Moneyball has been often understood as a revolutionary contribution of the valuing of data-based decision-making to the way sports teams were managed. The intersection of the role of data-based decisions and sports management pales in comparison to the misunderstanding of structural integrity and its contribution to not only sustained competitiveness but also to the increase of the likelihood of a regular appearance of momentary success. This increased likelihood of persistent moments of success is necessary for qualified individuals to buy into an organization. Thus, sports fans in general and basketball fans in particular, as well as thinkers, leaders and those interested in organizational theory ought to find the following meaningful.
I have long believed that Canadians have been fed a consistent diet of hockey, with less attention to an underground Canadian basketball culture than has been deserved. NBA and Toronto Raptor fans have also been privy to an incredibly quick turnaround. The Raptors worked hard to climb to championship contention, won a championship in 2019, but then lost their star player, and traded away two franchise cornerstones. For reasons of COVID, they played an entire season on the road and finished out of the playoffs. They seemed to be on a downward spiral that would not end quickly. In most cases, teams that suffer transition of this kind enter many years of mediocrity, if not worse. For those of you who don’t know, the story of the post-2019 championship Toronto Raptors, and the re-emergence of Pascal Siakam after going through significant struggles, are probably THE greatest storylines going into the 2022 NBA playoffs. In a recent video on YouTube by Jura6ix Basketball, Pascal Siakam’s story was analyzed with some depth, and the background to Siakam’s turnaround was linked to a change in mindset that looks something like Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” or the legend-like mindfulness work of Phil Jackson that structured the sustained success of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. While giving too much emphasis to the role of mindset, Jura6ix got me thinking about the framework for thriving in team sports, and team environments beyond the sports world.
My connection to this issue
I approach team success from several angles. The three that stand out at this moment are the team (family) my wife and I lead at home, the teams I have led in my working life, and the teams I have been a part of in sports. While I have played many sports, basketball is my love. I played through school and college. I have played on teams that were bad, ones that both fell below and that exceeded expectations; I have played on teams that won big tournaments, won city championships, that were regional champions, and competed at the top of whichever tier we were in. I have been both a star and a role player. As a coach, I have been both an assistant and a head coach. As a three-year college coach, we won a league championship, missed the playoffs, and went to our national semi-final when we weren’t expected to go that far. As a coach in a community boys under 15 division, we finished as a top seed with a roster full of star players but lost our playoff game horribly, and we won a division championship without a consistent star player. As a junior high and junior varsity coach, I have helped teams without any significant history of success and without a program for success to become relevant and competitive again. Two particular lessons stick out to me: 1) the teams that thrive have frameworks for improvement that have structural integrity, and 2) the teams that underperform do not develop such structural integrity.
The Toronto Raptors and a Framework for Thriving
For our current understanding, let me offer the instinctual definition of the results of a framework for thriving, known by all players who compete: “at crunch time, let’s be in a position to win the game.” For me, that marker in competitive sports, or any finite games, is the best measure of sustained thriving – even if your team doesn’t happen to win. A sports team that consistently thrives does a plethora of things well. Briefly, a framework for success balances team needs with the individual interests of the player and develops a culture of trust and communication; it hires and supports the right people for the roles, and it nourishes a culture of constant learning and development. At this point, many words have been and could be written. However, as Jurs6ix highlights in the Raptors case, players and coaches train hard at developing their games behind the scenes.
This is why the 2010s and ‘20s Raptors are such a success story. Like the Popovich-coached Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili San Antonio Spurs before them, the Raptors have built a framework of thriving that has allowed them to be competitive at the highest level that extends beyond the lifetime of any particular player. Don’t get me wrong, the players along the way have been essential to the strengthening of the framework. One only has to look at the way Kyle Lowry had the back of GM Masai Ujiri during the 2019 NBA Finals to see how thorough this framework affects success. But the framework persists throughout and beyond the shelf-life of a player on the Raptors. It existed before Kawhi Leonard came to the Raptors and has existed well beyond his departure. Even Raptors who are more closely aligned with the identity of the team came through the organization that was structured for consistent success. Players like Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan come to mind but also coaches like Dwayne Casey. Arguably, it goes back even further to players like Chris Bosh, and it will foreseeably extend through the current batch of Raptors notables like coach Nick Nurse and players Fred Van Vleet, O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, and Siakam himself. Such a structure has empowered career successes in all these cases and has promoted individuals from relative obscurity to impactful relevance, like in the case of former Raptors Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, and Delon Wright, to current Raptors at different stages of their careers like Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, Thadeus Young, and Armoni Brooks. All of these personalities have found measures of individual success that would not be as remarkable without the framework for thriving that the Raptors organization has fostered.
THE primary job of leaders – especially on sports teams – is to invest in structures of thriving, what we often understand as frameworks. Let’s not put too fine a point on who exactly the leaders are – they can be coaches, general managers, and even star players. The teams that have not invested properly in the framework for thriving may experience momentary success, but nothing that could be called sustained.
