When Teams Get Hot

Right now the OKC Thunder look unbeatable. They made the Spurs look old and they are now making the Warriors look slow. That’s quite something to accomplish. Let’s see if they can keep this up. It isn’t easy.

I am reminded of the Mets last fall. They went on a hot streak that quickly took out the Dodgers and the Cubs. Then they came back to earth for the series and got beat soundly by the Royals.

How does a team get hot? And how do they stay hot? And is there anything to learn from this phenomenon for teams that operate in the real world?

For the Mets, I think it went all the way back to the walkoff home that Wilmer Flores hit on the last night of July. That combined with the arrival of Cespedes lit that team up and they stayed lit for three solid months.

For the Thunder, something has changed in the playoffs. I’m not entirely sure what changed but I watched a lot of Thunder games this regular season and they were not the same team. Something has changed and very much for the better if you are a Thunder fan like me.

But one thing is for sure. When teams get hot, when they have confidence running through their veins, when they trust each other and know where the other person is going to be great things happen. It’s something to behold.


Comments (Archived):

  1. JimHirshfield

    Breaking routine and inertia is hard, but has to be done if things are going to change for the better. And that’s the good thing about startups –> there’s not enough history for a young company to have an attitude of “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here”. #switchitup

  2. pointsnfigures

    Trusting each other-big factor. Another factor is when they realize this is for real-or that someone has their back. In the case of the Mets, getting Cespedes told the team management isn’t paying lip service to winning.Startup teams should strive to be the Yankees from 1921-1964. They were in or won the World Series 29 times. Sustainability.Funny thing. When I went to business school, Richard Thaler taught us “the hot hand” was a myth. New research contradicts his research.You have to prepare to be successful as well. It doesn’t happen overnight. All great teams practice, hard.

    1. LE

      Startup teams should strive to be the Yankees from 1921-1964. They were in or won the World Series 29 times.At a certain point in that streak didn’t the Yankees (because of that brand and certain name players) have a yuge huge advantage over any other team just because of that brand? The synergy of those teams must have been amazing. Guys growing up not just wanting to play professional baseball, but play for that team in particular. For sure it must make a player better athletically than if he were playing for some expansion team. Even your aunt knows about the Yankees.Brand appeal. I see that now with a person that I know that want to work really bad for either Apple or Google. To this person it’s a stamp of approval for a feeling that he has had for a long period of time regarding the grade of individual that makes it through the interview process at those companies (vs. acquihires).

  3. Jeremy McGee

    Shorter rotation means guys like morrow and Singler don’t see the court. Billy D has also gotten way better with his lineups. Going big was key against San Antonio, the opposite was true (small ball was key to last nights win) in the GSW series.Hypothetical question: if the thunder were to win it all, would this be the greatest postseason run ever?

    1. fredwilson

      I don’t know about your hypothetical. There have been so many great ones. But Billy D has definitely improved a lot as an NBA coach over the past few months

  4. jason wright

    DAOs are hot but will they be winning?s/he with the correct answer to that question will either make a fortune or at least live to invest another day.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      “Live to invest another day” — heh heh.With regard to the old saying, lately I’ve wondered if rather than “living to fight another day” it is “fighting to live another day” — sometimes it feels like “fighting to fight another day.”

  5. Ben Whately

    I’m not sure how cricketing the AVC community is, but the West Indies cricket team was hot for 20 years – unbeaten and totally dominant for that entire time. Fire in Babylon is a great documentary about how it came about: http://fireinbabylon.com/

  6. Tom Labus

    Maybe Billy Donovan and good health. But they are fun to watch when really going.

  7. Simon Wilson

    if you like this thread you may like ‘The Boys in the Boat’ by Daniel James Brown – the story of America’s epic quest for gold (8 man crew) in Berlin in 1936. This crew was definitely hot.

    1. fredwilson

      We listened to that on audible a couple years ago. What an amazing story

  8. Terry J Leach

    I think the Thinker have a sense that this maybe the last time this team, KD in particular maybe together as a team. It’s now or never. This next game will be critical.

