Temporary Insanity and Other Management Techniques : The Los Angeles Lakers’ Coach Tells All
On a percentage basis, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Pat Riley is professional basketball’s winningest coach. During his previous five years as head coach, his teams have made four trips to the NBA finals, winning two world championships. Recently, they captured their sixth straight Pacific Division title. A former All-American and a Laker squad member for six years, Riley believes that much of what basketball has taught him can be applied to any team situation, whenever people need to combine forces effectively. The following is from material he is assembling for a book to be published next winter by Simon & Schuster.
The Quest for Career Best
Fifteen seconds can be a long time in an NBA game, especially when they are the last seconds of a season. I can still recall, second by second, the finale of our season-ending game with the Houston Rockets in last year’s playoffs. The Lakers were the defending NBA champions and had gotten off to the second-hottest start of any Laker team in history (second only to the 1971-72 Lakers). But in the playoffs, the hungry and talented Rockets put us behind three games to one. In the fifth game we still had a chance to turn it around. With about 15 seconds to go, Magic Johnson hit a base line jumper, giving us a three-point lead. If we could just play smart defense, we would be standing on a win. Coming out of a timeout, the Rockets set up a three-pointer from behind the 22-foot line for point guard Robert Reid. His shot caromed off the rim into James Worthy’s hands, then somehow slipped out of Worthy’s grasp. Mitchell Wiggins snagged the loose ball, and the Rockets again found Reid outside the 22-foot line. I knew he wasn’t going to miss the second one. And that tied the score.
We missed a shot, and Houston called time out with one second left. Small forward Rodney McCray sent the ball flying in from out of bounds, and I could see Ralph Sampson going up and twisting in the air. Afterwards, he called it a “funky” shot. He sort of turned in midair and flipped it toward the basket. The ball caught the heel of the rim, bounced straight up several feet and dropped through the net like a torpedo.
On the way to the locker room, Bill Fitch, the Houston coach, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s a tough way to lose it.” In fact, I was tremendously disappointed. It isn’t always making a shot that makes the difference between winning and losing; sometimes it’s the goal that is scored against you. Sampson’s funky shot raised a question for the Lakers and for me. How were we going to deal with losing?
I’m a management person. My role is to create an environment in which the talent of my players can flourish. They’re the ones who truly get the job done. I do what I can, through organization and guidance, to put them in a position to win. I’m at my best when I’m of service to them. Not subservient, but of service. As much as I can, I remove my ego. In the long run I know that I will benefit from their success as much as they do. It’s the same for all managers.
At the start of last season, the pundits were saying that we might be the best team in the history of basketball. At the end, they were saying we were over the hill. This year, people are already predicting that we’re going to be in the finals. That’s a high expectation. And if we get distracted, if we don’t live in--and for--the present moment, we’ll get our fannies kicked. My challenge with this team has been to keep the players present-day-oriented and to make sure they understand exactly where they need to try harder.
At the start of this season, I wanted the Lakers to have a new perspective, and I called it Career Best Effort. I didn’t mean just in terms of points or statistics; I meant everyone’s best effort spiritually and mentally and physically. I tried out the concept as soon as our players checked into training camp in Palm Springs last October. Some of them were still moping over the loss to Houston and wondering how we were going to muster a comeback. The Career Best campaign gave them a positive focus. Several of our players--Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper--are performing way above last year. Two of them, A.C. Green and Magic Johnson, are having the best season of their NBA careers.
At the core of the Career Best Effort program is a phenomenally detailed system of record-keeping that we have steadily refined over the last several years. When players first join the Lakers, we track their basketball statistics all the way back to high school. I call this Taking Their Number. We look for an accurate gauge of what a player can do, then build him into our plan for the team, based on the notion that he will maintain and then improve upon his averages. This year, we introduced two important innovations. We had been ranking players’ performances against their own teammates, and a squad member pointed out that it discouraged him to be compared to someone like Magic Johnson, one of the greatest basketball stars of all time and the hottest player in the NBA this year. The complaint made sense, and now we rank team members alongside league opponents who play the same position and have similar role definitions.
The second change was to emphasize historical comparisons. We stacked the month of November, 1986, next to November, 1985, and showed the players whether they were doing better or worse than at the same point last season. Then we showed them how their performance figures for December, 1986, stacked up against November’s. We’ve kept up the comparisons each month throughout the season. When it’s all over, we’ll print out their bottom line and compare it with their career best, rating them in about 15 different areas.
Traditionally, basketball performance is measured by points, rebounds and assists, but our record-keeping also emphasizes effort--effort that doesn’t show in a box score but that often makes the difference between winning and losing games. For example: allowing an opponent to run into you when you know that a foul will be called against him, diving for loose balls, going after rebounds whether you are likely to get them or not, helping a teammate when the player he’s guarding has surged past him, and other “unsung hero” deeds. What does a player do when the ball is in flight, when it’s headed for the basket? If 50 shots are taken while a power forward is on the floor and he goes after 25, his rebound effort is 50%. We expect our power forwards to achieve a percentage closer to 90. The numbers are not subjective. They are rooted in the observed and recorded facts of game-time performance. They give players a means of knowing exactly where they stand alongside their peers in the NBA and what they have to do to increase the company’s belief in them as individuals.
