasians, and Hispanics; but so are the Spurs and Bulls. If you think you see a slight correlation in the green dots below, you're wrong -- doing a simple regression the R^2 is 0.015, which means that only 1.5% of the variation in wins is explained by race and it's not statistically significant. The same is true of team wins and the percentage of minutes given to international and European players. You can also visit the appendix at the end of the article to see how there's also no correlation with race and birth place and three point field goals, free-throw percentage, and defensive rating.





The fact that there's no correlation between a team's ethnic background and wins doesn't prove anything about who's best at basketball, however. But I don't want to ever suggest that's what I'm stating. The NBA has the best collection of players in the world, and some of the best shooters and athletes include white and black players. The lack of correlation does suggest teams are color-blind in who they play. If teams were averse to playing white or black people, then there should be a trend in the graphs since the other teams would have an advantage by hiring according to talent, not race. The NBA is the wrong league for a racist employer (which explains why the Clippers were terrible for so long.)

Conclusion

Race and ethnicity in the NBA are an interesting subject. On a negative note, there's plenty of prejudice and epithets thrown around in the league and one racial group dominates the sport, but it's also one that features diversity even with its executives and guys from Russell, Rick Barry, Magic, Bird, and Jordan to Bryant, Nash, Chris Paul, Nowitzki, and LeBron James have received cheers from fans of every background. This is the season of Jeremy Lin, who busted stereotypes by providing an Asian-American athlete relying on speed and quickness at a competitive position, point guard, in the bright lights of Madison Gardens. Ignoring race doesn't solve problems. Instead admire the variety of backgrounds of NBA players, where Swedish, Nigerian, Canadian, and Canadian players can all earn stupid amounts of money throwing a stupid orange ball into a hoop.

Appendix


See the stats for the 2010-11 season here.

The charts are a little blurry, but to fit them correctly they needed to be that size. Click on them for a clear picture.







 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 comments:

  1. Hi Justin, I am currently working on a school project and was wondering what are the sources for your data. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's basically my own data. I would check this for every single player until I could some reasonably reliable source that says race or ethnicity. Most commonly, you can look up the parents of an athlete, and if it's a mixed race couple you can find that quickly because that's sadly still a big deal.

      There are also resources like this:
      http://www.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2011_NBA_RGRC_FINAL%20FINAL.pdf

      Note that I weight the numbers by minutes played while they just use the number of players. They have reports about the non-basketball staff too.

      Delete
  2. I used this for a school project as well, nice stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Justin,

    Fascinating article. Last year you listed Detroit as being the only all black team. Do you have the stats on how many all black teams there were in the NBA over the last decade or so?

    ReplyDelete
  4. hey justin i was wondering if i could get ur last name, i loved this information and im using it for a school paper, but just wanted to give u proper credit.

    ReplyDelete