  9. Donna Brewington White

    This question struck a chord: “And is there anything to learn from this phenomenon for teams that operate in the real world?”Then I remembered this:Not growing up playing team sports, it was thrilling as a young adult to be on a winning intramural volleyball team. We were not super impressive as individual athletes, but we were a great team. We each learned our role really well and depended on the others on the team to do their role. One guy would keep saying in a calm voice from the back of the court, almost like a mantra “one point at a time.”I remember playing against this one hotshot team — well, they were a team of individual hotshots, but they fought each other for the ball. They smurked when we first faced them across the net — we were not that impressive looking. They were obviously shocked when we won.The best athlete on our team joined a bit later. He was all over the place, trying to hit the ball as often as possible and that game was a disaster — but somehow he figured it out after that and contained himself letting the other team members do their part. As a reward he occasionally got to do something heroic.We actually won the championship. One point at a time.I think there is a lesson here for me as I build my business.

    1. creative group

      Donna Brewington White:great story on team work. What a team is actually able to accomplish that one person is unable. LeBron James is showing that now.Because you are displaying it in your name can you briefly explain (Or not) why you use the HRC display of your name? To continue a proud legacy of the Brewington’s?

      1. Donna Brewington White

        At first it was to maintain some continuity between my professional life pre- and post-marriage and between different iterations of my DBA and a couple of different careers. Plus there are a LOT of Donna White’s out there.I’ve dropped the “Brewington” in many settings — Disqus is one of the last holdouts. Somehow the question of names came up during one of our chattier AVC comment sessions and when I shared the idea of dropping the middle name a few protesters convinced me not to.

        1. creative group

          Donna Brewington-White: thank you for the explanation. Reason varies from person to person.

      2. Steph Duncan

        Lebron has to do that because there is no way he can win a basketball game by himself

    2. cavepainting

      Great story, Donna. I also believe that an environment where individuals are willing to subjugate their ego to the betterment of the team occurs when:a) There is a strong leader, who the team believes is looking out for the success of the team, and each of the team members, not for himself or his favorites.b) There is a unifying and bigger mission that makes people push themselves to do things beyond what they seem capable of.c) There is an open culture where people feel psychologically safe to express thoughts and debate anything. And look out for each other, more than for themselves.When these things are in alignment, below-average teams on paper punch way above their weight to deliver top-of-the-line performances and when they are not, even stellar teams bite the dust.

    3. Twain Twain

      THIS: “One point at a time.”Earn it. Hustle for it. Convert it.Small steps forward do giant leaps make …

  10. Joe Marchese

    Rosabeth Moss Kanter of HBS has studied winning in professional sports and businesses. Her book Confidence is a great read, but if you want the speed version, see her article in the HBR. https://hbr.org/2012/08/ten…. Spoiler alert: 10 insights that are less about magic and more about creating the conditions of success.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      I love reading Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

  11. kidmercury

    I think Billy Donovan has basically hustled the whole league this season. After way too many fourth quarter blown leads in the regular season caused by lazy defense and poor substitution choices Donovan has all of a sudden staggered Westbrook and Durant more, posted up more, smartly used big rotations to win the rebounding game, and got the thunder to start blocking passing lanes. Basically he did the unthinkable and out coached popovich, which I previously would have regarded as blasphemy. Alas, it is truth.But let’s see how this fares when they go back to Oakland. Go thunder!!!!

    1. fredwilson

      That may be it. Billy D has figured out the NBA after struggling for most of the regular season

      1. Varun

        OKC seems to be defending the 3s well in games they’ve won. Game 1 – 11/30, Game 2 – 13/28, Game 3 – 10/33.

    2. falicon

      The coaches primary job is to put the athletes in the best position/opportunity to execute…sometimes it takes a whole season (or more) to figure out the best spots to get your athletes into…but when you do figure it out…watch out!BTW – replace ‘coach’ with ‘CEO’ and ‘athletes’ with ‘team’…and it’s the SAME thing.

    3. Salt Shaker

      Well, Durant shot 68% from the field, not Billy D. Plain and simple: OKC was blazingly hot (killed them in the paint–+18), while GS was cold as ice. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to root for a local boy whose done well at every level. Billy D is from Rockville Ctr. (Played at St. Agnes HS, which used to be a BB powerhouse.)

