What the NBA’s Hottest Team Can Teach Us About Decision-Making

It is tempting to let sports serve as a metaphor for some other aspect of life, though this can devolve quickly into cliché.

Still, there is a reason Camp Negotiation Systems uses the title Negotiation Coach, and those reasons are clear to anyone who has followed the NBA this season, particularly the surprising rise of the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks, an organization that hasn’t seriously contended for an NBA title since the days of Dominique Wilkins in the ‘80s, entered the All-Star break on Valentine’s Day weekend with a league-best 43 wins.

Though he would deflect the praise, second-year coach Mike Budenholzer and the system he has implemented in Atlanta deserve much of the credit for this year’s success.

It’s not necessary to explore the nuances of Coach Bud’s system of coaching to understand what has made it successful this season. A quote from the coach himself and one of the team’s role players are sufficient.

USA TODAY’s Jeff Zillgitt wrote a piece on Budenholzer in mid-February, and this is how Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll described the coach to Zillgitt:

“He’s not afraid to say he made a mistake. We really respect that. He calls you often and sends you text messages after games. Most coaches don’t do that. The game is over, and they don’t have communication until the next time they see you.”

Notice there is nothing particularly sports-related in that description. Carroll simply noted Coach Bud’s approach to open communication and his ability to make and admit mistakes.

Hold on to that second point for just a moment.

This is how Zillgitt describes the coach’s system, using Coach Bud’s own words:

“Budenholzer doesn’t think he has a coaching philosophy. ‘A philosophy sounds more profound and complicated than anything we’re doing,’ [Budenholzer] said. ‘I do believe in guys playing ball, making reads and making decisions, and playing off each other and covering for each other.’”

Beyond just the Xs and Os of coaching, it appears as if Budenholzer has introduced a system in Atlanta that encourages players to make decisions — probably rather quickly — and an environment that allows room for players and coaches to make bad decisions.

This should start to sound familiar to our regular readers.

Let’s examine briefly how exactly a solid system can support decision-making by the people within it, and how this translates into one Atlanta player’s potentially historically great season.
 

The Sharpshooter’s Support

All veteran professional basketball players should be empowered, at least to some extent, to make quick decisions when executing a play.

Of course, decision-making can get hampered by doubt in all of us. That’s part of being human.

In Start With No, Jim described how the fear of being wrong is sufficient to keep a grade school student from raising her hand to answer a teacher’s question. In business, and in professional sports, incorrect decisions have even more dire consequences than perceived embarrassment, but the ability to continue to make decisions in the face of past errors is crucial for both negotiators and pro basketball players.

This is likely why Carroll points out that players respect a coach who can admit his own mistakes. This fosters an air in which decisions get made and wrong decisions get corrected.

This also provides important context for the season that the Hawks three-point specialist Kyle Korver is having. The 33-year-old is on pace for a 50-50-90 season, meaning he would finish the season shooting 50% from three, 50% from the field, and 90% from the free throw line.

Only one other NBA player has done that, Steve Kerr. Interestingly enough Coach Kerr has implemented a system with the Golden State Warriors that has them now leading the NBA from the West. Just how critical is effective decision making founded on a system?

“[Korver] has made 53.3% of his 246 three-pointers, which puts him on a pace previously unknown to mankind,” the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote in January. “No one has ever attempted more than 250 threes and made more than half.”

Now, at the risk of jinxing the guy and enraging Hawk’s fans everywhere, shooters do go into slumps from time to time (though Korver’s numbers are so good that they could accommodate a slump and still be historically great).

What would happen if Korver were to hit a stretch where his shot just isn’t falling?

He would keep shooting.

Having a system in place that allows for human error and still rewards the player’s decision-making gives a professional basketball player the confidence to shoot through a slump — just as the same principle gives a negotiator trained in the Camp System the confidence to keep making decisions, one after another, until agreements can be built.

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