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On Machiavelli, Tim Duncan, and the NBA

Preface: I'm an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and a huge Spurs fan. For my history term paper last year, I decided to tackle the question of whether Machiavellian tactics work in the NBA. Obviously, Tim Duncan features heavily in it..

Warning: It is long (3200 words)
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Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince is often considered the single greatest book about leadership of all time. Its advice was utilized in some form or fashion by European princes and rulers of all sorts for centuries after it was published to help rule over their own dominions, or principalities, as Machiavelli so often refers to states as. However, the advice on leadership presented in The Prince is not just solely applicable to states and rulers, but rather more broadly to any situation which resembles the conditions through which Machiavelli's advice in The Prince is framed. With this broader lens, the National Basketball Association (NBA) presents an interesting vehicle through which to view the modern applicability of Machiavelli's advice. NBA teams are relatively autonomous bodies, governed (at least with regards to on-court activities, i.e. the games themselves) by a coach and (usually) one dominant player/leader, usually the best player on the team.[1] While there are certainly confounding variables including but not limited to front office personnel, injuries, et. al., from a broad perspective, the power which a coach and his best player each hold over a team that is in the midst of actually playing a basketball game is a reasonable facsimile for the power a prince holds over his principality. Thus having established that the NBA creates conditions that are conducive to an analysis of Machiavelli, the question arises: what advice would Machiavelli give NBA players on being successful "rulers" today, where success is defined as winning an NBA championship? This paper will evaluate that question using the NBA championship winning teams of the past 20 years, beginning with the 1993-1994 season. The teams, best players, coaches, and philosophies are all outlined in the table on the last page of this text. While many of the philosophies will be analyzed within the body of this paper, spatial limitations preclude the analysis of every single one.

Certainly some of Machiavelli's advice for princes holds up better over time than other parts, but at its core, Machiavelli would suggest the following. Specifically for "new" principalities, or in this case a player or coach joining a team for the first time, he would suggest that the player or coach establish himself as the dominant force or so called "alpha-dog" on the team, whilst undermining the power of the existing lords (in this case the best players already on that team). This dynamic certainly affects players much more so than coaches (who already have a position of significant power), though coaches certainly often grapple with player egos in their own right. For both coaches and star players, Machiavelli would advise sticking to one's guns instead of evolving strategy and allowing player dissent. For princes, Machiavelli couches this message in terms of liberalism versus "meanness," but in this case meanness is re-imagined in the NBA context as forcing players to adhere to a strict system on the coach's side, or refusing to adapt on the player's side. Which of course leads to Machiavelli's primary advice, that it is better to be feared than to be loved by ones teammates and players for best players and coaches respectively, and that one must consolidate individual power at all costs, because that drives the best results. With regards to the first piece of advice, it would certainly seem apt, as its successful implementation in Miami by LeBron James and in San Antonio by Tim Duncan. Unfortunately, the sample considered in this paper consists overwhelmingly of so-called "home-grown" players who did not switch franchises before winning the title, or as in the case of Shaquille O'Neal's first three titles, had no real competing force of personality amongst the players (though Kobe Bryant was certainly fast rising at the time). His second piece of advice is a bit more mixed, in that the idea of "sticking to one's guns" or having a rigid, inflexible system was used successfully by 12 of 20 NBA championship coaches (double-counting repeat winners). On the flipside, willingness to accept an evolution of one's role is strongly correlated with success for "alpha-dog" players, though part of that is definitely the evolution and development of players' skills as they gain age and experience so it is difficult to quantify an exact figure. This would suggest that coaches follow Machiavelli's prescribed path, while players ought to do the exact opposite. However, on Machiavelli's third piece of advice, the evidence tilts slightly towards non-Machiavellian techniques, with 12 of 20 best players and 11 of 20 coaches for the last NBA championship fitting the criteria. However, there has been a trend towards success for Machiavellians in recent years, at least on the player side, with five of the last six NBA champions having a Machiavellian best player. Thus it would appear (slightly overall), that Machiavelli's advice is not broadly applicable to the NBA, though there are certainly cases where it fits in quite nicely.

