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    Entries in Sports (109)


    When things don't work out: Lessons from the New York Knicks

    My beloved New York Knicks wrapped up a disappointing 2013-2014 season last night with a win, but despite the win and some solid play in the season's late stages the season ended with a playoff-missing 37-45 won-loss record.

    Since I spent a ridiculous amount of time this season watching the Knicks I better have gotten something out of it (or I will be really even more depressed), so I figured I would share five quick lessons from disappointment from the 2013-2014 Knicks debacle of a season.Knicks coach Mike Woodson, in his standard 2014 repose

    1. Be careful with celebrations and self-congratulation

    Last year the Knicks had a surprisingly strong season, winning 54 games and also winning their first playoff series in about 20 years. They were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, but still went out with a feeling of "We've had a great season!" But the good feelings and accomplishments from a prior success don't really mean anything when it comes to tackling the next challenge. This year's Knicks team had a lingering hangover from the celebrations of prior accomplishments that themselves were not all that great. Lesson? Don't celebrate too long and especially for 'wins' that are not all that remarkable.

    2. Sometimes you are the worst evaluator of your own capability and potential

    Prior to the season, a computer analysis of their prospects predicted the Knicks would finish with a 37-45 record, and miss the playoffs. And that prediction was predictably mocked and derided by the team's players and coaches. But as we see, this is exactly the terrible record the Knicks ended up with. The lesson here? When a neutral, no-skin-in-the-game third party (like this computer), gives you an assessment of your performance and capability, you should at least consider its point of view and findings. Like the Knicks, most of us are pretty bad at self reflection and examination.

    3. You can't fix other people's problems

    One of the major off-season moves the Knicks made was to acquire via trade former Toronto Raptors forward (and former 1st overall draft choice from 2006), Andrea Bargnani. In Toronto, Bargnani was essentially hated, and the Raptor fans even made celebratory videos when his trade to the Knicks was announced. While Bargnani might be a nice guy, he is not a very good NBA basketball player, despite 'seeming' like he should be (he's tall). Bargnani's performance with the Knicks, (before getting injured and missing the last half of the season), was almost exactly in line with his career average performance level from seven years in Toronto. Bargnani was a mediocre-at-best player that the Knicks somehow felt in their system could perform at a higher level. The lesson is that they were wrong.

    4. Past performance is not indicative, except when it is

    Last season's 54 win Knicks team was powered, in part, due to career-best performances by two players, Point Guard Raymond Felton, and shooting guard and NBA 6th Man of the Year, J.R. Smith. For various reasons, both of these player's performances were substantially better than their career averages, and consequently helped lead the Knicks to what was really an over performing 2013 finish. In 2014 instead of repeating that level of relative over achievement, both players regressed back to their typical or expected performance levels, (and at times, even below that). They both returned to who they are. Your takeaway? Veteran employees don't usually and suddenly start performing much better or much worse than their career history suggests. And when or if they do, you can expect a return to the mean level of performance (good or average) eventually.

    5. When things are really bad, you have to send a message

    Towards the end of what would be a lost season, the Knicks signed NBA coaching legend (and former Knicks player) Phil 'Zen Master' Jackson to be the team's new President. While this was too late in the campaign to make much of a difference in 2014, at least it sends a message to the team, the fans, and the other execs that the Knicks are at least finally realizing they are a dysfunctional mess. Will Jackson be able to actually turn the Knicks around next year? Hard to say but the lesson from ownership to the team and for you as well is clear: When there is a performance problem, you can't expect it to just work out on its own, you have to take some steps to shake up the organization, the culture, the staff, etc. in order to get at and improve the problems.

    Ugh, I am just as drained from this (silly) post as I have been watching this disaster of a Knicks team this season. But talking/writing about it is a little cathartic, I think. I guess that is the last lesson from this terrible team - no matter how bad things get it helps to vent a little bit about it.

    Have a great day!


    Is "In which month were you born?" a valid interview question?

    Quick 8 Man Rotation take for a busy Tuesday. Check out the chart below, a birth month distribution of about 240,000 professional soccer players taken from a database that tracks player signing and transfers and was compiled by David Bauer:

    Notice anything strange in the pattern distribution?

