We are just over a month into the season and one thing is for certain, there are a number of leaderless teams in the league and a few I will identify are extremely surprising.
A coach wears a number of hats besides coaching his team. Father figure, policeman and fireman come to mind. He would much rather tell you he wants to coach and have a parental quality when needed, but he will be happy if he can place the responsibility of policeman and part-time fireman on one or, if he is lucky, a few of his players.
People ask me all the time why I have not gone into coaching. My normal response is that I have always been afraid that I might be too much of a disciplinarian and that method would be hard-pressed to accomplish if I were not coaching experienced and committed players who actually get it when it comes to the word Team.
Take for example some great coaches like Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Chuck Daly, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich. These coaches would not have been successful if it wasn't for the leadership qualities of the great players that played for them. None of these coaches would have won multiple championships if they didn't have players accepting and wearing one of those hats for them so they could concentrate on coaching and preparing the team more effectively.
Imagine what a coach has to police in relation to players during an 82-game season. They have to make sure they show up to practice on time, work hard in practice, play together as a team, professionalism on and off the court, etcetera. So imagine how ecstatic a coach would be if he had players that took on that responsibility and allowed him more time to focus on team and strategy. Although a coach knows he will have to extinguish some personal and emotional fires during the season – players not getting along or unhappy about playing time and their role on the team – but he will have fewer fires to deal with because of the ability of his leaders to keep players focused and on a common goal.
Could you imagine a player getting out of line on the great Boston Celtic teams while Bill Russell was playing? I could not imagine someone on the Bulls getting out of control with Michael Jordan practicing and playing harder than anyone each and every game. What about a teammate not running the floor hard when Magic Johnson was pushing the ball up the floor or not being focused on his extreme passing ability? Magic once told me that he would hit teammates in the head with the ball on purpose because they took their eye off of him.
I wonder... Was it Rudy Tomjanovich who demanded the ball should go to Hakeem Olajuwon every time down the court during the Houston Rockets back-to-back championships or was it Hakeem, who led by example with supreme effort on both ends of the court?
When I look at some teams that are playing well or underachieving with talented players, you really need to look no further than the leaders among players before you blame the coach and general manager.
TEAMS WITH GREAT LEADERSHIP
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the ultimate role team. They are anchored by one the greatest players to ever play in Tim Duncan. No player steps out of his role because Popovich demands it and Duncan will not allow it to happen because of his unselfish nature and the fact that he allows Popovich to chastise him when he is not playing well, which sends a great message to the players who battle with him every night. Also don't discount the secondary roles of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. David Robinson, who established this method of unselfishness by taking a secondary role to Duncan at the end of his career, should receive a tremendous amount of the credit for the togetherness of the Spurs.
Steve Nash is not only the best point guard in the NBA, but he is the most unselfish players since Magic Johnson. When you watch Nash play you can honestly say he plays no favorites when he passes the ball. If you are open you get the ball. Who in their right mind would not want to play with him? If you watch him closely during games he never chastises teammates openly and he encourages them with high-fives when they accomplish something on the court or makes a mistake and he never wavers. When you play with someone like this you will always accept his leadership and the Suns follow his every lead. Throw in the perseverance of Grant Hill and this team has a level of class that allows them to enjoy the game the way it should be played and fans around the league appreciate it!
Avery Johnson has force-fed Dirk Nowitzki on the importance of leadership and it culminated into an MVP season in 2006, Dirk has learned not only to involve and appreciate his teammates but also to give them credit publicly. Jason Terry supplies the energy and enthusiasm to go along with the no non-sense style of Jerry Stackhouse. Stackhouse is legendary around the league for straightening up a teammate verbally and physically if they step out of line. Every coach needs a physical presence able to intimidate some players into following rules and regulations.
I didn't mention Jerry Sloan among the great coaches because he has not won a championship, but he belongs there and it will be a shame if he does not win a title before he retires. I mention Sloan because he might be the best coach ever at designating leadership among his players. He demands it with his unwavering demands in practice and games. Sloan, I hear, will fine a player if his jersey is not tucked in for practice. Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams share the leadership on this team and it has showed the last few years. Leadership has nothing to do with age or experience and these two players exude it with great effort for 48 minutes. Their teammates have followed. When you mention the word Team, the Utah Jazz have defined that example for the last 15 years despite not winning a championship.
New Orleans Hornets
No surprise this team has good leadership. Byron Scott has been as successful a coach as any in the league. This should not surprise you since he falls from the Pat Riley and Magic Johnson tree. Scott has been taught by the best at establishing what Team really means and now he has one of the best young leaders in the game in Chris Paul. Paul is quickly becoming the next Steve Nash and the Hornets will reap the benefits for many years to come. Paul’s ability to get players like Peja Stojakovic and others to play above their ability is proof of what a leader can do for the success of your team.
Dwight Howard is the most imposing force I have seen since Shaquille O’Neal and what's scary is that he could put up better stats before his career is finished. What’s so scary about Howard is how quickly he has shaken his mechanical offensive nature into a fluid Human Terminator on the court. But what I really like about Howard is his friendly nature and pleasant smile. I don't know if he realizes it yet, but that goes a very long way with teammates and their acceptance towards him. They now try every way they can to force-feed him the ball. I also like the tough no non-sense manner of Jameer Nelson, who has seen plenty of hardships already in his young life and still exudes tremendous confidence and determination – which travels far with his teammates.
