Will Collaborative Basketball Disrupt the NBA?


Few things excite us more than seeing collaborative leadership infiltrate pop culture. It’s happening more and more. And no collaborative organization is grabbing more headlines or heartstrings than the record-breaking Golden State Warriors

This year’s NBA season just began, and the Sunday New York Times is already speculating. Our first post is a catch-up on what happened with the Warriors this past summer so you’re primed and ready. 

If you didn’t know the Warriors were a basketball team, don’t worry, neither did some of our colleagues. (We’ve made sure they do now, and we’ll do the same for you if you let us.) This is the first in a series we’re launching to chronicle our favorite examples of collaborative leadership in culture at large – think sports, music, science, Hollywood, and maybe…one day…even government. (Can you blame us for being hopeful?)

Inspired by Fivethirtyeight, we’re documenting dialogue between DF team members on Slack so that we can share it with you, raw.

The Backstory: Karen and Alex’s Nailbiting Summer

  • Since adding their coach Steve Kerr two years ago, the Warriors have appeared in both Championships, won one of them, broke the record for number of wins in a season, and garnered two straight MVP trophies for their point guard, Steph Curry.
  • Kerr’s selfless leadership has inspired players to put the team above themselves. Because they believe in the assist (sharing the ball with the open teammate), opposing teams are forced to spread themselves thin, rather than  just double-team the “best players.”
  • LeBron James and the Cavaliers lost to the Warriors in 2015 in part because his team did not utilize the assist. He tried to win the title by himself and failed. He faced the Warriors in the finals again this year.

Think of this as the “Previously, on __________” synopsis at the start of your favorite show. (If, that is, your favorite show is narrated by organization development geeks.) Here we go.

June 13th, 2016, Game 5 of the NBA Finals
Golden State Warriors lead the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-2 in a best-of-seven series

Karen Dawson: Julie pointed out that during quarters two and three of LeBron’s beautiful performance he didn’t have a single assist. It fascinates me…the creative tension that lives between superstar athletes’ abilities to put on such a magnificent show and the “winning strategy” that you attributed to the Warriors. If I remember correctly you said, “Whether they win the championship or not, they play with a winning strategy.”

Alex Kerr: Exactly. I think the Warriors are going to win for years to come because they believe in the assist. They average seven more assists per game than the league as a whole. They share the ball so selflessly that Greg Popovich, the Patron Saint of Ball Movement, has expressed his jealousy publicly.

The Warriors have sewn a culture of selflessness that allows them to crush any opponent who puts himself before the team. What road do you think they took to get there?

Karen: There are several elements woven together so tightly that it’s difficult to distinguish which elements are most important, or which elements intersected in what order.

  • The two owners were committed to creating something different from the get-go.
  • I imagine a spirit of experimentation: What coach is going to create a team that surprises us? What players might we hire to blend talent, personality, and relationships? What can we test, and how might we use the resulting data?
  • Their narrative reinforces the way they play. As the Warriors speak publicly they talk about, “We didn’t play well,” or “We weren’t passing the ball,” or “It wasn’t a particular person’s fault…we let ourselves down because we didn’t play our game.” The stories we tell become our truth.

June 16th, 2016, Game 6 of the NBA Finals
Cavaliers win, series tied at 3-3

Karen:  Wow! It will be fascinating for me to listen carefully to the discourse if the Cavs manage to win game #7 on Sunday (which they may well do!)

Alex: That was an incredible game. I don’t understand how the Cavs have become so collaborative all of a sudden. That’s the Warriors’ thing!

June 19th, 2016, Game 7 of the NBA Finals
Cavaliers win, becoming the first team to win the Finals after starting 1-3

Karen: The Cavs deserved to win the series.

Is long-term team strength more important than a big, sexy win?

I came across this Seth Godin post that jolted me into wondering about the difference between “winning” and the creation of a collaborative culture that performs more consistently over time. Is long-term team strength more important than a big, sexy win? Have a read.

Alex: The selfless Warriors lost?! Were we all naive to think that a team, whose hierarchy is so flexible that the head coach accepts play-calls from the video coordinator, could ever topple the LeBron James Industrial Complex? Do we have to let go of the hope that the Warriors are a metaphor for the successes of collaborative leadership?

I don’t think so.

The Warriors weren’t beaten by the selfishness that so many attribute to LeBron. They were beaten by their own game. The Warriors are known as the team that’s devoted to their coach, that rains threes, and that shares the ball. After losing to the Warriors last year, the Cavs just copied the formula.

If we are looking for proof that the Warriors’ selfless philosophy is a winning one, we only have to consider how quickly it is spreading to other teams.

If we are looking for proof that the Warriors’ selfless philosophy is a winning one, we only have to consider how quickly it is spreading to other teams. If I’m understanding you and Seth Godin correctly, the Warriors should consider that a win.

Karen: Something else strikes me about their not winning the championship after a record-setting season. Working selflessly and collaboratively is hard work. There are still uncomfortable and confusing failures. Collaborative leadership doesn’t instantly lead to peace, love, and guaranteed results.

The connection to our DF world is that some people assume that if they adopt more collaborative mindsets and structures, their organizational lives will be perfect.

Not so.

I remember Julie’s and my eyes meeting in consternation in the middle of a session when a participant implied that the day hadn’t been as useful as they’d hoped because not all of their problems were solved; there was still hard work to be done. I wanted to blurt, “But of course there’s still hard work to do – and at least now you know what it is!”

How will the Warriors recuperate, respond, and learn their way forward together? That will be telling, I think.

The Warriors sign former MVP Kevin Durant,
giving Golden State one of the best lineups of all time

Alex: WOW. If there is any proof that a culture of teamwork attracts more team players, this is it.

I’ll sidestep the debate about whether the Warriors have monopolized winning, and focus on how the Warriors reeled him in: Culture. Did you know that Curry, Green, Thompson, and Iguodala, all traveled to his home to recruit him?

I was shocked they came to meet me,” Durant said. “They all walked in like they were holding hands, like they were family…

The SF Chronicle wrote this about the trip: “I was shocked they came to meet me,” Durant said. “They all walked in like they were holding hands (laughter), like they were family, like they enjoyed being around each other. It was just a great vibe throughout the whole day.”

Durant could have signed with numerous title-contending teams, all of whom offered a fortune, but he was swayed by the team that felt like “family.” It’s a family that learns, innovates, and collaborates together.

The Warriors may have lost the title but their philosophy is undefeated.

Karen: WOW is an understatement. My beloved Warriors got thumped last night by the San Antonio Spurs in the opening game of the season.

Media exploded with images of Kevin Durant leaning into Steph Curry “Thought you said this would be easy” and Coach Kerr claiming full responsibility: “I didn’t have them ready to play, obviously.”

As a devoted fan, Tuesday night’s game was painful to watch. As a collaborative culture learning geek, I’m on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Can the Warriors learn their way forward?

They changed the way basketball is played, their opponents have adapted, and the pressure is on. On like a fire hose.

Will their culture of ruthless data analysis, radical collaboration, and laser-focused development catapult them (and the game) to another evolutionary stage yet to be invented? Stay tuned.

(Image credit: Golden State Warriors Facebook)