At its very core, every NBA organization is a workplace whose culture reflects what it values most. Those values inform just about everything an NBA franchise does, from its hiring practices to the adoption of new ideas. Over time, the sum of those values create a philosophy, a school of thought.
The league is a diverse ecosystem. Some franchises are buttoned up, while for others every day is casual Friday. Some thrive on collaboration, others are more hierarchical. There are franchises that make decisions with their guts where other organizations are strongly guided by data. And certain teams rely on structure, others like to keep it loose.
We've identified four strong cultures in the NBA that have endured for at least a decade: the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. For many franchises, culture can shift from year to year, but not these guys. Their cultures are intentional, steeped in specific principles.
Other cultures are emerging around the NBA. Some, like Oklahoma City and Atlanta, are direct descendants of San Antonio. The Golden State Warriors are cultivating their own school of thought, also influenced by the Spurs, but with a sprinkle of Silicon Valley's startup culture. These worldviews draw on one another, but each is distinct in its own way.
As one San Antonio alum put it, the Spurs' motto could be, "Open to any good idea." That's true of many organizations, but what distinguishes the Spurs is that there's no pride of ownership of that good idea -- it belongs to everyone. As Gregg Popovich said recently, the Spurs value "people who are participatory."
While the Spurs are collaborative and inclusive, don't be fooled: This is a highly structured, disciplined environment informed by Popovich's military background. The decision-makers have well-defined ideas of the qualities they want in people, be they players, coaches, scouts or analysts.
Some of those qualities might surprise you. Popovich has said repeatedly a sense of humor is a must. He also appreciates individuals who have diverse interests that extend beyond basketball. As counterintuitive as it sounds given the emphasis on discipline, difference is highly valued, as it enriches the discussions that guide the process.
Another defining feature of the Spurs' culture is compassion. As another alum puts it, "[The Spurs] are very demanding and disciplined, but there's great depth to the relationships. And a lot of that comes from these demands. People feel like they're part of something worth protecting."
Though they have plenty of achievements to trumpet, the Spurs are allergic to media attention. They find the spotlight disruptive, and they also prefer to keep their proprietary knowledge private. Behind closed doors, the Spurs have been pioneers in many of the innovations that have taken hold of the NBA in recent seasons, everything from medical technology to optical tracking. Identify a best practice the league has adopted widely -- the management of player minutes, for one -- and chances are the Spurs were first.
Despite the fact that the Spurs attract strong personalities, it's never about you, the individual. Knowing what you don't know, comfort in your own skin, discipline to preparation, but at the same time, an almost Zen sense of proportion: It's only basketball; real life is much richer.
Hawks prez, coach
Miami is a hierarchical organization where perfectionists and workaholics flourish, and it's no surprise the environment on Biscayne Boulevard demands meticulous preparation. Like with the Spurs, discipline is the bedrock principle, and process is fetishized. But unlike the Spurs, decision-making is a top-down affair.
The Heat are "The Cult of Riley," in the words of one Heat alum, who appreciates the organization's strength and durability. The organization is a reflection of Pat Riley's persona and can strike free thinkers as very authoritative. At the same time, Riley's presence has created a well-defined chain of command, and stability has followed.
Like the Wall Street firm that will drive its weary 20-hour-a-day employees home via limousine, the Heat have large per diems, stay in the swankiest hotels and their coaches are impeccably tailored. Look the part. When the Spurs staff shuts off the lights and heads to a trattoria for a group dinner, the night is just beginning for the grunts in the Heat office.
As intense as the environment is, loyalty is an essential ingredient in Miami, a reflection of owner Micky Arison, who isn't a fan of change. Once you drink the Kool-Aid, you're a lifetime member of "The Miami Heat Family" and afforded a support structure as sturdy as any in the league.
The Heat favor tradition as a guide and have arrived slower to some of the NBA's newer trends. Younger voices in the organization such as Erik Spoelstra have introduced innovations, but until recently the Heat paid less mind to projects like international scouting and sports medicine. One reason: An abiding faith that the margins of the team's operation and roster are less important when you can hunt big game the way Riley can.