    How about the unusually high (relative) percentages of professional soccer players born in the first quarter of the year, particularly in January (11.3%), and the relatively lower percentages of players that were born at the end of the year (down to a low of 6.5% in December).

    It might not seem like that much of a disparity, but consider a similar chart that shows the birth month distribution of the entire population of the European Union, (below), and you can see some striking differences.

    As you can see from the total EU chart, people are born more or less consistently across the months of the year, with only small differences in percentages born in the highest percentage months.

    But professional soccer players? They show a striking and increased likelihood to be born in the first three months of the year.

    This phenomenon is attributed to the traditional soccer (and other sports as well) youth development process that groups players of the same age (Under 10, Under 16, etc.), for training and competitions.

    The theory then is that at those younger ages the physical size and skill differentials between an Under 10 year old player born in January and one born in December are really large, and noticeable. The player born in January then receives more attention, better coaching, more opportunities, etc., as he/she is simply deemed a better prospect than the player born in December. This then plays out again and again over time resulting in more of the 'early year' born players making it to the professional levels.

    No one knows if this is really true and explains the birth month disparity of professional soccer players compared to the overall population, but it does seem at least plausible.

    So circle this back to your HR/Talent shop. Does this kind of analysis make sense for you to consider? Is there a similar performance effect that can be seen in other types of occupations besides professional soccer based on birth month distribution? Are comparatively "older for their grade level" people likely to turn out to be better at more than just playing sports? Do you care about the birth month of a candidate or an employee?

    I don't know. I guess it seems unlikely. But even so there is still a takeaway from this data which is this: If you want little Junior to grow up to be a pro soccer player, you may want to plan around a January birth date, (if it isn't too late).

    Have a great Tuesday.


    The analytics takeover won't always be pretty

    Seems like it has been some time since I dropped a solid 8 Man Rotation contribution here on the blog, so to remedy that, please first take a look at this recent piece on ESPN.com, 'Fears that stats trump hoops acumen', a look at the tensions that are building inside NBA front offices and among team executives.

    In case you didn't click over and read the piece, the gist is this: With the increased importance and weight that a new generation of NBA team owners are placing on data-driven decision making and analytical skills, that the traditional people that have been the talent pool for NBA team management and executive roles, (former NBA players), are under threat from a new kind of candidate - ones that have deep math, statistics, and data backgrounds and, importantly, not careers as actual basketball players.

    Check this excerpt from the ESPN piece to get a feel for how this change in talent management and sourcing strategies is being interpreted by long time (and anonymously quoted) NBA executives:

    Basketball guys who participated in the game through years of rigorous training and practice, decades of observation work through film and field participation work feel under-utilized and under-appreciated and are quite insulted because their PhDs in basketball have been downgraded," the former executive, who chose to remain anonymous, told ESPN NBA Insider Chris Broussard.

    One longtime executive, who also chose to remain anonymous, postulated that one reason why so many jobs are going to people with greater analytical backgrounds is because newer and younger owners may better identify with them.

    "Generally speaking, neither the [newer generation of] owners nor the analytic guys have basketball in their background," the longtime executive told Broussard. "This fact makes it easy for both parties to dismiss the importance of having experience in and knowledge of the game.

    The piece goes on to say that since many newer NBA owners have business and financial industry backgrounds, (and didn't inherit their teams as part of the 'family business'), that they would naturally look for their team executives to share the kinds of educational and work experience profiles of the business executives with which they are accustomed to working with, and have been successful with.

    The former players, typically, do not have these kinds of skills, they have spent just about all their adult lives (and most of their childhoods), actually playing basketball. A set of experiences, it is turning out, no longer seems to provide the best training or preparation for running or managing a basketball team. 

    But the more interesting point from all this, and the one that might have resonance beyond basketball, is the idea that the change in hiring philosophy is coming right from the top - from a new generation of team owners that have a different set of criteria upon which they are assessing and evaluating talent.

    Left to tradition, hiring and promotion decisions would have probably only slowly begun to modernize. But a new generation of owners/leaders in the NBA are changing the talent profile for the next generation of leaders.

    The same thing is likely to play out in your organization. Eventually, if it has not happened yet, you are going to go to a meeting with your new CHRO who didn't rise through the HR ranks and maybe is coming into the role from finance, operations, or manufacturing. In that meeting your 19 years of experience in employee relations might be a great asset to brag on. Or it might not be.

