Cavs & Warriors: Beyond the Talent

  • While the NBA attempts to maximize revenue by waiting over a week for the Finals to begin, we have heard quite a bit about the “talent” that will be on display.  Is LeBron better than Jordan?  Are the Warriors better because of Durant?  All we hear about is the talent. Make no mistake, there will once again be plenty of talent on display in the rematch we are about to witness, but talent is only part of the equation when it comes to winning a championship.  Let’s consider three elements beyond the talent that often determine champions and consider how those same elements are the keys for each of us to maximize our own God-given talents and more importantly,  our God-given faith.

BASKETBALL – The Big Three

Last year, the physical talents of LeBron James were enough to help the Cavs surpass the collective talents of the Warriors.  As arguably the most physically dominant player of all-time, James is worthy of his own discussion, especially if he can lead the Cavs to a title defense against the Warriors.  But since I tend to watch more of the Warriors’ games, I’d like to focus on them and their big three – Effort, Chemistry, and Passion – as they look to take the title back:

EFFORT  It remains a simple truth that one cannot determine talent, but effort is always a choice. Effort frequently outplays talent – we see it all the time, but get the most talented players or the most talented teams to play with the highest effort and they become unstoppable.  In an article for Sports illustrated, The Warriors Deadly Combo of Hustle and Flow, Lee Jenkins wrote:

“The four-star juggernaut that won 67 games this season, that led the NBA in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense, that posted a higher net rating and point differential even better than last year, outworked everybody too. The Dubs created the most deflections (18.7) and corralled the most loose balls (7.7), while racking up the second-most contested shots (68.4) and screen assists (12.7). After their opening-round sweep of the Blazers, they led three of the five major hustle categories in the playoffs.”

A lot of teams have talent, but it seems that the Warriors have more.   But then again, maybe they just play harder than everyone else!

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

CHEMISTRY  In a sport, a league, and a culture that often elevates the individual over the team, winning teams typically are the ones that blend their talents together. In high school chemistry we learn about the bonds formed between electron particles.  Some bonds are stronger than others and some require one particle to give up more than another. Chemistry on a team loaded with talent happens only when players are unselfish and are willing to sacrifice for their teammates.  The media circus looks for drama in Draymond Green’s antics or marvels at the wild drives and shots of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but this team has worked hard at being unselfish and playing for each other as outlined by Alex Torres in The Warriors’ Chemistry: Its Superhero Connection & Why It Matters.  It also extends off the court – see The Warriors’ Secret Sauce? Team Dinners on the Road  by Jordan Brenner of

PASSION  And finally, nobody appears to have more fun with their craft than the Warriors.  You may be tired of hearing about it or you may be a bit envious, but one of the most remarkable things about Steph Curry, and through him, the rest of the Warriors, is how much fun they appear to have and how obvious it is that they enjoy what they are doing.  I get it.  They’re making millions to play a game, but think of how many other players and coaches seem stressed and worn out by the pressure and the competition.  The Warriors play with a joy and a passion that you see in their faces, every game.

And when the most talented play with passion and joy, look out!  This is true of both teams.  The Cavs are talented and play hard, play for each other, and play with passion just as the Dub’s do.  While they have the talent, look for one of these factors to be the difference in the series.  Let the games begin!

LIFE – The Big Three at Work

Although it’s not a certainty and can often take years of trial and error, many of us identify our talents and find our ways to careers to use that talent.  I realize that many factors go into that.  Not all of us get to work in the careers that best utilize our talents – timing, obligations, and circumstances often lead us into work we never intended, but effort, chemistry, and passion will lead to long-term job success in any job.  It’s true for all of us, but especially for young people starting out.  Look for jobs where you can give your best effort – you control that, jobs where you can serve others and blend your talents with others – you control that, too, and jobs where you find joy and can be passionate about either what you do, who you do it with, and who you do it for.  The big three will go a long way in your finding success and fulfillment in whatever career path you take, but if one or more of them is missing, it’s probably time to consider other options.

FAITH – Beyond Faith

Faith in Christ is like talent – it’s a gift!  When you believe and are baptized God gives you faith and that faith can grow and help draw us closer and closer to God.  How we go about that and how we use it, is up to us.  Sitting on your faith and doing nothing to grow spiritually is like an athlete wasting his talent. (Proverbs 13:4)  Living an isolated life, rather than living unselfishly to serve others, is like a ball-stopping NBA player who only thinks of himself (Galatians 5:13).  And which of us can truly grow closer to God if we don’t enjoy being a Christ-follower?  Our joy should be evidence of our faith (Romans 15:13).  Is it enough to have talent?  Is it enough to have faith?  Absolutely, because with God anything is possible – but if you truly want to grow as God intends and to make the most of your faith, look beyond your faith and sprinkle a little effort, chemistry, and passion!


Setting the Pick and Roll

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

What’s not to love about the Pick and Roll?  Turn on the NBA playoffs and you’ll see a ball screen just about every other possession.  While there’s nothing like pacing and spacing to rev up an offense, ball screens and the actions they create, like rolling, popping, or slipping, force the defense to do something.  And that’s when an offense can truly be effective by responding to how a defense attempts to play.  We’ve talked about them before in Snaking the Ball Screen and Sex and the Pick and Roll, but teams in the playoffs continue to advance in their creativity in utilizing ball screens.  As the complexity grows and filters down to all levels, however, learning and teaching ball screens remains a basic fundamental that none of us should ignore.

