Despite millions of dollars in revenue and expenses, an NBA team is a small business. A coach gets 15 positions (12 active and three reserve) with which to field a winning organization. As in any small business, every player has an important role. While some players may spend more time on the bench, each still has a specific job when called upon. Substituting a back-up center for an injured guard is unlikely to produce the desired result (winning).
I will admit here to being a fan of the San Antonio Spurs. Don’t worry, I won’t fill this column with the tired sports clichés that are so prevalent in business. This isn’t a fan post. The Spurs are acknowledged in every survey about the business of sports as one of the best managed professional teams in the country. They are regularly singled out for their ability to find and successfully develop the right personnel, on and off the floor. This is about running a small business with just 15 employees to work with.
Last season the team entered the Western Conference finals riding a 20 game consecutive win streak. Then, just two games from the championship, they collapsed and lost 4 straight games to Oklahoma City. In sports parlance, they choked. Under pressure, their players couldn’t step up.
The customary wisdom in such situations is that you need better players. Most teams would look for a trade or a big draft pick to take them to the next level. The Spurs did…nothing. They were widely criticized for what appeared to be their complacency as an also-ran, semi-contender. Every sports analysis publication ranked them at the bottom of the league for off-season improvement. But it wasn’t true.
The Spurs have three starting players who began with unique situations. Tiago Splitter, a previous high draft pick out of the European leagues, had been injured in training camp of his first year. His second year saw the players strike, eliminating any real preseason camp or coaching. Only in this, his third year was Splitter able to work a full preseason of practice with the coaches.
Danny Green was picked up in mid-year before the strike, and Kawhi Leonard was drafted in the strike year. All three starters, or 60% of the first team players, enjoyed their status because of talent, not training. Teaching moments were literally limited to what OTJ could be delivered during and in between games.
The 2012-2013 season was the first normal training camp available to these three. Not surprisingly, all have improved dramatically. The Spurs are again near the top of the league, although whether this improvement will let them survive the playoffs remains to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that the Spurs organization decided that they had players with the right attitude and skills, but who lacked the training necessary to make them fully productive. Rather than get new pieces, they gambled on investing one more season in the ones they had.
The President of a technology company once gave me his checklist for an owner to analyze why an employee is failing in a job. It goes like this.
- You wrote the job description, and decided the duties of the position
- You developed the hiring process, and selected the winning candidate
- You provided the resources available for accomplishing those duties
- You delivered the training and supervision to teach how the job should be done
- You created the incentives to motivate results
If your review of all five points finds no flaw, then the employee should be replaced. In the Spurs’ case, such a review would clearly show that point number four had a glaring problem. They chose to correct it before looking for new employees.
Replacing an employee in a small business is an expensive and time-consuming task. Sometimes, all that is needed is a little bit more development. I hear so many owners say “She is such a hard worker, and her attitude is great. It’s too bad that she just can’t do the job.” In those cases, ask yourself whether some additional investment just might pay off.