Turning to Machiavelli's first piece of advice, the idea that players creating a "new" principality should first seek to eliminate the previous rulers or power centers in order to ensure a successful term of leadership, this is one of the first principles Machiavelli lays out in his entire book, "When they are, it is easier to hold them, especially when they have not been accustomed to self-government; and to hold them securely it is enough to have destroyed the family of the prince who was ruling them; because the two peoples, preserving in other things the old conditions, and not being unlike in customs, will live quietly together" (4)[2]. This description of the annexation of a state sharing a common language, along with his anecdotes about Louis XII's failure to eliminate powerful local factions when attempting to rule over Milan clearly illustrate that Machiavelli feels that "princes" must successfully combat the existing power structure before they can achieve success as rulers. To justify the specific quote chosen above, given that NBA teams all share a very significant common thread (playing basketball) and that so many NBA players today are friends with players across the league, it makes sense to view moves to a different team in the NBA through the lens of the annexation of an area that speaks the same language as you do. And Machiavelli's advice is certainly borne out by Lebron James' landmark move to the Miami Heat from his hometown team of the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Lebron James moved to the Miami Heat in 2010, the Heat already had Dwayne Wade on the team. Wade, a great leader in his own right, had been the best player on the 2005-06 NBA championship winning Heat team, and was clearly one of the five best players in the league at the time. However, Lebron was, by the same token, the best player in the league bar none. So there was a constant tension and power struggle between the two players, which affected team performance in the 2010-11 playoffs. As Bill Simmons puts it in his column after the 2011-12 season, "For one thing, Dwyane Wade injured his knee and became 70 Percent Of Dwyane Wade, inadvertently solving the "dueling banjos" dilemma. The Heat tried to thwart six decades of NBA history by teaming two alpha dogs together, making them equals and assuming their overwhelming talent would overcome any resulting bumpiness. They were wrong. Basketball doesn't work that way, for the same reason you don't need two transcendent lead guitarists for a rock band. Someone had to learn bass. It ended up being Wade.[3] "The Miami Heat were only able to achieve complete success once LeBron took his rightful place as their leader and best player. While Lebron did not willfully undermine Wade's authority through underhanded means, but he very clearly did stamp out Wade's authority by assuming the mantle of the dominant force on the Heat in the critical Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals that year, with a performance many consider to be Lebron's finest ever, while Wade struggled along at "70 percent." Additionally, one can point to the evidence of the 1998-99 Spurs, in Tim Duncan's first championship year to see the benefit of reducing the entrenched authority in favor of one's own. In the case of Tim Duncan, he had just been drafted by a team whose lineup included center David Robinson, a future Hall of Famer and perennial all-star, still in his prime. However, Duncan was the better player and leader, so David Robinson decided to defer to Duncan for the good of the team. Once again, the Spurs were successful in winning a championship; partly due to Duncan's unchallenged role as leader of the team. Now certainly, the Spurs case was not one where Duncan blatantly challenged Robinson's authority[4], but it still illustrates the virtues of having the best player who just moved to a new team receive dominant power over the existing players.

