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The Downbeat #1942: Dennis Lindsey's Leadership

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Did Dennis Lindsey fail as a leader on draft night?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk about Leadership, shall we?  It's a subject that everyone and their aunt thinks they understand when they're arguing about politics at the Thanksgiving Day table while gorging themselves full of turkey and mash potatoes.  It's the best buzzword that gets thrown around when a manager, CEO, subordinate, or project coordinator fails to achieve their task.  If they don't get the job done or they get the job done in a way that someone doesn't like, they lack leadership.  They lacked the stones to get it done.  We say, "If they were a real leader they would have gotten it done.  Plain and simple."  But is that true leadership?

We hold Sir Ernest Shackleton as one of the best leaders.  Having been in a Moral Leadership course in my Master's program, he's the first person you read about.  The gold standard as it were.  Sir Ernest Shackleton accomplished the unimaginable.  His crew was shipwrecked in the Antarctic for 3 years, one of those years you can't even say shipwrecked because they had no ship, it was swallowed up by the ice.

They survived by hunting seals and anything that would fly near them.  They braved subzero temperatures.  Shackleton engineered plan after plan after plan to keep them moving, ultimately finding an island his men could stay at while he and a few other brave souls, sailed back to South America in a patched together boat that shouldn't have made it to South America.  The ultimate underdog story of how a man fought the odds.  At least that's how it's portrayed, but there's a problem.  Sir Ernest Shackleton would have been able to accomplish his first task of trekking across Antartica if he had headed the whalers advice before he sailed toward Antartica.  The straight that they were going to take to land on the icy continent had been extra perilous that year.  The whalers warned him that he might need to wait an additional year before making the journey or take a different way.  Not wanting to add time to the journey he ignored the advice and soldiered forward eventually putting himself and his entire crew in mortal danger.

So why do we glorify Sir Ernest Shackleton if it was his mistake that got them there in the first place and what the hell does this have to do with the Utah Jazz?

Recently a certain Art Coombs, a successful CEO, businessman, and professional speaker, wrote a blog post criticizing Dennis Lindsey for his poor leadership during the NBA Draft.  Normally if someone who is not in the basketball circles chimes in on something like this, I ignore it.  Why?  Because a lot of times the nuance of the decision is lost on those because a decision, trade, draft pick, or free agent signing cannot exist in a vacuum as one terrible decision.  Does the decision match up to the long term strategy of the organization?  So how did Art Coombs, successful CEO and consultant of Call Centers and Palo Alto startups explain his reasoning?

The annual NBA Draft was June 23. The Utah Jazz play up the highway from the headquarters of my company, KomBea.

The hometown team traded their pick, the 12th overall, for George Hill. Several sports writers have written about the move as if it were a big step for the franchise.

It isn't.

The pick was a lottery pick. That means that it is high enough to have represented Hall-of-Famers. (Hall-of-Famers picked 12th in the past include Chet Walker and Julius Erving. The Jazz's John Stockton and Karl Malone were drafted lower!)

Utah Jazz brass, led by GM Dennis Lindsey, gave up that pick for Hill. He's an average point guard who has reached his plateau as a player, having already played eight seasons to show what he can do.

It's being said that Hill will make it less stressful for Dante Exum to get back to the floor and build up minutes quickly. So the trade signals that the Jazz have already deemed Exum as the point guard of the future.

"Already" because Exum only has played a rookie season. And in that one season, Exum shot an abysmal 34.9 percent from the floor and a sad 31.4 and 62.5 percent from the free-throw and three-point lines. Averages of 4.8 points, 2.4 assists and 1.4 turnovers in a relatively high 22.2 minutes per game also were not impressive.

As I write in "Don't Just Manage—Lead!", "a leader's vision always includes big change."

I continue: ""Managers are satisfied with the status quo. Leaders invoke change. Think about that for a minute. No one wants to follow status quo. People inherently follow the person who wants change."

Lindsey certainly does! But as I add: "Dreaming big is one of the characteristics of an authentic leader. Managers seem to focus almost exclusively on maintenance or on small, incremental improvements."

