Sizing Up the Boston Celtics: What About Teamwork?

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Sizing Up the Boston Celtics: What About Teamwork?

Icon“Not Finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is team work that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

I read those words not in a sports book, but a business one. More on that later.

The book got me thinking about the Boston Celtics, and how little teamwork been discussed with the new-look team.

Let me first state that I believe in the "new-look" Boston Celtics.

Still, there has been little discussion about how this three-star team will achieve its goals.  

The last time I looked, basketball was a team game.

That hasn’t changed over the years, though there has been a concerted effort by the NBA to market the stars, not the teams.  

We're a star-struck, celebrity-driven society, I’m told.

Sports reflects the culture. You don’t have to read People magazine or the numerous knockoffs that have spawned like rabbits at supermarket checkouts to see that.

By the way—I can’t believe how many otherwise intelligent people read those rags. I really can’t. Some do it openly. Others try to hide it (behind a copy of Newsweek, or if they’re really smart, The Economist or Harvard Business Review)...but will end up admitting it if you ask them outright. 

"I...uh...like to see what’s going on."

Marketing research confirms it time and again: People are fascinated by celebrities. It’s almost an addiction for many.

Is it any wonder that the NBA has embraced the concept?

Even I admit to being excited when I meet an NBA player, and I’m not a kid anymore. Maybe I don’t have any right to judge the People people. They are me.

But sports figures are...uh...more relevant to the world than Brittney Spears, right?

I keep telling myself that. Somehow, I’m not convinced.

ESPN propels individual flash into hypergear.

You’ll never see a great defensive sequence by multiple players on the Plays of the Week. You won’t see the guy in the sharp suit seated at the desk in front of the camera say, “Wow! Look at that perfect screen! Boo-ya!” or “That was a great double pick, wasn’t it?  Restaurant quality.”

You won’t see the steal that led to the pass that led to the dunk. We don’t want to see how the firecracker was made. We want to see the final explosion.

It's human nature. We’re told that if good news sold newspapers or drove media ratings, we'd get it ’til the cows came home.

It doesn’t. We don’t.

Can you imagine Slam trying to market itself with a fold-out diagram of a great defensive play—complete with circles and arrows? 

Yawn.

We want it simple. We want it straight to the point. We want the shot of the dunk at the moment of maximum impact.  

Smile—you’ve just been posterized! We want the explosion.

Individual stats gets you the big payday. If your numbers are great on a terrible team, you'll get big money—guaranteed.

Look at team payrolls. Look at our own Celtics' salaries. The stars eat up the dollars, huge dollars, whether the team does well or not.

Crumbs are left for the role players, even on good teams. Is it a proper valuation of worth? Is the wrong message being reinforced by paying for individual success and not team success?  

This Celtics' three stars/celebrities can do what is necessary to be a successful team. Will they?

Sport has become big business over the years. Not surprisingly, big business has often resorted to sport metaphors to motivate employees. Both fields are populated by groups competing against other groups.

In the big picture, they have a lot in common.

The book quoted at the top was by business author Patrick Lencioni, and is called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

One particularly important passage reads as follows:

“A friend of mine, the founder of a company that grew to a billion dollars in annual revenue, best expressed the power of teamwork when he once told me, 'If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.'”

That's not groundbreaking wisdom. People will nod their heads in agreement when they hear it. And yet cooperation is so elusive, even making it rare.

The reason? 

“Teams, because they are made up of imperfect human beings, are inherently dysfunctional.”

Here are Lencioni’s five sources of team dysfunction:

1) Absence of Trust

2) Fear of Conflict

3) Lack of Commitment

4) Avoidance of Accountability

5) Inattention to Results

Business gobbledygook? Or relevant concepts? I started to wonder if they could apply to the Celtics.

It’s not hard to see the potential problems.

1) Trust

Are Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce going to trust their mates enough to make this a real team? Are they really going to trust each other?

Neither Kendrick Perkins nor Rajon Rondo can shoot very well. Will every game be a 5-on-3 matchup?

2) Fear of Conflict

Rondo is supposed to be the team’s on-court leader as the PG. Will he be willing to do that with three veteran stars on the court? Will the three stars excuse each other’s faults for harmony's sake? What happens if the team gets off to a tougher start than anyone expected?

3) Lack of Commitment

No one doubts each player’s individual commitment—but will they all be committed to a game plan that might not fully utilize their strengths?

What if Doc asks Garnett to concentrate on interior defense...at the expense of his offense?

What if he asks Pierce to take many less shots and make many more passes? 

What if he asks Ray Allen, an All-Star, to come off the bench?

4) Avoidance of Accountability

Strange things happen to people when things don’t go right. There are extremely high expectations for this group. If they falter for more than 10-15 games coming out of the gate, will they look in the mirror...or at the "other guy"?

5) Inattention to Results

The right results.

I remember one of the early postseasons that McHale and Bird played together. They lost. McHale played a pretty nice series; he was coming into his own as a big-time player.

Someone asked him how he felt after coming up short.

His reply was something like, “I played pretty good. I had a good series. So I’m not hanging my head. I feel good about myself.”

When Bird heard about the remark, he was very "unhappy."

I don’t remember his exact phrasing, but it was something like, “How could you be satisfied with yourself when your team just ended its year on a lost series?”

He couldn’t understand McHale saying that and feeling that way.

Will Garnett, Allen, and Pierce have the same commitment to the same results?

If one player plays well individually but the team falls short of its goal, will he feel like McHale did...or like Bird did?

Teamwork hasn’t been part of the Celtic Internet conversation in any real way—not that I’ve seen. Instead, we expect it all to work on the strength of individual talent alone.

No one doubts that that Celtics just got three of the league’s biggest studs together on the same team. No one doubts they will do well.

Many doubt, though, that they will achieve their goal. Even three big stars don’t make a basketball team.

The feeling in some circles is that these three particular stars don’t have what it takes to carry a lackluster roster to greatness. None has won a title. None has made it to the Finals. None has made his teammates better.

Those are observations by the doubters and the skeptics.

For sure, none of the three will be mistaken for Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan in the leadership category. 

Great players—yes. Inspirational—no. 

Who will lead by example, and show that teamwork is the most powerful force of all?

Then there's a question of balance.

But we'll save that for Part Deux...

This article first appeared at Tom's blog on Celtics 17.

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