Smiles can tell you so much about a player’s state of mind. Smiles can be forced, sarcastic, and insincere. Smiles can also beam with 1000 watts, for example, Jaden Hardy.
The sort of smiles you are seeing out of the early days of Dallas Mavericks training camp are genuine, infectious, and speak to a deeper dynamic that began last year. You’ll hear Jason Kidd remark about the importance of having fun in almost every press availability. What does this emphasis on fun mean for the Mavericks in practical terms? Is it part of a larger, very intentional strategy?
Rick Carlisle deserves everlasting respect for his role in the 2011 Championship. He was and remains an excellent basketball tactician. But the Mavericks were in need of a culture shift well before his departure. Rick’s often terse tone with the media quite probably served as a window to what it was like to play for him. He was as far away from “player’s coach” as you can get. There is no doubt the environment in the latter part of the Carlisle era wasn’t oozing fun - not for fans, players, and probably not for the coach. The behind-the-scenes arm wrestling match for the future of Mavericks culture was lost by the dour curmudgeon despite his brilliance. The fun-loving Slovenian superstar in Luka Doncic — who came to the NBA having experienced many coaching styles — won that battle in two years.
Once that vacancy was created, the biggest question I had was not the name of the incoming coach but whether the Mavericks would be allowed to play with joy again. There is, to be sure, a balancing act required. Plenty of coaches who aim to make getting along with players their top priority wind up flaming out.
The incoming coach would need to create good relationships, instill confidence, and give players license to enjoy themselves — all while making sure that the fun being had was in service to the larger goal of player improvement and team cohesion.
When Jason Kidd was hired, the media and many fans focused on his time with Milwaukee and Brooklyn — and why wouldn’t they? Past is prologue in most cases. NBA coaches - and in a larger sense most adults generally — rarely make wholesale changes to their countenance, style, and methods. Yet that is exactly what Jason Kidd has managed to do. After a full season of watching his press conferences with Dallas, it was clear that he is a happier human being in this era of his life. How and why things changed for him internally is immaterial. It's the outward manifestation that matters. It is the kind tone of voice, the down-to-earth positivity, and the endless supply of Dad joke humor that tells the story.
Kidd is never flippant with the media no matter how inane the question. He’s always positive about his players even when he is challenging them in the press (asking Luka to participate on defense in the Suns series). Perhaps most importantly, he’s always focused on improvement but not at the expense of the vibes. Sure, Brunson is gone but the vibes are still immaculate around this team - and the head coach is one of the biggest reasons why.
But how can this fun atmosphere translate to winning in a very meaningful way?
About a decade ago, I attended a business conference and listened to a speaker summarize and contextualize a very powerful concept. The book he referred to is entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by the recently passed-on psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
The core concept revolves around how much our experience in a given pursuit correlates to the level of skill we possess and the scale of the challenge being faced.
Too much skill and not enough challenge? As the heat lowers, we first get relaxed, then downright bored, and finally apathetic.
Too much challenge and not enough skill? We first get focused, then stressed, then frantic, then resigned to inevitable defeat.
We know these truths innately before we ever hear the concept spelled out explicitly. Once we see these states of being relative to each other, it all feels like long known universal truth finally finding visual form before our eyes.
One of the best analogies for finding Flow is a dinner party. Have you ever been invited over to someone’s house where the ambiance and food are on point? You settle in with a glass of your favorite beverage for some post-meal conversation that turns to a topic you find fascinating. You are learning something new, expressing your thoughts, and tracking everything contributed. Before you know it, you check the time on your phone and somehow it's 2:00 a.m. even though it feels like it should only be about 11:00 p.m. That’s Flow.
It can also happen in a theatre. The 2014 film Interstellar has a runtime of just under three hours but when I first saw it, the story was so engrossing that it didn’t feel as though nearly 170 minutes had passed. Other movies with far shorter runtimes can make you feel every minute if they become convoluted or fail to engage your mind and heart.
Flow also shows up at work. Most of us have had jobs where our skill outpaces the challenge and we feel underutilized. The converse can be true if the challenge of our vocation starts to edge past our skill set. This is why we leave boring jobs for greater challenges and why we go after additional training and certifications in an attempt to stave off irrelevancy in our careers.
When high skill meets a high-grade challenge, the near out-of-body experience of Flow kicks in.
Athletes aiming to become champions develop, maintain, and diversify their skill set all in the pursuit of Flow because in pro sports the challenge is always there - and Flow is the pathway to greatness.
A head coach can add or subtract from the degree of the challenge faced by players depending on their approach. To his credit, Jason Kidd showed last season that he can foster a locker room that allows players to express their individuality, tease each other in a collegiate way, and feel a sense of kindred spirit with their teammates. The Mavericks developed tight-knit solidarity which created a buffer for those moments where the pressure of a given play, game, or playoff series ratcheted up. Facing Utah without Luka? Down 2-0 to Phoenix? The Mavericks shined under hardship. They responded well to adversity by entering the state of Flow we all witnessed.
Kidd’s and his assistants impacted the other side of the Flow chart as well. When faced with structural weaknesses being exploited by their opponent, the game-to-game adjustments were incredible. Skill is about more than raw talent because it includes adaptation via strategy. After Phoenix exploited Luka Doncic in the first two games by isolating him on defense, Kidd responded by not allowing Luka to accept a switch. He would show on the ball handler briefly and then recover to his man. This hedging technique was brilliant and removed a big part of the Suns' winning formula of the first two games.
When you can cover for flaws, accentuate your strengths, and keep your team loose and confident, that’s more than just high-level coaching. That’s mentoring on the way to a Flow channel.
This new Mavericks Flow enters its second year and you can already see it coalescing amid this group of players. Here’s a look at a practice drill involving guards and wings driving on bigs. Players honing their skills and having a ton of fun doing so.
On Media Day, the Mavericks played along with their digital content team and had a little fun. These sorts of shenanigans might seem trivial but are another good sign that the coaches and players are going to keep their sense of humor this season.
We should have seen it coming. Last year’s two culture buzzwords of chemistry (keep challenge level manageable through camaraderie) and accountability (improve your skills to the task at hand via positive peer pressure) fit right into the concept of Flow.
Kidd has given the players until the end of training camp to come up with two new words to tell the story of their culture this season. Since it is a given the Mavericks will need to hustle in order to thrive in an improved Western Conference, might I suggest Hustle and Flow?