Does franchise culture matter in the NBA? It certainly doesn’t hurt

Articles, Sports

The NBA playoffs are over, but before you turn the page to the Draft, free agency, and of course Summer League, there’s one — well, at least one — more valuable lesson to extract. For that, we’ll turn to Brenden Whitted — one-third of the mighty League Pass Lair: Culture, and no, we’re not talking about the Migos.

With NBA hopefuls going through the combine and traversing the country for individual team workouts, the question nationally asked is, “How will X team change after the introduction of this rookie?” Perhaps the more pressing and accurate depiction of the NBA draft transaction is, “how will Y player change as a result of being drafted to this team’s culture?” In short, which culture will make this player the best version of themselves? And what exactly is NBA culture?

For examples, one needs only peruse the rosters of the four teams from the Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs. Yes, LeBron James and Kevin Durant would’ve been dynamic players regardless of time, place, or situation; but what about JR Smith? He was a throw-in when the Knicks and Cavs traded midseason a couple of seasons ago. That’s right, the NEW YORK KNICKS decided that he was too much of a nuisance and distraction. Now, he’s a starter for a recent championship team, and made Andre Iguodola hesitate just enough for LeBron James to execute the biggest block in NBA history.

Still not convinced? JaVale McGee was more famous for his recurring role on Shaqtin a Fool than for his dynamic athleticism or slam dunk contest performance. And now, he is a productive member of a championship team. How productive? The Golden State Warriors boast the most efficient offense in the league and they are at their most potent when McGee is on the floor.

But it’s more than just role players who can benefit from a change of scenery and influence. Isaiah Thomas’ journey from Mr. Irrelevant in the 2011 NBA Draft to the best player on an Eastern Conference Finals team has been a study in the importance of culture. Sacramento deemed that he wasn’t good enough to be a starting PG on a playoff team (whoops), and shipped him off to the Phoenix Suns.

He was the odd man out on a team that already had Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, so he was traded for Marcus Thornton and a late first round draft pick. In Boston he found stability and a team built to accentuate his talents, while masking his shortcomings. They recognized his capabilities in a way that Sacramento and Phoenix did not. Sometimes culture isn’t about building guys up; it’s about recognizing who you have that’s already in the building.

The San Antonio Spurs know a bit about recognizing talent.  They turned a serviceable point guard (George Hill) into Kawhi Leonard (via a draft night trade), one of the three best basketball players on earth.  No one could have known Leonard would be this good, Spurs head coach Greg Popovich has said as much. Leonard has gone from primarily a defensive threat to an MVP candidate.

The way that he progressed watching him slowly add to his offensive repertoire is evidence of his hard work. But having the experienced intellectual capital of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Popovich—all who have been with the franchise for over a decade—certainly aided in his game’s maturation. Keep in mind, Kawhi was drafted into a soon-to-be locked out NBA in 2011, meaning the first look a lot of players got on him wasn’t in an NBA game, but in lockout workouts.

Mike Budenholzer (assistant coach with the Spurs at the time) described Leonard’s workout performances:” I will say there were not a lot of people that were real impressed with him in those workouts.” Once the lockout ended, Kawhi was allowed to get in the Spurs facility and receive the tutelage of coaches and executives—he ended up making the All-Rookie team by the end of the season.  It can’t be blind luck that the team has had a steady supply of hall-of-famers extending back to David Robinson.

But the mere presence of hall-of-famers isn’t enough to deem a place as having good culture.  Look at the overwhelming talent on the LA Clippers roster. They have multiple All-NBA caliber players, but have never made an appearance in a Western Conference Final. Or take a look at that Sacramento Kings team that traded Thomas. That franchise drafted Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, and Hassan Whiteside in a two year span–the same Whiteside that just inked a $98 million deal with Miami. This June, Sacramento will be selecting in the NBA lottery for the 11th straight year. The Heat’s culture saved Dion Waiters’ career, while adding newfound life to James Johnson’s. And the message from both players about their surprisingly effective seasons was clear; the Heat’s culture changed everything.

Upon examination, some patterns began to emerge amongst the teams most lauded for their culture.  The last four teams in the playoffs had consistent ownership and a head of basketball operations that had been there at least four years (Cleveland’s David Griffin is the least tenured, but LeBron’s presence certainly buttresses the strength of any front office) and ownership that hadn’t changed in at least seven years.

Juxtapose that with the Clippers and the Kings who have both had ownership upheaval. In fact, the Kings’ front office has undergone several changes with the hiring personnel; not to mention the fact they’ve had nine head coaches in the past 11 years.

But what is culture? It’s a well-discussed idea, but laymen without first-hand NBA knowledge don’t have a tangible understanding of it. Longtime scout Chucky Brown played in the NBA for 12 teams in 15 years. He knows a thing or two about NBA culture.

Good NBA culture, he explained to me, simplifies things for a player so that he only has to focus on playing while making every member of the team feel important. He recounted his time with the Lakers, “When Jerry West was running the Lakers, he made players one through 12 feel important. If [I] needed something, they could get it. I might’ve not been able to get a meeting with him as quick as Magic [Johnson]—but I felt like I could”.

Veterans also play a huge part in culture building. He went further: ”[Guys like] Ron Harper and Larry Nance taught me how to be a pro…getting to practice early, getting your weights in, they’re all important.” Like with any other job, there are certain things the new hire must learn; whether it is which IT guy is the most helpful or which manager to avoid before lunch, some things can only be learned through experience. Having consistency in personnel allows for continuity; necessary to build a culture.

So with so much information available about the importance of stability at the top of an organization and locker room, why is “blow it up” so frequently a first option? Decimating your current roster for the promise of future assets is a refrain known to everyone surrounding the NBA. Honestly, think about the last time a team did so and was successful.

Now think back to the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.  They held on to an aging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, and surrounded him with as much talent as they could acquire.  Instead of jettisoning their best personnel for hypothetical talent in the future, they steadily tried to improve their team—and were rewarded with a championship. Selling all your stuff and moving to an island is always a fun fantasy, but it’s rarely a practical solution to your problems.

In the end, staying and doing the hard work of improving steadily is the best course of action. Constantly swinging for the fences is a romantic notion but will likely end in striking out. Better to build the culture, than hope for a miracle savior in the offseason.

If you’re in the Triangle, make sure to catch Brenden 6-9 a.m. Monday-Friday on The Sports Shop on 620 The Buzz, 99.3 FM