There’s a philosophy behind all of this numbers-crunching: Sustaining an effort is the most important thing for any enterprise. The way to be successful is to learn how to do things right, then do them the same way every time. Players can’t excel in every area, but they can strive to better themselves in the areas that we value most for each individual. Then we can show them what they need to do to have their Career Best Effort . Over the length of a season, a correlation always appears between great effort and great overall numbers. It may not show from one game to the next, but in the long run superior effort is reflected in the win column.
The Remedy for Too Much Laker Girl Watching
Sometimes studying the numbers isn’t enough. Basketball is a game of intensity, and when a team’s emotional pitch gets low, it may call for an extreme remedy. For such occasions, which come along rarely, I have developed a technique I call “Temporary Insanity.” I first used it about four seasons ago. The Lakers had been playing miserably. They were neglecting effort areas, they weren’t concentrating and they had lost five games out of eight. It was time for me to do something drastic.
Behind the team’s dressing room is a door into the trainer’s office. Next to it is a low table, where Cokes are set out after a game. I checked the door to make sure it didn’t have a solid core. I told our trainer and our team doctor, “If you hear me yelling after the game, stand clear on your side of the door. If my foot comes through the door, push me back out. Don’t leave me standing there.”
The Lakers played another slack, listless game. With two minutes left, we were down five or six points to San Antonio. We could still pull out a win, so I called a timeout and gave the team a play to run. As I was outlining the stratagem, I saw that a couple of players were watching the Laker Girls. When they went back out on the floor, one of them didn’t know where he was supposed to be. That cost us the possession, and we lost the game.
I entered the locker room and ripped into the player who had blown his assignment. “The next person to pull something like that is gonna wake up in Cleveland .” Then I kicked the door, as high and as hard as I could. The casing splintered, the top hinge pulled loose and the whole door sagged back. The room went silent. I turned around and glared at the team. Then I made a swipe at the tray of Cokes. Instead of slapping the drinks into the shower room as I had intended, my blow hooked the whole tray into the center of the room. Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes and Kareem got soaked from head to foot. Kareem was so surprised he was actually quivering.
The next day we flew to Dallas and had a practice session as soon as we got off the plane--something we seldom do on travel days. The players boarded the bus quietly, avoiding eye contact with me. They were sure it was going to be a punishment session. I called them all into a circle and I softened up. I was almost apologetic. But I did say to them, “This doesn’t mean I won’t do it again.” We beat Dallas and our next six opponents after that. I had the same group of players, but now they were paying attention.
Despite our Career Best strategy, there have been some ups and downs this season too. On the night of Feb. 28, after a loss to Utah at the Salt Palace, I had another attack of Temporary Insanity. This time there was no choreography, no props, just a brutally frank description of how far below par they were playing. We have a good feeling for each other and a generally positive emotional environment on the team, but after my tirade there was a sense of estrangement. At the first practice after the Utah game, they were very quiet. When stretching was over with, Earvin Johnson, our leader, looked up at me and said, “Uh, Riles, could the team have a meeting by ourselves?”
“Sure,” I said.
I don’t know what message Magic gave them, but it must have been positive, because the workout was a good one. Our next opponent was Golden State. We came out playing Laker-style basketball and we won. The next night we beat Seattle with the same attitude, and 134 points.
After the Seattle game, I called Earvin Johnson into my office for a chat, one leader to another. I think it’s important to have allies. And your best producers had better know that they have to work hand in hand with you. I asked Earvin about the post-game scene in Utah. “What did you think? Was it good or was it bad?”
“It was good and it was bad,” Earvin replied. “It was good because you really got us thinking. It was bad because you scared the hell out of half the guys. You’ve got to remember that there are seven new players on this team, and they don’t know you like I know you. There were a couple of guys whose jaws hit the floor. And they’re wondering ‘Why me? How come he’s blaming me?’ ”
The fact is, in that chewing out I had not pointed at any one individual. Never. But the guys who knew they were guilty of the things I was talking about thought I was talking straight to them. Because they knew! I know they knew!
In the four games after our Utah loss, the Lakers shot a phenomenal 60% from the floor and blocked 32 shots, thoroughly discouraging their opponents. Over five games, the team’s overall efficiency rating, an average of its performance on both offense and defense, rose by 200 points. We won 10 straight games and clinched another division title with a victory over the Detroit Pistons on March 26. Two days later we put together a very satisfying win over our nemesis of last spring, the Houston Rockets. Was my fit of temporary insanity the reason for the turnaround? Was it the result of a system that identifies and rewards Career Best Effort? Or was it individual pride among a group of athletes who, collectively, have been used to being winners for a long, long time?
I don’t know. A team manager never knows for sure. But after our win over Detroit, Kareem told a reporter, “I don’t think Pat will let us become complacent. I think he’s going to stay on top of us.” Kareem knows what he’s talking about.
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