Forty of the last fifty-nine NBA championships have been won by four people: Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich. That is sixty-eight percent, which is equal to Google’s market share in online searches! If the government regulated the NBA, Auerbach-Jackson-Riley-Popovich would have to employ lobbyists to avoid accusations of a monopoly on NBA championships. Those four men are the puppeteers of the NBA and have been the orchestrators of six decades of basketball.
So, why am I highlighting four non-residents of Dub Nation? Because the story of the Warriors has become reminiscent of those four men. Not because Steve Kerr is a disciple of Jackson and Popovich or because I am predicting some epic dynasty for this Warriors era. It goes deeper than that. Beyond all the stories of small-ball, switch everything defense and three point shooting, the enduring story of the Warriors’ success is one of the organization as a whole.
On rare occasion a sports franchise transitions from being a team to being a philosophy. Auerbach, Jackson, Riley and Popovich mastered the art of turning a team into a philosophy. To be clear, this is not about a basketball philosophy. Heck, Pat Riley coached the the Showtime Lakers and the early ’90s Knicks, arguably the NBA’s most physical team, within a couple years of each other. Instead, this idea of a philosophy is about forging a stable organizational structure singularly focused on winning. Picture Popovich’s Spurs over the last fifteen years: they transitioned from a style that acquired the nickname the “Twin Towers”, to a pick-and-roll obsessed offense predicated on movement. Developing a franchise that becomes less of a team and more of a philosophy requires your organization to be in sync .
The vast majority of basketball writing is about the players, yet the vast majority of success is about the organization. The organization is the most overlooked component of NBA success. The examples of this are plentiful, but I will start with our Warriors.
In many respects, sports are like investing: the more long-term one’s orientation, the greater success they will experience. The Warriors’ long-term orientation began in 2012 when they traded Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, and started tanking* during the second half of the season to keep their draft pick (which was owed to Utah if it fell outside the top seven picks). The short term effects of this were brutal: not only did the Warriors have another lifeless team but new owner Joe Lacob got mercilessly booed during a halftime retirement of Chris Mullin’s jersey. However, in the long-term this yielded the Warriors’ first true rim-protector (Bogut) in decades, Harrison Barnes (who the draft pick was used on) and room for Steph and Klay to begin becoming the Splash Brothers. There may be no better example of long-term thinking than the 2012 Warriors. It is important to remember that long-term thinking demands organizational support. If Joe Lacob was not okay with finishing 13th in the West during 2012, the Warriors would not have finished first in the NBA in 2015. Sometimes basketball team-building can be incredibly complex, like projecting the health of a player or trying exploit the intricacies of the salary cap. Yet, other times it is not so complex. The decisions of 2012 were straightforward but special and challenging in their own way. At that moment, the Warriors began developing their organizational philosophy.
*I am defining “tanking” as a team not exactly trying to win.
The entire organization of a team permeates through every part of whether you win or lose. With the 2012 decisions serving as a beacon of why organizations matter, I want to dive bullet-point style into other Warriors advantages that derive from the organization as a whole:
- Last season, the Warriors had the NBA’s most expensive coaching staff. Unlike players, there is no salary cap on coaches. If you are looking for a competitive advantage, look at coaches! All it comes down to is whether the franchise is willing to pay to acquire the best teachers. Unlike Jed York’s 49ers, the Warriors are willing to pay to employ the best coaching staff. The advantages reaped from this are tangible: Fetus Ezeli continually credits assistant coach Ron Adams for his development and last season Alvin Gentry (now New Orleans’ head coach) built the offense with Steve Kerr. Adams and Gentry did not come cheap. Paying for that extra coaching value is an organizational decision.
- Not only do the Warriors own a D-League team, but their D-League team (the Santa Cruz Warriors) runs the same offensive and defensive system as the main club. This eases the NBA transition for players like James Michael McAdoo. Another part of the philosophy.
- Strong organizations incentivize players to sacrifice; the Warriors’ contract situation serves as a prime example of this. While both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green could have gotten full maxes with other teams or even squeezed a little more out of the Warriors, they chose to provide a little extra wiggle room. These savings will be integral in the Warriors’ pursuit ofKevin Durant next summer (yes, that’s happening). As Nate Silver says, “the devil is in the details”. Strong organizations gain advantages on those smaller points, like minor contract savings.
As with so many things in life, the best way to understand an advantage is in a comparative manner. When analyzing other teams, the importance of the Warriors’ organization becomes even more clear.
During the latest NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics reportedly offered the Charlotte Hornets four first-round picks for the ninth overall pick in the draft (and the opportunity to draft Justice Winslow). Four first-round picks! Yet, the Hornets rejected the offer in part because of a team wide referendum that they make the playoffs this season. If you are Rich Cho, the GM of the Hornets, why trade for four first-round picks when there is real uncertainty beyond this season? The Hornets did the inverse of the 2012 Warriors and emphasized the short-term over the long-term. This was a defining moment in the Hornets and it was sidetracked by an organizational problem.
The Hornets story is far from unique. The Clippers have struggled at acquiring the right players ever since their coach, Doc Rivers, was named their President of Basketball Operations and effectively their GM*. That’s an organizational problem. The same rings true for teams like the Kings, Nets** and Lakers who lack long-term vision or philosophy.
*You know who loves coaches who are also GMs? All the others GMs! While Doc Rivers is coaching.the entire season, other GMs are in Europe searching for the next Porzingis!
**The Nets don’t have full control over one of their draft picks until 2019. Seriously.
Conversely, the NBA’s budding teams have strong organizations. Look at the Utah Jazz who had the patience to use the first half of last season as a laboratory to figure out their defense, and now they have developed into one of the league’s best defensive teams. That sort of patience and willingness to let young players make mistakes demands organizational stability.
Basketball’s best example of a team becoming a philosophy resides in San Antonio. Kawhi Leonard would have been a solid player on any team in this league, but only the Spurs could turn him into the top-ten player he is today. The irony in all of this is that teams continually try to mimic their success by hiring their assistant coaches and adopting their approach to analytics and scouting. Sadly, teams miss the fundamental part of their success: the organizational structure. The Spurs are guided by a long-term oriented philosophy that everyone involved fully buys in to.
As NBA contracts become shorter, roster turnover increases and isolation basketball continues to fade into history, the importance of the organization will grow. The Warriors are embracing this by becoming less about a team and more about a philosophy.
Crafting a winning team while having a bad organization is like folding a fitted sheet without really knowing how to fold a fitted sheet: you can sort of do it but there will always be problems under the surface.
The Warriors are slowly becoming less of a team and more of an organization-wide philosophy. This might be their greatest advantage.