Lessons on team-building from NBA Finals
June 24, 2012 by Terence LEE
Sports, I find, offers a treasure trove of lessons that can be applied to daily life, professional situations, and entrepreneurship. Building a championship team in sports is actually identical to developing a winning team in your company.
With the recent conclusion of the 2011-2012 NBA season and the coronation of the LeBron James and the Miami Heat as NBA champions, I thought it’ll be useful to look at how the organization embarked on its journey towards the finish line, and how effective team-building was instrumental in its victory.
1) Recruit stars to join your team. But don’t neglect the supporting cast.
Think Miami Heat, and the Big Three comes to mind: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. But as talented as this trifecta is, they wouldn’t have won the championship without a strong supporting cast. Heat President Pat Riley deserves credit for building a winning team on the cheap after splurging on the three stars.
Although the role players under-performed during the regular season, they showed their worth in the playoffs. Mike Miller sealed the deal in Game 5 while Shane Battier was a revelation throughout the Finals series. Mario Chalmers, the much-maligned little cousin of the team, came through as well.
Similarly, in your company, pay attention to every hire, from the intern to the coffee lady to the receptionist. Get people who can add value to your team, rather than drag everybody down. In startups, talent is even more crucial, as an incompetent staff’s misdemeanor has a greater effect on company morale.
Cut away the deadweight. You’re better off without them.
2) Statistics and data are important in evaluating employees, but the intangibles are just as critical.
American sports is obsessed with statistics. Scouts use it to sift out talent. The movie Moneyball demonstrates that numbers can be a gamechanger if applied correctly. This data fetish has even crept up on the corporate world with jargon like ‘big data’ and ‘analytics’ worming its way out of the geeksphere and into everyday business conversations.
(Read about lessons from the movie Moneyball)
As we enter the digital era and data becomes ubiquitous and abundant, even the startup community has been swept up in the revolution. Leading the charge are characters like Steve Blank and Eric Ries and their merry band of Lean Startup brothers.
Yet in scrutinizing tables and charts, we forget that intangibles matter too. And these qualities aren’t as easily teased out using statistics.
Looking at numbers alone, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the favorites to trump the Heat. Sports analysts sang the same tune in predicting the Heat’s doom. Even I thought the Thunder would win on paper (as much as I rooted for the Heat).
The Thunder played less games en route to the Finals, wiping out their opponents quickly and giving themselves more rest. The Thunder also had a deeper team with better role players. This balance gave their stars more rest, which would ensure that they run circles around Miami’s Big Three.
Yet the Thunder unraveled in the Finals. The reason? The Heat, and LeBron especially, suffered a humiliating defeat in last season’s Finals. They learnt a painful lesson which the Thunder has not. The lesson translated into knowledge about how to execute the right way and how to get into the correct mental state. The Heat made less mistakes down the stretch as a result.
And then there’s LeBron, a basketball prodigy who, criticized as selfish and immature a year ago, finally grew up under the spotlight, turning into the beast he is meant to be.
Sports is a mental chess match and as much a battle of resolve as it is a physical game. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you have the most talented team in your startup if they can’t stand the kitchen heat.
3) Find unselfish squad members that can adapt to the team philosophy.
There’s a reason why the Miami Heat was in the Finals while the New York Knicks wasn’t, despite both having star-laden squads. While the Knicks is filled with prima-donnas like Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire who struggled to adapt to the gameplan, the Heat players bought in to their coach’s vision.
Fresh from the unexpected defeat last season, the team knew what it needed the players to do to win a championship. LeBron needed stronger interior play and post presence. So he trained with retired NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon to develop the necessary skillset.
Chris Bosh was asked to play out of position, moving from Power Forward to Center, and that’s exactly what he did. Dwayne Wade, meanwhile, had to accede his alpha dog position to LeBron, and he did it without whining like other millionaire NBA stars did.
The changes, and the harmonious play that ensued, caused nightmares for opposing teams.
In the 21st Century, adaptability is becoming an increasingly important trait. Generalists who can adapt to the flow are rising in importance alongside specialists who are masters of their domain.
While its important to recruit team members who are good in their specializations, it’s even better if these employees can play out of position, be unselfish, and still make an impact. All for the sake of the team.
4) The leader in your team doesn’t always have to be the star.
Sure, stars command the most attention, and make the most money. But even stars are human, and they falter or grow tired. In these situations, role players can come in and plug the leadership gap. Although playing for the losing Thunder, Derek Fisher is an example of such a player.
Advancing in age and no longer the player he once was, Derek was stilled picked up by the Thunder because of his championship pedigree, locker room leadership, and the ability to rise up to the occasion.
The Heat, too, is filled with leaders who don’t hog the spotlight. Pat Riley was instrumental in bringing the Big Three together. He was also a mentor to Erik Spoelstra, the upstart head coach with no championship experience. Erik was able to sell his philosophy and vision to the entire group, molding a championship team out of a group of egotistical stars and has-been bit players.
As much as the startup world is fixated on rock star CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, leadership can often arise from the mid-level managers and even the junior executive.
I remember the story of how Paul Buchheit, the ex-Googler who created Gmail, went against much odds to push his idea forward:
Today, Gmail has over 350 million users. All it took was a lot of persistence and self-confidence from Paul, who was so sure about his idea that even skepticism from Google’s founders, the czars of the tech world, didn’t faze him.
Photos by Keith Allison
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About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE