I’m a basketball junkie.
More specifically, my personal obsession is with the New York Knicks. Yes, it’s true; that’s generally been a sad place to be during my lifetime. For those who aren’t already sympathizing, the Knicks last won the NBA championship in the year I was born—1972. But something fascinating happened with my favorite team this past week. It’s an important and often ignored truth for all of us as organizational and team leaders. The lesson is on group dynamics—and how the inter-relationships between individuals can have as much of an impact on the success of the team as the raw talent of those individuals.
So, if you’ll indulge me in this—my second-ever blog post about sports—here goes…
The Knicks have operated with the same core team for the past few years. They have been good but not great over that time. It’s been a healthy change of pace for hopeful Knicks fans yearning for a return to triumph. Things changed when they added Jalen Brunson.
Brunson is one of the most mentally strong players in the game today. The team’s culture improved due to his confidence and infectious winning mentality. Following Brunson’s lead, the team became focused, played hard, and slowly climbed to become a respectable team, clearly over-performing the expert predictions.
But something was wrong this season. The problem showed itself at the end of the last one.
The team had no flow. Brunson was still doing his thing, continuing to improve. The team was still playing hard, but another player, R.J. Barrett, was struggling mightily. He was supposed to be the third-best player on the team—no small feat at the NBA level. But it just wasn’t happening. He was shooting the ball poorly. He was forcing shots. He was turning the ball over and making careless mistakes. It was obvious to even the casual observer that he was stuck in a loop of trying to find his place—his voice—on the team. And the more he forced the issue, the more he was in scarcity mode, the more that tendency manifested in others. The ball stopped moving. The team stopped doing the little things. They were forcing shots and shooting poorly. It’s not because R.J. Barrett isn’t a good basketball player. It’s that his skills and strengths were not a match for the team he was on.
So, the Knicks made a change.
Last week, they traded Barrett for a totally different type of player—OG Anunoby. On paper, Anunoby is not radically more physically gifted than Barrett. He doesn’t want to win more than Barrett does. They’re both young and have plenty of prime left in their careers. And yet, the Knicks have not lost a game since the change.
The results are dramatic. They’ve beaten two of the best teams in the league. Before the trade, the Knicks gave up 120 points a game and were ranked near the bottom of the league in defense. In the four games since the trade, they are giving up less than 100 points per game and are suddenly one of the best defensive teams in the league. The numbers are similar on the offensive side. And it’s not just Anunoby—the new guy. The other players who struggled before are now shining. They’re shooting the lights out, passing the ball, making unbelievable plays all over the court. They are visibly engaged and playing collaboratively. It’s almost hard to believe the difference.
Is it because OG Anunoby is better than R.J. Barrett? No. He may be, but that’s irrelevant. Anunoby’s skill set—his strengths, tendencies, and most importantly, his psychological profile—fits this team like Barrett’s didn’t. He complements the Knicks’ top two stars in a way that Barrett did not. Anunoby doesn’t need the ball in his hands much to be effective. He creates space on the floor and intimidates the other team with his 7’ 2” wingspan on defense, demoralizing some of the best players in the league who can’t get around or over him. He doesn’t have an obvious need to be the hero or the star of the show. He is a different, though not necessarily technically better, player.
That’s what’s so interesting about this change—swapping in one good but not great player for another— and seeing a radically different result so quickly. It makes plain that the difference is not about individual talent but team cohesion. It’s about the group dynamic. Everyone on this newly formed team is playing unselfishly. They are far more engaged on the defensive end, and it seems like they’re just having much more fun. And Barrett, on his new team in Toronto, is already feeling better about himself and performing at a higher level than he ever did in New York!
As a Knicks fan, you take your wins where you can get them. And this team is now a joy to watch. Let’s be very clear: this is not yet a championship-caliber team. Yet. The Knicks still don’t have enough raw talent to win a championship and end their 50+-year drought, though I’m optimistic they will in my lifetime! But they have shifted the culture; they have a new dynamic that supports everyone on the team playing at their highest level.
So, what does that have to do with you—as your team’s leader? It’s a reminder not to get tunnel vision on any individual's talent or ability. Rather, expand your focus and your awareness to include how your team member’s talent fits with the talents and traits of others. Acknowledge when the fit isn’t right, have the conversations you need to have, and make a change.
How do you know if what was happening on the Knicks is happening on your team?Ask yourself if people are playing at a high level. Are they supporting their colleagues or (only) focused on their own stuff? Are they coming up with new ways of doing things? Do they look like they are having fun (which doesn’t mean necessarily smiling; it could just be a lightness in how they show up)?
It’s pretty simple. Are the people on your team playing at or near the highest level they’re capable of? If not, why? Is it a lack of clear expectations? Is there something going on outside work that is distracting them? These days, most likely. But it can also be something more subtle, in what we could only describe—just like what was happening on the Knicks—as a lack of proper spacing between teammates.
Lack of spacing is when people don’t know their role. They are not sure about what they own or what they get to contribute. This is the hidden source of stagnation, disengagement, and underperformance. And what makes it even trickier is when you make conclusions about people's potential without including this critical context.
Sometimes a team comes together and delivers results greater than the sum of its parts. Most teams don’t. As a leader, you have to be willing to accept that truth when it’s in front of you and make a change—whatever that change looks like on your team— for the betterment of everyone involved.
Getting your team there doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a set of intentional and thoughtful acts. It’s full of mistakes and swerves in the road to get the right people with the right mindset and skills in the right places doing the right work. And just like in the NBA, you get a few years (if you’re lucky) with the group you’ve got to get it right before people move on.
But when you do get there, wow. It’s a breath of fresh air. The drama disappears. The work moves faster. The wins get easier, and the losses get easier to recover from. Why? Because as difficult as it is to talk about, as esoteric as it may sound, and as difficult as it is to create, there’s one thing the people on your team need to be at their best.
Space frees up energy. Energy unlocks motivation. Motivation generates new ideas. And new ideas are the lifeblood of getting your business to where it needs to be.
As a perpetually hopeful Knicks fan, we’re already greedy for the next move. What can the Knicks do to create even more energy on this team? Can they make a move that will raise their ceiling even higher?
Is there one you could make on your team?