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🏆🏀Team lessons from the 2023 NBA Champs 🏆🏀

Well, it's the first month of no NBA basketball (bitter), but the 2023 playoffs were amazing and the Denver Nuggets won their first ever franchise championship (sweet).

To soothe my emotional hangover from the amazing playoffs - let's use this championship Nuggets team to reinforce 3 lessons we can all bring into our teams.

How did the Denver Nuggets become the champs?🏆This championship didn't happen overnight or through osmosis and good wishes. It took deliberate team action.

They deliberately focused their efforts and had clarity around their:

  1. shared goals that they'll all bought into (which superseded any individual goals).

  2. brand and values that defined their expectations and what behaviours would help them reach their goals (team, stability, defence).

  3. roles and responsibilities that helped everyone know their place and impact.

The overarching message and lesson across all team elements is CLARITY. Clear. Transparent. Understood by all. And to make things clear, the message isn't just said once. It's repeated and built into discussions. I've yet to meet someone who left a team/organisation because they were over-communicated with and expectations were too clear and transparent.

After all - we need to hear or read something up to 7 times just to remember it long-term!

Lesson 1: WE over ME

That old adage - there's no 'I' in team - stands true. Strong teams have clear shared goals. In fact, teams expert Patrick Lencioni says that a focus on individual goals over shared goals is a sign of team dysfunction. Interesting - even if you are individually achieving or exceeding, but are only focused on your individual goals - the team is in dysfunction.

The focus starts on the WE, and as a leader you help distil that into the ME (see Lesson 3 below).

The Nuggets are a prime example of this. Their superstar, Nikola Jokić, lives and breathes the we > me philosophy. And when the best player on your team does this - the expectation is set. Jokić is dominant in the league. In the past three years he was the league's MVP twice and finals MVP once. He has broken individual records that have stood for decades.

His basketball IQ is unreal - and it shows up in his dominance scoring, rebounding and assisting others. BUT, he actively shuns the spotlight. When asked about himself or his achievements, he elevates and praises others. When reporters bring up his individual accolades, he shrugs it off and defers to the team goal. "What good is getting a lot of points if we lost the game? I wanted a win, not a dominant scoring game."

Is this the attitude your team members have?

Lesson 2: Live your brand & values

Ohhh - talking about brands and values might have you rolling your eyes. In years past, corporate and team values activities might have felt more like an 'HR tickbox exercise'. Hopefully those are the days of the past, and these conversations are alive and well in your teams.

Brand and values conversations should lead to tangible, operational actions. These aren't fluffy feel-good conversations. They're about alignment and goal-setting. To do this ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do we want to be known for?

  2. What actions / behaviours will help us be known for that?

In his best seller, Atomic Habits, James Clear calls this values-based-habits. Decide who you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins.

The recent NBA champions lived this, but it didn't happen overnight or in one season. They wanted to be a team that drafted well and developed players. Their brand and mentality was to be team-first and continuously improving. They wanted to be better-than-yesterday, but understood that they wouldn't reach their destination tomorrow. In fact, it took years to win this championship.

Coach Michael Malone said, “We talk about the evolution in this game. “You go from a nobody to an upstart. You go from an upstart to a winner. From a winner to a contender. And from a contender to a champion. The last step after a champion is to be a dynasty.” “I feel really fortunate that our journey has been one of patience, one of drafting really well and developing those players, and then adding the right pieces around them,” Malone said. “Everybody does it differently. Some teams want to mortgage their future and go get the surefire player. For us, there’s never been a rushed mentality. That starts with ownership."

Patience and stability. That's what values brought to Denver and ultimately led to a title. Meet your team where they are at. The goal for every team isn't to win a championship, because that would be unrealistic. Sometimes the goal is adding a few more wins from the previous year or taking better care of the basketball. Be clear on where you are, where you want to go and the steps to get there. Your brand and values are like the compass that guides what those steps are.

Lesson 3: Roles & Responsibilities

Clear roles and responsibilities are foundational. In the Gallup Q12 engagement survey one of the two foundational engagement questions is "I know what's expected of me at work." Expectations are this important at any job.

On a basketball team, not everyone can be a superstar or THE player on the team. In fact, you wouldn't want too many 'superstars' on one team; there's only one ball and not everyone can have it. Legendary Coach Phil Jackson used to say A championship team will beat a team of champions.

Naturally we want to know what our place is within a group and what impact we make towards our goals. At work we call this a line of sight. How can we do this in our teams?


  • Know your organisational vision and mission. And be familiar with your strategy to get there.

  • Create a team mission statement. Identify a common goal that everyone on the team can rally behind.

    • Note: Put a human face/emotion behind your mission. What's the benefit to your customers or stakeholders. Why does it matter?

  • Create workflows. Know the work process from start to end. Everyone should be able to identify where your work is coming from, how your team adds value and where it goes after you finish with it.

  • Remove yourself from the equation. What would happen if no one was doing your role? What loss would there be to the organisation and to the customer?

Once you've clarified your team line of sight - then it's about what roles and responsibilities each person on the team has to help get there. The ME needs to come in to support the WE.

Who is doing what tasks? By when? Where does the work happen? And how? No matter how obvious these answers may seem, have these open discussions as a team. Make sure everyone is on the same page. After all, it's all about clarity, clarity, clarity!

As we mark the halfway point of the calendar year and the beginning of the NZ Public Sector financial year, it's a good time for all teams to revisit their collective goals, clarify their values and define their roles and responsibilities.


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