      1. kidmercury

        warriors averaged 26 assists per game in the regular season; they had 19 last night. okc had 21. if okc can get more assists than their opponent, i think they can beat pretty much anyone. durant shot great but it all starts on defense…..okc also forced more turnovers than golden state did which allowed them to get more transition points…..

  12. btrautsc

    love that this is todays post. basketball teams are the quintessential “catch fire” groups. Shots just go in, passes look great, the crowd is hyped, the other team can’t do anything.Some irony in the situation that I was thinking about last night – 2 weeks ago an investor (who is huge GSW fan) were discussing: Are the Warriors another subtle SV bias (or) bubble bi-product?Clearly the Warrors are a phenomenal basketball team. Steph has had 2 years of brain melting stats. They play fun, the play fast – its fantastic to watch. Good for basketball as a whole.But a narrative has grown around them full of buzzwords. Advanced analytics, “VC run”, up-tempo, free flowing (albeit many of these concepts I support)…In reality they have 2 stars who are hyper-advanced skill players (Steph/ Klay), a star Jack-of-all-trades + emotional leader (Draymond), a couple positional foundations (Bogut & Fez as big bruising Cs), and then a bunch of amazingly unselfish flex-players (Harrison, Iggy, Barbosa, Livingston, Speights, et al).They are beautifully constructed. Steph has been out of this world, Dray & Klay are both incredible. But….We (esp in startup world) talk like they’ve disrupted basketball and created a paradigm shift. They certainly won 73 games which was thought to be impossible. They won the title last year (unbelievably hard). But what will we make of them if they only win 1 title?Will they be a more successful version of the Nash-D’Antoni era Suns? The pivot from that model that surrounds Nash with shooters instead of dunkers?Is it like Yahoo rising rapidly to stardom only to be eclipsed by more “star-studded” teams? Or regardless of titles, will they be the team that broke basketball and had it rebuilt in their image?just thinking out loud

  13. JaredMermey

    Feels like this is the Thunder we have been waiting years to see.Last few years spoiled by injury. Sometimes the lack of extraneous or unlucky events is a bit of good fortune itself, which is a pre-req for getting hot.

  14. dgay07

    One of the greatest cases of a team getting hot was the 2004 Red Sox. As a Yankees fan it was terrible to watch! Down 0-3 in the American League Championship Series they became the first team in history to come back and win 4 straight games to win the 7 game series. I think two reasons they were able to string together such a comeback and go ahead to win the World Series. 1. They had nothing to lose as each game in the ALCS series was a must win, and 2. they were having fun- young and loose in the clubhouse. That momentum carried over to the World Series and they swept the Cardinals in 4 straight games.Also key to remember is that when teams get on a roll it isn’t always easy, there are pivotal moments that keep the momentum going- usually luck plays a part of those moments at some point as well. Need to be mindful of when the momentum begins to slow as not to go on a big losing streak.

  15. Dorian Benkoil

    Zen master Fred, you are alluding no doubt to teams in business, as well. (Or, is a cigar just a cigar?) Does the analogy from sports to entrepreneurship hold? The company, as it grows, is more fluid, the parameters much less specified and the “game” much longer. There are no three-point buzzer beaters, are there? Jokingly put but serious questions and interested your thoughts.

  16. TeddyBeingTeddy

    That game was a real kick in the nuts for warriors fans…

  17. Sam

    “When [teams] have confidence running through their veins, when they trust each other and know where the other person is going to be great things happen. It’s something to behold.”It’s why startups can often outperform larger and better-funded incumbents.And it’s also why they can quickly stumble on a few bad hiring mistakes.

  18. iggyfanlo

    Billy Donovan… different and creative lineups and discipline. Add that to Russell Westbrook either deciding, growing up or on the advice of Donovan to pass first, shoot second… it’s been the catalyst that OKC needed

    1. David O.

      This! The public acknowledgement occurred in the game 3 playoff loss to Spurs, from that point forward Russell Westbrook has been focused on being a great point guard.”Just got to do a better job, man, lock in. I take responsibility when the ball is in my hands to make plays for my teammates and I didn’t do that tonight.” -Russell Westbrook (see: http://espn.go.com/blog/okc…When Westbrook pass first, assisting his teammates, the Thunders are incredibly difficult to defend. It also helps his game because he started getting more open looks at the basket.Applying it to teams outside of sports: In some teams there may be a very talented performer who does not play well with others, in the tech world this maybe a talented senior programmer. If the programmer changes, this change would allowed the tech team to get figuratively “hot”. With the talented programmer becoming a valuable mentor to the junior programmers, everyone is writing better code, they are shipping faster and there are less bugs to fix. However if the talent does not change, sooner or later, you will have to move on.

