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What CEOs Can Learn From The 2024 New York Knicks



On May 20, 2014 I was interviewing 30-year NBA Commissioner David Stern and shared my idea for a four-point play, which would be a shot from half-court. David replied, “It’s an interesting idea, but we’re not looking for gimmicks”. After analyzing the 2024 New York Knicks, I realize basketball is definitely not about gimmicks, but about fundamentals. And these fundamentals – which boil down to a new type of winning culture – can transcend basketball and actually present principles for CEOs to succeed.

Let’s start with parallel history. On December 19, 1968 the Knicks traded their all star center Walt Bellamy, and point guard Howie Komives for defensive star Dave DeBusschere. That one trade changed three of five on court positions making DeBusschere the power forward opening up the center position for Willis Reed and point guard position for Walt Frazier. Overnight the identity of the Knicks changed from slightly above average to a “team focus” contender where everyone played top defense and could also pass, rebound, steal the ball and shoot – in essence everyone was a Swiss army knife with defense and team at the core.

The result was a complete transformation of the New York Knicks who quickly won 18 straight games. The team soon won two championships and additionally Frazier, DeBusschere, and Reed were ultimately selected as top 50 NBA players of all time. I fondly remember my dad Skip Reiss, who I grew up watching Knicks games with, telling me over and over with excitement, “The DeBusschere trade opened the door for the Knicks to play basketball the right way … as a team.”

Today, the 2024 Knicks are actually following in the exact footsteps as that last Knick champion team (1973). On December 30, 2023 the Knicks traded two homegrown top players for defensive star O.G. Anunoby. This trade not only again moved several player pieces into correct positions, but completely transformed the Knicks’ identity to a true “team” culture, reinforcing their identity. The Knicks had abandoned that culture for five decades, where – no surprise – zero championships.

Consider these facts: January 2024 immediately elevated the Knicks from a slightly above average team to the NBA best at 14-2, with the number #1 defense basically holding opponents under 100 points a game. In fact, last week they coincidentally played back to back the two teams who played in last year’s championship series, the Miami Heat and the World Champion Denver Nuggets, and beat them by a combined – perhaps unmatched — 54 points.

Now admittedly this is a small sample size. And as a footnote a few days ago the Knicks just lost Julius Randle — who is one of only four NBA players to average 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists — to a separated shoulder. Plus their new igniter OG Anunoby is now injured as well.

And so, I shared my insights about sports and business and the 2024 Knicks this weekend with some top business leaders and below are perspective tying into principles I thought would be valuable to you as a CEO/aspiring CEO.

1. Be Clear On Your Purpose and Identity

When Alan B. Miller founded Universal Health Services (UHS) in 1979, he had a vision: he sought to build a patient-centered healthcare company that would treat patients how he would want his family treated. Today, UHS is one of the most respected providers of hospital and healthcare services with over 400 hospitals, 94,000 employees and over $13 billion revenue.

When I shared my thoughts on the 2024 Knicks with Alan, (currently UHS Executive Chairman) – even though he is not a Knicks fan but a true 76ers fan – he added this insight about his connection between sports and business. “My early years in basketball set the foundation for my approach to business: work diligently, often into the night at the Y and afternoons at school. I was good because I used my athleticism (which I was born with and played every day of my younger years) to my advantage. Same in business, I lived on the red eye so after going all over the US to negotiate for hospitals, I wanted to be there for my children as they played sports on the weekends. All of my basketball practice paid off, like UHS. The attributes of perseverance and determination are enduring and lasting.”

The 2024 Knicks combine those words of team, determination and perseverance, which is consistent with the identity they had over 50 years ago: a defense minded team where everyone could defend, steal the ball, rebound, pass and shoot. This means players are interchangeable, and everyone is just focused on team.

Today the Knicks have no prima donnas who are most interested in personal achievements. And in fact out of the top 45 highest paid NBA athletes none are Knicks.

2. Team Means ‘Next Man Up’

I remember years ago interviewing Tony Hsieh, Zappos longtime CEO who told me, “As CEO even if I came up with one great idea a day, by getting the whole team involved we have more great innovative ideas than I ever could.”

Once everyone is interchangeable the team can do what my son James Reiss calls ‘next man up”. For example, when their starting center Mitchell Robinson was injured, the back up center Isaiah Hartenstein filled in and in fact became a top NBA rebounder, blocker and passer and ball stealer. Importantly, right now, of the five starters, all expect point guard Jalen Brunson, is an understudy who is just filling in for the starter who was injured or traded.

An interesting point ... four of the 2024 Knicks dozen players played together at Villanova where they won two championships. Jalen Brunson (actually quite similar as point guard mentality to Walt Frazier), Donte DeVincenzo and Josh Hart who are true Swiss army knifes who can do whatever is needed for the team. But I want to bring up their less known former Villanova teammate: Ryan Arcidiacono a Knicks reserve who averages playing only two minutes a game and has never even scored one point … however, he is arguably the most vocal cheerleader and rumor has it he has a unique role in practice duplicating an opponent’s style so the Knicks have an inside track on how to defend. Now that is team!

3. Performance, Measurement and Chemistry

When thinking of building a business dynasty based on sports philosophy, think of Steve Jones. He built Allied Universal from a $12 million company with 400 employees to a $20 billion company with 800,000 employees completely based on sports principles.

Yesterday I shared my thoughts on the 2024 Knicks with Steve, who is currently CEO and Global Chairman of Allied Universal, and he shared his perspective which is built from his years playing football, “You always look at all of the individual performance metrics and those are important, but nothing is more important then if a team plays well or works well together. Team chemistry or culture as it is often referred to in business, is a dynamic that is sometimes hard to measure by individual stats, but if you get it right, the team wins! If you get it wrong, the team loses! Team chemistry or culture, will always trump a individual performance metric, because there is nothing more powerful than a team working and playing together!”

The most popular stats in basketball are: points, rebounds, assists and steals. These are all mostly individual stats. But there is one stat, which is rarely discussed as it is not glamorous but perhaps is the most important team stats. + -. Plus minus has actually been tracked since 1996-1997 but has never become truly popular … yet.

While of course the ultimate team stat is wins and losses, + - gives a birds-eye view into how those wins happen. It is a strict analysis of while a player or team is on the court how many points the team is up or down. During January 2024 the Knicks + - is by far the highest in the NBA.

… Coming full circle, my brother Michael and I frequently reminiscence about our dad’s passion for “Team Knicks”. Interestingly Michael recently told me his new word for + -; Michael shared, “As the ultimate team stat + - is what I call OCI for On Court Efficiency”.

That said, of course winning is much easier to measure in sports than in business; so, I leave you with this final question...based on what we’ve learned from the 2024 Knicks is there an OCI you can think of for CEOs to measure success of their business?