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Warriors Show a Bit of Workforce Wisdom

March 7, 2012

The Golden State Warriors pro basketball team is about the last place you'd expect to find lessons about smart workforce management. But despite years of lackluster performance and a losing record so far this season, the franchise has some surprising insights to offer.

Let me cop to my bias from the get-go. The Warriors, who play in Oakland, are my home team here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've been rooting for them for a decade or more.

During this stretch they've stood out for nothing other than ineptitude. The team has made the playoffs just once in 18 years. Their talent decisions have been generally awful. They've drafted bust after bust. And management has traded away or simply released good player after good player.

The latest infamous case: Jeremy Lin, who is taking the world by storm as the point guard of the New York Knicks. The Warriors cut him earlier this year in a failed bid to attract a better player at the center position. The franchise has been so troubled that it now has difficulty attracting star talent—two prominent centers declined to sign with the Warriors this summer.

Speaking of the center position, the Warriors stumbled there in choosing to retain and pay their current center, Andris Biedrins, a 7-foot player who has barely been visible on the court much of the past three seasons amid an apparent crisis of confidence.

But despite all these foibles, the team has shown key signs of a turnaround since late 2010. That's when a new ownership group led by venture capitalist Joe Lacob and film producer Peter Guber took over.

The new owners took a risk in hiring former player and TV analyst Mark Jackson as coach. Jackson is untested as a coach, but has leadership chops as an ex-point guard and as head of a church. Although he doesn't have a winning record so far, Jackson has shown poise and promise. For example, he avoids criticism of specific players in public while praising their achievements—taking a page from the playbook of Jim Harbaugh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to the National Football Conference championship game in his first season coaching the team.

Jackson makes decisions based largely on a 17-year career in the NBA. But the Warriors as an organization are blending his intuitive approach with the latest in workforce data analytics. Among the new owners is software executive Vivek Ranadivé. His company, Tibco Software Inc., makes sense of mounds of data for customers in fields such as insurance, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. And he's bringing his analytical know-how to the Warriors.

"We have data that tells us what combination of players produces the best results, where you should shoot from and how to defend opponents better," Ranadive told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. "We can find all kinds of patterns based on the data, and we have very spirited discussions about it all of the time."

Ranadive is the latest sports executive to tap the power of metrics. And he's got a proven ability to turn basketball thinking on its head. Despite never having touched a basketball until asked to coach his 12-year-old daughter's team, he led the squad to the National Junior Basketball national championship tournament. He employed a full-court press extensively—a success detailed in a Malcolm Gladwell article on how Davids can beat Goliaths.

To be sure, the Davids on the Warriors have a ways to go to challenge the current Goliaths of the NBA. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. But like the Thunder—a team that has blossomed by nurturing a core cadre of young players over time—the Warriors are quietly putting in place the foundations of success.

A key to the team's success is point guard Stephen Curry. And with Curry, the team recently showed yet another important management quality: restraint. Curry has suffered a series of ankle and foot injuries in the past two years.

After his most recent mishap, the Warriors had him rest for all but three seconds over the course of four games. Those four games were crucial to the Warriors' chances of making the playoffs this year. Without Curry in the starting lineup, they lost three of the games.

But unlike many organizations that are pushing workers to the breaking point these days, the Warriors protected Curry and his foot. The Warriors demonstrated a long-term, rather than a short-term, mindset.

Time will tell if my Golden State Warriors will get back to being a playoff or championship team. But don't be surprised if it happens. They are showing the workforce ways of a winner.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce Management. To comment, write to efrauenheim@workforce.com.