Sunday night, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship in one of the most shocking thrashings in NBA Finals history, with the Spurs winning the last three games by at least 17 points each.
The title marked the fifth championship for the Spurs since 1999, and the fifth for all-time great power forward Tim Duncan and all-time great coach Greg Popovich. They beat the Heat, despite the best player in the world – Miami’s Lebron James – playing great throughout the series.
The Spurs have made the playoffs every year since 1998, the same year Duncan joined the team, and their five titles tie them for the most championships in any of the four major American sports over that span (the Los Angeles Lakers also have five titles since 1999, although they have been less consistent than San Antonio).
The Spurs have done all of this with almost no controversy, with almost no turmoil, to the point that they are widely regarded as being “boring”. If being the best American sports organization over the past 15 years can be considered boring.
So what should businesses take away from the Spurs? What are the lessons to be learned?
1. It isn’t about a player – it is about a team
Basketball has always been about having the best player, yet the Spurs just crushed the team with the best player in the world on it – James. This, despite their own best player, Tony Parker, being basically shut down by James for large stretches of time. How?
It all begins and ends with Popovich. Throughout the season, he limits the minutes his star players play, giving more time for his reserves to develop. He demands all players on his team – not just his stars, but everyone – follows his schemes and can execute all parts of it. The result is that you could shut down the best two players on the Spurs, which the Heat did several times in the finals, and still lose by 20.
Bottom line, Popovich’s has high expectations for everyone one the team, not just a select few. And by giving his reserves more time throughout the year to develop, he both strengthens their skills and takes some pressure off his star players.
2. It isn’t about having the most money
San Antonio is one of the smallest-market teams in the league, much smaller than New York,Chicago or even Miami. Because of that small-market (and Popovich’s button-up approach), a player on the Spurs is far less likely to get a big endorsement deal than one on any of the aforementioned teams.
And yet, their players are among the most loyal in the league, epitomized by Duncan, who took less money to stay in Texas. Overall, in the years they’ve been there, none of their great players have left and many have taken less money to stay. Why?
Because the Spurs and Popovich realize it is more than money players care about, even more than winning. It is about a culture.
A quick anecdote. Avery Johnson played for the Spurs for their first championship in 1999, but later went on to coach the Dallas Mavericks, a chief rival of San Antonio. And yet, in 2013, while he was working as a TV analyst for ESPN, he covered a Spurs game and left quickly thereafter. Why?
He went to eat with what he called his “family”, i.e. the Spurs. And it wasn’t just the current players and Popovich he ate with, but many of the players who he had played with 10 years ago. This wasn’t a rarity, an unusual reunion, Johnson said this was something he did regularly, even when he was coaching the Mavericks.
The bottom line: Popovich and the Spurs understand what it is to really build a loyal and successful organization. And it begins and ends with relationships.
3. They Focus On Strengths Instead Of Weaknesses
Perhaps the most important aspect, the Spurs know how to use their talent better than any other team in the NBA, and perhaps any other sports team in the United States.
Take Boris Diaw, a player who was cut in 2012 by the Charlotte Bobcats, one of the worst teams in the league. Diaw, while talented, has always had a reputation of being a “soft” player who didn’t play much defense and wasn’t in great shape.
However, Popovich quickly picked up Diaw, knowing there was one thing he could do really well for a big man – pass. And now, in 2014, just two years after he was cut by one of the worst teams in the league, Diaw was playing an important role on a championship team.
The bottom line is the Bobcats and most organizations saw what Diaw was not: he wasn’t a rebounder, he wasn’t in great shape, etc. Meanwhile, the Spurs focused on what he is, a great passer, and took full advantage of it. Buoyed by a new sense of purpose, he even began to play some defense, proving that if you put a person in a position to succeed, they generally do.
4. They Create Their Own Narrative
One last remarkable thing the Spurs do, that few other organizations do, is they create and control their own narrative.
In other words, many organizations are interested in what the media is saying about them, what competitors are saying about them and soon players begin to think about getting their side out rather than just focusing on the team.
The Spurs are notoriously tight-lipped to the media and, in the past 15 years, there have been almost no controversies on the team. No players whining for more money or more touches in the media, something that happens all the time on other teams. No public contract disputes. No nothing really, hence the boring label.
The thing is those disagreements probably prop up. But the Spurs handle everything in-house, never giving the media anything to write about other than what happens on the basketball court, and all of their players say – with some confidence – that they completely block out everything that is written about them. Instead, they control their own narrative, and focus only on what they can control.