Updated: Jan 31
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Everything we need to know about teams we can learn from an NBA (or WNBA) team. While the team and organisational goals might be different, the principles are the same.
Teamwork makes the dreamwork afterall. Since I'm lucky enough to be a Clevelander, that means I'm lucky enough to have the Cleveland Cavs as my hometown team.
And what an amazing year it's been to be a Cavs fan! For some context this has been our record the past three seasons:
2018/19: 19 wins, 63 losses
2019/20: 19 wins, 46 losses (season shortened from Covid)
2020/21: 22 wins, 50 losses
This year has been different. Over halfway through the season and we're in 3rd place in the East. With thirty games left games to play in regular season, we already have 30 wins!
Before the season, NBA media and analysts were saying they wouldn't win 30 games all season. Ha! The Cavs' social media team let them know how they felt about that after our 30th win:
This transformation didn't happen overnight. It's been brewing for a while. And It's been an absolute blast to witness an organisation's culture rebuild and grow organically and with purpose.
How has it happened?
What are the Cavaliers doing right?
Honestly - everything.
This team is really ticking all the boxes. They're having fun, they know their individual and collective strengths, they've bought into a culture and are held accountable by each other (guided by their values).
They're having fun
It's fun to be a Cavaliers fan this year. And the team is clearly having fun themselves. Their joy is contagious. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff has commented numerous times this season that the team's approach to the game centers around joy and passion.
Sadly we don't often think about fun and joy at work as a link to high performance. But it is. This is what we mean by taking a human-centred approach to work. If you want good work to be done, create a good environment for good people.
Alex Liu wrote an HBR article about making joy a work priority. He states:
People intrinsically seek joy. And joy connects people more powerfully than almost any other human experience.
Liu also notes the joy gap people are currently experiencing at work. 90% of people expect to feel joy at work - but 53% aren't feeling that. Just another reason we're of the Great Resignation. (but that's a topic for another blog).
You can see the Cavs joy when they're laughing together, celebrating each other's achievements, sharing the ball, trying new things.
Laughter is a great indication of a good team.
Does your team prioritise joy and fun?
They believe in what they're building
Everyone is rallying around a shared purpose. The people within the Cavaliers organisation believe in the Cavaliers organisation. That's fundamental.
From ownership, to front office management, to the trainers and specialists, to the coaches and players - Everyone is on the same page. They believe in what they're building. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff's contract has been extended to 2027 and General Manager Koby Altman has been extended until 2028.
This gives the team organisation stability. That's vital. Stability and certainty are human needs. Our brains go into threat mode without it and it's hard to do our best work in threat mode.
And another point - they didn't try to rush success. Again - this didn't happen overnight. The coaching staff has told us over and over the team is exactly where they thought they'd be 3-4 years ago. The leaders and coaches had the room to develop and build success organically. The players bought into Coach Bickerstaff's system. It's not about the individual - it's all about the team.
While the team wasn't winning a lot of games the past few seasons, they found the small wins they could celebrate - and rallied around that.
Everything goes back to their vision - building sustainable success based on teamwork and grit.
They trust each other
A few nights ago the Cavs beat last year's champions (the Milwaukee Bucks) by 16 points. It was a signature win - it put the rest of the league on notice.
After the team's win, Coach J.B. Bickerstaff had a pretty insightful postgame media interview. Of course I'd recommend watching the whole 14 minute video, but here are a few of the noteworthy remarks:
(5:45) Coach J.B. Bickerstaff: In years past we've been asking guys to do things that they had never done before. We asked guys to carry burdens and carry loads that they hadn't carried before at this level... I'll go back to this, we do it together all the time. And we don't ask one guy to do something that's not his strength or that he's not capable of. We put each other in positions to be successful. And then we're always in positions to support one another. And that's how we get it done. There's a clear vision of who each guy is and what they need to do to help the team, and the guys have bought into it. Completely. (8:35) Bickerstaff: What they know is that they believe in each other. And that's the most important thing. They have no fear. But, they have no fear because there's a large level of trust in that locker room. And nobody ever feels like they're out there on their own. You know what I mean? No matter what's going on, good or bad, they always feel like somebody's got their back. And when you have that type of support system, you're going to give yourself a chance... (9:15) Question: With a young team, how do they not fall apart when you're getting crushed like they were after one quarter? J.B.: Their inability to disappoint one another. That's how they approach it. Not one guy in that locker room is ok taking a step back or laying down, because they know how much it means to their teammates. And they do not want to disappoint one another. It is rare. It is unique. But it's who they are... (10:10) Question: Can you quantify the importance of chemistry? Bickerstaff: No, no. And that's the beauty of this game. In all, you know, the analytics, all those things that people want to tie together and give reasons why. But you can have all the talent in the world and have poor chemistry and you're gonna underachieve everytime. You can have less talent and more chemistry and you'll overachieve. And the beauty of it is you can't put numbers to it, you have to put time and care into it. And that's the human aspect of what we do. The computers want to take all that away from us. There's so much more to be said about, especially in teams, togetherness. A genuine trust and care for one another. That support. That gives you an opportunity every night to be more than what you are as an individual. And it uplifts everyone in the group and it makes you a better team...
That trust wasn't built overnight. They took the time to work together and connect. They know their strengths and celebrate together. They learn from their mistakes and also give people the safety to make mistakes.
They trust the player next to them will make the right play because they've seen it. They've put the work in. Trust takes time and work - and they've put that in.
They live their values
“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.” - Elvis Presley
This season the Cavs chose five core values to rally around. Details. Toughness. Together. Compete. 1 More.
Like most organisations, their values are posted onto the wall. Chris Fedor from Cleveland.com notes how this photo is framed and hung in the Cavs practice facility, in Bickerstaff’s office, in the film room and in the locker room.
The trick for any organisation is to move from just espoused, verbalised values into lived and tangibly feeling your values in how the team acts and the environment they create.
Sometimes values are aspirational. Where we want to be. But this team uses the values to hold each other to account.
Coach Bickerstaff summed it up well when he said “It was a matter of figuring out what best makes a team and things you could control, things that didn’t take anyone else to dictate whether you do them…It gives us a common ground to preach to players. It gives them something to understand right away about what we’re trying to do. But it’s not just something we say; it’s something we have to live.”
The Cavs have done this all season. Details. Toughness. Together. Compete. 1 More.
Why these five? It’s what we live by every day,” Bickerstaff said. “They’re a combination of things that I thought were important to building a team. It’s also characteristic of our city, and about living it, so we’ll earn the respect of our fan base."
In an HBR article written almost twenty years ago, Patrick Lencioni stated, Values initiatives have nothing to do with building consensus—they’re about imposing a set of fundamental, strategically sound beliefs on a broad group of people. It sounds like this is exactly what the Cavs coaching staff did with the team during preseason training camp.
Want your team to be as successful as a professional sports team?
Create a shared purpose, know your strengths, use your values are your accountability metrics - and for goodness sake, have some fun.