Detroit might have the best collection of leaders in the league and that is why despite their age they will still compete for a championship the next few years. When you watch Detroit play, I immediately think of the Celtics when Bird, Parish and McHale had gotten older but still competed with a savvy desire to fundamentally make you look bad although athletically you were a much better team. Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, Rip Hamilton and the young but old Tayshaun Prince give the Pistons self policing and a no non-sense attitude, which every coach loves. The reason we hear more grumbling in Detroit than most places is because most of these guys have a fierce desire to lead. And yes, it can cause headaches for Flip Saunders, but he will take the headaches knowing that when these guys hit the floor they will give everything they have to win the game.
I love Kevin Garnett. I didn't love him enough to support giving up Amare Stoudemire last summer. But let me say this again, I love Kevin Garnett. I think he is the second best leader in the game next to Steve Nash. I criticized him in Minnesota because I thought he was too unselfish and never took over like he should have, but as we see now in Boston with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he is in the perfect environment and I am so happy for him. He has a respect for the game and his teammates that drips off of him when you watch the Celtics play. The Celtics right now are the class of the Eastern Conference and, with all due respect to the talents of Pierce and Allen, Garnett is the driving force with his unselfishness to just try and win the game anyway he can. If any player deserves a championship, it's Garnett. This scenario is the perfect example when I mentioned all the great coaches. Doc Rivers will go from being a lame duck coach to quite possibly grabbing his second Coach of the Year award. Now whose league is this again? It's a players' league and don't forget it!
TEAMS WITH NO LEADERSHIP
New York Knicks
I have taken a lot of heat for this comment, but I will say it again. The Knicks have some of the best collection of talent in the league. But one important piece of the pie is missing and that has created the inconsistency we see from night to night in the Knicks. Who should I point the finger at? Most of you want to say the coach and general manager Isiah Thomas, but didn't I just give you the example of Doc Rivers, who had a terrible record last year but is looked at pretty favorably now that he has Garnett and his great leadership?
It's easy to point the finger at Stephon Marbury, but Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph and Quentin Richardson are all capable to lead and have not visually stepped up to the plate. The Knicks are so ripe to lead that Bo Outlaw could be acquired and become the best leader the first day he arrives and he would probably not play. That comment should embarrass every Knick player on that team. No way would any of the teams listed above have allowed Stephon Marbury to compromise the togetherness of the team by leaving them to battle the Phoenix Suns because the coach asked him to become a better leader on the floor and play better defense. Where was the fireman Isiah needed to talk to Marbury before he got on a plane and went back to New York?
Leadership comes from any position and it is not necessarily the point guard position, but if you want to take a high percentage of the shots and get all the accolades then you have to take pride in making it easy on your teammates to care for you and accept your dominance of the ball. Hopefully Marbury, who has had some major hardships this season off the floor, will take notice at the way the Knicks have bonded lately in his absence to play more like a team with their talent should play.
It's hard for me to come down too hard on the Bulls players about leadership, because I personally think everyone of them would be a role player on any of the teams listed above. If you look at the Bulls roster, I don't think any of these players were the top guys on their college team when they got drafted. I believe they are still growing and sooner or later one of them will evolve into a powerful leader. But right now they have to do it by committee and they have failed miserably. The obvious choice is Ben Wallace because that's what the Bulls thought they were getting, but they forget the reason Detroit did not cry too much when he left town. It was because Wallace was becoming a complainer of minutes and strategy and not privately but at times publicly of Flip Saunders. So now you have a hard-working talented team that has no big-time player leadership and because of it Scott Skiles has to wear the hat and that's when players start to get tired of the coach.
Kirk Hinrich has to pick his head up and play like the guard everyone was thinking he would become after a solid first two seasons. He seems to be worried too much about missing shots than becoming a leader like Nash and Chris Paul. That will undoubtedly sink the Bulls further in the basement of the Eastern Conference.
I never thought a team coached by Pat Riley struggle with leadership – especially when you have Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Dwyane Wade on the roster. I said it last year in an article and I will repeat it again... This team put every ounce of energy into a title two years ago and they are done. Riley should have blown it up and traded everyone except Wade and Shaq after that season. The Heat won with a veteran-laden team two years ago and the energy level took a major hit. Shaquille is not a spring chicken and he needs youth around him to keep him fresh and inspired. I listed Miami because they are struggling, but I really do believe they have players that want to lead. But they are a tired group – other than Wade – and it seems that he better grab the bull by the horns or the Miami Heat will make yours truly look like a good prognosticator because I was the only one who predicted before the season that they would not make the playoffs this season.
Pau Gasol needs to play up to his potential and stop trying to jump ship. That attitude will not allow him to lead the team, where he is presumably the best player. The Grizzlies have very good young talent, but like the Bulls will need to find a leader that can allow Marc Iavaroni to have a solid year evaluating his team and at least get them close to the potential he expects.