Skip to comments.The Beauty, Business and Science of Spurs: Business Leaders Can Learn from the San Antonio Spurs
Posted on 06/12/2014 3:02:59 PM PDT by SeekAndFind
A video of the remarkable San Antonio Spurs recently went viral on YouTube. It features several minutes of alluring, creative, and unselfish basketball of the sort that companies and teams engaged in all kinds of different pursuits can learn from, of the sort that was on full display Tuesday night in the Spurs' convincing win over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
The Spurs are, of course, in the midst of a jaw-dropping 15-year run, and much of the credit for the organization’s success goes to its leadership, especially its cantankerous yet endearing head coach, Gregg “Pop” Popovich, a former U.S. military intelligence officer. Coach Pop has developed a culture that Spurs fans appreciate and many professional players respect and want to be a part of. Its elements include selflessness, loyalty, disciplined execution, hard work, and highly engaged players.
These things might seem like clichés, but when you consider that the Spurs have led the NBA in assists in the past two seasons, it becomes clear that there really is something to the Spurs’ selflessness. The philosophy of the team, as described in the video is, “I have a shot, but you have a better shot.” This attitude is representative of how the Spurs achieve superior results.
The Spurs also demonstrate the ability to develop loyalty as a competitive advantage. Given that the team’s general manager, Robert Canterbury “R.C.” Buford, has been with the organization for over 20 years, superstar Tim Duncan has been playing for Coach Pop for over 15 years, and turnover among its other star players has long been negligible, the ability of the Spurs to develop loyalty in the ultra-competitive and transient world of professional sports is striking.
As for engaging employees, a prime example of Coach Pop’s ability to do that occurred at the end of the Spurs’ recent closeout road victory in the Western Confernce final against the uber-athletic Oklahoma City Thunder. He called a timeout with less than 30 seconds left. If the Spurs could score on the upcoming possession, they would likely go to their second consecutive NBA Finals and their fifth since 2003.
When the team huddled to plan for this all-important possession, a rather remarkable thing happened. Popovich conducted back-and-forth dialogue with several of the Spurs. He wasn’t just giving orders. He was getting feedback. The coaches and players were in effect co-creating the strategy and its execution.
The Spurs organization deftly uses analytics (coupled with “gut feel”) to gain an edge, as well, despite that fact that Coach Popovich famously doesn’t have a computer in his office or own a laptop, let alone a tablet. He lets others crunch the numbers, but he pays close attention to the results.
The Spurs were early adopters of advanced film technology, which can give coaches and players real-time data during games. The team has both a director of basketball analytics and a manager of statistical development. Yet Spurs management doesn’t look at data in a vacuum. When his analytics staffers deliver complex information, Popovich expects them to be able to explain what the stat is intended to measure and the underlying formula and assumptions used to produce it. Even then, Coach Pop recognizes the importance of context and the elusive “intangibles.”
Perhaps this is why he recently started Matt Bonner, a usual bench-warmer, in a pivotal playoff game. As the Spurs have explained, using stats in context—keeping in mind who the opponent is, at what strength the Spurs are playing, and their players’ leadership “state”—can all impact decisions. Any team or company should look at how well they are mastering the science and art of using analytics to strengthen performance.
Despite their reputation for choosing a “boring,” defensive-minded style, the Spurs have developed an agile strategy in response to changes over the years. For example, as Duncan has aged and become a bit less mobile, more agile players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and now the even younger Kawhi Leonard, have taken on bigger roles. In turn, the team’s style has evolved from its more plodding ways of the early 2000s into one that, over the last three years, has ranked among the NBA’s most efficient offenses (measured as the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions) and ranked among the league’s nine swiftest teams, using John Hollinger’s “pace” metric (the number of possessions a team uses per game).
Popovich sums up his players by saying, “win or Lose, they do it with class and do it the right way.” This is done through leadership, which engenders mutual trust and respect, unique teamwork, team loyalty, using analytics in context and developing an agile strategy that works. Not only sports teams, but any company engaged in any pursuit can use these lessons to develop a winning strategy in a rapidly changing and competitive world.
Is it the Spurs org., or is it Popovich? When Duncan retires (and Popovich immediately follows) we’ll find out how good the system is. But there’s no denying at the moment they have the best org. in the league.