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5 Things That the NBA Playoffs Teach Us About Leadership

Written by Lenny DeFranco

Basketball, uniquely among team sports, is dominated by superstar players. In no other game does victory depend on team leaders so heavily. Peyton Manning or Miguel Cabrera (in the NFL and MLB respectively) are historic greats at their positions, but not even they have a big enough impact on games to guarantee their teams’ success in the postseason, let alone championship victories at the end of it.

LeBron James, meanwhile, is playing in his fifth straight Finals with a team that went 33-49 without him the year before. Cavs coach David Blatt was happy to point out the King’s role in that, and ESPN was happy to stylize it with four different fonts:

All successful playoff teams are led by players and coaches who never stop growing and learning how to be better at their craft. Here are four leadership lessons we’ve learned from the 2015 NBA Playoffs.

Curry: Above, Beyond

Curry: Above, Beyond

  1. Leaders live on the front lines. Stephen Curry has a game built on finesse. The hard fall that he took in Game 4 against the Rockets was not finesse, or even good defense. It was hustle. If anyone has the right to be a diva on defense, it would be Curry on that play—he’s a small point guard caught out of position against an open layup. Instead, he went above and beyond to try to contend the shot. He took punishment for trying, but there’s no way his team wasn’t inspired watching their best player give 110%.
  2. Davis: Monomaniacally striving

    Failure often comes before success. Success in the NBA has always required a lot more than basketball talent. Every team linchpin in history—with the arguable exception of Magic Johnson—had a moment in their career when they wondered if they would ever break through and win a title. For young leaders like John Wall and Anthony Davis, both rising superstars and both early playoff exits this year, the road ahead will be fraught for the foreseeable future. They’ll need to keep grinding, undeterred.

  3. Make winning part of the culture. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr played on some of the best teams of the 1990s. But as he stated in an interview with Forbes, the foundation for his understanding of leadership came from his college coach. At Arizona, coach Lute Olsen sought to build “long-term culture change instead of merely assembling a quick fix.” Kerr has carried that wisdom into Golden State, which until recent years had been a perennial cellar dweller. They were the league’s best team this season. Kerr has worked to make this a lasting success. He’s quick to credit the contributions of others and emphasizes the importance of winning as a product of the culture. “Great cultures are always built in places people wouldn’t expect,” says Kerr. “But as a coach, you have to know what your strengths are and how you play in order for that to happen.”
  4. Tim Duncan: tall, silent type

    Tim Duncan: tall, silent type

    Past success is no guarantee of future success. One of the world’s best examples of a winning culture is in San Antonio, where Gregg Popovich has made the Spurs perennial title contenders for two decades. Last year, they defeated LeBron James’s Miami juggernaut in one of the most satisfying Finals victories ever seen. This year, with largely the same championship team, they exited in the first round. The Spurs were only the second team to exit so early after a championship in the past fifteen years. Though they seemed unbeatable in the past, they’ll be the first to tell you: yesterday’s victories have no bearing on the present. As with training in the workplace, staying current is everything.

  5. Winners surmount their most familiar obstacles. It’s one thing to overcome obstacles that come out of left field. It’s another, harder task to consistently conquer problems that seem to be always in the way. Whether you’re trying to change your habits in order to do your best work, or you’re LeBron James and every year you have to beat a Chicago Bulls team that legitimately hates you, you’ll find a way to win. If you’re LeBron James.

The NBA postseason is a battleground of gritty leadership. Everyone on the court is hurt, worn down from a season full of hundreds of game minutes and American sports’ most grueling travel schedule. The teams that go furthest are the ones that get the best contributions from their leaders. Success goes to the talented, but often, what the talented truly shine is getting the most out of those around them.

Photo credits: “LeBron James”; “John Wall, Stephen Curry“; “Anthony Davis Feb 2014“; and “Tim Duncan” by Keith Allison are licensed under CC BY 2.0