Coaching Lessons from the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors

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Teamwork is what helped the Golden State Warriors sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA finals.

On June 8, 2018, the Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers with four straight wins in the NBA finals, the NBA first sweep since 2007. And in the 2007 finals, the team being swept was also the Cavaliers, that time at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.

The stars on the court in 2018 were LeBron James for the Cavs, who scored 51 points in Game 1, and Kevin Durant for the Warriors, who landed 43 points in Game 3. Durant, a relative latecomer, had joined an already “stacked” team – one that already boasted strong, big-name players. But star power was not what led the Warriors to a 4-0 win over the Cavs.

That honor went to rookie head coach Steve Kerr and his insistence on teamwork. No one player on the Warriors team was permitted to steal the show and dominate the ball on the court. By contrast, Cavs’ head coach Tyronn Lue depended almost exclusively on his star player LeBron James to carry the team.

Coaches enrolled in a master’s in coaching education program can learn a lot by analyzing the styles of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ and Golden State Warriors coaches.

Winning Takes a Team

The Cavs played well during the finals. Superstar LeBron James lived up to his reputation and dominated the Cavs’ gameplay on the court. But a team whose success rests on the shoulders of a single player may find that it should have devoted more time to teamwork exercises and backup planning.

“All credit to Durant for being flexible enough to [deprogram himself of his ball-stopping tendencies] without diluting his effectiveness,” Kevin Ding explains in “Cavs’ Game Plan Out of Sync and Out of Style Against Modern-Age Warriors” on “In Game 1 he threw passes before he even needed to, yet he still scored 38 points.”

Golden State’s superior teamwork skills shone brightly during the 2017-2018 season. For one thing, the team suffered from a rash of injuries affecting all four all-star players. Stephen Curry, for example, sat out of 37 games, six of which were playoff games. But even all-star injuries could not stop the team from rising to the top of its conference and eventually winning the finals.

Coach Kerr used a situation that could have been a season-ender for other coaches as a chance to develop his team.

“One of the brighter spots of this season was Kerr’s ability to develop the younger players on the Warriors roster into reliable contributors,” Thomas Bevilacqua writes on the team’s community website, Kerr brought rookie Jordan Bell into the rotation, as well as Kevon Looney, whom he turned into what the article calls “a stellar big man for the Warriors’ style of play.” Quinn Cook also moved up rapidly and Durant became part of the starting lineup.

Cleveland, on the other hand, was highly dependent on its all-star player (and arguably the best player in the NBA) James to win the season. Cavs’ head coach Tyronn Lue is looking at coaching a post-James team because James left during free agency.

Proceeding without a star player like James can be a tremendous task for a coach. The remaining Cavs players would have to pick up the slack and team managers would likely need to locate a new star player to carry the team forward.

“Teams need multiple stars to win a title,” write Scott Cacciola, Benjamin Hoffman, and Marc Stein in “Warriors, in Full Dynasty Mode, Sweep Cavaliers in NBA Finals” in the New York Times. “Not even a generational talent like James, operating at the peak of his powers, can do it alone.”

Steve Kerr’s Winning Recipe

OpenView Labs provides leadership and technical advice to software engineers. At first glance, the company may seem like the furthest thing from the 2018 NBA finals battle between the Cavs and Warriors. But winning leadership is winning leadership, whether it’s at a software startup company or a professional basketball team.

In 2017, OpenView partner Mackey Craven interviewed Golden State coach Steve Kerr about his winning sport coaching strategies and wrote about it in a blog post, “Leadership Lessons from Steve Kerr, Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors:”

  • Find your mentor but remain true to yourself: Instead of copying a beloved mentor or role model completely, emulate specific traits of all your heroes and make them your own.
  • Define your values: Joy, competitiveness, mindfulness, and compassion are the values that drive the Golden State Warriors. But whatever your values are, define them and work toward them consistently.
  • Get to know your team: Developing personal relationships with every member of your team will make your work, be it software development or basketball, more personal.
  • Study your team’s strengths and weaknesses: Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate your team, helping everyone discover their strengths and work on areas where they need improvement.
  • Empower your team to take ownership: Team members who are fully invested in their task will work harder to make it successful.

“It’s the players’ team, and they have to take ownership of it,” Kerr says of the Golden State Warriors Feb. 12 game with the Phoenix Suns in “How Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr Found a New Way to Reach His Team” in Forbes.

“And as coaches, our job is to nudge them in the right direction, guide them, but we don’t control them. They determine their own fate, and I don’t feel like we focused well at all the last month, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. I thought they communicated really well together and drew up some nice plays, and it was a good night for the guys.”

Kerr’s empowerment approach paid off when the Warriors swept the Cavs 4-0 in the 2018 finals, helping to prove the adage: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ohio University’s Online Master of Coaching Education Program

Ohio University excels at preparing students for coaching positions ranging from middle school athletics departments to college. OHIO’s Master of Coaching Education curriculum covers finance for athletic coaches as well as other topics relevant to the professional coaching environment. For more information on Ohio University’s online master’s in coaching program, contact OHIO today.

Recommended Reading:

10 Things Coaches Can Learn from Vince Lombardi

Pat Summitt: 38 Years of Inspirational Coaching

4 Common Traits of Expert Coaches


Cavs’ Game Plan Out of Sync –

Warriors Season Review: Golden State of Mind

Warriors Sweep LeBron James – Washington Post

Warriors, in Full Dynasty Mode – New York Times

Leadership Lessons from Steve Kerr – OpenView Labs

Steve Kerr Finds New Way to Reach His Team – Forbes