Lessons from the NBA Playoffs about Building a Winning Finance Team


Whether you’re an NBA geek or an MBA grad, you can learn a lot about team-building from the playoffs.

If you’re a basketball fan, chances are this is your favourite time of the year. The National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, after all, have been underway for the past month, and are now drawing to what looks like will be an entertaining climax. The stage for the finals is set, with the Miami Heat facing off against the San Antonio Spurs, in a matchup between two teams that have been among the league’s best all season long (Miami finished first overall in the regular season, San Antonio third).

But even if you’re not a hoops fan or you don’t follow the sport at all, the NBA playoffs might still be of interest to you, albeit from a completely different perspective. San Antonio and Miami together form a study in contrasts: you’d be hard-pressed to find two franchises that are more different from one another, organizationally and philosophically, than the Spurs and the Heat. Both, however, offer valuable lessons for hiring managers, HR professionals, and accounting and finance folk more generally, about recruitment, management, and team-building that have relevance far beyond the hardcourt.

The San Antonio Spurs: team-first, but still first-place

The San Antonio Spurs have been a model franchise for the past two decades, establishing a track record of winning that few sports teams have been able to match. Forbes recently named the Spurs the best run professional sports franchise in all of North America, over several other world-class sports organizations, including the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball (winners of five World Series since 1998), the New England Patriots of the National Football League (winners of three Superbowls from 2002-05), and the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League (winners of four Stanley Cups since 1997).

So what makes the Spurs such a standard-bearer of success, even among other elite sports franchises? If you had to single out one reason for the Spurs’ success as a franchise, it would be the sheer continuity in their personnel. For almost two decades, they’ve had the same front office: the same owner (Peter Holt), the same general manager (R.C. Buford), the same head coach (Gregg Popovich). In fact, no currently employed NBA coach has been with the same team longer than Popovich, who’s been the Spurs’ bench boss for 17 years now — a tenure almost unheard of in pro sports. Pro athletes, like most employees, have been known to sometimes quit on their managers, who as a result tend to have a short shelf-life. But Popovich’s tough, but fair, brand of leadership (Pop is hardly a bully boss, but no one would accuse him of being a cuddly bear, either) has won the lasting respect and loyalty of his players.

…you’d be hard-pressed to find two franchises that are more different from one another, organizationally and philosophically, than the Spurs and the Heat.

Similarly, the Spurs’ nucleus — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli — have been together since the 2001-02 season. As three of the classiest, smartest, most mature and down-to-earth personalities in the NBA, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli are the ideal cornerstones for a Popovich-coached team. All three have sublimated their games for the greater good of the team, even though that’s probably meant fewer individual accolades than they might have netted otherwise. Each one of them has had their chances to test free agency and consider potentially bigger roles and more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, in larger, sexier markets like New York or Los Angeles. Yet San Antonio has managed to hold onto their Big Three, which is a large reason for the Spurs’ consistency and competitiveness. The players share a level of trust and confidence — in one another, in the coaching staff, in management — that would have been impossible to duplicate, if the team had plagued by constant turnover.

Most importantly, the organization has surrounded its terrific trio with role players who buy into the Spurs’ system and share its core values, adding up to a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The Spurs have stuck to this vision, making tough calls when they’ve had to in order to preserve the team-first culture. For example, two months before the playoffs started, the team released veteran reserve guard, Stephen Jackson, who had been a starter during their 2003 championship run and was brought back last year to provide depth and experience. But Jackson grew displeased with his role, and became a disruption in the locker room. Rather than force Duncan et al. to put up with a difficult teammate, the Spurs cut Jackson from the squad.

The takeaway for those of us trying to build high-performing finance teams off the court? The example of the Spurs underscores the importance of establishing a unique culture for your team or organization. Whether you want a formal, all-business, workmanlike unit, or a playful, creative, independent-minded group of mavericks, you need to recruit candidates according to their fit with that culture and identity.

But as the Spurs have shown, it’s not enough to simply hire the right people. You also have to hold onto your leaders and star performers. Establish a strategy for talent retention; identify which managers and team members are key to the team’s or division’s performance, and do what it takes to keep them engaged — whether that’s helping them to make their office space a healthier place to work, granting that raise they’ve been hankering for, or promoting them up to the corporate chain of command — before they start looking for a more promising opportunity elsewhere. And don’t shy away from dumping anyone who’s negatively affecting your team’s productivity (though make sure you let them go the right way).

The Miami Heat: stars don’t align themselves

Squaring off against Tim Duncan and company will be the Miami Heat. In many ways, the Heat represent the antithesis of the Spurs. Where the Spurs are down-to-business and demure, the Heat are loud and flashy. Their roster includes the sport’s biggest name, and arguably premier talent, LeBron James, who is as electric a performer as he is polarizing a personality. Heat games frequently have movie and music celebrities in attendance. Miami, moreover, is one of the more attractive free-agent destination among NBA cities, with its warm weather and beaches, tax-favourable environment, and vibrant night life.

Finance recruiters Toronto

As such, the Heat have historically been very successful at recruiting big-name talent, including the likes of Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal. More recently, in the summer of 2010, Miami landed the two biggest fish on the free agent market, signing James and Chris Bosh to play alongside their resident superstar, Dwayne Wade, as part of their own Big Three. Last season, the Heat took home the title; this year, they set a new record for the NBA’s second-longest winning streak, with 27 straight victories. And this marks their third consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals.

The players share a level of trust and confidence — in one another, in the coaching staff, in management — that would have been impossible to duplicate, if the team had plagued by constant turnover.

So what does the Heat’s success teach us about building a team? That, ultimately, you need talent to succeed. The NBA is a superstar-driven league, perhaps even more so than any of the other sports: in the last 20 years, only one team (the 2004 Detroit Pistons) has won a championship without having at least one player average 20 points per game. A single, transcendent talent, like a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James, can transform a franchise’s fortunes, turning a pretender into a contender.

But talent matters everywhere, not just in pro basketball. And to acquire that talent, you have to actively recruit it. Certainly, the most successful companies nurture and develop their own people, encouraging their professional development and providing them with mentorship. But as former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch has pointed out, the best leaders are always looking to upgrade their talent — whether by developing it internally, or by recruiting it externally. Indeed, that’s why accessing the pool of passive jobseekers is so crucial to hiring: chances are that the A-list candidates you want won’t be actively looking for employment, because some smart company should have already snatched them up and put them to work. But like James and Bosh, those stars can be lured away with the right carrots.

The Heat also show that you should be picky when it comes to bringing talent in. James and Bosh both took less money to play in Miami, so that they could play together with Wade and compete for championships. Likewise, you should look to hire people who aren’t simply looking out for themselves, but are committed to your company’s collective goals and success. Asking the right interview questions (including questions about salary expectations) can help you weed out mercenary or middling candidates.

But the example of the Heat also, ironically, reinforces the same moral from the Spurs’ success. In their first season together (2010-11), the Heat made it all the way to the NBA Finals, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks, who lacked Miami’s individual starpower but were the superior team and played brilliantly as a group. In short, talent is not a panacea for bad teamwork and chemistry; they’re equally important.

As Bill McBean, author of The Facts of Business Life: What Every Successful Business Owner Knows that You Don’t, has recently written, “running a business is like playing a sport.” And indeed, most sports today are big businesses themselves, and operated as such. While accounting managers and professionals should stay on top of developments in their industry, we can learn from others, as well, and especially from the most successful enterprises — like the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat.

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!