THE NBA REGULAR season is finally over, and if the signals emanating from locker rooms over the past six months offer any indication, the end couldn’t come soon enough. The league wasn’t without its feel-good stories — the ascendant Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, Luka ‘n’ Trae — but 2018-19 might be best remembered as the NBA’s winter of discontent.
The league and those who love it often celebrate the dominance of juicy NBA storylines, but even commissioner Adam Silver conceded a few weeks ago that buzz isn’t an end unto itself.
“At some point it does matter what they’re saying,” Silver said.
What they’ve been saying about the NBA for the better part of the year is that many of the most talented players and charismatic teams suffer from chronic unhappiness. Maybe, as Silver implied, it’s a palpable anxiety driven by social media. Or maybe it’s the burden of expectation that comes with stardom in a player-driven league. Maybe this restlessness has always existed, shielded from public scrutiny in an era where the moods of players, coaches and executives weren’t so easily conveyed.
It’s not as if the pressures of a high-intensity environment caught the NBA by surprise. For years, long before Twitter or the proliferation of free-agency-as-reality-show, smart teams have emphasized chemistry and workplace culture as an antidote to the egos, media glare and competing interests that can derail a perfectly good roster of basketball players. But if culture was supposed to stand as the great buffer to the noise, the past 12 months have served as a profound reminder of its limits in a league where individual stardom carries so much weight.
As the postseason gets underway, the undercurrents that exist in Boston, Golden State, Toronto, Philadelphia and San Antonio — all places where a premium has been placed on the construction and maintenance of team culture — will be tested. If that culture has value, now would be a good time to see it activated.
WHEN THE BOSTON Celtics hired Brad Stevens in 2013 to be their new head coach, the NBA was in the midst of its great cultural revolution. League executives had embraced many of the tropes of modern management theory and popular behavioral science, as well as lessons from books such as “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” “Grit,” “Mindset” and “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”
No team embodied this movement like the San Antonio Spurs. Though they had watched Ray Allen rip a championship from their grasp a few weeks earlier, the franchise had forged an identity over nearly two decades based around values such as trust and common sacrifice. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were years past their primes, and Kawhi Leonard was a 21-year-old averaging fewer than 12 points per game, yet the Spurs had plowed through the Western Conference on the strength of “The Spurs Way.” As more stars joined forces to build a few select superteams, the Spurs provided an empowering template for the rest of the league:
Any team in any market could overcome a talent deficit if it subscribed to the right principles and inspired its players to be the best versions of themselves.
Stevens arrived in Boston as the avatar of the moment. At a school with an undergraduate enrollment of just over 4,000, he had established “The Butler Way.” Humble, thoughtful and wholly committed to his craft, Stevens exuded calm and had a keen understanding that high-level basketball was about the players. At the height of the cultural revolution, he was the perfect candidate to cultivate a sustainable value system in Boston. And as an affirmation to the import and scope of building a culture, the Celtics furnished Stevens with a six-year contract, saying: For the near term, worry more about the holistic task, less about wins and losses.
Culture triumphed in the NBA for the next couple of years. In June 2014, the Spurs avenged their Finals loss to the Miami Heat in a series that was a pass-happy exhibition of how team prevails over talent. That fall, Steve Kerr arrived in Oakland, helping a middling playoff team vault to greatness with an ethic of joy. San Antonio disciple Mike Budenholzer won 60 games with the Atlanta Hawks without a top-20 player in the midst of an ownership scandal, while the Spurs chugged along, winning another 128 games in Duncan’s final two seasons.
In Boston, Stevens delivered as promised: A scrappy, young Celtics team without much star power took shape, and a culture of work and selflessness was laid down. Each year, talent was added to the roster in the form of draft picks and strategic free-agent signings, and consequently, wins were added to the Celtics’ record. Despite a personnel overhaul, Boston spent all of one year in postseason exile. The singular takeaway: Nothing accelerates rebuilding like culture.
Today, all of that seems quaint. To the cynic, a quick scan of the NBA could suggest that the primacy of organizational culture looks more like a fleeting fad of the late-Obama era.
Stevens’ team in Boston — picked by many to win the Eastern Conference this season — has been embattled since the opening days of the campaign. Kyrie Irving couldn’t help himself from calling out younger teammates, while Stevens has openly questioned the team’s connectedness. In Oakland, Kevin Durant‘s pending free agency and his larger unhappiness has rendered Team Joy utterly joyless for a while now. San Antonio, the league’s leading cultural institution, was effectively forced to ship out its next generational talent in an ugly stalemate of lost trust.
