The National Basketball Association is a league of talentism. The NBA playoffs began this weekend with the shorthanded Chicago Bulls suffering a 17 point defeat – in a game that was never really that close – on the road in Brooklyn, and the favorited Miami Heat working their way to a 23 point victory – in a game that was never really that close – at home against the Bucks. If you watched the latter you probably caught Miami Heat President Pat Riley on camera with enough slicked back hair to go around. But there is only so much talent to go around.
To get that top talent, follow Pat Riley’s Recruiting Lessons: (1) Protect Your People, (2) Be Obsessed, (3) Acquire Disgruntled Top Talent, (4) Demand the Best Result, (5) Farm Data Driven Talent, and (6) Hire People Who Hire People (that deliver far more than their wages).
In late March, the Chicago Bulls defeated Pat Riley’s Miami Heat – Chicago 101, Miami 97 – to end the second longest winning streak in NBA history at 27 games. After the game, the author of The Book of Basketball Bill Simmons deemed it, “the greatest NBA regular-season game ever played.” As a Bulls fan, I can’t disagree. Understanding the outliers of talentism is crucial to understanding talentism itself.
The undermanned Bulls took the court without their two best players, Derrick Rose and Joachim Noah, but they were determined to be the more physical team, outrebounding the Heat by 12 and leaving the Heat superstars victim to this-is-the-last-game-of-our-lives-you-will-not-score physical fouls. Postgame LeBron James had this to say, “I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground.”
Miami Heat President Pat Riley issued no official statements through the 27 game winning streak. In fact the Heat were chasing Pat Riley’s own record; in his playing days he was a backup guard on the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers who won an NBA record 33 straight games.
After the Heat loss and LeBron’s comments, the rival Celtics president Danny Ainge said it is “almost embarrassing” that James is complaining about the officiating. Riley then released an official statement through a Heat spokesperson:
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the f— up and manage his own team.”
This is not an off the cuff response. This is an official statement, a calculated move. ESPN speculated the statement was made with retention in mind, as James becomes a free agent in 2014. What did this statement by management mean to James?
“It was big-time to see that.”
The first Recruiting Lesson from Pat Riley is of retention and branding: Protect Your People. If a leader doesn’t adamantly defend his people, he is admitting his people are not great and in turn that he is not a great recruiter.
“People are territorial animals,” wrote Pat Riley in The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players. “We all want to stake out something to call our own. We strike back when our turf is threatened. In business, and even in family life, we are caught up in the constant and clever infighting: labor versus management – marketing against accounting – child against parent.
Don’t smother those territorial and competitive instincts. They’re a vital part of your humanity. But harness them for the good of the team.”
Organizational development is not about changing the instincts and inclinations of its’ talent; recruiting the best demands presenting top talent with the opportunity to reach the greatest heights as an organization at large.
There is already much speculation that Riley won’t be able to keep this current Heat team together. Nevertheless, what does retention matter if you are unable to acquire top talent? Let’s back up. Internet legend has it that in 2010 the centerpiece of Riley’s recruiting pitch to LeBron James (who had yet to win a championship) was to dump his bevy of championship rings onto a conference table in James’ Cleveland offices. How’s that for I’ve been there and done that (and I know how to get you there)?
As a player in high school Riley beat who would go on to become the NBA’s all time scorer (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), in college Riley made the All-American team, after college he was drafted in the NBA and NFL draft and chose basketball, but despite finding many levels of talent above him in the NBA and only averaging 7.4 points per game for his career, Riley’s winning ways continued as a backup on the the aforementioned 1972 Lakers.
That 1972 Lakers were great example example of the famous Pat Riley quote, “You Can Never Have Enough Talent.” Despite losing the great Elgin Baylor to retirement nine games into the season, the team had enough talent – three more Hall of Famers (Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodirch and the inspiration for the NBA logo, Jerry West) – to set the regular season winning streak record and go on to win the NBA championship.
As a coach, Riley won an NBA title in his first season (his first of five coaching titles) led by the aforementioned all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabar and a transcendental talent named Magic Johnson, before coaching the Knicks – where he won coach of the year but fell short of the ultimate goal, winning a championship in New York – due the superior talent of Michael Jordan’s Bulls and (while Jordan was playing baseball) Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets. Even on those rare occasions when his team didn’t come out on top Riley brought the effort, energy and focus to his bench because that is what he does. Pat Riley Recruiting Lesson: Be Obsessed.
“To have long term success as a coach or in any position of leadership, you have to be obsessed in some way,” says Riley.
In 2004, the Lakers – despite four players who will make the Hall of Fame (Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton) – lost in the NBA Finals. The two best players, Shaq and Kobe, had reached a boiling point; they could no longer work together. Riley, who was coaching the Heat at the time, orchestrated a trade to acquire Shaq at 50 cents on the dollar. Which brings me to my next Pat Riley Recruiting Lesson: Acquire Disgruntled Top Talent.
In 2006 the Heat – led by Wade, Shaq, Riley and cast of former NBA stars who had become NBA misfits – were up three games to two in the NBA Finals heading to Dallas in a best of seven games series.They had to win one of the next two games to win the series, and Riley said:
“I told everybody to pack for just one day – one shirt, one tie not two days – three days, or four days – just one day of dress and change.”
