The Necessary Soft Skills to Build a Successful Team

by Jeremy Cohen (@TheCohencidence)

Greetings, everyone. Seeing as how this is my first contribution as an official “professor” for Knicks Film School, I felt it would be fitting that I bring you all back to class.

During my junior year of college, I took a course called “Organizational Behavior in Business” and it blew my mind. It was a qualitative course that focused on the soft skills required to be successful in the working world, something that often goes overlooked. “In your career, you will need to depend on people to accomplish tasks, goals, and projects,” the class syllabus read. “You will need to work for other people, work with other people, and eventually direct other people.”

For our final paper, we were required to read an approved book on a business and analyze that company’s dynamic, culture, successes, failures, and more. As a sports fanatic, I gravitated towards Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game about the 2002 Oakland Athletics. My 15-page paper provided detailed rhetoric analyzing motivations, leadership, and management, all of which were assisted by what we learned throughout the semester.

I won’t be writing a 15-page paper analyzing the New York Knicks, but their free agency got me thinking about how we quantify success. When we watch and follow the Knicks, the first thing we care about is the numbers.

  • How many games did the Knicks win last season?
  • How many points did they allow in last Tuesday’s loss?
  • What percentage did Player X shoot and is he better than Player Y?
  • How much money should Player Z be making and is he making too much?

We tend to quantify value using data because the vast majority of information we receive is from watching games and analyzing statistics. Yet the truth is that the softer aspects are incredibly important to a team’s performance as well.

We as fans have a tenuous grasp on the qualitative side of sports. We don’t have access to the practices, locker rooms, long flights, or team bonding sessions. We miss out on the camaraderie, the learning, and the growing that these players do behind closed doors. We get exposure to our NBA team’s players ranging from 15-second snippets to three hour games over the course of 30% of the year if we’re lucky. It’s hard to make a full assessment about something that’s largely incomplete. So how can numbers tell the whole story? Simply put, they can’t.

In a salary capped league, players who take on a mentorship role are frequently defined by their salaries. One player the Knicks brought in this summer was Taj Gibson. The 34-year old Gibson is making about $9,000,000 this season. We don’t know of any other offers he may have received, but from a performance point of view, that feels like an overpay, right? I mean, that seems like unnecessary resources being diverted to a forward who will not be a long term piece, even if the team struck out this summer.

Here’s what Haley O’Shaughnessy of The Ringer wrote about Gibson a year ago:

No board goes unhunted. No screen isn’t set. He’s the first responder when one of the young guys has a defensive lapse. But compared to the noise Butler makes, the highlights from Karl-Anthony Towns, and the chatter around Andrew Wiggins, Gibson’s contributions are often anonymous donations.

So he’s a hard-nosed player but he’s 34 years old. That’s fantastic but does that help a team chock full of under-25 year olds?

Oh.

If Gibson helps Mitch set harder screens, improve even more on defense, and develop a midrange shot, the Gibson signing will be a success. Yet even if this happens, if Gibson’s numbers dip this season or he seldom plays, he could be deemed an unworthy investment by the masses. We’ve seen what bad character and laziness looks like and how both affect the team. Gibson should embody the attitude that fans wanted Joakim Noah to provide. With a lighter contractual obligation, Gibson can provide more bang for New York’s buck than Noah. Plus you’re not going to find Gibson getting too lit.

(Editor’s Note: If I’m out at the club one night – as I’m wont to do – and see Taj poppin’ bottles, I’m 100% throwing this back in Jeremy’s face)

Robinson and Knicks head coach David Fizdale each spoke about how DeAndre Jordan helped Robinson develop last season. I would call keeping Jordan, even in a potentially limited trade market due to the size of his expiring contract, a positive decision. It was an opportunity for a long term asset to get better under a former Defensive Player of the Year Award recipient’s tutelage. Maxing out Robinson’s potential felt like a more advantageous move than seeking matching salary and a second round pick.

The same can be said about a player like Elfrid Payton.

It’s likely naive to think that a 25-year old like Payton would be comfortable doling out advice to other players when he wants significant playing time and to eventually land a long-term contract. With that said, if there’s anyone who knows Payton, it’s Knicks general manager Scott Perry, the man who drafted and almost traded for Payton. If Perry felt Payton could be a leader, and if Payton’s open to it like he said, that benefits Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina down the line.

We’ve looked at how a player can impact another player on the court but what about how players can affect others off the court too?

We must consider what goes on behind the scenes as a factor into what makes a signing successful or not. But how do we know what’s happening between players, and how do we know if it’s good? After all, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, did it even make a sound?

