7 Insights from 2023 NBA Playoffs

While the 2023 NBA Playoffs are far from over, we already have some significant storylines that have direct implications on how we should run our own businesses.  If you’re not a basketball fan please ignore my deep dives on some of these topics, but I do assure you they do directly correlate with business.

2023 NBA Playoff Insights

1. Fired Coaches

In business, we’re always talking about disruption.  If we’re lucky, we’re the ones causing the disruptions, but more often, we have to adapt quickly to respond to unplanned disruptions.  In the 2023 NBA Playoffs, one of the biggest disruptions we’ve seen is when higher-seeded teams fall short in the playoffs.  

A common “fix” when this happens is to sack the coach in an effort to keep their star players happy, more on that below.  Sometimes the reason to fire the coach is that you simply feel their influence over the team has begun to wane.  Keep in mind, either way prior to this playoff failure, they would have been considered a good coach with a good record given the higher seed placement.

Take the Milwaukie Bucks who were coached by Mike Budenholzer.  They finished the regular season with a 58-24 record which was first in the entire NBA.  Historically, he’s been a great coach for the Bucks.  He’s won Coach of the Year.  His regular season record with the Bucks was 271-120 (69.3% winning record which is great).  Mike is also in the top 5 in career winning percentage from current coaches.  Saving the best for last, just two years ago Mike coached the Bucks to their first NBA Championship in 50 years.

So, did Mike deserve to be fired?  Data shows us he’s one of the best coaches in the league, but the Bucks underperformed in back-to-back playoffs.  My answer…maybe, but that still doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the best coaches in the league.  It’s simply that maybe his influence started to wane, and all that’s needed for him is new scenery.

NBA head coaches are akin to business CEOs and so when they begin to underperform, and it feels like it’s necessary, the only real change is to fire them.  The rest of your organization though?  No, you don’t always have to fire someone when they are struggling with their performance.  

It could just be that they need a change of scenery.  Some of the best performers I’ve worked with and managed have been individuals that at some point got bored.  It’s not like it was really a conscious thing, it just became clear that the job they were in no longer challenged them.  If you still see talent in that person, then look around at other roles in the company.  Replacing talent is timely and expensive, so looking at creative role assignments can give you the flexibility to avoid spending that extra time and money.  

You will typically get a surge in productivity.  I’ve seen this time and time again where someone is re-assigned into a different role and that change in scenery re-ignites the desire to overcome new challenges!

2. Unhappy Players

For better or worse the NBA is a players league today vs. the team-focused league I grew up watching.  Every year during the playoffs as teams underperform, you will start hearing about uncertainty from start players.  This doesn’t mean that they can just up and leave as they wish due to multi-year contracts they sign.  However, players have become very adept at making their unhappiness known.

How they do this is really unimportant, but fundamentally, even if they’re still under contract they have the ability to essentially force a team to trade them to another team.  This puts teams in a difficult position because aside from suddenly losing their star player they have to try and salvage as much talent as they can in the trade.

As a team that has invested ridiculous amounts of money developing players this can be a difficult situation to navigate.  Not unlike a company that spends years developing talent within your organization.

Losing high-end talent is painful so what can you do to avoid this situation?  To answer this I look no further than my hometown team, the Portland Trailblazers.  Our team is led by 6-time All-NBA Team Damian Lillard who has helped reimagine the 3-point shot with his incredible range.  What impresses me the most is the character of the man.  

Portland has had some great winning seasons under Lillard, but in recent years the team has struggled mightily.  Lillard is a star player that could ask for, and some would strongly argue deserves, a trade to a team with better championship odds.  In fact, years ago it was reported that Lebron James invited Lillard to his home to have dinner with him and Anthony Davis.  Only the people in that room really know what happened, however, it’s widely believed that Lebron was courting him to come to the Lakers to create a super team.  

Lillard ultimately decided to stay loyal to the team that drafted him.  I already revered him as an all-time Blazers, but in that moment he became the best in my eyes.  Lillard wants to win a championship more than anything, but he doesn’t want to chase it by joining a super team like Lebron and other players have done.  He wants to win it his way, in his adopted city.  

It’s not all roses (sorry, had to) though.  He’s made it clear to the team that he expects the front office to put better-caliber players around him.  He’s not saying it’s championship or bust, but he’s making it clear that he just wants a shot.

These divisive player/team scenarios that play out every year are largely born from poor communication.  There is a sizable separation between players and the front office, just like there is in management and employees in a company.

Similar to a team losing in the playoffs, many businesses are in uncertain times right now.  If you’ve got star employees that really move the needle in your business then you would be best served to have honest conversations with them.  Tell them the bad, tell them the good, tell them the concepts for change you’re working on.  Ask them for their input, in areas further than just their job description.

