Building High Performing Teams: What we can learn from the Toronto Raptors

Building High Performing Teams: What we can learn from the Toronto Raptors

Recently, the Toronto Raptors won their first championship in franchise history. Yes, it's the first time in 24 years and it was a win against huge odds. No one imagined the team would accomplish the feat except one man — Masai Ujiri, the Raptors General Manager.

Watching the championship series, I drew parallels and learned strategies often overlooked when building effective teams within the corporate world.

Here’s what can we learn from the 2019 NBA champions:

1. Have foresight - 

During the summer of 2018, Ujiri took a huge gamble and sent Raptors star player DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for Kawhi Leonard on one year “rental.” Ujiri also sent coach of the year Dwane Casey packing to Detroit. As DeRozan and Casey had gone deep into the eastern conference playoffs in the previous three years, NBA pundits were skeptical about Ujiri’s decision. 

Leonard — groomed under Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs — decided to part ways after a trust deficit between himself and the front office during the 2017-2018 NBA season. Leonard had missed the entire season due to a quad injury. Mistrust and criticism ensued when the team wanted Leonard to be available for the playoffs and implied that he was exaggerating his injury. Popovich and Spurs won five NBA championships, one with Leonard, and are still considered the most professionally and best-managed teams in the NBA league, and maybe even professional sports. 

When Leonard demanded to be traded after the drama in San Antonio, the Raptors seized the opportunity. It was a risky proposition because DeRozan was Raptors’s star player and Casey was a great coach. But Ujiri was determined and saw an opportunity to deliver on a promise. 

When hired five years ago, Ujiri Promised the City of Toronto and its fans that he would bring home a championship. Raptors had become a formidable team in the eastern conference under his leadership. As the only NBA team outside of the United States, Raptors had never been afforded the same stature or credibility as the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics. Ujiri wanted to change that perception. 


2. Blend the right skillset - 

Understanding the blend of skills needed is crucial for any team’s performance. Leaders must be aware of its importance to achieving goals. Ujiri understood that “defense” wins games so he teamed Leonard (defensive player of the year 2014, 2015) with Marc Gasol (defensive player of the year 2012), Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, which kept the high scoring Warriors to under 110 points a game. Defense coupled with strategic offense helped Raptors dethrone the two-time defending champs. 

3. Build mutual respect and trust - 

Ujiri also knew that rehab was important to Leonard and allowed the star player to sit out 22 out of 82 regular games under the guise of load management. Teammates Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet picked up the offense while Leonard was on the bench. The team trusted Leonard and helped him stay healthy by allowing him to rest. Leonard reciprocated and helped his team win the championship by being the most dominant player during the 2018-2019 NBA playoffs.

4. Form an effective collaboration - 

Team members should be allowed to collaborate freely and be given space to problem solve and engage in critical thinking. Nick Nurse, Raptors coach did exactly that. He was open to ideas from players and developed an atmosphere of respect between the coaching staff and players. Being a rookie head coach, Nurse was also able to handle the big egos of star players. This, in turn, allowed him to instill discipline and keep his team focused on the prize — to win the championship.

Corporate America can take a leaf from Ujiri’s playbook. His determination, knowledge, experience, and foresight enabled him to break from his comfort zone and build a winning culture. He played the devil's advocate and assembled the right players around Leonard (the star player) to achieve the ultimate goal — winning the NBA championship for his organization and his fans.

Thank you Masai Ujiri for painting the town RED!

What are some other steps essential to building a successful team?