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2017 NBA Playoffs: The Attitude of Monks

I listened to a recent Hardwood Hustle podcast on analytics during which Steve Shea from Shot Tracker discussed his study on whether teams with balanced scorers were more successful than teams with one or two dominant scorers.  I thought I knew the obvious answer, mostly because it lines up more with my “ball view” of unselfish team basketball, but did a double take as Shea mentioned that the teams with superstar scorers often win more than teams with total balance.  I’m going to ponder that for a while – after all a coach can always keep learning new ideas – but as I watched the Spurs dispatch the James Harden-led Rockets, I remain skeptical and once again, I have to give Pop (San Antonio Head Coach Gregg Popovich) his props.  The man can coach and he certainly knows how to build a culture of team unselfishness.  It’s an attitude similar to Christian monks and has relevance for each of us.

BASKETBALL – Team Culture

San Antonio lost veteran leader Tony Parker in Game 2 and then lost MVP candidate and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard near the end of a tight Game 5, but found a way to collectively persevere against the Rockets to win in overtime and then completely ran away with Game 6 to win the series. Houston had “do-everything” Harden who did nothing, while San Antonio had reserves, aging veterans, and a unified team approach that methodically dismantled the full throttle offense of the Rockets.  The Spurs overcame losing Parker and Leonard with unheralded Dejounte Murray and Jonathon Simmons posting off-the-chart plus-minus stats, a slow-footed Paul Gasol protecting the rim against Houston’s relentless drives, and the aging Manu Ginobli taking over in crunch time of Game 5 – all made possible by Pop’s team culture (Fox Business outlined four aspects of Pop’s culture).  While he takes heat for resting players in February, his bench players solidify their roles.  While he’s considered crotchety with the media, his players learn from his example of caring for them and showing interest in their lives.  And while the Spurs strictly adhere to the discipline of his system or face his wrath, Pop listens to and invites their observations and input. (Read more in The Business Insider and take a look at Pop speaking at a clinic on The Spurs Philosophy).

For most of us, the image of a monk conjures up images of a solitary, lonesome figure living a highly sacrificial and penitential life.  But the Spurs players are like monks in that not only are they disciplined, but they know their roles because Pop has simplified it.  The monk’s life is simple – depend on God.  For the Spurs, their simplified rules are to work hard to care for and support each other, placing the focus on their teammates rather than on themselves.  While they hold each other accountable, they don’t expect teammates to carry their load or do things they cannot do.  The Spurs keep it simple and because they care about each other and know that their coach cares about them, they do all they can to help and support each other.  They know it’s not about “me.”  It’s about the team.

LIFE – Marriage Expectations

I actually read the idea of having a monk’s attitude in a devotion from Gary Thomas about marriage.  How much better would my marriage be if I didn’t place unrealistic expectations on my wife to meet all of my needs? Wait a minute, isn’t that what marriage is all about – meeting each other’s needs and expectations?  In strong marriages spouses know exactly what each other needs even without them saying anything, right?  Uh, no, it’s not.  While the goal of the Spurs is admirable, it’s not completely possible.  No one can meet expectations – none of us.  In basketball, in marriage, and in this life each of us fails.  The only one who can truly meet all of my needs and truly love me is God.  And, that’s not a knock on my wife.  It’s simply a reminder that I shouldn’t place unrealistic expectations and my burdens on her.   But what I can do is accept God’s perfect love for me and allow it to help me serve her and support her as best as I humanly can.  Rather than resent her when she doesn’t respond as I would want, I can be overwhelmed by every act of love she expresses.  A monk’s attitude in marriage expects nothing, depends on God for everything, and is sincerely grateful for whatever a spouse chooses to share. And as a result, one is free to focus on the other person rather than one’s self.  Just imagine how that can improve a marriage!

FAITH – A Monk’s Attitude

I continue to see God working in my life through what I learn through basketball.  If my life, as a coach, teammate, husband, and father needs to be validated by others, I will be continually disappointed.  Some may say that is pessimistic, but why would I expect others to do things we as mere humans are incapable of doing?  We cannot rely on and expect that other people will validate our purpose and existence,  Last year I shared a bit about Robert McGee’s classic book, The Search for Significance, as we considered Damian Lillard and the Search for Respect.  A major takeaway that has stuck with me is the concept that we should never put complete faith and expectations in other people because they will only let us down.  And when we do, we give all the power to other people – spouses, teammates, and colleagues – to direct our outlook in life.  Why would we do that?  Only God can meet those expectations:

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;
    there is no help for you there.  (Psalm 146:3 NLT)

I don’t want to run off to a monastery and I don’t want to teach players to live solitary lives, but I do think we could all use a little more monk in our attitudes – depend on God to meet your needs and lighten up our expectations for others by getting the focus off ourselves and putting the focus into showing appreciation for God’s love for us by how we treat each others.  It’s starts with me, but it can’t be about me.