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How Venture Capitalists Shaped The Golden State Warriors


Speaking of superheroes, we don't know yet if it's going to be a second championship season in a row, but the Golden State Warriors season is already one for the record books. The National Basketball Association champs beat the San Antonio Spurs last night for their 72nd win of the season. That ties the all-time record, and there's one more game to play.

What makes the Warriors especially interesting is that their success reflects a different approach to the game - lots of three-point shots from long range by a team that is smaller and faster than most. Bruce Schoenfeld has written about the Warriors style of play and management, and he joins us now. And Bruce Schoenfeld, in a nutshell, what's so different about the Golden State Warriors?

BRUCE SCHOENFELD: Robert, the differences occur at several levels. On the court level, I think they're at the vanguard of movement toward more three-point shots, shots from further away than you ever would expect someone to shoot from, which reflects the presence of their accurate superstar, Steph Curry, probably more than anything else.

But what really makes them different, I think, is the structure of the team and the way that the ownership group has created a business that looks very much unlike your traditional sports team.

SIEGEL: It's worth remembering that just a few years ago, Golden State had one of the worst records in the NBA. How did they go about building this winning team?

SCHOENFELD: Well, they were bought by a group led by a guy named Joe Lacob, who was a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. And Lacob's great insight was to see all the things that made the Warriors such a downtrodden franchise as opportunities.

And he looked around and said, I can buy this team and I can institute good management practices that aren't typically used in sports. And with luck, we can be successful. And that was kind of scoffed that from all around the league. But as it turns out, that's exactly what happened.

SIEGEL: What's an example of the way in which the Warriors are managed that's different from the way most teams are?

SCHOENFELD: Well, you know, in Silicon Valley you hire based on potential rather than track record. And that's mostly because you're hiring in a lot of categories that don't yet exist, right?

If someone comes to you and says, I have an idea for a whole new business, a Google or Uber, in a category that doesn't exist, you can't hire people that have already done well in that category. You have to say well, you're smart, and you seem to have been successful in other things, and I like the way you interview. Let's do it.

So Joe Lacob came in and hired a general manager who had never done that before - he used to be an agent. He hired one coach, Mark Jackson, who had never coached. And then after the Warriors had become relatively successful, winning 51 games in a season, he fired him and hired another coach who'd never done it before.

Again, firing someone after a 51 and 31 season happens rarely in the NBA, but it happens pretty often in venture capital, where you say, OK, you've taken this company to a certain level. Now we need someone else who can come in and go the rest of the way. Now the question is, would any of this had mattered if he didn't have Steph Curry shooting those three-pointers? And that's not really answerable.

SIEGEL: And that coach who took over was Steve Kerr. So if the best team in the NBA sets up on the perimeter, along the three-point line, and takes lots and lots of three-point shots, and they're managed differently than other teams - more like a Silicon Valley startup, you would say - are other NBA teams looking at this model and saying, we're going to be more like the Warriors either on the court or in the front office?

SCHOENFELD: Yes, they are. Two of the greatest groups of copycats that I know of are Silicon Valley venture capitalists and pro sports team owners. So you have a lot of people looking at the Warriors and saying, hey, maybe this is how we should be doing it, too.

The difference, though, I think, is that Lacob was not just a venture capitalist. He was an extraordinarily good one, and has the - a skill set, has a - you don't want to say lack of ego because he certainly has an ego, but he has in the moment the presence of mind to really listen and gather ideas and use those ideas.

He doesn't think he's the smartest guy in the room. I don't know how many of these other owners that have pretty much succeeded at everything they've done - you know, it's kind of a tall order to say let's step back, let's let other people really do the thinking here, and we'll just be accruers and gather the information.

So there are people who are paying a lot of lip service to the way the Warriors are doing things. It remains to be seen if they can make other franchises successful in a similar fashion.

SIEGEL: Bruce Schoenfeld, who wrote about the Golden State Warriors for The New York Times Magazine. Bruce, thanks for talking with us.

SCHOENFELD: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.