Managing Egos in the NBA

On the Sunday afternoon of Chinese New Year, in an internationally-televised game featuring two struggling (all be it, to different degrees) teams hoping to break through for the remainder of the 2011-2012 season, the Boston Celtics defeated the Washington Wizards 100-94 at the Verizon Center. Paul Pierce had a terrific game, almost recording a triple-double with 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists while shooting 10-15 from the field. Before the win, Boston had lost 6 of its last 7 games and its point guard Rajon Rondo, the main driver of the team’s offense, to a wrist injury.

Whether you’re a Boston fan or not (and I’m not – I’ve been a loyal fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team I grew up with, for many years), it’s hard not to feel good for their aging roster. Between father time catching up with superstars like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and the grind of a 66-game season wearing down on the remainder of Boston’s roster, the Celtics have found themselves with a W/L record of 6-9, out of title contention, and even struggling to remain within the Eastern Conference’s top 8 seeds. Last week, Danny Ainge hinted at the possiblity of bringing in youth and with Boston’s biggest trading chip being Paul Pierce, there’s no certainty of how much longer the assembly of superstars that had fans buzzing in 2007 and first pushed us to coin the term “The Big Three” would even last. There’s no doubt about it, with Boston’s struggles leaving a lack of presence and excitement at the top of the Eastern Conference, even rival fans have to be rooting for the team (even if it’s silently) to regain its original form in some fashion.

And here’s to hoping the Celtics can withstand the grind of the rest of the season and give the NBA’s fans some competitive games in the new year. But sadly enough, neither the Celtics’ win nor Pierce’s performance remains the biggest story from this matchup. The biggest story was the boneheaded, 3-point play by Nick Young with 6:06 remaining in the 4th quarter and his team within striking distance. With his drive to the basket giving the Wizards an 83-82 lead and an additional free-throw coming from the foul committed by Brandon Bass, Young took the liberty of staring down Bass under the basket, taunting him, and forcing the officials to call a technical foul, which Pierce would later hit to tie the game at 83. Boston continued to chip away and build a lead in the remainder of the 4th quarter to earn a well-deserved win, but I have to admit: I’m not much of a fan of the Washington Wizards (especially this season), and I sat through the rest of this game, as I’m sure other fans did, just fuming about this play.

Occasionally, NBA fans will see their players earn undeserved technical fouls or ejections from the game – let’s rewind to the Tim Duncan/Joey Crawford incident for one moment…a technical foul for laughing? Enough said. On the other end, we’ll even see coaches or team leaders strategically earn technical fouls to fire their teams up, in hopes that doing so will put them in an eventual position to win. This play was neither. Aside from being a display of embarassingly poor sportsmanship, it was a foolish forfeiture of 1 VERY important point which, with 19 seconds left in the game, would have left the Wizards with the ball and down 3 points, rather than 4. Instead, they obviously found themselves down 4 points and were not able to score quickly on the other end to stop the clock. The game was over and the truth remained that the technical foul that Pierce had cashed in on earlier (talk about capitalizing on someone else’s stupidity) changed the course of the entire game and may, in fact, have lost it for Washington.

As a fan, it’s easy to pick out and identify points that may have changed a game – a free throw here (a.k.a. Lebron James), a blown layup there, the list adds up. In my mind though, there’s a difference between a simple mistake and blatant incompetence. This play crosses that line, but it also brings up another point: why do we even see professionals commit plays that are this bad and what do they tell us about the league? The NBA is not only about talent, chemistry, drawing up great plays, and execution down the line. It’s about managing egos as well, and teaching players how to eventually manage their own and let their play do the “talking.” Not all players are exactly like Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant – who already came packaged with a commitment to humility and work ethic when they were drafted.

Sometimes, it’s about finding the appropriate culture and environment for a player. For example, Lebron James appears to be turning a corner under Riley’s and Spo’s disciplined, structured culture in Miami, although it remains to be seen if the Miami Heat will win it all this year. But, for the first time in a long time, he spent an off-season summer in silence, reflecting on what went wrong and what he needs to do to improve his team (e.g. hopefully making a commitment, this time, to avoid firing up opposing star players through televised jokes referring to their injuries/ailments…go Dirk!). Whether they win it all or not remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that James is a different player today than he was in Cleveland, in The Decision, and in Miami’s premature championship celebration early last season. Zach Randolph is another great example. Moving away from the Isiah Thomas regime in New York and finding a healthy environment alongside better, hungrier professionals like Rudy Gay, has allowed him to flourish in Memphis. One can only hope that DeMarcus Cousins has a similar experience eventually.

Other times, players can learn how to manage their own egos and become better team assets throughout their experience. Losing, in some cases, may just about do it – take a look at the original “Big Three” from Boston, whose years of professional trials allowed them to remain focused and unselfish during their championship season. A lot of pieces have to fall in place to bring out the best in your players and, going back to the original point, Washington’s missing a lot of them. Coach? Flip Saunders. He’s a fine coach when he’s thrown into situations with experienced players, like Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. As a disciplinarian and ego manager for immatures? Not so much – you’d be better off with someone like Mike Woodson. Culture? Run by Andray Blatche. Awful. Experienced veterans to guide along the younger talents like John Wall? Forget it. Boneheads? I can name more than a few of the team’s players that regularly commit boneheaded plays, no matter what their mothers say. It’s hard to tell a rebuilding team that they need to rebuild again, but in Washington’s case, that’s just the reality.

On a brighter note though, it also makes me form a greater appreciation for how difficult it can be to run a team, whether we’re talking about team captains/leaders, role-players, coaches, and executives/owners. Reflecting over the last 20 years, leaders like Tim Duncan, role-players like Lamar Odom, coaches like Phil Jackson, and executives like Pat Riley all have one amazing thing in common, besides winning. They understand that achieving success in the NBA requires much more than just physical talent and great plays. The NBA, much like other aspects of life, is about checking your ego at the door if you want to win.

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