Turning to Machiavelli's second piece of advice, he is notable suspicious of "liberality," which he sees a something that can very easily backfire against the prince, "Therefore, a prince, not being able to exercise this virtue of liberality in such a way that it is recognized, except to his cost, if he is wise he ought not to fear the reputation of being mean (25)." Using the definition of mean outlined in the opening paragraph, there is clear cut evidence of requiring players to adhere to a rigid system of play yielding success for coaches. For example, take Larry Brown, the coach of the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and one of the best basketball coaches in the history of the sport: "Predictably, Brown's teams are more-for want of a better word-coached than Jackson's. "Larry is more of a perfectionist than Phil," says Lindsey Hunter, a Pistons back-up guard who was a member of the Lakers' 2002 championship team. "He wants everything done just the right way and won't settle for anything less.[5]" And the most successful NBA coach of all-time, Phil Jackson, who is single handedly responsible for 8 of the 20 championships in our sample, was also a stickler for players following his exact style of play, built around teamwork concepts implicit in the "Triangle Offense." And especially in the case of Phil Jackson, it is hard to argue against overwhelming success. For Phil Jackson, the key element of his system was the Triangle Offense, which relies on player spacing and intricate passing. The constraints of such an offense would seemingly be anathema to dominant on-ball scorers such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, but Jackson managed to bend them to his will, "That year, Michael was MVP, defensive player of the year, scoring champion; averaged 35 points a game. When I got the head-coaching job a couple of years later, I told him, "That was great, but it can't happen that way again. Not many guys who win scoring titles win championships.[6] "From the player perspective, the cases of Phil Jackson's system dominance over Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan contradicts Machiavelli's ideas; neither player won NBA title while playing in an offensive system other than the Triangle. Another example in support of evolution comes from Tim Duncan, who has managed to continually reinvent his game as he put together one of the greatest careers in NBA history. He entered the NBA as a super athletic rim protector and rangy power forward, bulked up into a dominant physical force in the post from 2001-2008, suffered a brief dip from 2009-11 as his skills declined, and then readjusted in 2012-13 to a similar role with which he started his career, sans the leaping ability, slimming down by more than 40 pounds and evolving his game to shoot more jumpers and less from the post.[7] Duncan's evolution allowed him to stay at the top of his game, as he made the All NBA First Team (and thus being voted as the best center in the NBA) and led the Spurs to within 6 seconds of their fifth NBA championship at the age of 37 last year by scoring 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. So it is clear that Machiavelli's advice about avoiding liberalism (which this paper considers to mean open to evolution and change) works well for coaches, but not as well for players, who in fact would often be advised to do the opposite.

Of course Machiavelli's most famous piece of advice is the famous query: "Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with (28)." Machiavelli certainly believes in fear's dominance as a leadership tool over love, though he certainly does not dismiss love as a contributory factor if used in conjunction with fear. However, despite Machiavelli's views, the evidence of the past twenty NBA champions does not fully support the implementation of his methods, as shown in the table at the end of this paper. On the coach's side, perhaps the most vehement counter-example to Machiavelli's advice is San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, winner of 4 NBA titles. Popovich draws his strength from the fact that his players love him, "Handling people-more specifically, people within the Republic of Pop-is his strength, his Pop art. He and Duncan talk as kindred souls, he and [Manu] Ginóbili as political analysts, he and [Tony] Parker as old guy to young guy. When [Bruce] Bowen, a master of disingenuousness, was there, their lingua Franca was sarcasm. "You're doing it again. You're doing that Eddie Haskell bullcrap," Popovich would say, dropping an appropriately old-school Leave It to Beaver reference. "I don't want Eddie Haskell.[8]" Popovich's teams are successful (and thus he is successful as a coach) because his players love him, and they go into games with the belief that Popovich will do the right thing for them and lead them to victory. Popovich's success is paralleled by that of his best player over his coaching career, Tim Duncan, who is perhaps the most non-Machiavellian superstar in NBA history. Eschewing endorsement money and other forms of consolidating his power, Duncan is also notable for the fact that his style of play focuses heavily on teamwork and building up his teammates: "Turns out lots of people feel that way. During his 15 years with the Spurs, Tim Duncan has had 116 teammates. They range from the celebrated (David Robinson) to the not-so-much (Cory Joseph), with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Last year Duncan tried to count them all but couldn't do it. Throughout, Duncan has been the center around which all else has orbited.[9] " In contrast, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant clearly espouse the Machiavellian ideals of self- promotion and fear over love. To cite just two (in a cavalcade of potential) sources, Kobe Bryant is a player noted for his supreme self-confidence and willingness to throw teammates under the bus for (what he sees as) underperformance.[10] Meanwhile, a reasonable argument could be made that Kobe simply copied the actions of his idol and measuring stick, Michael Jordan. As journalist John Hanley so eloquently summarized when discussing Jordan's Hall of Fame acceptance speech, "He [Jordan] bullied former employers, teammates, and even threw his own children under the bus; yet another attempt to remind us of his own greatness. He invited the high school coach who would not let him onto the varsity team as a sophomore; never mind that the coach simply followed school policy - no sophs on the team. He eviscerated Bryon Russell, a foul as cheap and offensive as the push-off that fills his legend. He made fun, and made sure to tell us all what was so carefully guarded by Nike and a sycophantic media - He's a jerk." While Hanley is perhaps biased negatively against Jordan, his comments, even when stripped of their negative hyperbole, point to Jordan as an extreme Machiavellian and self-promoter.[11] But both Bryant and Jordan were extremely successful NBA players, winning 5 of the 20 NBA championships in the sample period. And simply extending the sample period out to 25 years would add 3 more Jordan championships to the tally, as well as two more championships for another Machiavellian superstar, Isaiah Thomas.

