Startup Lessons from the NBA Playoffs

Photo by  Markus Spiske  on  Unsplash

’Tis the season for NBA playoff basketball. I’ve been watching the games and realized that they hold valuable lessons for startups. This isn’t surprising, because championship sports, like entrepreneurship, is an activity at the human edge. It requires excellence, training, practice, drive, spirit, and so much more.

Here are a few lessons I’ve gleaned from the NBA playoff so far:

Keep moving. In one match, I watched a point guard bring the ball down the court. He hit the 3-point line and stopped. Everybody on the court stopped with him. After a brief pause, he took a single step forward, and motion broke out all over. His team was responding to what they felt was the meaning of his step; opponents were reacting to his team’s movements, who then adjusted, and so on. It all was provoked by one man’s motion.

The lesson for me here is to always keep moving. Never stand still — that allows competitors and others to take a bead on you. Move, and you compel them to react to you.

See adversity as opportunity. In the second round this year, the Golden State Warriors lost their power center, Demarcus Cousins, to injury. Then, they lost Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the game, to another injury. Critics said they had no chance. And then, Andre Iguadala, the Warrior’s super-sub, also got injured. They had three top players gone and were up against the Houston Rockets, a competitor custom-manufactured to beat them. Critics broke out in full mourning for the Warriors’ hopes.

What happened? The Warriors won every subsequent game of the Rockets series and went on to sweep Portland in the next round — six straight wins while dramatically shorthanded.

Why did the Warriors win? Because they didn’t panic. They didn’t get depressed. They viewed adversity as an opportunity and simply made clear to everyone who was playing what they needed to contribute to win. And then they went out and executed that plan. When adversity strikes your company (and it will), know you can win with what you have, always.

Small differences compound. In the Portland Series, the Warriors never really dominated. In fact, they were behind big in most of the games. But, they made small, critical choices that gave them tiny advantages in the moment. Over time, those small advantages wore their opponent down and let them sweep the series.

Remember, a difference of one point in each of four games leads to an undefeated rout. You don’t have to stomp anybody to win. You just have to be a little bit better in the moment….over a lot of moments. Consistent excellence, rather than flashy brilliance, is the key.

Great defense sets up great offense. And finally, though a bit of a basketball cliché, defense has been key to these playoffs. Houston’s James Harden scores more than anybody else on the court, but his team didn’t win. Winning in the basketball playoffs has a lot more to do with understanding your opponents and neutralizing their strengths than in focusing purely on what you can do. Stop them, and you win, even if you have only an okay game.

Startups are much the same. The magnificence of your product is one thing; your ability to neutralize the advantages of incumbents, competitors, and newcomers is something else again. And it is that capability that will contribute to your success even more greatly than the innate capabilities of your creation.

By Managing Partner Mike Edelhart
@MikeEdelhart