His message, we are going to Dallas to win the NBA Championship tomorrow, and they did. The next Pat Riley Recruiting Lesson: Demand the Best Result. Beyond the salary, the benefits, and the environment, top talent values the overarching purpose of company.
When Riley retired from coaching in 2007 due to hip and knee problems, his biggest recruiting coup was in front of him.
In the summer of 2010 (“The Decision” PR fiasco aside), Riley successfully recruited the best basketball in the world, top big man Chris Bosh and retained previous NBA championship MVP Dwayne Wade to solidify his status as the best recruiter in NBA history. Riley recruiting LeBron James from a reigning No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is the equivalent of Bill Gates recruiting Steve Wozniak from Apple in 1980. Think of what would have happened to Apple and Microsoft respectively if Wozniak had left Apple for Microsoft. Note: the Cavaliers won 24 games in 2013 year (LeBron’s former team), and the Heat won 66 games (LeBron’s current team).
The Cavaliers miss LeBron James so much that earlier this year a fan ran onto the court and forced a stoppage of play with Heat up four points in the fourth quarter, wearing the shirt, “We miss you, Come Back 2014.” The Heat went on to win the game 98-95.
As SportsGuy Bill Simmons explained in The Heat Hindsight, “(Riley) convinced the game’s greatest player, at the peak of his powers, to stab his hometown in the back and play on someone else’s team. He picked an unknown coach and backed him to the bitter end. He pushed his guys privately and stayed mum publicly, and if you think Riley wasn’t the biggest reason the LeBron-Wade relationship never imploded during its darkest times, you’re crazy.”
The then unknown coach in his first head coaching gig was Erik Spoelstra. This is the next Pat Riley Recruiting Lesson: Farm Data Driven Talent. Skeptics did not believe a first time coach was capable of managing the three massive egos of established NBA stars. Riley did. He stuck by Spolestra, even as the new Heat team lost the NBA title in their first season together. Spoelesta is a data driven man. In their next season (2011-2012), Spolestra increasingly took LeBron off the ball and put him into the post, he moved Bosh off the left side of the court, and played a small ball lineup. Going against conventional wisdom, Spoelsta decided to have one of the games greatest dribblers dribble less (LeBron), have the game’s best left handed big man spend less time on the left side of the floor (Bosh), and in a game where taller is better he played shorter players who spaced the floor, shooting a higher three point percentage. These were all data driven decisions; they simply increased points per possession and paid off as the Heat won the NBA championship in 2012. Spoelsta is now the first Asian American to coach an NBA Championship team.
Yes, Riley orchestrated the current Heat squad. But he could not have done it alone. Dwayne Wade’s friendship with LeBron James and Chris Bosh were instrumental in convincing all three players to accept lesser salaries than they could have earned playing elsewhere. In turn LeBron James has recruited countless other NBA veterans to take less than their market rate to play for a winner, such as Ray Allen (all-time leader in 3 pointers made and former Celtic), Shane Battier (great defender), Rashard Lewis (former $23 million a year player now making $1.4m), and many more. Which brings me to a very important Pat Riley Recruiting Lesson: Hire People Who Hire People (that deliver far more than their wages).
Riley wrote, “Management must speak with one voice. When it doesn’t management itself becomes a peripheral opponent to the team’s mission.”
To open the 2013 playoffs the Heat beat the Bucks by 23 in a game that wasn’t really that close. LeBron James controlled the entire game. The Miami Heat are LeBron’s team. It is the players and not the brand who define the team.
I still root for the Bulls because of Michael Jordan. To this day, I associate the brand with the top talent it had. Talent builds companies. Seeing Jordan play will always be my definition for what basketball is, and I believe, across all industries transcendental talent redefines what the profession does. Talent creates professions.
In 1996, I got to see the Bulls in person. I saw the greatest player ever (Michael Jordan, 23), the greatest sidekick ever (Scottie Pippen, 33), and the greatest rebounder ever (Dennis Rodman, 91) exert their will in one of their NBA record 72 regular season wins. I brought a sign to the stadium, “23 + 33 + 91 = (Picture of the NBA Championship Trophy).” Even then – at age 8 – I understood what Monster was articulating, “Talentism is the new capitalism.”
To open the 2013 playoffs the Bulls lost to the Nets by 17 points in a game that wasn’t really that close. In this past offseason, the Nets and their owner Mikhail Prokhorov committed $330 million in future player salaries, whereas the Bulls’ committed only $15 million in future salaries.
For a game, passion, circumstances, strategy, and the luck of the bounce can lead the less talented team to victory, but seasons and championships cede to the talent as the victor. In a seven game series, I can hope that the Bulls’ chemistry will triumph the lavish salaries of the Nets. But my head says otherwise. It says there are amplifications to committing $330 million in new salaries and there are amplifications to committing $15 million in new salaries. My head says, even the Las Vegas odds say the Heat are more likely to win the championship than the other 15 playoff teams combined. Nevertheless, the game is decided on the floor. And the Bulls will always have the win in the greatest regular season game ever played.
To make yourself the favorite to win, follow Pat Riley’s Recruiting Lessons: (1) Protect Your People, (2) Be Obsessed, (3) Acquire Disgruntled Top Talent, (4) Demand the Best Result, (5) Farm Data Driven Talent, (6) Hire People Who Hire People (that deliver far more than their wages), and never forget:
“You Can Never Have Enough Talent.”