As the NBA Finals unfolded six weeks ago, the Dallas Mavericks claimed the title from the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s Team.”
It seemed basketball fans everywhere – except in Florida – wanted the Mavs to win.
The reasons the Mavs captured the hearts of so many have been discussed at length.
When the Mavericks won the NBA championship over the super-star-studded Miami Heat, basketball purists hailed it as a victory for teams that understand there are few shortcuts to winning.
There’s no question you’ve got to have talent to win. In sports. In business.
Yet it takes more than talent to win.
How did a bunch of old guys and cast-offs beat a team loaded with so much All-Pro talent?
It happens more often than you might realize.
In 2003, the Florida Marlins won the World Series, beating the heavily favored (and heavily payrolled) New York Yankees in six games. The Marlins did it the hard way, finishing division play as a Wild Card winner to advance to the big game. In preparing for their season, the Marlins brought in proven veterans Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Juan Pierre. Along the way, the team overcame injuries, long losing streaks that placed them in the cellar of the National League, and an ineffective manager. Things got so bad the Marlins fired their manager mid-season and hired Jack McKeon – a fiery, no-nonsense 72-year-old – who managed the team back from a below-.500 record. McKeon called his players “gamers,” and said their “smart play” and “unselfish” approach to the game made the difference in winning it all.
Underdogs prevailed again in the 2007 football season when the New York Giants became only the fifth wild card team in the Super Bowl’s 47-year history to be crowned champions. The Giants had only one Pro Bowl player on their team (Osi Umenyiora), the fewest ever among Super Bowl champions. To win it all, the Giants overcame injuries, deficits in all of their post-season victories, and they beat teams in the post-season that they’d lost to in the regular season and were expected to lose to again (Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots). Coach Tom Coughlin focused on winning games and preached an approach of “great effort, outstanding preparation, and being the very best that you can be.” Said Coughlin: “If you are as good as you can possibly be, the rest of that stuff will take care of itself.”
Winning takes more than talent. Notre Dame’s legendary football coach Knute Rocke said, “The secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my eleven best but my best eleven.”
What’s Your Culture?
With an NBA lockout now in place, who knows when professional basketball will next be played.
For now, let’s look back at the significant components of the Mavs’ championship season:
- Commit to winning. Love him or not, there’s no disputing Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s passion for the game and his commitment to winning. “If you don’t have a competitive owner like Mark Cuban,” said 38 year-old point guard Jason Kidd, “you won’t win anything.”
- Count on chemistry. “Chemistry matters,” said Cuban. “There was lots of trust on this team. Lots of selflessness. The players fought through adversity – injuries to starters, playing from behind.” When things got tough, the team pulled together to win.
- Know your core. “We know who we are,” said coach Rick Carlisle. “We play on the ground. We don’t fly around.” The style of basketball the Mavs played against the Heat was not always as acrobatic or dramatic as that of their opponents, but, ultimately, it was more effective.
- Lead, follow or get out of the way. “There was so much experience on this team,” said Carlisle, “that I had to learn when to stay out of the way and let them play basketball.” It’s a balancing act for any leader (see “Get Out of The Way,” March 2011). Yet as Hall of Famer Larry Bird noted, “the guys are coachable – they play the way the coach wants them to play.” And when players blew it, team leaders – particularly Dirk Nowitzki – called them out. Leadership isn’t always easy, but it’s essential for winning.
- Play smart. Most games are lost because of poor execution. Same for business plans. The Mavs analyzed player performance at “winning time” – the last four minutes when games hang in the balance. Three of the six Mavs-Heat games were decided by a total of seven points; the average margin of victory was 5.3 points. Cuban praised point guard Jason Kidd for managing the game and his ability to “make an impact when games are won or lost.” Added Larry Bird: “Dirk is smart and, as good as he is, he wants to get better.” When performance matters in your business, who on your team is playing smart?
- Take calculated risks. While the Mavs played to their strengths throughout the series, Carlisle shook things up with some apparently risky player substitutions, bench rotations and unorthodox zone versus man-to-man defensive schemes. Larry Bird played with Carlisle on the Boston Celtics and observed that “Rick is willing to try anything. He'll think about it, but he'll take a calculated risk. All of his moves paid off.”
- Expect contributions from everyone. In the decisive sixth game, nine of 12 Mavs had playing time. That level of non-starter involvement is rare. But the Mavs needed it because their starters were not productive that game. “You’re not always going to have a great game,” said Bird. “But team basketball always beats individuals. Ball movement beats stars.”
What components of your team’s game need attention to get everyone playing like a champion? ■