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The way San Antonio plays basketball and what it means for teams working in development projects


Gregg Popovich and his SpursThe San Antonio Spurs have overwhelmed the Miami Heat two games on the row now.

These are the NBA finals but it looks more like regular season games between a top and a mid ranking teams. The first half of Game 3 is unheard of. At one point deep into the second quarter San Antonio was scoring 90% of their shots. They had a higher percentage from the field than from the free throw line. Miami with its stars, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were trying to put up with their defense but San Antonio was scoring at almost every shot.

Not only that. It was not a one-or-two-men show. Every San Antonio player on the court scored. Same story in Game 4, again playing in Miami. They had a lower scoring percentage than the never-seen-before shooting percentages of the previous game, but the ball moved, every player scored, they defended together. Miami was helpless. At one point of Game 3 I thought that the first half of the game could be shown to project teams, like the one I am working with here in Jakarta, that are new and expanding.A project team that is composed by people who comes from different countries, speak different languages, have different backgrounds and skills and that come together for a common purpose such as a development project.

San Antonio has three star players, all future Hall of Fame: Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Tim Duncan (USA). In the roster also a Brazilian player (Splitter), two other French players (Diaw and Jean-Charles), an Italian (Belinelli), two Australian (Mills and Baynes), a Canadian (Joseph) and a number of American players. The team is a balanced mix of veteran players like Ginobili, Duncan, Diaw, and Parker who have won everything (NBA titles, World Championships, Olympic medals, European titles) and young players who are improving every year. A charismatic coach, Gregg Popovich, ties everything together and has managed to instill in the players an unselfish mentality. Some players are of course better than others, but nobody is selfish.

In Game 3 and 4 all players on the floor touched the ball at every play. In Game 4, the lead was so large that all 13 players of the team have a chance to play and score. Something that never happens in playoff games, let alone the finals. It is amazing how fast the basketball moves between players, they know where their team mates are, they take time before shooting, they very rarely engage with half court one-on-ones. The players follow a system, a set of rules that assign responsibility and roles which they have practiced times and times again, all year round and which is now playing out flawlessly against Miami.

One of the ESPN court side commentators said at one point in the second half of Game 4, that many teams would like to play like San Antonio but cannot because they do not have the players with the right mentality. Project teams go through similar processes. The project starts. Staff is recruited with different roles and responsibilities. Teams then quickly expand as plans and activities become clearer. All this has to be supported by the development of management systems that are put in place to maximize the contribution of each team member skills and experience as well as to allow learning and developing those skills further.

In San Antonio the players have understood what Gregg Popovich wants them to do and accepted it. In a sense there are no super stars and every team members has a crucial contribution to make, no matter how many minutes he plays. A good example of this attitude and mentality came at the beginning of the second quarter of Game 4. Manu Ginobili was at the referees’ table ready to get into the game and substitute for Tony Parker. However, Parker scored a nice jump shot formt he right hand side of the paint and Gregg Popovich called Ginobili back to the bench. Ginobili (remember, one of the three stars of the team) stands up and sprints back to the bench. Puts his training t-shirt on and at the first basket of his teammates stands up and cheers. Think about it. How many star players playing in the finals would have taken that opportunity and the stage provided by the finals for rolling their eyes or walking back slowly to the bench to make sure that everybody in the arena and at home knew how much they were displeased by that decision. That mentality and attitude requires key ingredients: modesty, humility, commitment, understanding, and trust. Ingredients that are needed not only in basketball teams but in teams in general. It takes time to work those ingredients. Time that projects often to do not have.

Ginobili, Duncan and Parker have played together for more then ten years. Gregg Popovich has coached San Antonio for 18 years. You also need to know what to loose an NBA title feels like. Last year, again against Miami, San Antonio was 19 second from winning Game 6 and the title when Miami managed to get to overtime and win the game. They then went on to win Game 7, the series, and their second consecutive NBA title. The experience of loosing that title has made San Antonio stronger, not weaker. It has taught that in team sports the strength of the team is in the sum of its parts and the system in place to maximize the contribution of those parts. The Spurs lead now 3-1. The teams are now back in San Antonio for Game 5. The Spurs can win the title today. Miami has still a chance of winning the title if they win three games in the row. But that is not the point. The point is that there is something to learn about  working in teams by watching San Antonio playing. Most of all, that when they play like they have played in Game 3 and Game 4, they show a common purpose and to really enjoy themselves.

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