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How the Cavaliers Beat the Best in NBA History: Managerial Lessons from the Role of the Coach*

ET Cases - FLAME, 8 Pages
AUTHOR(S) : Divyang Momaya, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan, Kirankumar S. Momaya, Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management (SJMSOM), Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), Powai, Mumbai and Ankur Basumatary, ICICI Bank, Mumbai

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How the Cavaliers Beat the Best in NBA History: Managerial Lessons from the Role of the Coach

"The two most important days of your life are when you were born and when you discover the reason why you were born. And I think we were born to be champions. We got a tough road to conquer, but we can do it. We’re down, 1-3 but we got to have the mind-set that when we go into this game tonight, we’re going to win."

– Tyronn Lue, Head Coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers

These words were part of a riveting pregame speech, in his team’s locker room, by head coach Tyronn Lue (Lue). His Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers) were trailing the Golden State Warriors (Warriors) 1-3 in the best-of-seven 2016 NBA Finals, and were facing a potential elimination game later that night in Game 5.

No team in NBA history had ever come back from 1-3 down in the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers’ opponent, the Warriors, were the defending NBA champions, and had set the all-time record of 73 wins – 9 losses in the 2015-16 regular season which preceded the Playoffs. The Warriors’ 2015-16 regular season is considered to be one of the greatest in NBA and professional sports history. Just a year back, the Warriors had defeated the Cavaliers 4-2 in the NBA Finals of 2015. The city of Cleveland was suffering a 52-years-long professional sports championship drought4. In short, the Cavaliers were facing a nearly impossible task.

On a separate note, let us talk a bit about the sport of basketball. A solid case can be made for calling basketball as one of the ultimate team sports. While five players per team take the court at one time, basketball allows the bench players to be substituted in unlimited number of times. Furthermore, unlike football, players are not limited to doing usually just one among defence or offense. In basketball, every single player should participate at both ends, for the team to have better chance of winning. However, it is opined that teamwork on the court itself is not sufficient. Basketball is a game where the coach’s role is extremely important. Between quarters, during timeouts, and of course before and after games, coaches need to develop plays and strategies, need to motivate their team during the lows, need to make crucial decisions regarding whom to put on the court, when, and for how much time. According to experts, it needs to be borne in mind that basketball is such an exhausting sport that not even the best players in the world can play the full 48 (in the case of NBA games) or 40 (FIBA5 games) minutes in a match. It is not hard to imagine that the coach’s job must be exceptionally crucial to the team’s success..........................

Early Changes

The 2015 NBA Finals had the Cavaliers and Warriors facing off for the first time in a rivalry that promised to continue for years to come. However, the Cavaliers were without 2 of their top 3 players that year, having lost All-stars, point guard Kyrie Irving (Irving) to knee injury and forward Kevin Love (Love) to a shoulder injury in the Playoffs. LeBron James (James), widely acknowledged as the best player in the world, had led his remaining teammates to the Finals, where the severely depleted team had put up a good fight. The Warriors beat them 4 games to 2, but nobody criticized the Cavaliers for this loss.........

The Foundation being Laid for the Ultimate Comeback

With all the attention focused on the Warriors’ historic regular season, the Cavaliers had quietly snagged the first seed for the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Their first round opponents were the Detroit Pistons (Detroit). Though the Cavaliers swept the series 4-0, it was a tough outing for them, with the matches being hard-fought and going into clutch time. One of the most crucial developments was the arrival of Irving as an elite scorer at the Playoffs stage. He hit a couple of huge clutch three pointers in Games 3 and 4, helping the Cavaliers secure victory. This clutch shot-making would eventually lead the Cavaliers to the championship. In the First Round against Detroit, he averaged a team-high of 27.5 points (highest in 2016 First Round among all NBA players), shooting at an impressive 47.1% clip from beyond the arc, with 2.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game................

Against All Odds

The 2016 NBA Playoffs delivered a couple of historic, against-all-odds comebacks. In the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors became just the 10th team in NBA history to come back from a 1-3 deficit to win a playoff series. You already know which team would soon go on to become the 11th, achieving the comeback ironically over the same Warriors. However, none of those 10 previous comebacks had happened at the biggest stage of them all, i.e., in the NBA Finals (The Finals). With this context in mind, let us dive into the NBA Finals of 2016. Despite being a rematch between the Cavaliers and the Warriors, there was a different sense of excitement this time around, as the Cavaliers now had healthy Irving and Love, as opposed to the 2015 Finals. The Warriors were also at full strength, with reigning ‘Most Valuable Player’ (MVP) Stephen Curry (Curry) having recovered from a knee injury earlier in the Playoffs................