Load Management and the Purpose of Rest
During the 2019 season, Nick Nurse and Kawhi Leonard received lots of criticism under the umbrella term “load management”. Kawhi had left his last team because he knew his body could not, at the time, handle the grind of an 82-game season that lasted 9 months of the year. The criticism, partly from the leadership of the NBA, had to do with understanding the entertainment product relied on the regular participation of star players. According to the NBA, people paid to see stars, and if the stars consistently rested during some of the season, the value of the product would be diminished. Leonard, Nick Nurse, and the Raptors proved the logic wrong – especially when it appeared that the opposite perspective of pushing players to their physical limitations (e.g. Kevin Durant’s injury and the Golden State Warriors) actually did diminish the product. Durant not only missed the rest of the series but the entire next season. All the star players, supported by a long-held awareness of health and sports science, seem to have realized that an intense, myopic focus on momentary success can jeopardize the body’s ability to consistently thrive. This tension demonstrates that long-term thriving can be at odds with finite systems, as the biological limitations of superstar athletes demonstrate.
How a lack of investment in the culture of a team leads to consistent failure – The Bulls and The Lakers
Currently, in the NBA, two shining examples of this tension stand out: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls, even though they are examples where the balance between sustained thriving and momentary success has not been well struck. In the case of the Lakers, a team filled with aging and often injured, but capable stars, their poor performance was a result not of injuries, but as Brian Windhorst of ESPN says, because of a poorly constructed roster. Even more so, the all-time great player (even greatest?) Lebron James has been well identified as part of the problem, not only in his play but also in the kind of investment in the framework for thriving as an organization. It seems as if Lebron has tried to shape the team for his success, rather than the other way around. The Chicago Bulls, and their fanbase, have recognized that, in a team full of in-their-prime star players including Derozan, Levine, Vucevic, and Caruso, they have a culture problem that has led them to be uncompetitive in clutch time. They are entering the playoffs having dropped from being first in the Eastern Conference in mid-season to being a team that is sixth and is walking into the first round where they will be summarily dismissed by either the Milwaukee Bucks or the Boston Celtics – two teams that seem to be operating on the Spurs/Raptors model for thriving. Simon Sinek would call the Spurs/Raptors model an infinite game model.
Frameworks for Thriving – beyond the NBA
Simon Sinek has classified examples like these as the difference between finite and infinite games. According to Sinek, finite games have known players, stable rules, and clear measurements of winners and losers. Infinite games have unknown players and rules, and winning counts as staying in the game. The connection that Sinek never makes, as far as I am aware, is the impact those who play infinite games make in finite games.
In family and work, I have experienced the necessity to invest in a culture of sustained thriving, through momentary successes and failures as the issue of concern. It is a kind of motivating question of the 21st century. It isn’t just me. As in the case of Simon Sinek, one of the most popular business thought leaders of the early 21st century, the deep concern with this issue extends not only in the realms of sports, family, and work/business but also in more public and universal spheres of life that include politics, art, spirituality, and generational differences. It is the central question of a host of investigations held on TED and on Masterclass – which take significant portions of their platforms to highlight important contributions to the question of frameworks of thriving and moments of success.
But we enter into the activities of life, in any of these spheres, not as universals, but as particular individuals. Seen from particular perspectives, including the very real motivations of individuals, considering frameworks for thriving there must be moments of success that create a kind of excitement that comes from experiencing what we do as significant to a moment of success. A regular experience of moments of success is necessary to understand that we are in a framework for thriving.
While Sinek’s work is important, he also suggests that the goal of infinite games is to work toward something, even if we never get there. He uses spheres of life that are clearly infinite games, such as friendship. But it would be foolish to think of what is aimed at in friendship is outside the friendship. This could be put in a better, more sustainable way. True infinite players do not see the goal as external and something to be made real in the future. It isn’t so much that the goal is far off and external to our reality, but rather as existing as an unrealized potential of what exists now. The goals of friendship, if it can be put so crudely, are not something to be aimed at as if it were an ideal future concept; instead, they are to be arrived at in actual friendships. Being a friend happens between friends in the activity of friendship. It makes little sense to suggest that the goal of friendship is “beyond” the friendship.
If we go back to the Lakers and the Bulls, they take Sinek’s view. Lebron re-fashioned a team to bring in what he thought it didn’t have. The Bulls also think of the goal as far off and not present in their situation. The Toronto Raptors have realized that they need to refine and work with what is present. To refine a framework for thriving, individuals and teams work in the present to nurture unrealized potential capacity and expand that capacity; they do not use up their capacity for a moment of success.
The tension can be understood as maintaining a balance between the two sides. But they also could be two sides of the same coin. If you don’t have a culture of sustained success, moments of winning will be fewer and further between, and more a result of fortune and luck than of planning and hard work. If you don’t have frequent moments of success, sustained culture of thriving will be almost impossible to establish. Investing in frameworks of thriving consistently puts us in spaces to have moments of winning. This part of winning is the investment in capacity. Once we are in a place where a moment of success is achievable, we can spend our capacity. It turns out that we may want to blur the distinction between infinite and finite games. It turns out that the experience of sustained success and the experience of moments of winning should be related. If we don’t understand and practice the proper balance of the dual tensions of both individual and team success and/or failure, or moments of achievement and legacies of sustained success, we might be at the mercy of lady luck.