When the Phoenix Suns signed center Tyson Chandler in 2015, the team put out a press release with a quote from then-President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby that read, “Tyson Chandler will be a leader on and off the court. His physical stature is matched by his immense presence as an individual of high character who is highly respected by the NBA community. It is an honor to welcome this NBA Champion and All-Star to Phoenix.”
In 2016, the Suns signed forward Jared Dudley. In the press release, General Manager Ryan McDonough said, “Jared’s work ethic, professionalism and knowledge of the game will provide a great example for our young players to try to emulate.”
Phoenix signed guard Leandro Barbosa that same summer. McDonough said in that press release, “Leandro has played a significant role on a number of very successful teams over the course of his career. ‘LB’ is very popular with teammates and fans and we are thrilled to have him back as a key part of the Suns. We think he will contribute greatly to what we are building — on and off of the court — here in Phoenix.”
Noticing a pattern?
Each release mentioned veteran leadership in some way, shape, or form. But the dividends paid by that veteran leadership never justified the hype.
Barbosa’s contributions “on and off the court” were deemed “key” for just a single season in 2016-17, helping the team to a 24-58 record. By the summer of 2017, waiving him to save $3.5 million became key-er to the front office.
Dudley, meanwhile, served two seasons in Phoenix as a veteran leader. He held a decent role in 2016-17 but was all but forgotten in 2017-18 — so much so that equipment manager Jay Gaspar was routinely tasked with feather dusting the veteran…at least one hopes for the visual alone. His tenure ended a year premature when Phoenix dealt him to the Brooklyn Nets last week in a salary dump. Both Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss tweeted thank-yous to Dudley after the trade for the example he set, although Chriss’ biggest takeaway from Dudley last season appeared to be body type.
Chandler is the last man standing from those veteran leadership signings, even with rumors swirling about a buyout of his contract’s final year. His three years in Phoenix have spanned everything from the Markieff Morris saga to the Eric Bledsoe saga to the immaturity of Chriss to an omnipresent hailstorm of technical fouls by hotheaded neophytes. He is respected by teammates and opponents alike; however, his personal brand of leadership hasn’t extended to tackling issues head-on — at least not publicly — and it’s not a bridge too far to wonder how interested he is in leading a losing team that rested him post-All-Star break in consecutive seasons while it prioritized ping-pong balls.
That’s an underwhelming return from something important enough to be touted in three separate press releases. And guess what? It happened again.
After sitting out free agency in 2017, the team signed wing Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract this July. Surprise! There was a press release. Double surprise! McDonough was quoted. It read: “Trevor is a talented two-way player who will bring defensive versatility, shooting and leadership to our organization. He has played a big role on a lot of successful teams and we think he will have a tremendous impact on our club, both on and off of the court.”
Proof, please. Because while on-court contributions can be measured, this mystical veteran leadership has thus far brought with it no team improvement. No player improvement, either — none directly attributable to the veterans anyway. Drama crops up like milkweed around this team, yet these leadership qualities continue to be exalted. It is possible, if one squints really hard, to envision the veteran leadership preventing the Suns from plunging to new and unexplored depths of dysfunction over these years, but the last three seasons have had the distinct feeling of watching Artax sink into the Swamp of Sadness.
There’s a disconnect here.
It sounds good, sounds important, but except in the rarest of cases (Kevin Garnett joining the Boston Celtics in 2007, for instance), veteran leadership is nothing more than a euphemism for “past his prime.” It has been drained of meaning, existing now for no other reason than to fluff up an acquisition. It adds no substance, like padding a term paper with 57 verys and reallys to reach the length requirement.
If veteran leadership were such a valuable commodity, the Suns wouldn’t have jettisoned Dudley and given his roster spot to 24-year-old Richaun Holmes. That series of transactions last week gave the Suns 11 players on their 15-man roster who are equal to or younger than 24 years old, including three rookies. Only Chandler and Ariza are over 30. Seems like an imbalance, no?
And speaking of leadership, McDonough was quoted by azcentral.com’s Doug Haller during Ariza’s introductory press conference as saying, “We need his defensive ability and versatility, his shooting ability. But I think as much as anything — maybe more than anything — we need his leadership and his winning character.” Yes, leadership. Like that time he led a small raiding party through the bowels of STAPLES Center last season to confront the Los Angeles Clippers after a game and earned a two-game suspension for his trouble.
At least we know he walks point.
Leadership is not the same as being professional or setting a good example or being a good teammate, and not everyone is wired for the role. Leaders can be loud and demonstrative or quiet and reserved, but they all go about leading in an active, not passive, manner. It’s a role that must be consciously accepted, and not every veteran wants to be or is capable of being a leader on a team. Some just want to do their job and go home. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A vet isn’t deficient somehow because he wants to go to work and handle his business without babysitting a bunch of other adults.
Unless a player has a long history of being locker room poison, people won’t assume the worst, so there’s no need to sell the public snake oil about the wonders of veteran leadership. Yes, a veteran has experience in the NBA. Yes, a veteran can show an inexperienced player a few tricks on and off the court. No, any ol’ veteran isn’t going to change the entire culture of a locker room. And no, a veteran isn’t going to make his apprentices better through osmosis. Alex Len picked up a few tricks from Chandler, but he never became Chandler. Earl Watson was influenced by John Wooden; Earl Watson was no John Wooden.
Instead of filling time with fanciful talk about dodgy and ill-defined traits, general managers should speak on the player’s professionalism. Talk up his work ethic. Or heck, spend that time explaining how he will contribute to winning games. Because in the NBA and across all professional sports, winning cures all.