Selflessness and Superteams

I love watching NBA games. Of the teams I’ve watched, I like the style of play the Golden State Warriors have perfected. Lots of ball movement, very little isolation play, an assist-heavy scoreline and two of the best shooters ever.

If you know nothing about them, there are a few facts that can help inform this conversation

  • They are a superteam. Their entire starting lineup for parts of this season consisted of All-Stars, something that has never occurred before
  • They have 3 of the last four championships and are in the finals of this one

The literature around superteams and star-studded teams is unequivocal. They fail. Teams with a better mix of talent levels do far better than a team comprised of the “best of the best.” This is true in business, in school and in sports.

People have put forth a number of theories around this

  • Stars unwilling to sublimate their ego to the larger cause
  • An unwillingness to play second fiddle when one is accustomed to being the best option at all times
  • Poor team chemistry because of having too many generals and too few soldiers
  • Unwillingness to take on roles different from what has made them successful

GSW is the one shining example that disproves this. I was keen to understand why.

Their origin story is:

  • Suck for decades such that only die-hard fans hold any hope
  • Draft an undersized often-overlooked shooting talent in Steph Curry in what was considered a risky move
  • Draft another shooting talent in Klay Thompson
  • Draft a positionless player in the 36th pick in Draymond Green. In his case, positionless meant he wasn’t considered suited for any of the 5 positions

This is how things developed:

  • Steph became an all-NBA talent and the team moulded itself around him, eschewing players who didn’t fit in or who wouldn’t fit it
  • Klay became another transcendental shooting talent, but also developed as an elite defender
  • Draymond became the sort of positionless player who could play any position
  • They added some missing pieces, most notably Andre Igoudala, and this meant the team was now balanced and potent

The rest is legend. With a coach who developed and encouraged their distinctive style, they became world beaters. So far so good; this was an organically grown team and culture.

It’s when they lost the 2016 finals that they added the second-best player in the league, Kevin Durant, to their team. What happened next is surprising:

  • Steph Curry, two-time MVP, gave up a lot of his scoring to fit Kevin in, even as much as he gave over the primacy of scoring to him
  • Klay Thompson became a distant third shooting option for a team where he was a close second
  • KD too had to cut down on all his numbers to fit into GSW’s pass and assist-heavy style
  • Draymond didn’t always control the pace and flow of the play; that was now shared with KD

This is a large set of changes by any standard. Despite that, GSW managed to absorb them, and went on to win the next two championships with very little trouble.

At the heart of it is one virtue – selflessness.

It starts with Steph, who was happy stepping back to make KD feel welcome.

It goes on to their other stars Klay and Draymond, who shifted into their lesser roles.

It even encompasses KD, who took a cut, both in his pay and in his numbers to be part of this team.

Even as other teams across the league try to clear max contract space to get a bunch of stars in, those experiments haven’t really played out as well.

It looks like its harder to teach selflessness than it is to teach any on-the-job skill.

I can see this at my workplace as well. Very often, the creation of a new business unit or function results in the en-masse movement of dissatisfied stars from other teams.

The new team is now skewed badly in terms of the historical performance of its constituents.

Armed with a strong charter, great people and the will of the organization behind it, one would expect that they would succeed easily and in a way that betters expectations.

The truth is the opposite. In about 3 years, most of these teams have lost half the stars who went in. Some come back to their old jobs, others can’t stomach the change in their fortunes and leave the firm.

I wish I knew how one can teach selflessness. It would make these teams, as well as their stars, much better. I think it starts with leadership. When Steph shows the way by stepping back, by hustling each play, by feeding his team though he is their strongest shooter, it sets the tone.

I think there’s more – a clarity around the changed environment, an ability to introspect and evolve, and most of all, a willingness to shift the story to be about the construct rather than themselves.

As I write this, the finals are less than a week away. If GSW makes it 3 in a row, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even with KD and Boogie injured, they have played with immense skill and confidence.

It looks highly likely that this team will not look the same next year, and neither will the league. Despite that, I will continue to back them.

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