    And you might find out only when you are introduced to your new boss, who has spent her last 5 years crunching numbers and developing stats models.

    Have a great week!


    Big Data - on the basketball court today, tomorrow in your office?

    Super piece over at Grantland the other day titled The Data Flow Continues: NBA D-League Will Monitor Player Heart Rate, Speed, Distance Traveled, and More, about some of the steps that the NBA, (and its affiliated minor league the D-League), are taking that leverage wearable tracking devices to monitor player movements, player vital signs, and evaluate things like player fatigue levels and stress during the course of play.

    These new devices, ones that go beyond the already in-place sophisticated video technology that records player actions like direction of movement, speed, acceleration and deceleration, and move into more precise measurements of a player's biological and physical status and condition, seem to offer NBA teams a rich and copious set of information that can inform in-game strategy, (Is LeBron really tired, or does he just look tired?), and off season training and conditioning plans.

    But of course the potential backlash for the NBA and its teams is that no one, not even highly compensated NBA players, will be terribly excited about not only having their actions tracked, but also their physical reactions tracked as well.

    But if we move off of thinking about this kind of physical tracking as something that is limited to jobs or activities like playing basketball we could easily see how this kind of technology and data collection and mining approach could have applications in other domains.

    Wouldn't you like to know, Mr. or Ms. HR/Talent pro, how a given manager's team members physically react when they are in a performance coaching session, or getting any kind of feedback on their work? Do the team member's hearts start racing when their boss enters the room or begins one of his soliloquies? Do certain team members react and respond differently to the same managerial techniques? And wouldn't that information be valuable to feed back to the manager so that he or she could better tailor their style and approach to fit the individuals on their team?

    I know what you are saying, no way are employees going to agree to be wired up like subjects in some kind of weird biology experiment. Too intrusive. Too much potential for the data to be lost. Too many chances for the data to be held against them.

    The NBA players are probably going to make similar arguments, but eventually they will succumb.

    I will leave with a direct pull quote from the Grantland piece, and as you read it, think about how naturally you could substitute 'organizations' for 'NBA teams'.

    Bottom line: None of this stuff is going away. Data of all kinds are already piling up at a rate that is overwhelming NBA teams, and the pace and variety of data available will only increase. Teams are going to have to change hiring patterns, and likely hire additional staff, to mine anything useful out of all this information. And the holy grail, to me, remains what these tracking devices can tell us about health — about preventing injuries, predicting them, monitoring players’ training loads, and keeping them healthy.

    Have a great weekend!


    Choosing your benchmarks wisely and the legacy of David Stern

    Real quick 8 Man Rotation style take for a travel Tuesday. Aside, I am heading out to Oracle HCM World in my favorite city in the world Las Vegas, if you happen to be out there be sure to say 'Hi'. 

    Over the weekend I had a brief Tweet exchange with the HR Capitalist, Kris Dunn, and another Fistful of Talent colleague the very underrated R.J. Morris about the legacy of the very recently retired after a 30 year run Commissioner of the NBA David Stern. One of the tweets is embedded below to give a little bit of context, and also because I find embedding tweets to be kind of fun, (I know, i need to get out more).



    The gist of the conversation regarding Stern was this: By most measures of internal comparison, i.e. taking where the NBA was in terms of hard metrics like revenue, franchise values, player salaries, international growth, etc., Stern presided over a long and sustained period if incredible growth for the league. By every internal standard, the NBA is in a far, far better and more financially successful place today than it was when Stern became commissioner. 

    But Stern has his critics too, and rather than dig into all the specific and sometimes subtle elements of his stewardship of the NBA, let's focus on just one. Namely, that while Stern did, by most accounts, a superb job of growing the NBA, it is still far, far less popular and financially and culturally massive (at least in the USA) as the National Football League. The NFL is the proverbial 300lb gorilla of modern American sports. It has widespread appeal, its game telecasts rank among the most popular TV programs week in and week out, the the culmination of the season, the Super Bowl game, has become such an important and ubiquitous event that there are fairly serious proposals that the Monday following the game be designated as a national holiday.