  19. Brandon G. Donnelly

    i know you are a steph curry fan, but i’m hoping for an “underdogs final”: OKC vs. Toronto 🙂

  20. LE

    Hot HandThis phenomena is real and it applies to individuals interacting with others as well. Anyone who has done selling (cold calling or otherwise) will tell you that the best thing that can happen is to make a sale early in the day. It greatly improves the chances that you will make sales later in the day. The streak is possible and real. There is something about that success that jacks you up and allows you to a) think better b) come across better to prospects c) send off signals of success (upbeat mood, subliminal facial expressions a few examples). [1] All of that makes it much more likely to be able to make a convincing argument and close a sale.It also exists in programming. Starting off with something simple that brings success puts you in a frame of mind to do something more difficult as opposed to starting off with something difficult and running into a mental block. All in all the success just makes the mind work better. It would be surprising to me if there weren’t studies to back this up.[1] Poker streaks are yet another example. My theory is that the success of a small streak makes your mind sharper and more able to implement your strategy in later hands.

    1. Lawrence Brass

      Those are adrenaline and dopamine highs I guess, can be addictive. I do a lot of coding and get pleasure out of it most of the times, as you mention it is a state of mind. Having a great day in whatever activity you might be, has a lot to do with being first in the right state of mind which might be a particular neurochemical state. I do experiments to try to put myself in a specific state deliberately when I need to, but haven’t suceeded yet. Some days are better than others. I am looking for precursors, never tried meditation but would like to.

    2. cavepainting

      That is very true. How you feel before a big moment determines your ability to carry off the moment.But… the ultimate thing is when what you feel becomes independent of what happens in the outside world. If happiness is within you and unbound to the material world, you are in better control of your destiny.Incredibly hard and may even sound crazy, but such a state is more sustainable in the longer term if we can condition our minds to get there.

  21. Murtaugh

    I agree confidence is second to only physical ability in sports, but a loss of it can result in disaster. In many ways I find it far more interesting to study cases where confidence was there and then lost, and to then look at the results.For example: Game 5 of the 2002 World Series between the Angels and Giants. Brutal. The prevailing feeling was that there was no way the Giants would win Game 7. They had zero confidence after being so close in Game 5. And the results proved that out.But I think golf is the best example because it is one of the few sports where a ball is sitting still in front of you and you have to gather your mind, lower your muscle tension, and consciously choose to start your swing. All that time being still makes it so easy to get caught up in your head, as opposed to a less conscious reaction to a ball already moving. Action vs. reaction. In golf there is usually no other opponent who’s confidence in their own ability immediately increases when yours decreases and vice versa, as is often the case when say the Thunder go on a 32 – 7 run in a sport like the NBA.That is why in the PGA a caddy’s most important job is keeping his player calm and confident. Club selection and picking a putting line are totally secondary to making sure your player BELIEVES in his club selections and putting lines.Great cases: Jordan Spieth at this year’s Masters. Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters. Or remember then 59-year-old Tom Watson’s disastrous putt on the 72nd hole at the 2009 British Open Championship and then how he performed in the playoff thereafter? He had to be in the hole in two putts to WIN and he hit the first putt 12 feet past the hole, and then missed the comebacker. It would have been his 6th open title and make him the older player ever to win a major.A loss of confidence often leads to panic, tight muscles, and poor decision making.Which brings me back to the Warriors. They never seem to panic – which I think is one of the reasons they haven’t lost two games in a row all season. Tuesday will be a significant game – if they lose it isn’t over, but will it lead to panic and a loss of confidence for the first time this season….?

