One Potential Key to Knicks’ Season: Friendship

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Researchers who study social networks in workplaces have found that having friends at work can make employees more productive and successful, not to mention happier. Friends can hold one another accountable in ways that acquaintances can’t, and a friend can help a new employee understand the workplace more quickly.

So it was when Donte DiVincenzo signed with the N.B.A.’s New York Knicks in July. He didn’t need to figure out on his own how to get to know Julius Randle, one of the team’s leaders, or how to decode Coach Tom Thibodeau’s idiosyncrasies. He had a pair of tour guides already there: his college teammates Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson.

“You’re kind of just thrown right into the fire of them making jokes and them talking about things that you weren’t up to speed with,” DiVincenzo said while preparing for a recent game at Madison Square Garden. “It’s almost like you skip that introduction phase.”

The Knicks have exceeded expectations this season. Even after losing Randle to a shoulder injury, they finished the regular season in second place in the Eastern Conference and began their first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, winning 111-104. Some basketball pundits think this could be the year they reach the conference finals for the first time since 2000, when Brunson’s father, Rick, was a Knicks bench player.

At the center of the Knicks’ success are Brunson, Hart and DiVincenzo — buddies since their teenage years who excel on the court together. It is a testament to their basketball skill, but those who research the workplace say it shows that when employees have friends among their peers at work, the whole organization can benefit.

“There are some truths about joining a company and feeling more connected because of the people that you’re with day in and day out,” said Jon Clifton, the chief executive of Gallup, who has studied workplaces.

“People who are close, their communication happens faster,” Clifton added. “It’s almost like they develop their own languages. They have shortcuts to say complex things in just a few amount of words. But they’ve also built trust.”

One of the most cited studies about workplace friendships and performance is a 1997 paper published by two researchers, Karen Jehn and Pri Shah, who conducted an experiment in which groups were asked to complete motor and cognitive tasks together. The groups that identified as friends were more successful in both types of tasks than the groups composed of mere acquaintances.

“If you were to do research on basketball teams, you could probably code for some of the same behaviors that we were seeing in our experiment,” said Shah, who is now a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

Jehn and Shah found that the friendship groups had less personal conflict. They would “intuitively organize themselves” in ways that saved time and made their work process smoother. On a basketball court, that could mean instinctively knowing what a teammate might do on a fast break, leading to an open layup.

Some teams, of course, can develop chemistry on the court even if they aren’t close friends off it. Conversely, friendship isn’t the only reason Brunson, Hart and DiVincenzo succeed. The three of them have shown their ability separately. But playing together may have added a boost.

They became friends at Villanova University, winning a national championship in 2016. Hart went to the N.B.A. after the next season, with DiVincenzo and Brunson following in 2018 after winning another national title.

Brunson, 27, was the first of the three to arrive in New York. He signed in free agency in 2022 and thrived in a featured role. He was voted an All-Star this year for the first time in his career.

Hart, 29, played for three teams before being traded the Knicks last season. His tenacity and willingness to do the less glamorous work on the court made him essential to them in a way he hadn’t been with other teams.

DiVincenzo, 27, also played for three other teams before arriving in New York. His scoring average this season (15.5 points) is almost five points higher than his career average.

Hart said the Knicks used some of the same concepts that the three had learned at Villanova. Brunson, Hart and DiVincenzo are never far apart on the court. If an opponent is making a run, the three might huddle quickly to regroup. Other times, they don’t need to chat and can come to one another’s aid instinctively.

“The other side is the accountability aspect of getting into guys when they need it,” Hart said.

That happened in a game this month after Brunson, the team’s best player, allowed Keon Ellis of the Sacramento Kings, who was Brunson’s defensive assignment, to make three 3-pointers in the first quarter. Hart remembers that DiVincenzo “snapped” at Brunson, “basically telling him to wake up.” Ellis didn’t make another 3-point shot.

“Whenever you know the guy, you know there’s no ill intent or anything like that,” Hart said.

DiVincenzo said Brunson and Hart had helped him be more comfortable with some of the off-court responsibilities that come with being a Knick, like photo shoots and interviews he otherwise would avoid.

Shah said that if she were to study the Knicks as she did other workplaces, she would be interested in how Hart, Brunson and DiVincenzo interacted not just with one another but with the rest of the team.

“It’s never just us three,” DiVincenzo said. “It’s always two of us are with three or four other different guys on the team. I think that’s really important because it can become cliquey and high school stuff, and that’s not what we have here. We have grown adults, and we have everybody who genuinely likes each other in the locker room.”

Said Brunson at the end of a recent broadcast: “We low-key hate each other, but we like each other. We always joke on each other. We always find something to make fun of the other person. And so somehow it turns into great team chemistry.”

Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University, has found that employees who had friendships with direct co-workers often received better performance evaluations from their supervisors. She also said workplace friendships could help with employee retention and improve general satisfaction with a workplace.

“What keeps them committed, what keeps them engaged, is the social fabric of the organization and the social climate of the organization,” Methot said.

But her work butts up against what she said had historically been a belief at organizations that work friends could be distracting and “promote bad behavior in the organization.” Clifton also has had trouble getting executives to buy into the idea that workplace friendships are beneficial, he said.

It would perhaps not surprise them, then, to hear that Thibodeau, the Knicks’ coach, downplayed the impact of friendships on his team’s success. When asked about how the camaraderie among the players had contributed to the winning season, Thibodeau shrugged.

“I’d rather they get along than not get along,” he said.





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