The Golden State Rules of Strategy
How did the Golden State Warriors win a record 73 games in a single regular season and three (and nearly all four) of the past four NBA championships? Their strategy follows four simple-to-articulate yet difficult-to-follow rules.
1. CHANGE THE GAME; DO NOT TRY TO BEAT OTHERS AT THEIR GAME.
The path to a championship leads through many teams stocked with top talent and coaching staff. Beating top teams using already established game plans and talent means out-spending and out-executing them. That’s a tall order given the amount of money and talent available. It is far more desirable and productive to seek new paths: find inefficiencies (3-point shots provide a higher rate of return than 2-point shots) and exploit weaknesses in established strategies (teams built for dominating the game inside the paint have difficulty defending multiple 3-point threats).
2. DEVELOP TALENT AND SKILLS TO EXECUTE THE GAME-CHANGING STRATEGY; DO NOT LET EXISTING COMPETENCIES RULE OUT PROMISING STRATEGIES OR HINDER EXECUTION OF A CHOSEN STRATEGY.
Success still requires solid execution of the game-changing strategy. Once a promising new path emerges, identify the skills required to execute the strategy. Unique strategies likely require new skills and new people. Invest the necessary time and effort to develop the required skills and talent. Ignore anyone who advocates “focusing on core competencies”; there is no consolation prize for sticking to core competencies and losing. Seeking new competencies also likely means letting go of talented people who are no longer a good fit for the new strategy. How many remember when the entire home crowd collectively booed Warriors owner Joe Lacob after the Warriors traded leading scorer Monta Ellis? Is the home crowd booing now?
3. STRATEGY IS AS MUCH ABOUT CHOOSING WHAT NOT TO DO AS ABOUT WHAT TO DO.
Do not stray off the chosen path even if enticing distractions emerge. It may take years to excel at executing a unique strategy. Many opportunities will arise in the meantime: potential draft picks or trades for All-Stars (Klay Thompson for Kevin Love, anyone?). Dominant teams are not simply a collection of All-Star talent. Choose for strategic fit as well as execution potential rather than just picking the most accomplished available player.
4. CHOOSE SCIENCE OVER LUCK.
In a highly competitive game, few teams remain on top for long. When teams are evenly matched and use similar strategies, games and even championships may be decided by a few errant passes or bad calls. Luck is likely a deciding factor. When a team develops a unique strategy and executes it at the highest level as the Warriors have done in recent years, luck is rarely the deciding factor. It takes time for others to seek new strategies and execute these strategies well. Until that happens, the outcome of a game is driven primarily by the Warriors’ ability to continue to execute.
If other teams mistake science for luck (as many considered the Warriors’ success in the 2014-15 season to be a fluke), they only delay their own quest for new strategies and extend the Warriors’ dynasty. Science has many more championship trophies than luck. Long may the Warriors reign.
PS: Some may draw some parallels between these rules and the Oakland A’s strategy popularized in MoneyBall. However, there are also some key differences:
The Oakland A’s changed the way general managers field a team (scouting, drafts, player development, trades) more so than the way the game is played on the field (or basketball court). The A’s primary goal has been to field a championship contender without spending big money on established players (the A’s willingly lose/trade emerging stars to top-paying teams and start over by identifying unheralded players as replacements: superior execution by individual players on the field is rewarded by ‘promotion’ to a new team). The Warriors’ primary goal is to win championships. Players who execute the team’s on-court strategy well are rewarded with contracts to remain with the team (if the Warriors do not keep Steph Curry or other key members of the team, Joe Lacob deserves to get booed by the home crowd!).
A more substantial difference between the A’s and Warriors regards the potential application of their respective strategies in the general business context: In a world where an increasing number of markets and participants are striving for “winner-take-all” outcomes, there is little room for runner-ups. In sports leagues, the same teams return year after year regardless of how well they performed in prior years so the A’s payroll management strategy works even if it leads to temporary setbacks on the field. In the corporate world, even the second and third place companies may disappear or become irrelevant after a few years. The A’s strategy would be highly problematic in the general business context whereas the Warriors’ strategy is what many companies (at least in the technology/Internet arena) are striving to achieve.