A couple months ago, this tweet from Jon caught my eye:

A brief tangent: My first job out of college had a miserable office culture. My boss and I were never on the same page. I disliked the work I was doing. Bottom line? I couldn’t be myself, I couldn’t feel comfortable, and I didn’t produce to the standard I knew I was capable. Fast forward to now, where I have a different job and I get along famously with my team. My boss and I have an extremely positive relationship. I’m motivated to work and I’m thriving in my role. I can once again be myself.

Mitch entered the limelight as a shy teenager. Now? He’s cool, calm, and collected. In fact, he even has his own Knicks web series! How could this have happened? He was around people who made him feel comfortable.

I want to highlight a player Mitch never actually shared the floor with: Michael Beasley. “Supercool Beas” had his previous battles with playing below expectations and partaking in the devil’s lettuce from time to time, and yet former Milwaukee Bucks and current Knicks vice president Craig Robinson saw something in Beasley fans may not have expected while both were with the Bucks: a mentor. Here’s an excerpt from ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s 2017 Luke Walton All-Stars article:

[Craig Robinson] has tried to build chemistry by inviting players and team employees for dinners on the road. Beasley says yes every time. Younger players prod Beasley about his weird career path — about washing out of the NBA, and adjusting to being (almost) alone in China. He answers every question.

“It has been terrific for our guys to listen to his life story,” Robinson said, “and hear from someone who has been where they don’t want to go.”

Robinson pushes players to order something at those dinners they’ve never eaten. It’s a way for them to expose themselves, learn about their teammates, and tease each other. Some blanch, but Beasley is game for anything. He taunts more cautious teammates until they cave. He badgered Thon Maker into sucking down oysters during the team’s visit to New Orleans. “Thon won’t be eating them again,” Robinson laughed.

We wouldn’t know about this without Lowe having reported what existed behind the scenes. The vast majority of the information we would have to go off Beasley’s season is that year’s stat line, with his role in guiding impressionable young people getting lost along the way. It’s important for young adults who lead a life that’s anything but typical to learn from seasoned pros. That’s the type of person the Knicks want in a player.

As for this year’s Knicks, Gibson has paid for proms and funerals while funding toy drives. Julius Randle handed out school supplies to kids this past August. Elfrid Payton developed a foundation featuring an annual kickball tournament. Marcus Morris and his twin brother, Markieff, created a foundation and have done backpack giveaways. The Bobby Portis Foundation benefits single mothers. Reggie Bullock lost his trans sister to violence and is now an activist for LGBTQ rights. Wayne Ellington lost his father to a deadly shooting and is now an activist against gun violence.

So why does this all matter? The Knicks didn’t sign free agents because of their activism — almost every player is likely to have dealt with some form of strife in their respective past. If altruism and activism were the only important attributes, the Dalai Lama and Malala Yousafzai would be rocking the blue and orange while on minimum contracts.

We as fans view players as assets when they’re more than that — they’re real people. In the Knicks’ case, the crux of the core either can’t legally buy a beer in the United States yet or is just above the minimum purchasing age. The Knicks are surrounding said core with quality players who are, seemingly, good people. You won’t find egos in this clubhouse, only confidence, and there’s a distinct difference between the two.

Remember a main point of the syllabus: In your career, you will need to depend on people to accomplish tasks, goals, and projects. You will need to work for other people, work with other people, and eventually direct other people.

If you get like-minded people in a room together and build strong bonds through trust, empathy, and positive energy, you’ll see players fight harder for one another. This generation of basketball players doesn’t thrive off internal conflict like the previous one did. Think about your relationships with people at work, at school, and in your personal life. We tend to perform better with others when we’re on the same page, communicating with one another, working in tandem. The same goes for basketball. Ball is, quite literally, life.

And despite all of that, the thing that will always matter at the end of the day is performance on the court. Moral victories are considered hollow, as they often should be. We are results-driven, because all that other stuff, it doesn’t matter to most. You’re not going to find widespread acceptance regarding another losing season because of a good team culture that offers fans restricted access in the first place.

This season, I don’t want you to look past the numbers of the free agent signings — I want you to consider their quantifiable production as a piece of the puzzle. It’s the most significant factor, no doubt; however, it should not be the end-all, be-all when we’re talking about one of the youngest teams in the league. After all, this is a marathon and not a sprint.

The 2019–20 Knicks don’t have to reach similar heights of the 2002 Oakland A’s in order for this season to be deemed a success. Personally, as long as the team puts in the work, creates a sustainable foundation, and provides us with enjoyable entertainment, I’ll be satisfied.

We joke about trusting the process when that’s exactly what this is: a process. If Taj Gibson rarely sees the floor but makes Mitchell Robinson a better player, it’s a worthwhile deal. If any potential long term piece benefits from watching, interacting, and/or playing with a free agent signing, it’s money well spent. The trouble is truly knowing how much of an impact those free agents will have had on the core this season.

Class dismissed.

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