There are other examples on the periphery: Another Spurs alumnus, Brett Brown, has spent five years devoted to his cultural blueprint in Philadelphia, but it’s uncertain whether the 76ers’ tinderbox will be resilient enough to withstand the combustibility of its roster. In Portland, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and coach Terry Stotts are all culture-first personalities, but if the Trail Blazers bow out in the first round of the playoffs this month, what exactly is the added value of that culture? Ditto the Utah Jazz.
For San Antonio, Golden State and Boston, the reliance on a well-honed culture came up against the allure of star talent.
In 2015, the Spurs beat out suitors in glam destinations such as New York and Los Angeles for free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs knew Aldridge, who could be sullen, wasn’t exactly a culture vulture, yet they determined that the presence of Duncan and the strength of the cultural foundation could morph Aldridge into a Spur.
For Golden State, the gambit was far simpler: Durant, one of the NBA’s most prolific individual performers, wanted to join its ranks in 2016 after the Warriors lost the Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Adding a talent of that magnitude to a culture that strong would produce compounding effects that could make the Warriors the greatest team in the sport’s history.
The Celtics encountered a similar opportunity when Irving was made available in 2017. And like the Spurs and Warriors, the Celtics made a quick determination when presented with the question: Do we want to screw with our culture?
For a championship point guard with the finest shot-making skills, we quite certainly do.
Just as the NBA convinced itself that culture was the silver bullet that could recast the fortunes of a franchise, these organizations believed their elite cultures could absorb any player with a desire to win, no matter how prickly. That’s what the culture is for — and the better the player, the more steadfast that belief.
By every account, there remains a pervasive culture in San Antonio, the product of five championships, leadership at the top, the legacy of Duncan and the front office’s taste in basketball players. However strong that culture, it couldn’t persuade Leonard to want to stay. And less than five years after schooling the league with the pass, the Spurs are now a team that gets the ball in to Aldridge on the left block more than a dozen times per game, plays an iso-heavy half-court game and ranks in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency.
Stephen Curry personified the culture of joy in Golden State, until he personified the last remnants of it. These days, the spirit of the Warriors more resembles Durant — petulant, defensive and just plain unhappy. In that vein, the Celtics have been consumed by Irving’s public education in leadership and, like Durant, the looming decision he will make this July in free agency.
What happened? As is usually the case, there’s no one thing: Duncan retired; the Warriors grew bored; maintaining something is never as inspiring as building it; expectations can challenge even the most capable people. At the same time, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford didn’t start believing the wrong things. Curry didn’t go rogue, and Kerr didn’t start valuing pettiness over empathy. Stevens didn’t forget how to comport himself, and Al Horford didn’t wake up in September and become indifferent to team basketball.
More likely, these organizations stumbled into a prevailing reality in the NBA: No culture can fully absorb an incoming superstar. The Heat came closest. The most starched, buttoned-up culture in the league bent to accommodate LeBron James, who thrives in chaos, but never broke en route to a pair of titles. Yet the present-day landscape of the empowered NBA superstar generally means that a team’s culture is secondary to that guy’s identity, which is logical because talent drives the value of the NBA product. Post-LeBron, the Heat have reclaimed the purity of the culture, but despite routinely overachieving in the regular season, they’ve won just one playoff series over the past five seasons.
The surprising Clippers offer the sharpest contrast with their current roster composition. During the Lob City era, the Clippers were a team beset by iffy chemistry due, in large part, to a constellation of big egos. Today, the Clippers are the model of the unselfish, love-to-come-to-work collective. Did coach Doc Rivers miraculously transform into the league’s most inspiring minister of culture — Ubuntu 2.0 — or did he just skillfully preside over a group of agreeable players, none of whom with a claim on stardom and an agenda that often accompanies that status?
An intentional set of values is a very real accelerant for success, and it’s certainly better to have a positive culture than not have it. The commitment of Duncan, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki to the empowerment of teammates and staffers was crucial to sculpting championship identities for their respective organizations. But a culture can’t make people stay, make them happy or even make them change. It’s a series of philosophical suggestions for helping the collective thrive, but suggestions are never compulsory.
If the Celtics crater in the postseason under the force of a team with players who didn’t fully trust one another, it would be misguided to assign much of the blame to Stevens for that underachievement — and the tension in Boston would almost certainly be heightened without him. It also follows that Stevens has possibly received a bit too much credit in past seasons for his temperament and cultural wherewithal.
No head coach can draw up a scheme that will completely foil an opposing superstar on the court; talent of a certain kind is simply unstoppable in the NBA. Asking Stevens, Popovich, Kerr, their front offices or their superstar teammates to spawn a culture that can stand up to the impulses and frustrations of a Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or any other great player is just as unreasonable. Culture should be a salve, but it can’t be a cure.