Relentlessly Doing Your Job

As painful as it is for me to write anything laudatory about the Boston Celtics, they are a very good, well-coached team. The common refrain, given that they’re missing their best two players, is that they have been performing above expectations. However, that may be unfair, as Zach Lowe’s article, “Brad Stevens and the Celtics have a special brand of toughness,” explains.

Brad Stevens, Boston’s brilliant coach, cited the following definition of “toughness”:

Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.

and added (emphasis mine):

If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way? If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?” That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.

Lowe remarks:

This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since [Kyrie] Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme.

Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.

[Danny] Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” [Al] Horford said, “they just won’t play.”

Kevin Durant makes a similar point in Baxter Holmes’s article about the Golden State Warriors, “When The Dubs Hit The Turbo Button”:

That’s what is tough about the NBA — to focus every possession. That’s hard as s— to do. It’s not the physical part. It’s not making 3s. It’s not how many sets can we run, how many dunks can we get. It’s about staying focused every play.

I’ve written before (in a non-sports context) about the importance of constant striving and execution (versus strategy) to high-performance. It’s a theme that seems to come up over and over and over again in sports as well.

Here are more gems from Lowe’s article on Brad Stevens’s leadership style and the culture he’s created in Boston.

On communication:

In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline. Stevens removed Larkin at the next stoppage. He didn’t play again until garbage time. “I learned right away,” Larkin said. “If you don’t get a 50-50 ball, you are coming out.”

Stevens didn’t upbraid Larkin. He approached him calmly and told Larkin why he had been taken out. In evaluating players, both during games and in film sessions, Stevens is careful with language, according to coaches, players and team higher-ups. He focuses on actions: We didn’t get this rebound. You should have made this rotation earlier. The criticism is never about the player’s character. No one is labeled lazy or stupid or selfish. Stevens simply describes what did or did not happen, and what should happen next time.

That has gone a long way in securing buy-in, players say. They feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them — and himself — to almost impossible standards. That is a hard balance to strike. It is not a show, either.

On accountability:

After losses, Stevens often approaches Ainge and apologizes for “blowing it,” Ainge said. “He is always saying that,” Ainge said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like listening to players blame themselves. He’s like a player. He never whines about the players, just himself.”

Even private kvetching about players among coaches and front-office staff can undo a team. Rumors start. Factions develop. That hasn’t happened in Boston.

On culture:

There are no bells and whistles to Boston’s culture. They don’t regularly host famous guest speakers or take field trips. They’ll organize occasional team dinners, but there are no ritualistic, hours-long nights of wine, food and storytelling. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created an environment of serious, hard, consistent work.

Stevens essentially has banned rookie hazing. He wants rookies to take as much ownership of the team as the stars — and to voice their opinions. (This is the same reason Stevens declines to name captains.) Pranks waste time. He was not thrilled last season when culprits unknown filled Brown’s car with popcorn. “Oh, Brad was not happy,” Brown said. “He had my back.”

“I’m kinda glad,” Tatum said of the hazing restrictions. “I don’t want popcorn in my car. I would flip.”

Crib Notes on Golden State Warrior’s Collaborative Culture

Even if the Golden State Warriors lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, they have clearly established an extraordinary culture of performance and collaboration. Kevin Arnovitz outlined some elements of this culture in his excellent piece, “Fun and games: Warriors winning culture faces biggest test.” In particular:

An inclusive culture that values original (sometimes contrarian) thinking:

People up and down the Warriors’ org chart tout collaboration as the defining quality of the team’s culture. As with the Spurs, one is judged not on agreeability but on the ability to present original thinking — even contrarianism — agreeably.

Deliberative decisions and lots of communication. I particularly liked this story about doing their due diligence on Shaun Livingston:

“Decisions are made collaboratively,” Kerr said. “There’s a ton of discussion that goes into what we’re going to do. Any decision is discussed at length. It’s healthy, and we get a lot of different points of view.”

“Our communication happens on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis,” Myers said. “It’s rare that anyone ever goes off in a silo, even me, and comes into the office one day and says, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We’re having conversations organically, and they have a rhythm to them. We’re all formulating thoughts in a daily flow. We call each other to chat the way you’d call a buddy to check in.”

Joy and work-life balance as values:

Joy is constantly cited as a guiding principle within the organization…. The coaching staff under Kerr has adopted a mantra: “Either get s— done or go have fun.” Work is honored, and it’s vital to the development of both the team and the individual players…. But work-life balance is sacrosanct. Preserving that joy is not just a byproduct; it is an objective unto itself. Nobody in Oakland is setting up a cot in the video room, and nobody would think better of you if you did.

Diverse, sometimes unconventional thinkers and interests with a learning mindset. The Warriors have a 10% rule to encourage personal pursuits.

Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power

Ten months ago, as I was in the midst of figuring out my next chapter, I wrote a blog post about legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson. I expressed chagrin at how a man like Phil Jackson was essentially being put out to pasture. He was getting coaching offers, but he had made it clear that he didn’t want to coach, and it seemed like teams were missing out on the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom due to their lack of imagination.

Last week, Jackson was named president of the New York Knicks. If you know basketball, you know that this was an eyebrow-raising development for two reasons. First, James Dolan — the owner of the Knicks — is widely acknowledged as one of the worst owners in the NBA, largely due to his meddling ways. It’s hard to imagine that match working, although Dolan has repeatedly been on record since last week that Jackson will have full control over basketball-related decisions.

Second, it was somewhat surprising that the Los Angeles Lakers never found a way to make it work with Jackson, given that he led them to five championships and is engaged to one of the owners of the team. It’s complicated. The Lakers are a family-owned team whose beloved, larger-than-life patriarch — widely considered the best-ever owner in the history of the NBA — recently passed away. His children — including Jackson’s fiancee — have been groomed to take over for years, and Jackson has always had a complicated relationship with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who is now in charge of basketball decisions.

Still, why weren’t other teams jumping to employ Jackson? Ramona Shelburne wrote a great column for ESPN.com on this very topic:

For all the self-reflection Jackson has done in his 68 years, there was one image he was never going to be able to see clearly. His own. The way he’s seen by others, that is. Not what stares back at him in the mirror, or what’s inside his heart and head. On some level, Jackson understands that he is an intimidating man. His 6-foot-8 frame casts a towering shadow. His 11 NBA titles, Hall of Fame résumé and status as the coach who got the best out of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant walk into any room five minutes before he does.

It’s more than that, though.

The job he wanted for himself, the role he envisioned for the autumn of his basketball life — as a team president with final say over basketball decisions and the authority to create and shape the culture of a franchise — is a large one.

Pat Riley holds a role like that in Miami. So does Larry Bird in Indiana. Jackson certainly has the credentials for a role like that, too. But it’s a big ask of any owner. That kind of power is why an owner spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a professional sports franchise. So he can have the power. It is inherently threatening when an employee has even a little bit of it. It is kind of terrifying when that employee is a legend like Phil Jackson.

If you are in a Phil Jackson-like position, and if you’re wanting a certain role, you have to make it safe for others to embrace you. It’s not enough to sit back and wonder. You have to understand how you’re perceived, even if it’s the furthest thing from your own perception of yourself.

As I wrote last May, I see myself in Jackson’s situation (not that I’m even in the same ballpark of his accomplishments). I sometimes find myself wondering why people in certain situations don’t reach out to me more. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m wanting to share everything I’ve learned over the years and that I have much, much more to learn. Folks who know me know that I’m all about learning and doing great work, that I’m secure about my reputation, that I give credit more than I take it, and that I have no need to be the boss if I’m surrounded by great people and a healthy culture. If you care about similar things, why wouldn’t you try to take advantage of that?

At the same time, I understand both the perception and the reality of my situation. Organizational development professionals in particular tend to come from academia and management consulting, fields that are rife with scarcity mindset and do not believe in or understand the benefits of openness. It’s hard for folks in these fields to understand where I’m coming from and to not perceive me as a threat. I have little patience for people who are more concerned with protecting their reputation than they are about learning, and I’m not shy about expressing my feelings. If it were truly important for me to find ways to work with and mentor others who feel this way, it’s my prerogative to make these folks feel safe. Frankly, I’m mixed about this.

There’s also a flip side. What am I doing to reach out to and learn from others? Could I be doing more?

In 2011, Joe Lacob, who had recently purchased the Golden State Warriors, hired Jerry West as an advisor. On the one hand, this was a Phil Jackson-like no-brainer, maybe times ten. Jerry West is probably the greatest general manager ever. He won six rings as an executive for the Lakers, left in a bit of a power play (involving Phil Jackson), and turned around the Memphis Grizzlies, a historically moribund franchise. That’s not even accounting for his career as a player. West’s impact on the NBA is so great, they literally made him its logo.

Unlike Jackson, West was on record as saying that he didn’t want to become a decision-making part of any organization. On the one hand, if you were trying to turn a franchise around, why wouldn’t you want someone like West? On the other hand, even if West was being authentic about his desired role, you would need people who were tremendously secure to be able to work with him as an advisor.

Here’s what Lacob had to say in 2011 about the concern that there were “too many chefs in the kitchen”:

Everyone who says that is completely clueless. It’s a stupid thing to bring up. This is a 100-plus-million-dollar business. You have to have management. Most NBA teams are incredibly poorly architected on the basketball side. They have people who are ex-players, and Jerry West is an exception to this — but most of them are ex-players or scouts or whatever. They don’t know how to negotiate against incredibly trained killers like Arn Tellem or other agents. That’s what they do for a living. I’m not a genius. There’s a different way to do things and be successful, clearly. But it’s a very successful, thought-out map.

He certainly will feel the itch [to get more involved]. I’m sure he would love to be running something again and pulling the trigger again. That’s the excitement of it, right? But he also knows, and we’ve had these discussions at great lengths, he’s 73 and he’s in L.A. He can’t do it that way. It’s a young man’s game. There’s a lot of day-to-day scouting, a lot of day-to-day video analysis. He’s not prepared to do that right now and doesn’t want to. He has other interests right now.

Three years later, the relationship seems to have paid off. The Warriors are one of the best teams in the NBA, and Lacob credits West for coming in and changing the mentality of the organization.

I think that Joe Lacob is a wonderful model, and it’s got me thinking: Who are the Jerry West’s in my field whom I could be reaching out to and learning from?

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.