Lindsey seems to be doing the latter.

As I also add: "Leaders, on the other hand, are about accomplishing the hard things others have never imagined, never heard of, or refused to try."

What if Lindsey had packaged his even all three of his low second-round picks with his 12th, if picks were such a low priority, for a recent MVP? (At least one, Derrick Rose, was indeed on the market - he was traded.) What if he had indeed traded star Gordon Hayward, who reportedly wanted to leave Utah anyway? (Both Phoenix and Boston were in hot pursuit, and they had fits for the Jazz; the Suns offered borderline all-star Eric Bledsoe and their even-higher 4th pick (Utah would have lost nothing), and the Celtics an actual all-star (Isaiah Thomas) at that same spot. Or, if point guard needs are really that high, why not do everything necessary to land one - perhaps a Damian Lillard would have the promise of staying in Utah since he has repeatedly said that he loves the state and still makes a home here?

It's great that Lindsey went for change, but this isn't of a "big fashion." (If it turns out to be, it will be in the negative!)

A lot to digest here, but we can go through every one of his fallacies point by point.  He has defended this as a leadership piece.  If this was a piece about leadership we would be talking about the long-term strategy of it.  So let's dive in to the strategy of such a move.

Last year I wrote about the Jazz's strategy in the long term. In that piece I said this:They reside in one of the league's smallest market, they have limited cash flows, and are not near a beach.

They have to attempt to attract players against the stigma that it's not a nice place to be. Sorry, Utahans, that's your reality. So how do you compete when you can't compete? Find a new playing field. Think about what Robb said in Game of Thrones:

If we do it your way kingslayer, you'd win. We're not doing it your way.

I agree with Art Coombs that the Utah Jazz have to find a new and different way to succeed to overcome existing market conditions.  Even last year I was advocating the Utah Jazz stay out of free agency and focus on their own players and draft picks.  Why?  They had the resources to develop them.  Art should know this, sometimes you have to have an external hire because you cannot afford to put the time, money, and development into an employee and have a chance that they cannot perform.  This is called risk management.  That's all that good effective leadership is.  Minimizing the amount of foreseeable risk in your efforts to attain a goal.  That's why we hold Sir Earnest Shackleton as a high bar for leadership.  They had to change their goal and minimize risk along the way in order to attain their goal, decision by decision.

Last year I said the Jazz were top heavy.  They have 3 near all-stars in Hayward, Favors, and Gobert.  Beyond those 3 players the Jazz have a void.  They need depth.  Now there are a number of ways they can fill that need.  The one that Art fully believes in is the draft.  His reasoning is simple, over-simplified, but simple:

The pick was a lottery pick. That means that it is high enough to have represented Hall-of-Famers. (Hall-of-Famers picked 12th in the past include Chet Walker and Julius Erving. The Jazz's John Stockton and Karl Malone were drafted lower!)

Now this is a great example of risk management.  He is correct that the #12 pick has represented All-Stars and even Hall of Famers.  But what he failed to mention is the chances are quite low.  82games.com has a chart of the chances a certain draft pick become a star, solid starter, role player, deep bench player, bust, or DNP.  Would you like to know the chances of the #12 pick becoming Julius Erving?

Chances

That's right, 5%.  By Art Coombs logic the Utah Jazz should have sacrificed George Hill for the 5% chance of the #12 pick becoming a star.  There's only a 15% chance of that pick being as skilled as George Hill.  Not to mention the cost analysis of the development of said draft pick's development.  One would have to add up the cost like so:

Development Cost +

Opportunity Cost (Of Jazz Roster Missing Another Playoffs) +

Opportunity Cost (Of Similar Players Losing Development) +

Opportunity Cost (Of playing with starter with playoff experience) +

Risk Cost (Of Player Being a Bust) +

________________________________________________________

= Is it worth it?