  22. Thor Snilsberg

    Getting hot is the opposite of getting cold. Seems obvious but eliminating mistakes is the hallmark of “getting hot.” Right now OKC’s turnovers are down, offensive efficiency is up, individual +/- is trending up. Maybe this translates to a start-up environment, maybe not.As a former DIII player, (Go Univ. of St. Thomas, 2016 National Champs!), I played under one of the winningest college coaches ever. Coach Fritz was about minimizing mistakes, knowing your role and playing within it.In a few minutes I’m hopping into the river to learn fly fishing with a one of Minnesota’s biggest basketball insiders, his response to Fred’s query is, ‘sports is emotion and emotion can work for you our against you.”

  23. Pete Griffiths

    As a Lakers fan I feel duty bound to point out that there is a converse – when teams go freezing cold.

  24. Salt Shaker

    NBA players need to buy into a team concept. Those that do–both old school (Bulls, Lakers, Celtics) and new school (SA)–can excel, and do so for long periods of time. A lot of modern-day basketball today is star focused and lacking in a team concept, thereby negating the impact a HC can have on strat and results. A HC can have far greater impact in the NFL and MLB than in the NBA, in part cause those sports are inherently more strategic and team oriented, though when an NBA team does play team ball it’s awfully refreshing to watch.

  25. David Bin

    The only thing that I want to chime in with is the fact that I need more sports opinion, news, and commentary from outlets other than ESPN. The are just out of touch with the modern and more sophisticated sports fan. Bill Simmons is on to something as his stuff resonates with this generation’s sports fan. But he doesn’t produce enough content.. I’m always checking his twitter feed for commentary.Fred Wilson, are there any sports news/commentary companies on the horizon that we should look out for?

  26. creative group

    FRED:You are not a Seattle Supersonic a/K/a Oklahoma Thunder fan. You are the traditional casual fan who jumps on a team with players they like. We are all or nothing with Knicks, Giants, Yankees, Rangers and Liberty. We refuse to allow you brandwagoners in. Stay out!Just like the companies we invest if they fit our investment criteria nothing else in that sector that doesn’t would persuade us to buy. You are definitely persuaded to purchase outside your investment principals like many fair weather fans. (Calling out the fair weather fans every season with every sport.)

  27. craigarmstrong

    I think it began around the time Mark Cuban asserted that Westbrook “is not a superstar.” https://www.washingtonpost….. Then they finally figured out how to beat their “big brothers” in San Antonio.

  28. JLM

    .Teams are built on trust. But NBA teams always need a steady coach. Billy D has become that coach. He is about a month into it, so it is still fragile.Basketball is a particularly team-driven, emotional game. The best teams can afford to have a bad night for their best players which requires depth and for the coach to recognize it.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  29. Rick Mason

    My beloved Detroit Tigers were in a bad losing streak. Fans wanted the manager fired and the GM kept hinting changes needed to be made. You could see that the manager, Brad Ausmus, was feeling the pressure despite the fact he still had the support of the team.Then it happened, another game getting away and there was a disputed call. Ausmus runs out to the plate to argue the call with the umpire and this unflappable guy who never shows emotion promptly went nuts. He threw his shirt on the plate, started waving his arms and screaming, a complete meltdown. The Tigers rallied and have kept winning since.

    1. JLM

      .Oldest trick in the book — the coach’s technical.Well played.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  30. Sean McCroskey

    This post absolutely reminds me of Leicester City of the British Premier leagues recent run to become champions of the Premier despite being 5000-1 odds at the beginning of the season. Despite only having a pay roll of 54.4 million compared to other Premier giants such as Arsenal and Manchester City who each boasted individual players that made more that the entire Leicester City team combined. This team started out hot and just kept going throughout the season , it seemed as if they were truly motivated by just wanting to have fun and not getting paid ( their manager threw the team a pizza party every time they posted a clean sheet). Goes to show that by just “having fun” , teams can and will stay hot.

  31. Drew Meyers

    I’m a Seattle Sonics fan, so have never much liked the team since they left. I hope the Warriors get their mojo back and win this one… but damn are the Thunder playing well right now. It’s not going to be easy.

  32. M Edward/Ed Borasky

    It’s pretty simple – a healthy Kevin Durant / Russ Westbrook combo is a one-two punch. I say make an OKC – Raptors final series happen!

  33. Donna Brewington White

    I just relayed an anecdote that I think captures this. You sum it up well.

  34. dgay07

    Yep, the Grand Slam killed any hope of the Yankees winning that game and the series. Amazing that you got a ticket on Ebay for $150.