The NBA and Ethnicity: the Race of Each Team

Update: You can view the full article in the link below. I moved my blog so Swiss hitman would be further off the trail. You can find more content including graphs in the link.

I’m starting a weekly article on my site published on Sunday. I’m a little late with this one, but it involved a lot of data. I’ll still do posts on other days of the week, but there will always be one article on Sunday during the season.


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.


The basis of this study is to find average ethnicity numbers weighted by minutes played, meaning on the bench types have less of an influence on the statistics. For example, if there is one Asian player on a team and he plays 10% of the total team minutes, then the team is 10% Asian. If a player had parents of different ethnicities, I allocated the weight accordingly. I separated the ethnic 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.


The NBA for the 2010-2011 season was on averaged weighted by minutes played 75.5% African, 17.7% Caucasian, 6.4% Hispanic, 0.3% East Asian, 0.02% Native American, and 0.1% Indigenous Australian. The team with the highest percentage of international player-minutes was San Antonio with 39.7% where the league average was 18.7% (Duncan was listed as international for having been born in the US Virgin Islands, and yes, I know that sounds weird.) The team with the highest percentage for Euro-born players was Toronto, not surprisingly, with 29.3% while the average was 10.5%.

The only three East Asian players last year to receive time were Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, and Jeremy Lin; all had little playing time, but Yao obviously had more in the past. The only Native American player was Delonte West, who said in an interview that his father was part Piscataway Indian. However, I couldn’t find exactly how much his Native American lineage was, so I estimated West’s as 25%. Previous Native American NBA players include Cherokee Parks and Bison Dele, who was murdered at sea by his brother. The only Indigenous Australian in the game is Patrick Mills, a lightning fast point guard now playing in China. Nathan Jawai is another Indigenous Australian who has played in 2008-9 and 2009-10, but he did not have any minutes in this season.

The whitest team in the league was Minnesota because of starters Kevin Love, Darko Milicic, and Luke Ridnour, while the blackest was Detroit who actually didn’t have any white players last season (Swede Jonas Jerebko was injured for the entire year and he’s back with the team now.) The most Hispanic was Denver. The results are found below in the following tables.

The league is, of course, largely black, but not every team is dominated by one ethnicity. Players of non-African ethnicities are not just relegated to bench duty; some are the foundation of teams. A third ethnic group along with African and Caucasian, the Hispanic influence on the game is growing. Countries like Spain, Brazil and Argentina produce some of the NBA’s best players and consequently they form a significant percentage of some NBA teams.

France contributed the most NBA players (excluding the US) but most of their players are African descendants and some were born in France’s overseas department entities like Guadelope. Despite the prevalent international influence on the game, two teams got zero minutes from players born in different countries: the Pacers and Clippers.

There are a few surprises in the data. Minnesota, not Utah or Indiana, was the whitest team. Toronto was not the most international team as they were fourth behind Sacramento and Milwaukee, which were definitely unexpected. No team, however, was more than 50% Caucasian, Hispanic, or International.

As for how ethnicity or background determined a team’s success, the charts at the end of the post show that there is no correlation whatsoever with ethnicity or percentage of internationally born players. Teams with more white players did not have a lower winning percentage overall, and vice versa. If you squint hard enough, you can sort of see a correlation in the international data, but a regression found that there was no significant prediction of wins from international player-minutes percentage. No correlation of wins with the international players is somewhat surprising because one could argue successful teams know how to find harder to locate players in Europe or other places, but recent champions like the 2006 Heat, the 2008 Celtics, and the 2004 Pistons gave few minutes to international players. Cellar-dwellers from last year include the Raptors and Kings, and both of those rosters could fill out a decent UN meeting.


I’ve attached a pie chart for every team showing the ethnic backgrounds. Again I’d like to reiterate that classifying by race is largely outdated, but it’s something we still talk about, especially in the NBA. The mainstream media ignore race when discussing the league, but fans do not. There are a number of prejudices associated with basketball, and these will not be solved by ignoring that Serge Ibaka and Steve Nash look dissimilar (it’s more than the hair.) We have an exciting league with players with very different backgrounds. There are players from Slovenia, Venezuela, Israel, Iran, and Switzerland. In 2010-11, the rookie of the year was half white and half black; an African-American won the MVP; the most improved player and leading rebounder was a white American; a Chinese all-star center retired; the leading shot-blocker was an Australian; and the best player on the championship team was German. Let’s celebrate that diversity, not hide it.

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7 Responses to The NBA and Ethnicity: the Race of Each Team

  1. Pingback: Toronto Raptors Morning Coffee Jan 2 | Raptors Republic | ESPN TrueHoop's Toronto Raptors Blog

  2. Luis says:

    I think it is a mistake, and quite a common one in my opinion, that we consider all Spanish or LatinAmerica-born people to be of Hispanic “race”.

    Leaving apart all moral issues we might and should have about the concept of race, perhaps a good first point to make is to clarify what is Hispanic, in order for it to be relevant from a physiologic point of view. I must advance that I think that “Hispanic” is a tag determining origin and not physical characteristics. “Hispanic”, from a physiologic point of view, comprises people with Amerindian descent, as well as people from the Mediterranean and a mixture of both these types with Caucasian. Pretty much of a portmanteau, isn’t it?

    So, for my point of view, your classification is misleading. Are all Spaniards hispanic? Even, is there any Spaniard in the league who would be considered hispanic before looking their country of origin? If so, shouldn’t Italians, as fellow Mediterraneans, be considered Hispanic as well? Are the likes of Ginobili or former Pistons Herrman to be considered Hispanic? Isn’t it quite an oversimplification to consider all foreign players from Spain&LatinAmerica Hispanic, while you regard races and mixings of several degrees in US-born athletes? I think it must have taken some time to write such a good article and it’s undeserving to overlook these issues…

    • I agree with most you have to say, but for the purposes of finishing what I had I needed the catch-all Hispanic. Americans are easier in that people of mixed race will probably have discussed it in the media, but in some Hispanic countries like Mexico it’s natural to have two different racial backgrounds. I would have liked to separate the Hispanic population better, but it would have been guesswork on a number of guys. I think I should have mentioned that I know Hispanic isn’t a race. I just thought of it as, Hey, this guy has parents who come from this part of the world. If I could, I wouldn’t need to label Varejao (mostly Portuguese descent?) as a Hispanic and instead Caucasian or whatever his background is. Again, sorry I had to use Hispanic when talking about race, but until I get better information on those guys I had to. Also, I know ethnicity and race are different things — race is more biological and ethnicity more about the background and culture. But the only color that matters is orange: the basketball. Or possibly green, for the large contracts guys sign to escape crappy teams.

  3. Erik says:

    Hello —

    I enjoyed the post and I’m pretty sure that’s a Pynchon reference in your title, so here’s a thank you:

    The color may be off, now that I’m looking at it, but I figured at the very least a png would help smooth out the court lines.

  4. Very interesting. While the best approach may be to simply ignore race out of existence, if we are going to talk about it, cooly and rationally is the way to go.

    The next step: accounting for hybrid vigor. How many athletes in the NBA are really even of a single race, however race is defined? I’d bet very, very few.

    The pleasant outcome of such an analysis: it might very well be the willingness of parents to break racial and ethnic barriers that helps create the finest athletes (and the smartest people, most attractive, and so on).

  5. Pingback: Tuesday And-1 links, or how Kevin Love = Bill Laimbeer | ProBasketballTalk

  6. Pingback: Rants, References and Revelations | Hickory-High

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