    The NFL is #1, by every measure that matters, and when holding up the NBA to that mirror, well then the Association falls short, a distant second really, (and possibly even third behind Major League Baseball), and consequently then Commissioner Stern must be judged as not having really been such a transcendent sports business leader.

    But I think that comparison is a little unfair, and perhaps even a little premature, (even as Stern retires). I think if we let the evolution of both American professional sports, and societal and global trends play out a little longer, I think this kind of comparison, or benchmark of basketball to American football will end up looking quite a bit different, and Stern, long gone from the scene, will have to be credited for at least some of these developments.

    To me, the NBA is like Apple Computers, in the latter part of the 90s. The NFL, the behemoth, is Microsoft of that same time.

    Back then, Microsoft was the undisputed leader in personal and corporate computing technology, was led by a legendary and visionary Bill Gates, and simply dwarfed everyone else in its space with its vise-like grip over almost every interaction you had with a computer. Apple was still interesting, quirky, made a different kind of computer that had its adherents, but never was seen as a serious threat to the MSFT ecosystem.

    And then something called the iPod came out and things started to change. You know the story and I don't need to go into all the Apple innovations and the subsequent (or concurrent) missteps from Redmond, but suffice to say the technology world in 2014 does not look anything like it did in 1998 or so.

    So back to my NBA and NFL take, and the need to give Stern some room before we all start deciding about his legacy.

    I submit that about 15 years from now the NBA will be almost, if not more popular (in America and globally), than the NFL for the following reasons:

    1. Basketball, and by extenstion the NBA, is largely an urban or city game. The game is mostly played and celebrated, in America's big cities - New York, Chicago, Boston, L.A.. And America (and the rest of the world) is becoming a more urban place as well. As more people migrate to the larger cities, the city game, basketball, will continue to thrive, often at the expense of football, a game that requires expansive grounds on which to play, lots of expensive equipment, and the type of space not easily found in a big city.

    2. Basketball is a global game, played all over the world, while American football is played (seriously) pretty much only in America. As the world shrinks, cultural and sporting phenomena like the NFL, that have only single-country relevance, will eventually become somewhat marginalized over time. While the NFL dominates the American sporting landscape, it hardly registers anywhere else in the world. The NBA, with its global reach, and high number of non-American players is far ahead of the NFL in this regard. Just witness the growing popularity of English Soccer here in the US as a small example of this trend.

    3. The talent supply chain is constricting for the NFL. Due to its violent nature, more and more parents are electing to keep their kids out of full-contact football. Every football player gets injured at some point in a season, and as the NFL has learned, many of these injuries can have incredibly serious and devastating repercussions. The recent concussion-related lawsuits, settlements, and high-profile former players revealing their stories of traumatic brain injury are beginning to cast a longer and longer shadow over not just the NFL, but the beginnings or feeder systems for their talent. This will play out over time, surely, but even today if you were the parent of a very talented and gifted athlete, would you steer him toward a violent sport like football where he is likely to have at least a few concussions over time, or a sport like basketball where the injury risks are much less?

    4. At the top, I said this was going to be a 'quick take', turns out I was wrong. Sorry about that.

    5. The NBA understands social media and new media in general. This is certainly subjective, but if you look at how the league and its teams have embraced digital and social over the last few years, you see an organization that is more forward-thinking than most others. This is a by-product of the NBA's long time strategy that elevates and promotes its star players and personalities. Think about it, only the most ardent NFL fans can name more than a handful of players on their favorite team, and even less would be recognizable. If the new world of media and commerce is about engagement and connection, then the NBA is in a much stronger place than the NFL, where the vast majority of players are faceless and anonymous.

    I probably could keep going on this, but I think I have made enough points for now, and besides, I have to get on a plane. But the bottom line to me, taking us back to the question of David Stern and his legacy I think we have to let some of these cultural and global trends play out a little longer before we dismiss Stern (and the NBA) as being somehow inferior to the NFL. Compare the NBA of 1984 to the NBA of today and then no question, Stern was a great leader and executive. Compare the NBA of 2014 to the NFL of 2014 and sure you could say he fell short, but I say we need to let these shifts develop.

    Apple wasn't Apple back in 1998. But the world changes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower than we like or anticipate. And being on top of the food chain, even if you have been there awhile doesn' guarantee you that spot forever. Just ask Microsoft.

    <post typed on Chromebook>