As I embark on another playoff run with the Oklahoma City Thunder, I’ve been thinking about the great moments and great teams in NBA history, and what has gone into making those franchises great.
There are a lot of special pieces that have to be present to have a truly great franchise — one capable of winning multiple championships.
It really does start at the top in terms of the franchise’s leadership, the culture they have created and what those folks are most committed to. Because you can have a successful franchise from a monetary perspective, but that may not result in basketball success and championships.
In sports, that will always be where the rubber meets the road: What do you define as success? In recent years — whether it’s because of the recession of 2008, or a new generation of business owners and entrepreneurs that have come into sports — there’s been more focus on the bottom line and making the franchise a successful business.
Along with that goes the thought, “Hopefully we can win some games along the way as well.”
That’s not the generation that I come from, where ownership and management would go out of their way to put a championship caliber product on the floor because that’s the business of basketball. Winning championships is the goal. It’s not just the business of business and being profitable.
Here in Oklahoma City, the ownership group has been very strong in terms of not just putting together a great group, but finding the right people to execute and implement the organization’s championship objectives and goals.
Everything flows from the ownership group down to our general manager, Sam Presti, and on from there. The way everything is done here has structure — from the way things are communicated, to the branding of the team and the expression of what is most important.
It’s reflected in the types of people who are hired and the work within the organization. There isn’t anything that’s done by accident.
It’s a great model for franchises in all sports. They can look at where this organization has come from since 2008, becoming one of the most consistent franchises in the NBA — on and off the court — in just six short years.
When it comes to building a great franchise, leadership is obviously important, and the types of leaders each team and organization has is talked about a lot. Honestly, I think sometimes we overstate it.
But there are other times that we understate it.
When I was with the Lakers, I noticed that Dr. Jerry Buss had a way of leading that was extremely understated. He didn’t micromanage. He didn’t force himself around the team. He didn’t sit next to the dancers behind the bench. He generally kept his distance while just watching and supporting the team from his box at the arena.
Because he wasn’t in the public eye, people underestimated Dr. Buss’s impact on the culture of the organization and what it stood for.
Oftentimes, we don’t fully appreciate someone’s presence until they’re gone. Now that he’s not with us anymore, it’s become more apparent that Dr. Buss was still very much in control of his family business. To me, a large part of what’s happened these last few seasons in Los Angeles is due to his absence. Of course, the injuries and those things that are basketball related obviously are a part of it. But I don’t know if any of the greatest companies and businesses in the world have ever done well right after losing one of the most innovative and creative leaders they’ve ever had.
Dr. Buss possessed a rare foresight in terms of personnel and decision-making. I think the best example comes from 2009, after we won the championship. That season, Trevor Ariza had a great year and a fantastic playoff run. For all intents and purposes, regardless of how it played out, Trevor probably should have been re-signed to come back and play for our team. But there was a lot of back and forth over whether or not the Lakers actually offered him a contract, and when free agency began, Trevor signed with the Houston Rockets.
The legend goes that a year before it happened, Dr. Buss saw us having to play the Boston Celtics in the Finals in 2010, and he felt that a guy like a Ron Artest — a small forward with that type of body and build — would better match up with Paul Pierce than Trevor.
That’s why — when the negotiations with Trevor started to fall apart a little bit — Dr. Buss was so quick to go out and sign Ron. That type of foresight isn’t something that’s necessarily taught in a book.
Dr. Buss’ vision for the team allowed him to see things coming before anybody else. So I don’t know if we should expect the Lakers to be able do things with the same kind of success this soon after his passing.
ZEN IN THE BIG APPLE
It’s somewhat rare for an organization to have even one person with that kind of gift, but when I was in Los Angeles, we had two.
The other was, of course, Phil Jackson. I have to say: I’m so happy for him to have another opportunity to possibly impact an organization as an executive in the way he’s impacted the Bulls and Lakers as a coach, and the way he impacted the Knicks as a player. I’m ecstatic for him and I know he’s going to do well. He wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t believe he could do it.
He’s been a part of so many successful championship cultures, and he brings with him the concept of what culture really means. He knows how to at least attempt to implement it in a way that can lead to success.
He has a very unique way of reaching people. Oftentimes, it’s not about convincing or forcing someone to do something, but influencing them in a way where ultimately, the decision to go beyond where they’ve gone before, to be more successful than they’ve been in the past becomes their own. It starts with these very basic ideals and concepts that revolve around unity and brotherhood, and a collective energy that is required to do something special, to build something special.
His reputation has always preceded him. It was the same way when he came to Los Angeles. We’d heard all these different stories about how he was, and how he liked to do things. But I knew right away that he was going have the type of impact that he had on us.
What I found out was that it had very little to do with his reputation. He’s not fixed and locked into these ideas of who he is, and the perception of who he is. Beyond being a coach, or now an executive, he’s just a very well-rounded individual and person. So the relationship that you ultimately have with Phil is original and organic. It’s built from scratch, not reputations and pre-conceived notions. And he has enough life experience to be able to adapt and connect with people from all different walks of life and backgrounds.
The main thing I learned from Phil is the ability to really remain in the moment, and always being able to conduct yourself with a level of composure and poise that’s unshakable. That’s a learned trait for a lot of people.
I’ve always been a guy who prides myself on working extremely hard. When I met Phil, I was trying to outwork everyone. I’d spend more hours in the gym and put more time into it than anybody else. But doing that often can lead to additional stress, pressure and expectations. Phil really helped me embrace focusing on the here and now, and not getting too high and too low from game to game, day to day, week to week.
He taught me how to find a place that I felt comfortable, where I operated at my best and learn how to stay there. That’s something that I use to this day. It’s allowed me to have whatever you measure as success for me at this point in my career, at the age of 39. I’m still able to go out and play the game at a very effective level because of a lot of what he taught me.
But with Phil, it always went beyond basketball. He taught us skills that helped us in our lives beyond the court, too. The focus of everything that he talked about with us was this idea that we are part of the fabric of life and society and the world. He encouraged us not to live in this bubble of existence that we seem to sometimes keep ourselves in as members of the NBA.
Those things that we spent time talking about and working on have tremendously impacted me, and I’m sure several other players, off the court and in our personal lives — just in terms of thinking of ourselves as part of a larger picture, and not being so self-centered and so focused on just ourselves.
Those life lessons then could be translated back to the basketball court,. They were the type of things that helped his basketball teams understand that, even though you are individual players and as good as you think you are with as much ego as you may have, you’re still a part of something larger. I think that really helped his teams be able to work together better than any other teams could.
That’s something that’s missed when people try to reduce his success to the use of “The Triangle.” To do so is very shortsighted. People fail to understand just how challenging it is from a basketball perspective to get players to play together, regardless of the system. So whether it’s The Triangle, or the Princeton Offense, or any system that people are familiar with, a coach’s ability to get players to actually utilize it in an effective way is where the trick lies.
That’s where the magic happens.
He’s never gotten enough credit for that part of it. It’s always been because of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or because of Shaq and Kobe, or because of The Triangle. But just being a basketball coach and understanding how to use timeouts; understanding time and score in situations; understanding substitution patterns and when to take players out; when to leave a certain group of guys in; these are all things that coaches manage, and it’s a skill.
This will be different, obviously, being upstairs versus on the court and having a direct impact on each game. But I think overall, however the wins and losses shake themselves out as the Knicks move forward, he’s going have an extremely positive influence on the culture there.
People know who Phil Jackson is. They know what he’s done, and there’s value in that.