Plunking down those championship rings in front of LeBron James in July 2010 was quintessential Riley and quintessential Heat. They were selling prestige, discipline, seriousness. They were selling the Miami Heat.
Decades ago, Jerry Buss latched onto the idea that NBA basketball was an entertainment product for mass consumption. And like most entertainment vehicles, the Lakers are driven by talent. As a result, this is an organization that worships individual achievement and honors those stars by placing them at the top of a hierarchical culture.
When there's success, that stardom radiates a golden hue. For years, the Lakers were a place that players with the most ambitious aspirations dreamed of working. Hollywood, the lifestyle, the weather, the Forum, which was the place to be in the nation's entertainment capital. Wearing purple and gold was the ultimate privilege afforded to a select group.
The Lakers used this aura to think big, led by the vision of Buss. Magic Johnson defined this. He wasn't just a basketball player, but a multifaceted personality with cultural and entrepreneurial ambitions. The Lakers parlayed that success into Shaq and Kobe, the latter of whom elevated myth-making to an art form.
For better or worse, this culture is very self-consumed and prone to political intrigue. The residue of past success can create a lack of humility. Rivals of the Lakers say they're floored by the lack of infrastructure, work, and R & D in Los Angeles. Those who have worked for the Spurs say that there are books on how empires fall on the shelves in San Antonio. It's difficult to imagine the Lakers' shelves adorned with such cautionary tales.
The Lakers feel no need to apologize for their star system. Other franchises can bask in the functionality of their cultures. The Lakers will cash those checks from their record-setting deal with their broadcast partners, a good portion of which they donate to the league's have-nots who couldn't brand their way out of a paper bag. All the while, the Lakers leave thought leadership to others because there's always another superstar around the corner they can seduce with the warm glow of purple and gold mystique.
In the NBA, a franchise can start with a structure, then hand-pick talent that conforms to that structure. Or it can first accumulate the talent, then build a structure around it. Whereas San Antonio and Miami choose the first strategy, Houston goes talent first. This isn't because the Rockets believe structure isn't important. It's an expression of the Rockets' desire to find inefficiencies in the NBA marketplace. If everyone else is zigging, let's zag.
Innovation and a defiance of convention drive the Rockets. Data is king -- and efficiency is the prince. Every decision will be made through a rational calculus, irrespective of how that decision might affect office culture. Chemistry is regarded as an ancillary benefit, not an end to itself. Theirs is a transactional approach to team-building, in some part a reflection of their owner, Les Alexander, who made his fortune buying and trading equities. In some sense, this outlook is diametrically opposed to the "buy-develop-hold" approach in San Antonio. Yet, it also allows Houston to pivot quickly and recover from its mistakes.
By definition, this constant churn in Houston makes it difficult to create a familial, nurturing environment. And during times of adversity, there can be a calculating, ruthless vibe to the franchise. A cold, clean, objective feel that says, "We're not a support group." Think Amazon.
Yet there's a strong collective belief in Houston that they're engaged in a higher purpose to innovate and influence the sport. When things are going well, that in itself can create a communal spirit. When things are going poorly ... well ... you've seen how revolutions can turn on themselves.
Say what you want about the Rockets' shortcomings, but they've been an influential force in the NBA over the last decade. All around the league, teams have followed the Rockets' cues and made the interpretation of data a part of their decision-making processes.
Both Sides of the Ball
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Some organizations strive to gain a competitive advantage by innovation, others by taking tried-and-true methods and implementing them better than anyone else.
When assembling a team, is it best to first accumulate the best talent, then sculpt a culture around that personnel? Or is it preferable to create a sustainable structure, then populate it with people who fit that culture, even if it means ruling out some skilled workers who don't fit?
A look at the icons, habits and annoyances of some of the NBA's leading organizations.