Irina Pavlova is the former president of Onexim Sports & Entertainment, the Mikhail Prokhorov-controlled holding company that owned the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center. She served in that capacity from 2010 to 2017, when she moved to London to pursue consulting opportunities.
Those familiar with accounting lingo will know “intangibles” as the assets that have no physical presence but are reflected on a balance sheet. They’re the hidden assets—hard to quantify and often the most difficult to replicate. How much is your brand worth? What about your reputation?
In my seven years with the Brooklyn Nets I saw how precious those hidden assets can be. And do you know who’s the best at valuing them? No, not the analysts at Forbes. It’s the free agents. So when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed with Brooklyn last summer, I saw it as a testament to exactly that.
So how do you turn a franchise, by most accounts destined to languish in NBA purgatory for another decade, into a destination for basketball superstars in less than three years? You start with the intangibles. They define your culture; your culture defines your reputation. Let’s face it: Players talk and have no reason to lie to one another about their experiences on teams. It was the Nets’ reputation that made Brooklyn the destination of choice for the two superstars. Without the culture the organization had created, there wouldn’t be pictures of KD and Kyrie posing on the roof of the practice facility against a Manhattan skyline.
It sounds like a deceptively easy recipe, but it’s incredibly hard to execute. The San Antonio Spurs, under CEO R.C. Buford and President/Head Coach Gregg Popovich, have set the standard in the NBA of late. I can’t remember when they didn’t exemplify a culture of excellence. So it’s no wonder that their disciples are in high demand every time there’s a vacancy in the league. The Nets were lucky to snag one of them—Sean Marks—as their GM in 2016.
Marks brought to the Nets a wealth of experience building a team-centric culture—supportive, engaging, family-like. And it all starts with recognizing that players are just people. Like the rest of us, they want to be happy and healthy, spend time with their friends and family, feel valued and fulfilled in their jobs and so on. The biggest difference is that they’re not just employees of an organization, they are also its main product.
The mistake some teams make is treating them like bodies attached to contracts, tradeable assets, rather than as human beings. Moods, injuries, personal issues appear in a totally different light if you see the imperfect human at the root. Popovich is famous for genuinely caring about his players and engaging them on a personal level. The key word here is “genuinely.” Players have a highly sensitive BS detector and can tell the difference. Which coach do you think they’ll go the extra mile for?
Even maximizing performance takes on a different look if you approach it from the human perspective. I think Google was one of the first companies to recognize that a great office environment makes people happier and more productive. At its core, it’s really no different for NBA players. They spend the bulk of their time at the practice facility and prefer it to be comfortable (natural light really helps!) and convenient. If you spend several hours sitting in traffic on game days, even if you’re in a back of a limo, it kills your soul, eats into your NBA nap-time, saps you of energy and takes away from the time you could be spending on… just about anything else. How do you put a price on that? I was amazed by the amount of ridicule the Nets received when their new training center—a gorgeous, 70,000-square-foot facility in a repurposed warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—opened in 2015. The “experts” claimed that no free agent would ever care where they practiced. That’s only if you think of FAs as robots. If you think of them as people, it makes perfect sense that they would. And they did.
Putting players first and truly caring about them also means making their families feel welcome and supported. A happy stress-free family environment is of paramount importance to a player’s mental health. One of Marks’s first initiatives at the Nets was completely re-hauling the family room and the services provided there. It may seem of marginal importance, but making it easier for families to support their husbands and dads did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
A question that inevitably comes up, especially in the case of the Nets, is how you balance team culture and talent. I think that’s been Sean’s toughest challenge (and it’s a lucky GM who faces it!). No team is ever static, and neither are team cultures. When your job is to assemble the best team possible, you can’t operate based on fear that a superstar might not “fit in.” You go for the best talent available and double your efforts to make sure that they do. Is that a guarantee that it will work out? Of course not. But I don’t think you’d be doing your job if you didn’t try.
If you think about it, it’s really about common sense and following the golden rule—treat others as you want to be treated. A culture of genuine care, trust, respect, open communication and unselfishness is what magically turns a roster of 15 guys into a real team. Those are principles Buford and Popovich have long valued, and they’re beginning to spread throughout front offices across the NBA. The good news is that at some point, all 30 teams will be guided by these principles. But the better news for Nets fans, like me? It might take awhile.
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