Paying Attention to Process, But Not Context: The Cleveland Cavaliers

The other week, we posted an article about how the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t respecting the process of the regular season of the NBA. That’s one way to look at it. Another possibility is that the Cavaliers are thinking very carefully about the process—it’s the big picture they’ve lost sight of.

Look, I’m a fan of the city of Cleveland (my father was born and raised there and the Cleveland Indians have always been a part of our family). The only reason we’re having this conversation is that the Cavs are an incredible team, capable of more or less winning as many games as they want to. I don’t want to say anything bad about them. But here we are, posting a second critical piece. There will be a third–because as much as I care about Cleveland, I also care about the NBA. Even more, I care about giving you good business advice—and there is just so much opportunity to talk about what not to do, here.

The issue is that the team has played as if the regular season doesn’t mean anything except a way to reach the playoffs. They’ve played just well enough to make it, but not anywhere near what they’re capable of. That’s not what team sports is really about. Don’t the Cavs know this?

They might. But they also know that their fans are increasingly focused on the playoffs alone, and that their legacy as a team and as individual players depends on winning titles. They, know too, that if they give it their all every single game, they could have a great season but enter the playoffs exhausted and with one or two key players injured on the bench. They could lose, in other words. The strategy they appear to be using is actually very savvy.

Runners use exactly the same strategy. Unless it’s a short sprint, you don’t want to run as fast as you possibly can the whole time, you’ll exhaust yourself, get hurt, and lose. Runners who win settle into a nice, sustainable pace and only put on a burst of competitive speed at the end, when everyone else is tired. You might use the same strategy in business as well, if you have multiple direct competitors all pumping money they don’t have into direct, head-to-head competition. Better to drop out of the arms race, keep your own company on firm financial footing, and let your competition go bankrupt by itself.

But basketball teams don’t play in isolation. They exist within, and ultimately depend on, larger organizations, in this case, the NBA. And no matter how good the play-it-safe approach is for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it could be terrible for the NBA as a whole. As we explained before, the whole reason why hanging back during the regular season looks attractive is that fans are starting to act as if only the playoffs matter. If the strategy works, and the Cavs win the title, other top teams will imitate them, and the regular season will begin to feature a lot of half-hearted play (if it doesn’t already) that nobody will want to watch—increasing the pressure on more teams to prioritize the playoffs. All of this translates into less and less revenue for the NBA, while the costs of holding the regular season will remain the same.

That is the bigger picture the Cleveland Cavaliers seem to be ignoring; while their job is to win, it’s also to play games worth watching. If no one watches, titles won’t matter.

You might make the same mistake if you head an award-winning department and start acting like your job is to win awards, not support your company’s mission. Or maybe you are the head of your company and you overvalue—or undervalue—a department, an office, or a person, without considering how that part of your operation fits within the whole.

Keep your eye on the big picture, and avoid the kind of vicious circle the NBA may be looking at.



Image of Cleveland Cavaliers By Erik Drost [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons