Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek and I recently spent a few minutes talking about team leadership. The Suns announcement to induct Steve Nash, one of the greatest floor leaders of all time, into their Ring of Honor juxtaposes one big difference between recent Suns teams and those of Nash's era.
Leadership was clearly lacking in the team's 2014-15 season after they rocketed to an unexpected 48-34 record the year prior. You could argue that the coaches should be providing leadership, but those two are not the same thing.
Management (coaching) is all about putting people in the right place at the right time, setting them up for success in their chosen profession.
Leadership is about enabling them to succeed while sacrificing their own personal goals for the greater good. It's about convincing people to think about the team first, and to root on their teammates without worrying about what's in it for them and whether they have more _____ than the other guy.
Just look at the Suns 2004 Suns. Mike D'Antonio gave the players a blueprint to succeed, just like he gave the Nuggets before them and the Knicks and Lakers afterward. But it was Steve Nash's on-court and spiritual leadership that made the team successful. More talent = more wins, for sure. But nearly leading that decidedly mediocre 2011-12 team to the playoffs shows Nash's impact on the outcome.
The Suns coaches can be held accountable to putting players into a position to succeed, but they really can't be the heart and soul of the locker room.
"We're out there, they listen to us every single day, we're constantly saying stuff," Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said during the Tyson Chandler press conference last month. "But when your teammates can help them out and mentor them, that's when guys really make strides."
The Disease of Me
This is exactly where the Suns went wrong last year.
"The most difficult thing for individuals to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice. It's much easier to be selfish."
--Pat Riley, from 'The Winner Within'
At one point in Pat Riley's book, he described what happened to a very good Lakers team after they won the 1980 championship. Superstar phenom Magic Johnson missed half the season due to injury and took all the press coverage with him. The team, who managed to win 70% of their games in his absence, became consumed with jealousy and resentment. They turned on each other, got the coach fired and lost in the first round of the 1981 playoffs.
"Because of greed, pettiness, and resentment," he wrote, "We executed one the fastest falls from grace in NBA history. It was the ‘Disease of Me.' " Whether you are an athlete or not, the vice of pride is the ground in which all other sins grow. It can weasel its way into our lives and destroy relationships and communities. C. S. Lewis said, "Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man."
The 'Disease of Me'.
The Suns suffered from some of this disease last year. When they returned from summer break, no less than five players had brand new long-term contracts: Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, P.J. Tucker, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe.
You'd think that security would have calmed them down, made sacrifice easier. But the opposite happened. Players began the season resentful of those around them. They spent too much time worrying about their own statistics, their own touches, their own playing time. And too little time worried about team's success.
Part of the problem, of course, was faulty roster construction. Each of those long-term contracts, except for Markieff Morris, was given to players sharing the same position. Bledsoe and Thomas not only had to fight each other, but they had to fight free-agent-to-be Goran Dragic too. Tucker and Marcus Morris not only had each other, but also had rookie T.J. Warren to worry about.
Yet Bledsoe was the quietest and happiest of the bunch, despite having major competition for his touches and time. And Markieff Morris, who had no competition, somehow became one of the least satisfied.
So the roster construction problem wasn't just about players fighting for minutes. It was about the players' personal motivations as well.
Riley noted one of the danger signs of Disease of Me being 'feelings of frustration even when the team performs successfully'. Remember Thomas and Dragic talking about the struggle in terms of their own touches? Or the whole Morrii Path of Self-Destruction? Or Archie Goodwin complaining about opportunities? Or Gerald Green being in a bad mood most of the year? Most of that happened while the team had a winning record and a chance at the playoffs. Remember McDonough lamenting this isn't "singles tennis"?
Lack of leadership
The biggest roster construction problem had to do with lack of leadership.
The locker room last year was begging for leaders among the players. Not leaders who focused on individual success. Not leaders who formed cliques in the locker room. But leaders who would tell the other playes to stop worrying about themselves, and start accepting sacrifices for the betterment of the team.
Before we get to the one-on-one I had with coach Hornacek, let me rehash a couple of telling comments made by Hornacek and Tyson Chandler during the public portion of his introductory press conference.
"Almost all good teams I've ever been on," Hornacek said. "You have somebody that's gonna get on guys and you have players who accept that too. They're not gonna say, 'screw you, Tyson'. They know he's a veteran guy who won a championship. He's gonna be that leader. Guys are gonna follow that."
"It's really based on the character that you have in your locker room," Tyson Chandler said of how much leadership he can provide the Suns. "As an outsider looking in, and even having some time with a couple of these guys, I feel like it's a good group of guys. That being said, the only time you can't have an impact is when you don't have willing participants. But I feel like, in this case, its a good group of guys that want to get better."
One on one with coach, on leadership
After the press conference ended, coach Hornacek and I talked a bit more about leadership in an exclusive Bright Side interview.
"What Tyson said is exactly right," Hornacek said. "If guys aren't buying into it, he's not going to be effective. And that's part of our job. We feel we have the group, and if there are guys that won't listen we'll get them out of here and bring in the guys that will."
The Suns made some trades at the trade deadline, and even more this summer. Gone from last year's rotation are Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Brandan Wright. In addition, Markieff Morris is demanding to be traded. Clearly, not all the guys who left were victims of the Disease of Me. But judging by Hornacek's comments, at least one or two of them were part of the problem last year.
"We'll break it down," he said. "We have guys now we're getting rid of that aren't gonna do that. And that's where [Chandler's] leadership will... I can't think of any guys in our locker room now that would give him any trouble. I think our guys really are looking for someone to lead them."
Hornacek has been wanting a team leader for two years now. He's mentioned Tucker as an on-court leader, but hasn't said much about Tucker's locker room leadership. He never mentioned Bledsoe, Dragic, Thomas or the Morrii as potential team leaders, despite being given plenty of opportunities to do so (by me in pre-game press conferences). He has said many times that Bledsoe, Len and the others have been just too quiet to be real leaders.
During the season when the Suns acquired Brandan Wright and Danny Granger, the front office and coaches touted them for their professionalism. Even Brandon Knight was touted as a leader. They were grasping at straws. Knight got hurt 11 games into his Suns career. Wright was a backup and a quiet person by nature, and Granger never played. Those guys were in the locker room, but had little impact on the strong clique of active rotation players.
"Let's face it, you can't have a 10th or 11th man be your leader. It's gotta be your main guys," Hornacek admitted.
You also can't expect a guy who shows up halfway through the season to become a leader when the locker room doesn't even really believe they were lacking leadership. It's easier to be selfish than it is to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. That locker room was full of the Disease of Me.
To put it mildly, Hornacek is excited about Tyson Chandler being that guy. Chandler isn't Nash. He isn't going to pump players up by high-fiving them all game long. But he will get in their faces when they mess up. And he will command more professionalism in the locker room.
Chandler has been in the playoffs 7 of the last 8 seasons. His Mavericks won a championship in 2011. He was the starting center for Gold-Medal winning USA in the 2012 Olympics. Just last year, he led a ragtag Mavs team to the playoffs.
"I think the guys are relishing, ‘hey we got a guy that we can follow, that can lead'," Hornacek said. "A lot of these guys are worried about themselves right now. They're new to playing. Now they can just relax on that part and follow somebody."
You know this is more hopeful-speak than real knowledge, considering Hornacek has barely seen the culprits he's referring to.
This interview occurred before the Suns were able to announce the signing of Mirza Teletovic, who might also be seen as a potential leader. At the least, Teletovic has a reputation of being a great locker room guy and one who is willing to sacrifice for the greater good. He doesn't complain about touches or minutes. Sounds a lot like the impact Channing Frye had - not an outward leader, but a calming one who helped keep players on an even keel.
Hornacek still holds out hope for Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe to become leaders as well. He says he needs at least one of them to assert himself next year.
"We still need one of our point guards to step it up in terms of their leadership, especially on the offensive end," Hornacek said. "Because they're going to have the ball and they're gonna call the plays. Just because we have Tyson as a leader, we still want these other guys to step up their leadership ability too. We don't want to lay it all on him. He's gonna be the main one, but everybody could step it up a little bit and it would help."
I can't re-iterate enough how many times Hornacek has been looking for an on-court leader to his team. Remember, he played next to point guards Kevin Johnson and John Stockton. He played for coaches Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jerry Sloan. His team's went to several Conference Finals and two NBA Finals.
He's found a way to win more games than he's lost in two years running the Suns, but he knows what's missing. He knows how teams need leadership on the court and in the locker room to be successful.
"I think we'll take the right steps," he said of next season with Chandler in the fold. "Does it get you in the playoffs? We hope so. It will be tough in the West."
He paused a moment, nodded and smiled.
"It gives us a legitimate shot."