Friday, March 23, 2012

Battle L.A.: Winning, Losing, and the Complexities of Teams

Attention Los Angeles: There is an intense psychological study happening right now. And its power is becoming more potent daily. We have the undeniable fortune of witnessing it first hand; not with one team but two.

The Los Angeles Lakers are in the midst of forming a cohesive unit under the guidance of a new coach in Mike Brown. Gradually, and with the help of one of the best home records in basketball (19-3 as of Friday afternoon), the Lakers have earned the second best record in the western conference and currently have a hold on the No. 3 playoff spot.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ housemates, the Los Angeles Clippers, are unraveling as I write. After a legitimately strong start to the season -- which led to conceivably unfair expectations -- they have lost three in row and are on the verge of slipping even lower in the standings (currently No. 6 in west) after hovering at the top. There is banter of a lost team. The ribbing reeks of things like: Vinny Del Negro has lost the locker room. Chris Paul doesn’t trust his teammates. Why doesn’t Blake Griffin get in the post? Why isn’t DeAndre Jordan playing? None of these statements are surprising. It’s sports. And its professional sports. Players and coaches who make millions of dollars are supposed to win, and when they’re not, they’re supposed to find ways to win. And when they don’t? Fans and media, not to mention players, begin blaming everyone else.

The problem is finger pointing helps nobody. It makes teams turns into a hodgepodge of mixed emotions, hope and happiness gone awry. The Clippers are in a deep, dark hole now. Clipper Nation feels it and, as such, the easy answer, and something perceived to work based on the recent re-resurrection of the New York Knicks, is to say, “Off with the head.” Sure, getting rid of the head coach is simple. After all, with all of the perceived talent on the Clippers -- and the best point guard in the NBA -- there is no way they should be falling to the bottom of the playoff race. But when the pieces are analyzed and the situation spotted with some clarity, perceptions may change.

Down the hallway at Staples, the Lakers’ gold is shining brighter. Maybe Metta World Peace realizes Mike Brown is more than a “stat guy”, as he referred to him several weeks ago. Certainly, there is less weight on Pau Gasol’s frame as he made it past the trade deadline to remain a Laker. Despite the awkward farewell to Derek Fisher, there is a spritely young point guard in Ramon Sessions who has a higher PER (23.8) in his four games than any of his teammates. And let’s face it, Kobe Bryant runs the team. He acknowledges that he is going to keep taking his shots, and he’ll be the go-to guy in the clutch. That’s what he has always worked hard to do and that’s what he, admittedly, is paid to do. But more than the shooting talk, he is the leader. The culture of winning and him being the guy is in place. And this scenario shows itself even more in the extenuating circumstances of there being almost no practice time to formulate a solid system under a new coach.

The Clippers are like any other team in that they, too, had limited training camp time and now have no practice opportunities. But, who is the vocal leader of the locker room? Chris Paul is wonderful on the court: He directs traffic. He reads opponents’ sets and calls out to his teammates what they’re running. He makes it a point to get others involved and find his shot when necessary, frequently in the closing minutes. Blake is a beast, physically, and actions on the court are eye-popping, especially when he is hustling, getting deflections, and diving for loose balls (as he did much more earlier in the season). But the culture of winning doesn’t yet exist for the Clippers. Del Negro was given Paul and, for obvious reasons, has given him the ball. With Billups gone, the Clippers not only lost a gamer, a Finals MVP, and charismatic competitor, they lost belief and cooperation. When they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in late January, they had major moxy, and not just because of Griffin’s inconceivable slam on Perkins. Billups was on the floor. A pressure relief and pure baller. Lob City was in full effect, 3-pointers were soaking wet, and the folks on the bench were up and dancing. It was a true team, magnified by a 56.2 percent field goal percentage display aided by 28 assists. Fans were literally jumping out of their seats. Heck, I couldn’t help but be one of them.

At the same time, people questioned the Lakers’ system. What are they running? What is the rotation? Can Brown really coach offense? Is Kobe unhappy again?

Linsanity soon introduced itself and all attention turned to the east, particularly when Kobe half joked about who Jeremy Lin even is -- and then lost to the new Knicks as they put together an exciting stretch of team basketball. Soon after, however, New York’s unity altered. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were reintroduced, and unfortunately for Mike D’Antoni, chimed in as figures who confused the team’s newfound equation with Lin as the floor leader. What seemed like an easy route to take (saying goodbye to D’Antoni) has only appeared like the perfect answer as the Knicks have fired off five straight wins, fairly convincingly, under new coach Mike Woodson. The question we all have is: Will it continue?

The honeymoon stage doesn’t last forever. If it did, all coaches who have turned teams into contenders midway through grueling seasons would still have their jobs. Jeff Van Gundy said it best today on 710 ESPN. When he took over the Knicks, they beat the best Bulls’ team ever -- the one that went 72-10 -- handedly. For some reason, a new takeover relaxes players, gives them new hope. It’s the storming phase of psychology, when everything is fresh and exciting and hope has a way of injecting hustle and high-fives into players who once seemed apathetic and aged. But as Van Gundy discovered, it didn’t last for all of eternity, partly because adversity strikes, good opponents adjust and get better as the season goes on, and teams get comfortable.

Think of the psychological formations and transformations of teams like a weightlifting regimen. Starting out, one gets stronger and immediately sees results. Effects can be extreme. Intrinsic motivation is felt in one’s mind and body. Extrinsically, friends and colleagues comment on how good one looks all of a sudden. A new exercise is one’s best friend and makes one feel even better.

And then there is a plateau. After several weeks of hype, it’s not as easy any longer. Building muscle and increasing strength is more difficult. In fact, improvement becomes a struggle. The person has to change something within the routine; otherwise he or she quits. But here is the key point: He doesn’t go out and buy a new flat bench with new weights. That’s like assigning blame to a basketball because it isn’t going through the hoop. He figures out other ways to train, alters routines, talks to himself in a different way, communicates with others about new exercises, and attacks the training from a different angle.

Simply stated, he works through it with what he has available, and if possible, adds another exercise. The Lakers worked through early issues and then added Sessions to make them more powerful. The Clippers started strong, heightened expectations in the beginning, and now have to deal with what they have: A frustrated superstar, a really young but powerful forward, and other players who haven’t been around too much winning and consistency.

Don’t underestimate the significance of winners simply being around a team. Is it a coincidence that when Billups returned from his hiatus of surgery and recuperation this past weekend to sit on the Clippers’ bench at Staples that they won two games? It’s unfortunate he didn’t travel with the team this week on its devastating road trip. Perhaps results would have been different just by his mere presence, one that promotes winning by focusing on the process and attempting to communicate effectively. Del Negro and Paul both turned to Billups for advice on Saturday and Sunday.

Ploughing through mounds of muck can be done, but people have to want to make it happen. Words turn into strong statements. People remember those, whether they are encouraging or dismantling. When teams lose, players don’t want to talk to one another; on the other side, positive team culture permeates and energizes. At the very least, it makes people play hard and provides ambition and engagement.

The study continues this weekend...


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