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It's a Process

Musing on the Warriors, halfway through. Part one of Stars, Starters, Systems, and Smarts: 21st Century Basketball

Thearon W. Henderson
"Culture change" is something we think about (and usually discuss) as a locker-room phenomenon, but for Golden State, it's clearly been more than that. Top to bottom, it's a different organization, and a better one. Remarkably better. I believe that's because the same strategic principles that guide the organization as a business guide the Warriors as a team.

Before the season started, I'd come to the shocking conclusion that Warriors management is smarter than I am. Nothing that has happened since has caused me to question that, including the iso plays and platoon rotations on the court. To understand why, let's look at a strategic overview of the organization from a venture capital perspective.

Seven basic strategic principles seem to form the core of the "Warrior Philosophy".

  • Relationships Matter Most
  • Recognize Undervalued Potential
  • Rapid Iterative Change
  • Be Opportunistic
  • Find Leverage
  • Invest in Entrepreneurs
  • Maximize Strengths

For the most part, these are commonplace - even cliche - in the startup/VC communities. In today's Warriors organization, they appear to be consistent at all operational levels.

Today we'll look at a key aspect of this club that makes this work both on and off the court - intelligence.

"One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.... In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"It's a process" - Mark Jackson

We like to make fun of MJax and his catchphrases, but you would be hard pressed to find a political candidate who does a better job of staying on message. In this case, the message is a reminder that building a team is a process, not an event. Another line attributed to Roosevelt  (but the gist of which was reportedly delivered by Henry Thomas Buckle sometime in the late 19th century) helps illuminate why this particular catchphrase is important:

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

Jackson is oriented towards discussing ideas, influencing events, and motivating people. He may not have a great mind, but he's got a good one, and the correct orientation for his message. I am virtually certain he shares this orientation with Myers, Guber, and Lacob.

Last week Ethan Skolnick published a wonderful piece on hi-IQ, with interviews from HEAT players.  It's relatively long, and on Bleacher Report. Read it anyway - I've never seen a piece like it, and the quotes from Bosh, Battier, and others give a much better picture of the challenges of being a bright pro athlete. Skolnick agrees with me that, along with the HEAT, the Warriors are one of the teams who notably value intelligence.

I suspect it wasn’t entirely deliberate, because they’re thinking about getting good players first. My hypothesis is that a culture of intelligence is an emergent property, rather than one that a team sets out to create. Some combination of players, coaches and management has to reach a critical mass, and none of the three can be left out of the combination.

It takes a minimum of 3 nodes to constitute a "network", and emergence is a network phenomenon. Something has to create a tipping point for that emergence to happen.

For the Spurs, that was Pop and Duncan, with Pop wearing two hats then hiring Buford. For Miami, it was Riley, then The Decision and hiring Spoelstra. For the Warriors, it was hiring Myers, hiring Jackson, and trading Monta for Bogut. (That we immediately flipped SJax for Jefferson certainly didn’t hurt.)

Bogut (as it happens) was an undervalued asset, an opportunity, leverages Steph and DLee as players, and is an entrepreneur with a strength of high intelligence. He’s also someone you can build a relationship with, if you respect him and he respects you. Jackson has used that strength to work with Bogut on defensive sets, instead of clashing with him. The result? Bogut has an investment at the operational level in seeing it work, and a mutual relationship with his coaching staff. Good VCs (and startups) offer a little less to make sure someone wants to work with them, as we’ve seen Myers do.

It is one of the worst feelings in the world to have your talents mis-utilized and your character misunderstood by your boss and coworkers, particularly when you actually do know better. It’s a big issue for these guys, as Skolnick points out in his article. They get reps for being aloof, or troublemakers. Rumors have predicted locker-room trouble from several players here that never materialized. Jackson’s response has been along the lines of "you don’t know my guys".

And so the perfect player to add outside of LBJ and Durant for the kind of ball you want to play and coach says "I want to work with you". And sure enough, he’s also an undervalued….etc. And he’s entrepreneurial and can see how he fits. Once you’ve signed Iguodala and extended Bogut the die is cast.

"I love playing for Mark Jackson." - Andre Iguodala
Understand that Andre is a very bright human, not just "smart for an athlete". The same is true of Jermaine O'Neal and Andrew Bogut - at a minimum on this team. Bogut has spoken of loving it here, of being part of a world-class organization. O'Neal was very clear he wanted to play at least one year here. When MJax says "Draymond Green could have a job coaching tomorrow", he means it literally. (Izzo would hire him in a heartbeat, unless he got a better offer.) HB, Steph, David, and Klay are no dummies either.

Given that, the composition of the current team and Jackson's role in it becomes far more understandable. MJax is not only a gifted motivator, he's a gifted motivator of very intelligent people. That's a much rarer skill, and one that is masked by two things: our focus on his religion, and the team focus on "character". Character is a prerequisite in team building (who do you want to have those relationships with?), but intelligence is responsible for dynasties. Just ask Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, or Gregg Popovich.

It's one thing to say "so and so is willing to take a pay cut to play for X" - it's another thing when those so-and-sos know what to look for in an opportunity. What can having that culture mean when someone gets traded here?

"They have a lot of really great basketball players with really high IQs." - Jordan Crawford talking about the Warriors roster.

"Talent is talent." - Stephen Curry on Jordan Crawford stepping in nearly seamlessly.

The word is out - and for Crawford it gave him the unusual experience of elation at the team he was traded to before the gut-punch of realizing he'd been traded again. I'm tempted to say that Crawford will thrive here, on very small sample size. Of course he'll have to produce - but talent is talent, and he recognizes what's important.

Over the next while, other players are going to want be here. Some because they want to be on a contender, others because this is the team that appeals to them. The key for any players - and coaches - is to understand: it's a process.

(note: Updated to include my answers to dso's excellent questions. I really appreciate the feedback, guys - thanks.)

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