In almost any explanation of an NBA team’s relative success or failure, a disproportionately large amount of credit is given to one thing: culture. When a team wins, it has a culture that holds players accountable, that allows the young guys to grow and contribute to the team the right way, that demands that the game (and the game’s in-time proxy, the head coach) are respected. Long time guys stay because the culture is so good. New guys transition in well, often showing improvement or an unselfishness that was less evident in their previous stop, because the culture allows — and often demands — that they be a different player, a better player. The Spurs, the Bulls, the Heat and, until this season, the Celtics are all teams that don’t just beat you with the final score, they beat you in every aspect of their organizations … or so it is spun, anyway.
Likewise, when a team is down, the reasons it often stays down for a long time are not just talent and ability. Again, it’s about the culture. The culture of losing. Once-successful teams fear the deterioration of their culture into one driven by selfishness that operates at even half speed only half the time. Teams whose recent track record already has a giant, red L stamped on its culture card turn to changes in ownership, coaching, bringing in veterans who are viewed as “winners,” anything to break-up the losing mentality that has, the thinking goes, sunk itself so deeply into the organization that, as with a zombie-bitten hand, whole arms must be chopped off to keep the infection from spreading.
There is a truth to culture, but not a whole truth.