Championship players on championship teams are all role players. Each player has his own unique touch. It is usually not as simple as: he rebounds, he plays defense well on quick guards, or he can drain 3s. It is more dynamic, more human than simple generic traits. Stephen Jackson, SF of the Spurs brings an contagious toughness, 3 pt range, and a cerebral mindset. KG brings an awesome 20-foot jump shot, lengthy frame, unquestionable intensity, and the innate ability to instill accountability in his teammates. Pau Gasol’s mid-range game is weaker than it used to be; however, his “basketball isn’t everything and I have other interests,” attitude creates a good cop/bad cop dynamic with Kobe (Not sure if this is good or bad). Each NBA player’s attitude makes the puzzle pieces more complex than focusing on gameplay alone.
Towards the end of the fourth of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the big 4 and Pietrus (whom I soon rip apart, even though he was a necessary contribution to the W) were on the court when the Celtics called a timeout. The Big 4 huddled tightly around a frantic Doc Rivers who was desperately trying to get out all the little things that tickle a coach’s mind. During Doc’s rant, Pietrus was five feet away from the huddle. To give you a better visual, Pietrus had his chest facing the court and his face was turned to the huddle. It reminded me of a child trying to leave the room before his parents can dole out any additional chores. Sad to see a thirty-year old demonstrating this sort of juvenile behavior.
Garnett did not care for Pietrus’s demeanor much either. Like a parent, Garnett grabbed an immediately startled Pietrus by the wrist. K.G dragged Pietrus’s ass right back to the huddle. No eye contact. No words exchanged. Garnett took Pietrus by the wrist and pulled him right into the huddle just like that. Laughter was my immediate response until it quickly subsided to an anger/sadness hybrid. This Pietrus guy is depressing me, I thought. Pietrus has enough talent to play with a group of HOFs, yet an attitude that is probably detrimental to his overall game.
The shenanigans were not over yet. When Garnett released Pietrus, he again walked towards the court. Garnett pulled him in again. Same thing—by the wrist with no eye contact or words exchanged. This time it was for a simple hands-in. Those watching knew that it was Garnett’s game. If he wanted a hands-in, he was going to take it. Similar to the way he took that game and made it his own.
What planet was Pietrus on? I believed that Pietrus would be aching to demonstrate an attitude of care and attentiveness in order to further prove to his teammates why he belonged out there with HOF talent. Stupid me. Then I realized, it is the aloofness of Pietrus that makes Garnett that much more intense. All the dynamics, attitudes, and styles meshing together. It is beautiful. It is messy. It is NBA basketball.
Coexisting with the abilities and personalities of each player is the key to a winning team. In order to be a great player, an individual must respect his teammates abilities. Great teams do not ask questions like: Should I pass because he more likely to make the shot? Should I set the pick? Does my team need me hanging around the perimeter or in the paint? Winning players, and as a result great teams, do not ask themselves these questions. Winning players have an identified role. Winning players lead the team through individual contributions by developing a winning role. A winning role is a role that propels the team to success while bringing out the best qualities of his or her individual self. For example, Kevin Druant may believe that he can take over any game at will. However, in order to increase the likelihood of a victory, Durant will defer to Westbrook who requires more shots in order to be effective. Durant understands that it takes a team effort to win in the NBA. Durant accepting and owning a lesser role is for the betterment of the team making it a winning role.
Garnett will not forget tonight’s game. He reinvented his winning role tonight on the road at a moment’s notice. The Truth and Ray started the game slow. Garnett did not look at them with disappoint or a, “How can you be doing this to me now?” expression that graces the face of many NBA losers. Garnett would never bash players for petty reasons. Instead, K.G looked inward. He recreated his role in order to propel his team to a victory. He became the main offensive threat. At the same time, Garnett did not forget his role as the defensive anchor. As some would like to put it, he put the team on his back. I like to think he saw the offensive void. Garnett knew it was his void to fill.
In basketball and business, there will never be a perfect team. Co-workers will have skills that overlap. Other skills may be missing from the team. A leader will fill those gaps. It does not matter if the individual is best suited for a job, task, attitude, responsibility, etc. Leaders identify a void. Leaders take it upon themselves to fill a void. Leaders understand that a more perfect success is not attainable without filling a void.
Good leaders take it a step further. Good leaders do more than identify a void. A good leader is successful at identifying a real void. A great leader will find the most effective way to fill the void. Sometimes it requires a personal contribution. More often, great leadership requires an understanding of who would be best suited to fill the void. I believe that the person who can identify a real void is usually not the person best suited to fix it. That is fine as long as the person finds a way, or a more qualified teammate, to fill a void effectively.
I cannot finish this post without acknowledging the bad leaders. Bad leaders have a habit of identifying a non-existent void. (Knicks fans be warned: Melo bashing imminent.) Look no further than Carmelo Anthony for evidence of the effects of bad leadership. Melo sapped the offensive willpower out of a group of offensively talented players with his selfish, isolation, me-first style of basketball. The supporting Knicks cast went from a fast-motion, passing offense under Lin to a stagnant offense under Melo. Yes, he dominated in April. However, I believe his offensive dominance came at the price of his teammate’s confidence. Melo put the team on his back when it was not needed. The void was not there. The players around Melo were willing and ready to contribute offensively (and even contributed well defensively for that matter.) It was Melo’s failure in choosing a winning role that led to the Knicks’ demise.
Garnett’s shot volume in Game 5 was that of a Carmelo Anthony. Where Melo typically does not act in the best interests of the team, Garnett most certainly adapted a winning role. How can this be? Garnett identified that his team needed offense so Garnett provided offense. Melo decides his team needs offense. Melo does not wait for the desperate look of his teammates— that, “It is time. Step it up look.” Melo assumes his team needs him. He assumes the Knicks are desperate for his offensive contribution. That is not leadership. That is ego. Good leaders do not operate with ego. Good leaders identify a real void and fill it in the most effective way possible. A great leader knows when he is not the best person or the only person for the job.
In Game 5, Garnett identified a void. He was not the best person to fill the void when the Celtics were struggling. Rondo was having an awful shooting performance. Pierce looked tired for three-quarters, before awaking in the fourth. Ray still did not have his legs underneath his shot. Garnett was the only person who could possibly fill the offensive void. No other Celitc can provide the star-caliber, offensive contribution any of the Big 4 can. Garnett identified himself as the only person who could fill the void. True leadership.