By Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry
On a balmy night in Oakland last October, the energy of the sell-out crowd at the Oracle Arena was flagging.
While the die-hard Golden State Warriors fans had high hopes for the season, their team had lost two of their first three pre-season games, and they were struggling to get momentum against the Houston Rockets early in the first quarter.
Trying to spark some life into his team, Steph Curry took the ball from Draymond Green at the top of the key and dribbled past four defenders on his way to what looked like an easy lay up.
At the last minute, he whipped a no-look pass to Brandon Rush for an open corner three.
The crowd jumped to their feet. Players on the bench laughed and high-fived each other as a grinning Curry jogged up the court.
It is fitting that the play happened against the talent-rich Rockets, a team that, for many experts and insiders, represented the future of the NBA. But the Warriors may actually be the team of the future. Their current season has featured similar scenes of flawless teamwork that may well produce the best season in NBA history.
The top player passes up a good shot for a great shot, tossing the ball to a bench player with a better look, while the rest of the team cheers.
Just a few years ago, the Moneyball model of talent management seemed poised to sweep the NBA. Led by luminaries like Sam Hinkie, who instilled this approach in the Rockets before moving to the Sixers, front office executives have become increasingly focused on acquiring “undervalued assets” rather than worrying about intangibles like chemistry and character.
Now, as our own hometown Sixers are in the NBA basement and the Rockets are underperforming, the Warriors appear to be ushering in a new era of basketball.
The Warriors’ philosophy is deceptively simple, but it confirms what we know from our own research on collaboration at the Wharton School of Business: High-performing teams trump collections of talented individuals.
In a league driven by lone superstars and individually-focused metrics, the Warriors are succeeding by putting in place what we have found to be the three foundations common to all high-performing teams: goals, roles and norms.
Define simple, clear goals
In a recent interview, center Andrew Bogut recalls how shocked his teammates were when they started their first practice with coach Steve Kerr by doing basic passing drills that they hadn’t seen since high school: “Guys were kind of like, ‘Ugh, we don’t want to do these petty little drills,’ but after a couple of weeks I think guys understood what he was trying to relay onto us. And it was genius in a way, because it’s just instilling the little things.”
Kerr believed that an overcomplicated strategy had caused the team to lose sight of the basic fundamentals.
According to Bogut, he told them: “[if we] just turn it over four or five times less per game, we’re going to win a championship.”
The prediction proved to be true, and it came from an insight shared by all leaders of top teams:
The best goals aren’t about big, abstract visions, but small, manageable steps.
Turn the ball over a few less times. Make a few more passes. Goals need to be clear and straightforward to be achievable, as Kerr himself has explained: “Run six or eight things really well, instead of 20 things in a mediocre fashion.” The Warriors’ success demonstrates the power of simplicity.
Define roles that work for individuals and for the team as a whole
When Kerr decided to bench Andre Iguodala and start Harrison Barnes last season, most people thought he was out of his mind. Iguodala had been acquired by the team as a franchise player, not a $12 million a year bench warmer.
But Kerr believed Barnes had struggled after a promising rookie season because his confidence was hurt when he was moved to a reserve role in his second year.
Barnes needed the security of having a consistent role on the team, and he would improve by being forced to keep up with better players.
Iguodala would provide a solid veteran presence for the bench unit and a boost of energy later in games when starters rested.
As it happened, both players excelled in their roles. Barnes returned to form while Iguodala became a serious candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, on their way to winning their first title in 40 years.
Kerr understood that team roles don’t work in isolation—their effectiveness depends on how they interconnect and this will be different for every group.
As the better player, it would normally make sense to have Iguodala in the starting role with Barnes on the bench, but given the team dynamic, Kerr had the insight to switch them.
Establish shared norms by building trusting relationships
From top to bottom, the Warriors organization has built a culture around trust and transparency, to the point where owner Joe Lacob installed glass walls throughout the team offices to reinforce his message of openness.
The trust the team has built starts with a shared set of norms that encourage everyone to voice their opinion.
For Kerr, it began with one-on-one conversations he had with the team after he was hired. He impressed his players by visiting each one individually, even flying out to Australia for Andrew Bogut, and explaining to them how he thought they would fit into his strategy.
In fact, it was this process of sitting down face to face, being transparent, and asking for feedback that convinced Iguodala to go along with being moved to the bench.
This norm of honesty is reinforced in everything Kerr does, as Green noted in a recent interview: “Earlier this season I yelled at him during the game…[Later] he said, ‘Nah, you’re fine. I love your passion; why would I try to stop that? That makes you the player who you are.”
Transparency infuses the entire organization, as Lacob himself is known for inviting dissenting opinions from his staff, rather than running the team like a dictatorship as many owners do. By creating shared norms, the Warriors have built a high level of trust that makes their signature style of unselfish play possible, even on a team with big egos.
Kerr once described his coaching philosophy as being 90% team environment, 10% strategy.
At a time when the dominant trend in the NBA has been about analyzing players as individual assets, the Warriors are creating a counter-revolution based on group dynamics. As Lacob told writer Bruce Schoenfeld: “It’s not just Steph Curry. It’s architecting a team, a style of play, the way they all play together.”
It starts with putting the right foundations in place for collective success.
As they head toward a historic season by multiple measures, the Warriors are bringing the team back to basketball.
Dr. Mario Moussa and Dr. Derek Newberry are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. They both teach at the Wharton School of Business. For more information on their work, visit, www.committedteams.com
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