Even if you’re doing everything in your power to turn your company around right now, if you don’t effectively communicate with your team you run the risk of losing key people.  You may still find key people deciding to leave anyways, like Lebron, but chances are you have more Lillard around you that will reward your communication for a more energized loyalty.

3. Jokic Historic 2023 NBA Playoff Performance

Perhaps one of the most impressive observations of the 2023 NBA Playoffs has been the incredible play of Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic.  If you’ve never seen him, he’s honestly one of the most unassuming players.  While he’s tall at 6’11” he isn’t the most athletic.  In fact, aside from his height he just looks like a normal guy.

This “normal guy” has already won back-to-back MVP awards, and is considered the best passing big man ever; apparently, everyone forgot about Arvydas Sabosnis.  A common “knock” heard from the media is that while he is undoubtedly great, his Nuggets team hasn’t gone deep enough in the playoffs.  In other words, he’s great, but he can’t lead his team.

The reality is that he is great.  I think in his own way he’s a good leader too.  What the Nuggets have really struggled with is the supporting cast of players.  Last year they made a mid-season trade that brought them a gritty, athletic wing player.  They already had two great offensive players to compliment Jokic, however, both players were hurt much of last year coming off serious injuries.  This year that supporting cast is healthy and the team is two wins away from playing in the finals.

Whether it’s on the NBA hardwood, or it’s the company conference room, the takeaway is that if you have a great star on your team it behooves you to make sure you have a complimenting team around them.  

I’m instantly reminded of a conversation I had with Cameron Herold, who explained what makes a great COO in an organization is someone who compliments the CEO’s weaknesses.  In doing so it allows the CEO to really focus on the tasks they are good at.  So whether it’s the CEO our front line customer service reps, make sure you build a balanced team that compliments one another.

4. Warriors Culture Collapse

The Golden State Warriors have been one of the most dominant teams in the past decade.  In this dynasty run they have secured 4 titles since 2015 and are the reining NBA champs from last year.  However, there were many questions about this team’s viability heading into the 2023 NBA Playoffs.

On October 7th, 2022 team captain Draymond Green got into a verbal altercation with up-and-coming teammate Jorda Poole.  Things escalated quickly and Draymond ultimately punched Jordan in the face.  While this may seem dramatic, the reality is that players do occasionally get into fights with teammates.  In fact, Michael Jordan famously punched the Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr, in a practice during the 90s.  

What made this particular punch so damning is that it was caught on video.  Actually, what really made this punch so damning is that the video was leaked to the media.  At that moment a firestorm erupted, because it left the internal confinement within the team and spilled into the public.  At the time, the team, Draymond, and Jordan all did and said the right things to make it seem like it was water under the bridge.

Fast forward to this year’s playoffs where the Warriors were eliminated by the Lakers in the second round.  Immediately after that loss, Draymond opened up by saying the Warriors would still be in the playoffs if that punch didn’t happen.  But it did happen, and now the Warriors are at a significant crossroads that could spell the end of their dynasty.

I tend to disagree with Draymond’s argument that they’d still be in the playoffs if it hadn’t happened.  It sure feels like that punch was more than one moment.  That there had been tensions brewing within the team for a long time.  If that punch didn’t happen then, it’s likely something else would have happened shortly after.  Or maybe nothing would have happened, but there still would have been unsettled tension around the team.

Everyone knows Draymond is passionate.  You see it how he plays, you see it how he talks, and you see it in his leadership, that 93ish% of the time is great. Take him away from the team and I don’t know if Golden State would have won any of the titles.  He’s been that uniquely important to the team with his play and leadership.  

When he slips up though, it feels really heavy.  His past tenuous relationship with teammate Kevin Durant had to play some role in KD leaving the Warriors so quickly.  The Warriors won championships before he got there and after he left, but if he had stayed the mind wonders how many more they could have had.  Add those to the early loss this year and it’s enough to go mad.

So you have to decide how much tolerance for negativity you have in your culture.  You may have a high performer, but if that person is bringing others down around them you have to ask if you are willing to take the risk?  Either way, it’s better for everyone involved to address issues in the moment instead of letting them fester behind the scenes.  Once that negativity starts spreading through the culture your essentially applying a performance tax on everyone in the company.  You may still be winning, but at what cost, and for how long?

5. Suns Leverage Their Future

The Phoenix Suns began the season as one of the better teams in the league, but thanks to a late-season blockbuster trade they found themselves welcoming Kevin Durant to the team.  His incredible scoring ability instantly catapulted the Suns to instant NBA Championship contenders.  

To pull off such a trade the Suns essentially mortgaged their future for the chance to win right now.  They gave up two up-and-coming players under 25, along with four unprotected first-round picks.  If you win a championship with this trade then it will make it more palatable to give up such young talent and picks.

