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Leadership in Sports: NBA Finals 2011

June 21, 2011
A little over a week ago in the 6th game of the NBA championship, the Dallas Mavericks defeated a younger and arguably more talented Miami Heat team to win their first NBA championsip.  How did this happen?  The Heat arguably had more talent; they were a perennial playoff team; yet they didn’t win.  Why?

Rick Carlisle, coach of the Mavs, was this year’s difference-maker.  He possessed 3 of the most crucial key traits a coach (or any leader for that matter), should have to help their teams achieve greatness.

Factor 1: Ability to Inspire

Enter the Dallas Mavericks’ January 25th game against the Los Angeles Clippers.  Baron Davis of the Clippers lays out JJ Barea, a point guard for the Mavericks, with a hard elbow.  In the ensuing timeout, Rick Carlisle wasted no time sticking up for his player by getting in Baron Davis’ face, resulting in a technical foul.

After the timeout, the Mavs went on a 10 point streak to close out the game, ending in a 112-105 victory.  Following the game, Jason Terry (of the Mavs) was quoted: “Man, that’s it. Guys see it and we get fired up from it…When it comes from your head coach, that’s big. You know he has your back, but that’s just another example of it.”

Carlisle vehemently defended one of his players who went the extra mile do to a thankless job, and to someone on the floor playing your heart out, that means something.

Factor 2: Superior Analytical Skills

If you watched the first 3 games of the NBA Championship, you know the Mavs were outmatched as they trailed the Heat in the series two games to one. Coach Carlisle saw his ship sinking and made two crucial moves.   First, he inserted JJ Berea into the starting lineup to shake things up, even though there were concerns that he was too small to match the Miami roster.  To account for the defensive liability of a 6’0 175 lb addition, Carlisle implemented a zone defense, which was also risky.

Berea’s speed caused significant matchup problems for the Miami Heat defenders, as he averaged season highs in both assists and points.  After Berea was inserted into the starting lineup, the Mavs didn’t lose again in the series.

Leaders are often called to lead in highly unstable environments.  By accurately identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the situations they’re placed in, they can cater the plan of attack to achieve the greatest success.

Factor 3: Performance Management

It’s often a delicate balance to manage the highest performers, frequently shifting between allowing them the recognition they desire and keeping a team-oriented atmosphere.

Rick Carlisle had a number of superstars on his team who, at one point or another in their careers, were the leaders of their respective teams.  Carlisle did a fantastic job of catering to the needs of each of these players while at the same time, keeping them all focused on the end goal – an NBA Championship.  This meant that certain players, who were used to starting every game, were placed into new situations as role players that came off of the bench.  Carlisle was able to keep the team motivated and also was able to reign in individual egos for the good of the team.

This is as important for leaders within organizations as it is professional sports coaches.  In addition to developing your players, you have to be able to reign in the personalities of your team so that you can keep them focused on the ultimate goal.

It’s often said that the best coaches don’t do anything but put their players in the best position to succeed.  For Rick Carlisle and the Mavs, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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