Thus it is clear that the applicability of Machiavelli's most famous assertion is at best a mixed bag in the modern context. It is important to note that the 20 year period in question is bookended by 3 (really 8) championships at the beginning of the period, and 5 of the last 6 at the end of the period. So there is some evidence that the success of Machiavellian superstars is cyclical. Meanwhile, there is no clear evidence that Machiavellian coaches pair better with Machiavellian superstars, though in this sample only one test case emerges. Machiavellian coaches certainly are the dominant force in the NBA since 1960, but that effect is largely due to three coaches, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, and Red Auerbach, who won more than 50% of the championships in the league over that period. At the same time, the sustained success of the Popovich-Duncan tandem, who if you add in measures such as regular season win percentage and playoff consistency are clearly the most successful pairing in the sample, points to the idea that sustained success can be had with two of the most anti-Machiavellian figures in the world. From a broader perspective, the pattern seen in the NBA holds empirically across other relevant portions of modern society, including sports, politics, teaching, and others; there is strong evidence both for and against the Machiavellian doctrine of fear over love. Machiavelli's secondary assertions are much more favorably correlated with success in the NBA, which points to his extraordinary insight as a political thinker. And indeed some of these secondary assertions remain extremely valuable guides for leaders around the globe today.

Table of NBA Champions and Coach/Best Player Philosophies 1993-2013

Year

Best Player

Coach

Best Player Philosophy

Coach Philosophy

12-13

Lebron James

Eric Spoelstra

M

NM

11-12

Lebron James

Eric Spoelstra

M

NM

10-11

Dirk Nowitzki

Rick Carlisle

NM

NM

09-10

Kobe Bryant

Phil Jackson

M

M

08-09

Kobe Bryant

Phil Jackson

M

M

07-08

Kevin Garnett

Doc Rivers

M

NM

06-07

Tim Duncan

Gregg Popovich

NM

NM

05-06

Dwayne Wade

Pat Riley

NM

M

04-05

Tim Duncan

Gregg Popovich

NM

NM

03-04

Chauncey Billups

Larry Brown

NM

NM

02-03

Tim Duncan

Gregg Popovich

NM

NM

01-02

Shaquille O'Neal

Phil Jackson

NM

M

00-01

Shaquille O'Neal

Phil Jackson

NM

M

99-00

Shaquille O'Neal

Phil Jackson

NM

M

98-99

Tim Duncan

Gregg Popovich

NM

NM

97-98

Michael Jordan

Phil Jackson

M

M

96-97

Michael Jordan

Phil Jackson

M

M

95-96

Michael Jordan

Phil Jackson

M

M

94-95

Hakeem Olaujawon

Rudy Tomjanovich

NM

NM

93-94

Hakeem Olaujawon

Rudy Tomjanovich

NM

NM


[1] Pg. 49: Simmons, Bill. The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy. New York: Ballantine/ESPN, 2010. Print.

[2] Number denoted citations are from the class text of Machiavelli

[3] A note on the URLS/Links - I thought it might be more instructive for you to be able to click through to the articles. This is the citation for the previous text setting up the quote as well: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8085525/

[4] http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1198491/index.htm

[5] http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1032259/2/index.htm

[6] http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/phil-jackson-lord-of-the-rings-20130614#ixzz2nBAOw3lt

[7] http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1198491/index.htm

[8] http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1207572/5/index.htm

[9] http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1198491/8/index.htm

[10] http://blacksportsonline.com/home/2012/10/kobe-bryant-ethers-smush-parker-chris-mihm-kwame-brown/

[11] http://www.misterfadedglory.com/2009/09/my-twenty-five-years-of-jordan-hatred-legitimized/


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