If you lose in the second round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs you begin to start asking serious questions.  Kevin Durant is now 34 with a history of injuries so is he going to be healthy enough, or more important will he be healthy when it matters the most in the playoffs?  This is a question to also ask of their starting point guard, Chris Paul.  He’s 38 and had to sit out the key games in the playoffs.

If you see a big opportunity in your business, and you really think you can do it just be careful not to over-leverage your future success.  If the Suns manage to come back strong next year and win a title then it will still probably be worth it…but if they don’t they are likely looking at a challenging rebuild for the next several years.

6. Butler/Tatum/Jokic

Jordan/Bird/Magic are also names we’re accustomed to thinking of when you need big-time buckets in clutch time during the playoffs.  The best teams typically have at least two great players that can step up in the moment.

In business, it would be easy to say make sure you’ve got your rock-star salespeople at your disposal.  This is true, you should have great salespeople on your team, but you should also be focused on getting “buckets” with marketing too.

Make sure you’re spending as much time honing your marketing KPIs as you do making sure you’re training your salespeople.  One of the biggest opportunities missed with our clients when it comes to marketing is A/B testing.  It’s not that they don’t want to, most of the time they’re just too busy to commit the extra time.

There is an old adage that says “50% of my marketing is working, I just don’t know which 50%.”  If you’re not A/B testing everything from list, to message, to offer, to CTA, etc, then going to be losing money that could have been refocused on proven insights from A/B.  Commit the time!

7. Drafting Talent*

*This gets an asterisk simply because the draft is really only tangentially tied to the 2023 NBA Playoffs.  First off, the actual lottery draft order selection process takes place during the actual playoffs.  This is where eligible teams find out where in the pecking order they will be making their draft selections.  Every team is eligible for a pick in the draft, but the worst 14 teams according to their records draft in what’s called the “lottery”.

The reason why I’m including it here is because of it’s importance to building a competitive team.  Fundamentally there are only three ways teams can improve their roster.  You can draft players, you can trade players and you can sign players if they are free agents and their contracts have expired.  Each opf these options have pros and cons that need to be weighed carefully.

When it comes to free agents, the monetary aspect of how much a team is willing to pay is a big consideration.  A teams culture and performance is another big consideration.  One of the biggest considerations though is what city the team plays in.  Assuming two teams are bidding on a player, and the offers are similar to one another, players often choose a city where they think they’d enjoy more.  Accordingly, larger-market teams like New York or Los Angeles typically land the more high-profile and highly sought players.  Smaller markets like my Trailblazers consistently lose out on these players which means they have to focus more on the other team changing options of trading and drafting.  If you can land one of these players though, they are typically all-star caliber players that can make an instant impact on a team.

Trading for players is great because it allows you to assess your needs and then you can essentially evaluate all other players in the league to determine who could help you the most.  The challenge though is finding a team that is willing to part with your target, and you have to find a team that is willing to accept something of yours.  The other challenge is that if a player you’re trading for only has a year or two left on their contract, there is no guarantee that they will want to re-sign with you.

The last option is the draft.  This is a great way for teams to evaluate need by younger up and coming talent.  The higher your draft pick typically means you’re more likely to get a better player.  Unlike free agency, players don’t really have a choice to dictate which teams their going to.  When teams draft a player they have to sign multi-year contracts so teams know they’re going to have a long time to work with them which is great.  The downside to the draft is that you’re drafting younger and less experienced players.  Being great against college talent is one thing, but it’s a risk thinking those skill sets will translate when they go up against proven NBA players.  

Companies, just like teams, have to be conscientious of their relative status compared to other companies in the industry.  The bigger the company, with more resources, are going to have better chances landing the better talent in your space.  Not that you shouldn’t try for people you’re interested in, it’s just going to be harder.

There’s no real trading in business, so that leaves the concept of the draft.  Whether it’s targeting college seniors, or the equivalent of that in your space, finding that diamond in the rough can be tough.  That’s why it’s incredibly important to leverage the advice of Keller Williams founder, Gary Keller, who said you should be, “Slow to hire and quick to fire.”  So if you find yourself with an employee like Draymond Green, and you decide it’s no longer a good fit, then you need to quickly move on from them.

Conversely, when you’re evaluating talent, you should be patient and very thorough because that hiring decision is going to require a lot of time and money to get the employee fully developed.  This is why I strongly recommend you look into the hiring practices that Geoff Smart promotes.  Doing this will get you more diamonds in the rough, and it will also lead to longer tenured employees.

Now back to the 2023 NBA Playoffs regular programming.  With both Miami and Denver having 3-0 leads over the Celtics and Lakers, it’s looking like the finals are going to be starting very soon. 

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