Want to know the chances of George Hill being George Hill 100%.  Do the Jazz sacrifice the chance of the draft pick being a star?  Yes.  But there is a 5% chance of that outcome happening and 100% chance of the Utah Jazz filling a need and getting George Hill.  This is what a leader does weighs the odds.  Last year that equation worked out to the Utah Jazz keeping their pick because a stretch 4 was more attainable in the draft than on the free market.  This year, a seasoned point guard was more attainable through trade.  A single asset was given up.  That's it.  An asset that only had a 20% chance of being as good if not better than George Hill and a 0% chance of being as good as George Hill at the same time Gordon Hayward and company are hitting their primes.  I like them odds, Art.

Art's big plan was trade for a recent MVP in Derrick Rose.  Derrick Rose.  He justifies:

Lindsey certainly does! But as I add: "Dreaming big is one of the characteristics of an authentic leader. Managers seem to focus almost exclusively on maintenance or on small, incremental improvements."

Lindsey seems to be doing the latter.

...

What if Lindsey had packaged his even all three of his low second-round picks with his 12th, if picks were such a low priority, for a recent MVP? (At least one, Derrick Rose, was indeed on the market - he was traded.) What if he had indeed traded star Gordon Hayward, who reportedly wanted to leave Utah anyway? (Both Phoenix and Boston were in hot pursuit, and they had fits for the Jazz; the Suns offered borderline all-star Eric Bledsoe and their even-higher 4th pick (Utah would have lost nothing), and the Celtics an actual all-star (Isaiah Thomas) at that same spot.

He refers to George Hill as an incremental improvement.  Let's talk about increments, shall we? First let's compare Derrick Rose to George Hill:

If anything Derrick Rose is the all-time greatest empty stat player out there.  George Hill shoots the three at a higher rate. Shoots better within the arc.  Better EFG%, averages the same amount of rebounds, slightly less assists but he's being asked to work off-ball with Paul George being the playmaker.  He also only turns the ball over 1.3 times a game.  But his advanced stats tell the bigger picture.  He gets the job done with a lower usage rate.  The Utah Jazz already have a team of youngsters who need the ball: Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert.  They don't need a ball dominant point guard who needs the ball in his hands 28% of the time to come in and run the offense.  It's not going to work like that.  That's why the Trey Burke experiment would never work. He's ball-dominant.  In fact of all the players available via trade this draft George Hill had the highest VORP, higher than Derrick Rose and higher than Jeff Teague.  That's not incremental.  That's a big step.

Art predicts that if this trade has a big implication it would be of a negative implication.  It's time that we point out how improved the Utah Jazz were after they picked up Shelvin Mack.  Mack wasn't half the point guard George Hill was, but he led the Utah Jazz to a second half surge because he was better than Trey Burke and Raul Neto.  Shelvin Mack even outplayed Derrick Rose head to head.  Remember that? In essence, Art describes this post as a leadership post, and if that's how he defends its lackluster facts and broad strokes generalizations of nuanced basketball operations then I'm disappointed in Art's reach into analyzing leadership in the NBA sense.

So why did I use Sir Ernest Shackleton at the beginning?  The Utah Jazz as an organization will repeatedly be seen as the Antartica of the NBA.  If you conquer the NBA there people will remember your accomplishments but no one wants to stay here but a season.  In that vein, Dennis Lindsey has his work cut out for him.  He has to find men to go on the journey who are crazy enough to join in on the challenge.  He has limited supplies, limited assets, and not a lot of clout when trying to get players to Utah.

He has brought on a coach that many players respect and that Utah can build a program around.  He's working a slow build, but now is the time for it to kick in high gear.  That means minimizing potential greatness for guaranteed current success.  Why?  Because leaders understand when it's appropriate to shoot for the stars and when it's okay to settle for the clouds to meet the goal.  Dennis Lindsey wasn't looking for a rocket to propel the Utah Jazz to the stars on draft night he already has it in his young core.  He needed a navigator to guide them there.  Someone who had been there before.  That was George Hill.  That's effective leadership.  That's smart leadership.  The worst mistake we can make when evaluating a leader is by assuming a mundane simple decision lacks vision.  Dennis Lindsey had a choice, a 20% chance of getting a player like George Hill, or a 100% chance of getting George Hill.  He chose the latter.  That's what leaders do.