Sunday, June 16, 2013

The San Antonio Spurs On Strategy, Culture and Hiring

The first five games of the 2013 NBA Finals have been surprisingly interesting, in light of the fact that the Miami Heat are the defending champions, have the best player in the NBA (LeBron James), had the best record in the NBA and were the favorites to win the championship since the start of the season.  However, the San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs in each of the last 16 seasons and have won the NBA Championship in 4 of those seasons.  So no one should be surprised that they just won Game 5, took a 3 - 2 series lead, and are one win away from winning their 5th NBA Championship.

This story should be of importance to you because the San Antonio Spurs are a small market team and the only player that was drafted high from a traditional college was Tim Duncan, who is 37 years old and on the tail end of his career.  Of their 30 draft picks since Tim Duncan was drafted #1 in the 1997 NBA Draft, 16 of those picks have been international players.  The San Antonio Spurs have the highest winning percentage of all 4 major sports teams over the past 15 years and the most international players on their roster.  All of this while never having a draft pick higher than #24 since drafting Tim Duncan due to their high winning percentage.

Coach Pop studied Soviet Studies at the Air Force Academy and traveled Eastern Europe early in his coaching career.  Back then there was a stigma on foreign players that they wouldn't speak the NBA language,  wouldn't play defense, and were soft. According to Coach Pop, "I thought that was really ignorant, I couldn't believe that it was a pool that wasn't being used."

Coach Pop has a strategy that relies more on foreign players than any other NBA organization.  A strategy is a way of differentiating yourself to create value.  Foreign players give the San Antonio Spurs a competitive advantage because from their youth foreign players approach the game of basketball differently.  They also play the game of basketball differently, and most importantly when they arrive to the NBA they typically have a different mentality about what it means to play in the NBA and how much effort and selflessness they will put into it.

According to Seth Wickersham at ESPN, "The way the Spurs see it, though, the biggest divide isn't structural but cultural. Something has happened to basketball in the country that invented it, as well-documented as it as irrevocable, driven by money and fame and a generation of players who've learned from watching sharks succeed by imposing their will upon the game rather than by allowing it to come to them."  In business terms, the mentality of foreign born players is more aligned culturally to Popovich's philosophy than the mentality of American born players.

The unintended consequences of the San Antonio Spurs all in approach to foreign players more than 15 years ago is that they have an enormous head start on scouting and recruiting foreign players.  In fact international players are looking forward to joining the Spurs.  In addition, they utilize the unique skills and increased focus on fundamentals that foreign players have to run highly complex screens, rolls and fakes that confuse opponents, for example.  Jared Dubin at the Bleacher Report does a brilliant job of explaining these complex screens.  But what the Spurs really have is an environment that allows the most unique players to create limitless chemistry that other NBA organizations will have a difficult time defeating or duplicating.  All this by finding a talented, under-utilized pool that NBA organizations failed to recognize.

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