7 September 2017

Maintaining momentum: How the Cavs use team dynamics to Support Star Players

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Everyone grows up wanting to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James or Serena Williams. The reality is, that the vast majority of elite athletes play supporting roles in the background. But if the original goal was to be great, how does the coach or manager keep athletes motivated and content with their place? How does a competitive high performing athlete remain focussed, when their teammate is grabbing the headlines? With Phil Handy, assistant coach at the Cleveland Cavaliers, CONQA explores this unique challenge.

Not every player can be Lebron James and keeping highly competitive elite athletes motivate and focussed is a difficult challenge fro coaches and managers.

Not every player can be Lebron James and keeping highly competitive elite athletes motivate and focussed is a difficult challenge fro coaches and managers.

Over the five 2017 NBA finals games contested between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, an estimated 101.92 million people around the world tuned in to watch Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson clinch the series 4-1 for the Warriors. That is an average of 20.38 million sets of eyes per game

Ten years ago, a comparatively measly 9.29 millions viewers per game saw the San Antonio Spurs trounce the Cavaliers 4-0.

Basketball’s global appeal is most certainly on the rise, but in South Africa it is still a relatively niche interest as football (or soccer for American readers), rugby and cricket remain the most popular team sports in the country.

Be that as it may, even casual basketball fans on the southern tip of Africa recognise and acknowledge a handful of names that transcend barriers between sporting codes.

One is LeBron James of the Cavaliers, a man with three NBA Championship rings, three Finals MVP awards, four season MVP awards and two Olympic gold medals stored away in what must be a trophy cabinet struggling under the weight of a gluttony of personal and team accolades.

Social media popularity is often not the best source for any argument, but when LeBron James boasts 38 million (and counting) followers on Twitter and Kyrie Irving is the second most followed Cavalier with 3.6 million, there is clearly a hierarchy not just on the court. 

Special talent deserves special treatment. We’ve discussed before how managing a superstar athlete brings an extra set of challenges to coaches and managers, but what of those consigned to supporting roles? How does one keep a competitive professional athlete content and motivated if he or she is not occupying the centre of the stage?

There are few people more qualified to answer this question than Phil Handy, director of player development and assistant coach at the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose role within the organisation extends beyond the confines of the court and includes keeping all athletes pulling in the same direction. He admits, it's challenging providing each player in the team with the same amount of attention as James.

“It definitely is an obstacle that we face but every coach on the roster is conscious that every player needs to feel important, because to us and our mission, they are important,” Handy says. “Our head coach Tyronn Lue is a fantastic communicator and he knows how to relate to everyone within the squad. Both of us were pro players, and so we know how to convey our message to each individual on the team.” 

Elite athletes are filled with ego, and whether they’re running out in a World Cup Final or representing a minor league team, they (at least in theory) are always trying to perform at their best.

Handy and the coaching staff at the Cavs understand this and always attempt to remove any insecurities, as a result of occupying a subsidiary role by tapping into that ego with an often repeated phrase: “Be a star in your role”.

Whether that is ten minutes of playing defence at the end of a contest or taking the 3 pointer at the buzzer, every player is held to the same level of scrutiny and is expected to perform at his best. 

Handy explains that players are required to encourage their teammates from the bench. They may be required to instill a sense of energy at practice or to ensure James and other starters are performing at their peak. As Handy explains, “Everyone has a role and the only way we can be the best is if every role is carried out with equal passion and attention.” That sounds good in theory, but how exactly can one be satisfied with playing the role of cheer leader? Here, Handy speaks of what he calls “trickle down motivation” .

“I don’t care what sport you’re in, the best players did not get to where they are without being amongst the hardest working in their field. I’ve coached Kobe Bryant and he was incredibly focussed and professional. It’s the same with LeBron. The guys at the top set the standard in everything they do from pre-practice warm ups or we’re down by five with time running out in the playoffs. From the younger guys who aren’t playing as much, to the athletes on the bench, there are no excuses when the standard by the star players. That makes our job easier.”

It makes sense that the best players put in the most work. As Handy says, no one gets to the top without dedication and application, but the cynic might rightly point out that the players who regularly see game action put in hard work because their hard work is being rewarded.

If a young player is consistently putting in extra hours at training without being reciprocated with game time -  will that have on a negative impact on his motivation and willingness to remain on the fringes? Handy swats away the question as if it were a lazy layup shot.

“These are professional athletes performing a job that millions of people would love to have and they’re getting paid a lot of money to do it. I’m not saying I’m not sympathetic to an individual’s desire to play, of course I am, but only a few can play and being a squad player is a vital component within the team. Not everyone is a first round pick straight from high school. Most people have to work extremely hard at this and we stamp out any entitlement at the Cavs.”

Handy admits that there is some leeway afforded to him personally as a result of the league he works in. Excluding the playoffs, there are 82 games in an NBA season and inevitable injuries and dips in form result in regular rotations within the squad.

“You never know what’s going to happen throughout the campaign or when that opportunity will come. Hard work is never in vain as you always have to be ready to step up when someone gets injured. If you’ve been slacking and you’re asked to take more responsibility but you can’t, that will impact the rest of your career. Word spreads fast in this league and believe me, no one wants to work with someone who is unable to grab the opportunity presented to them because they were complacent.”

Handy emphasises the need for transparency. Sugar coating a tough message might seem like a more desirable approach for the messenger, but as Handy says, “you’ve got to keep it real with your players.”

“If a player isn’t getting game time, he’ll want to know why, and you owe it to him to be honest. I’ve often looked my guys in the eyes and told them exactly why they’re not playing. Maybe it’s some part of their game that needs improving, maybe it’s because we’re going with a different approach that doesn’t favour them or maybe there are just guys that are currently ahead of them. Either way, you have to be straight because if you’re not, you’ll lose their respect and that’s a dangerous position to be in as a coach.”

Having said that, Handy adds that he would be unhappy as a coach if he had players within his team that were content to be sitting on the bench. He explains how he wants players to be itching to get game time and to be frustrated with their minor role within the team.

Not everyone can be LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo. We need superstar athletes to set impossible standards and stand on the top of the pyramid for the rest of us to marvel in awe of their achievements. 

However, superstar athletes cannot operate in a vacuum and without those who comprise the bulk of the pyramid, team sports could not exist. In order to get the best out of the best, a coach or manager needs to get the best out of the rest.