Assignment Questions

I. What are the major differences between cricket (One Day International {ODI}/Twenty20 {T20}) and basketball?
II. What may be the reasons for more dynamic games like basketball still not becoming popular at a rapid pace in India?
III. What is peak performance in business?
IV. ....................


Exhibit I: Regular Season Comparison of the Cavaliers under Blatt and Lue

Exhibit II: Cleveland Cavaliers’ Regular Season Record (2013-16)

Exhibit III: Playoffs Comparison of the Cavaliers under Blatt and Lue

Exhibit IV: Cleveland Cavaliers’ Playoff Runs (2014-16)

Teaching Note Preview

How the Cavaliers Beat the Best in NBA History: Managerial Lessons from the Role of the Coach

The education which does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for the struggle for life, which does not bring out strength of character, a spirit of philanthropy, and the courage of a lion—is it worth the name? Real education is that which enables one to stand on his own legs.

– Vivekanand (VII. 147-48)

Brief Synopsis

Leaders in many firms and organizations are facing issues of gaps in teamwork, competitiveness and peak performance in clutch times. The twenty-first century is opening up new kinds of opportunities and challenges. Discontinuities like the one of 2001, and the much bigger ‘Financial Meltdown that began in 2008’ are just a tip of the iceberg of Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world that is likely to evolve further in this century. Emerging countries such as India made tremendous strides on country competitiveness during the 2000s1, but gaps in competitiveness for focal firms2 will demand major break-out.

Firms such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) do face major challenges and break-out to continue their growth journey. Leaders such as N. Chandrasekaran (Chandra), CEO of TCS from 2009-2017, demonstrated tremendous energy and endurance to take TCS distinctly ahead of competitors. When need arose, even at late age and amidst leadership role of managing a firm having more than 2 lakh people, Chandra has practiced intensely to complete major marathons across continents, including New York, Berlin, Boston and Tokyo. That inspires scores of managers, entrepreneurs and others to build the health and fitness needed for corporate challenges. Are we as teachers or mentors or coaches inspiring our students to build health and fitness for a career that is much longer than hype-cycles of a fad or technology? Can they teamwork to deliver peak performance for their firms in clutch time?

This case gives a glimpse of the critical role that leaders can play by taking an example of the role of a coach who led his team to one of the most famous victories in the history of professional sports..................


Exhibit (TN)-I: Indicative Flow of the Teaching Plan

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Product code: STG-1-0068, STG-1-0068A



Award Winning Case Study

There is a lot business leaders can learn about strategy, teamwork, competitiveness and peak performance from the ‘world of sports’. Highly successful professional basketball coach David Blatt was fired at a very critical mid-way stage of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015-16 bid for its first NBA championship. The task for the new coach Tyronn Lue (Lue) was uphill, and became extremely challenging when the Cavaliers faced an almost impossible task of (for example, “crossing 3 valleys of death” while ‘swimming with sharks’) staging a turn-around against the nearly-invincible Golden State Warriors who were leading 3-1 in the Finals. This case discusses how Lue and his team attempted and accomplished something that had never been done before in the history of the NBA. It highlights how they succeeded despite being burdened by the mighty expectations of ending Cleveland’s half-century long pro-sports title drought. Alternate approaches to teamwork, motivation and managing, in what is known as ‘clutch time’ in basketball, have been discussed in this case. There are enormous learnings for leaders, managers, students and researchers from this case.

Pedagogical Objectives

The key objective of the case is to learn about practical issues related to an important managerial situation – teamwork needed for peak performance – and how a leader and team address them. Sub-objectives can be listed as:

  • Understand the dynamics of teamwork needed for peak performance
  • Learn how to motivate associates to give their best shot at doing something that seems impossible
  • Help learners appreciate the differences between individual and team excellence

Positions in Courses

The case involves actions to implement strategy and decision-making at the level of senior and middle management. It can be used in following courses or management/executive development programs in areas such as following:

  • Strategy: Competitive Strategy
  • Human Resource Management: For topics such as 'managing high-performance teams'
  • Competitiveness: For courses such as international competitiveness, competitiveness of ventures for topics such as teamwork for peak performance
  • Executive-level Strategy/HR/Competitiveness/Sports Management/MoT Programs: For learners who have rich corporate experience and understand challenges of strategy execution for international competitiveness. It can be used in programs such as innovation management, international business, competitiveness, growth strategies and other programs for top leaders. It can also be used in HR-related courses for topics related to motivation in high-performance teams.

* 4th FLAME International Conference on Research and Teaching Cases, June 21st 2018 & June 22nd 2018

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