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The Intangible: Steve Jobs leadership and Thunder basketball

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How do we learn about what intangibles in basketball really are? By looking outside of basketball.

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(Writer's note: I'm going to be putting out weekly articles focusing on some of the "intangibles" that coaches like to talk about, such as leadership, psychology, confidence, etc. Where these go in the future is still fluid, so if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to make note of those in the comment section.)


Steve Jobs, the co-founder and two-time CEO of Apple Inc., was one of the most iconic visionaries in the tech industry. During his time with Apple, the company revolutionized the smartphone, tablet, movie industry, and music sales markets. In large part, this was due to Jobs' leadership abilities.

After Jobs' death in 2011, the author of his biography, Walter Isaacson, published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, "The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs." While most people don't have the ability to emulate Steve Jobs' rare ability to be brutally honest and brash while combined with an ability to inspire, there are aspects of his leadership that are universally applicable. Those leadership traits are what we will focus on from a basketball perspective.

1. Focus and Simplify

In 1985, amidst a power struggle at Apple, Steve Jobs was ousted as CEO.  At this point, Apple was producing dozens of different Macintosh computers, but none that were exceptional, leading to a company identity crisis as the rise of Microsoft threatened to permanently marginalize the company. In 1997, the company rehired him to save them from bankruptcy. Jobs immediately trimmed their focus down to four products: consumer and professional desktops, and consumer and professional portable computers. Jobs believed that if you split your focus too broadly, you would become sub-par in every aspect.

How many times have you heard a coach say that they have to simplify a scheme? Billy Donovan, just a few weeks ago, said this:

"To be honest with you, I think [our defensive scheme] was too confusing for them and it was too much. As we maybe simplified some things and made it very, very clear and a little bit more concrete."

As soon as Donovan simplified the defensive strategy and what was being asked of his players, the Thunder defense went from a giant question mark to perhaps their most potent weapon in the playoffs.

When players are forced to cognitively evaluate their responsibilities in real time, their response time becomes delayed. When a player is focused on a range of items, such as reading multiple other players velocity and position, adjusting footwork, and communicating with other players all at once, they start to slack in every area. That's why teams train in different situations; the ultimate goal is to read and react, rather than read, evaluate, and then react.

The more steps you add, and the more options for responses you provide, the slower the response to a motion is. In a league in which players can shoot or drive past you in tenths of seconds, this can be the difference between an open dunk and a contested fadeaway jump shot.

When Behind, Leapfrog

On the original iMac, the CD drive (for those of you old enough to remember what those are) didn't have burning capabilities. Steve Jobs saw that consumers were using PCs to rip music and burn their own CDs, and realized that Apple had missed the boat.

However, rather than modify the iMac in an attempt to catch back up, Jobs created iTunes and the iPod. This allowed Apple to transform the music industry and establish a stronghold on a new emerging portable music industry that was there for the taking.

Many general managers in the NBA would do well to take this piece of advice to heart. It seems like every time a certain team becomes dominant, most of the league adopts an approach based on that team's philosophy. Sam Presti fell prey to this error when the Lakers team was the powerhouse of the league in the late '00's; he signed Kendrick Perkins to a long and expensive deal just because he thought being able to play big was the only option.

The Golden State Warriors are causing similar reactions with their outside shooting and versatile small lineups. However, Presti has taken a different approach to roster construction this time. Rather than focus entirely on matching the Warriors' style of play, he has created a roster that can beat teams in its own way and put at the helm a rookie coach who was unafraid to stay within his team's strengths. While most teams chase perimeter play, OKC came within 200 seconds of the finals by dominating the paint while unleashing Kevin Durant's full potential on both ends of the court.

Since the NBA is and always will be cyclical this technically isn't leapfrogging, but the Thunder's willingness to identify themselves, rather than the current trend du jour, is what will allow them to become the best possible version of themselves.

Bend Reality

Steve Jobs had the ability to compel his employees do the impossible. For example, when Steve Wozniak (Jobs' co-founder of Apple) told Jobs it would take 6 months to create a video game, Jobs said it could be done in 4 days. Just 4 days later, the game was completed.

Self-fulfilling prophecies can be either a limitation or a way to push the limits. When you believe something is impossible, it will be. But when you believe that you can push the limits of the possible, it might just happen. Steve Jobs was able to motivate his employees to push those limits in part because he set the standard and belief in them - 'you can build this in 4 days'.

Later, when Jobs complained that the Macintosh OS took too long to start up, the engineers said that it was impossible to shorten it. Jobs replied, "If it would save a person's life, could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?" He then proceeded to demonstrate how, with 5 million viewers, 10 seconds per day equated to 100 lives "saved" per year. A few weeks later, the startup time was cut down by 28 seconds.

Sometimes, athletes are confronted with a seemingly impossible situation. For example, to win a championship, you have to beat two of the top 10 teams in NBA history, and you have to do so without home court advantage. The ability to mentally turn the impossible into a possibility can break the barriers that the team self-imposed. It may not always work to the extent that you desire (see Thunder, 2016 playoffs), but the mentality will allow you to push the limits that may seem to initially be holding you back.

Push for Perfection

When Steve Jobs was a young boy, he and his father were building a fence. His father told him that they needed to use just as much care on the back of the fence as the front, despite the fact that no one would see it. His father explained that a true craftsman uses a good piece of wood even for the back of a cabinet against the wall, and that it was the mark of an artist to have such a passion for perfection.

Jobs took this philosophy with him to Apple. In the Macintosh computer, he insisted that the computer's circuit board be designed with the chips lined up neatly. This seemed odd to the engineers, as the Macintosh was designed to be tightly sealed, and the circuit board would never be seen by consumers. Jobs insisted that they act as artists instead of moving truck packers and make the board look clean and appealing to the eye. When the design was complete, he had the engineers sign the inside of the case. Why?  Because "real artists sign their work."

This trait makes me think of Gregg Popovich. Even when his team is up or down by 30 points, he is still coaching up his players. He is just as likely to get mad about careless mistakes during blowout as a close game. Even when it doesn't seem to matter, he demands perfection of effort and focus from his players. As a result, his teams play with remarkable consistency and discipline.

Tolerate Only "A" Players

Steve Jobs was known for a brash leadership style. His goal was to prevent what he called "the bozo explosion," in which managers were so polite that mediocre employees were comfortable enough to stick around. Jobs said that he "learned over the years that when you have really good people, you don't have to baby them."

Creating a winning culture in the NBA is, no doubt, difficult. Players are under long-term contracts, and with the volatile nature of the coaching carousel, coaches have to manage the egos. Losing the locker room is a surefire way to be ineffective and find yourself unemployed. However, it's still important to tolerate only top-flight effort. Anything less poisons the culture of a team.

That is why tanking is such a large risk for a young roster. Sure, you can increase the talent level of the team, but if you sacrifice the drive and pursuit of excellence in the mean time, are you truly any better for it?

This is also why I hope the coaching staff is extremely hard on Mitch McGary this off-season. He needs to know that slacking off and showing up in bad physical shape won't be accepted. The talent is there, but if he isn't going to be an "A" player, he has no spot on this team.

NBA Comparisons

Perhaps the best example of Steve Job-esque leadership in the NBA comes from Gregg Popovich. While it's hard to know exactly what goes on in the locker room, Popovich seems to have that honest (even uncomfortably so) approach to leadership, with no tolerance for less than 100% effort. He pushes the team for perfection in every aspect and at every moment. There is a reason for both individual's success, and I think that a lot of the leadership principals they adhere to are common between them.