Spurs Win the NBA Title: Systems, Learning, Teamwork, & Leadership


Since my wife and I moved to San Antonio just over two years ago, we've become big Spurs fans. Since the Spurs are the only major pro sports team here, it's basically a civic obligation to get behind our local team. The ThedaCare folks and others in Appleton and Green Bay feel that way about their Packers.

This is the Spurs' fifth championship in a run that started in 1999. They've made the playoffs in 26 of the last 27 seasons. That's sustained excellence. And it's fun to watch and cheer for.

The Spurs have some great players, but they play as a team. The Miami Heat and every team the Spurs defeated along the way have great players… but the Spurs are known for being:

  • Unselfish
  • Classy
  • Humble (“That humility starts with Tim Duncan,” said the announcers)
  • More concerned about winning the game instead of piling up individual stats

The Spurs' trademark is not flashy dunks — it's passing and playing within a well-defined system. A system. It's a system that incorporates ten players who were born outside of the continental U.S. It's amazing to watch.

Their top teamwork plays of the year:

Their philosophy is to not take a GOOD shot when you can, instead, pass to somebody else to take a GREAT shot.

As I blogged about earlier, Coach Gregg Popovich will remind you of a Lean leader in many ways. In the post-game speech to the team, he called himself “a horse's ass” not just once, but twice. And the players yelled as if to disagree with him.

Hearing this comment during a pre-game interview made me think of Kaizen and continuous improvement:

Never being satisfied. Paying attention to details. That's Lean thinking. Announcers talked during the game about how the Spurs focused on learning as the season went on. They experimented with different combinations of players to not just win games, but to learn.

The Spurs thought long-term during the season. They had a system and a formula for making sure star players didn't play too many minutes, with the goal of preventing fatigue. They'd worry less about winning a particular game and more about positioning themselves to be healthy and rested for the playoffs… and they accumulated the most wins in the league along the way.

The Spurs talked a lot about how they learned from last year's NBA Finals loss to the Heat… a series they lost in heartbreaking fashion. They didn't go back out there “trying harder” at doing the same things — they adjusted their system. In the post-game press conference, Popovich called MVP Kawhi Leonard “a great learner” among other things.

Even in their loss, I had to be impressed with LeBron James — his individual skill and his leadership. After being beat on a play that led to an easy layup by the Spurs, the Heat called time out and you could read James' lips as he talked to his teammates:

The Spurs victory, while exciting for San Antonio, shows that skill plus teamwork and leadership can defeat a champion “dream team.” Skill and talent are important, but it's also really important that you work together as a team, within a system, under great leadership.

Here's a picture I took while I was a chance to attend Game 2 of the Finals last Sunday:


The Spurs have their “Big Three” of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. But, when 22-year old Kawhi Leonard was named the Finals MVP, you could see how sincerely thrilled his teammates were for him. That's teamwork. That's a champion.

Go Spurs, Go!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. The WSJ has an article that talks about, in some sports like basketball, having “too many stars” can hurt the team’s performance.

    Based on research:

    A decade’s worth of National Basketball Association data showed roughly the same result. Players in the top third in “estimated wins added” (a calculation of the number of wins a player adds to a team’s season compared with a pedestrian substitute) were deemed top talent. Assists, field goal percentage and defensive rebounds were used to assess teamwork. Not only did adding more talent eventually become harmful, but teamwork played a big role in how talent affected performance.

    “The Too-Much-Talent Effect: Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much or Not Enough,” Roderick I. Swaab, Michael Schaerer, Eric M. Anicich, Richard Ronay and Adam D. Galinsky, Psychological Science (forthcoming)”

  2. Another interesting article from the WSJ asks why more teams don’t copy the Spurs’ formula. Well, it’s a long-term strategy and it’s hard work (just like Lean). It seems easier to just buy a few superstars (much like a hospital might want to just buy new technology to solve their problems).

    In part:

    Why are you so pessimistic about the rest of the NBA trying to steal the ball movement strategy of the Spurs? Are they just too good? Are they truly just a one-off?

    I’m a bit skeptical as to whether a handful of teams in this star-filled NBA will look at San Antonio’s game plan and see it as feasible enough to re-create.

    If a bunch of other teams thought it could be done, wouldn’t they have already tried that route?! Why wait until this particular Spurs title?

    The most interesting thing to me is this: Depending on what team you are and what market you’re in, it almost seems easier to sign a pair of big-name free agents who score a ton than it does to try to model yourself after an unselfish squad like the Spurs, who have developed years and years of chemistry and have perhaps the best coach in league history.

    There’s no denying that some of San Antonio’s success stems from sheer luck (winning the lottery to draft Duncan in the first place). Some of it is due to the Spurs’ foresight (scouting internationally for players such as Parker and Ginobili before others clubs began investing in such steps). But when you really think about it, it also takes a long time—up to a decade, if not more—to build a team this cohesive and machine-like. The only other team I can think of that’s hit on so many picks and unknown players in recent years is Oklahoma City.

    Because of how arduous a process it is to build a team as complete as San Antonio, I really doubt we’ll see another organization piece together a dynasty with this sort of roster in our lifetime. NBA executives probably feel more confident about the possibility of catching lightning in a bottle like Miami did than they do about eventually building a winner for the long haul like San Antonio has.


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