Recently, my professional world and my Sactown Royalty world collided. I was applying for a new position with my company, one in which the staff that I would manage would increase eight-fold. During the interview process, I was asked in detail about my ability to manage, my ability to lead. As it turned out, I did not earn the promotion, but it had nothing to do with my leadership skills. According to the HR department, the difference was that my chief competitor elected to wear pants to the interview, while I thought that my vintage Sean May underwear (they say "This vehicle makes wide right turns" on the back) would go over big. Damn you for losing that weight, Sean May! You cost me my promotion. You’ve made a powerful enemy today, my friend.
Where was I? Job interview…lame excuse for not getting job…lamer Sean May joke…oh, yeah – leadership! There has been a fair amount of conversation around StR regarding team leadership. As in, who is going to lead the current bunch, and how will it be determined? By talent (Kevin Martin)? By potential (Tyreke Evans)? By height (Spencer Hawes)? By authority (Paul Westphal)? By age (Kenny Tho…I can’t finish this – I just can’t)? And more importantly, how can this team be expected to compete without that one team leader, that one lightning rod, that one "face of the franchise?"
As I have participated in this conversation, I have entertained the notion that we should not even play this season. I mean, you don’t send a ship out to sea without a Captain, do you? Three hour tour my ass, "skipper." Get me a freakin’ leader, not someone that is going to depend on the professor to fashion a radio out of coconuts so that we might get off this God-forsaken island. (Mind wandering again – beginning to come to grips with why I may have truly not earned that promotion…)
The Kings have actually had only a couple of true leaders as they enter their 25th season in Sacramento. Mitch Richmond was really considered the first team leader, though that designation meant little as the team around him sucked year after year. During the golden years, it was a multi-headed beast. Chris Webber was the "man," the lightning rod that took most of the hits (positive and negative) for his team. Vlade Divac was the locker room leader. Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson contributed tenacity and soul. Mike Bibby was the cold-blooded assassin. It was almost leadership by assignment. It was a thing of beauty. And we miss it dearly.
I then began to wonder how we became the only team in the NBA to be faced with this problem, and I discovered that not only are we not alone, we actually have a ton of company.
By my count, there are only eight teams with truly defined leaders – go-to, buck stops here, the ball is in my hands when the game is on the line, the rest of the team answers to me, opposing fans hate and fear and respect my game - leaders. They are (in no particular order) LeBron James, Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Steve Nash. There are other players (that I will cover later) that are sniffing around this list, but they are not quite at this level.
The guys that I just mentioned are unquestionably the masters of their domain. LeBron and Kobe are practically running their franchises. Teammates of Paul, Williams and Nash know where their bread is buttered, and that they better follow the leader if they hope to see the ball on the offensive side of the floor. Wade leads by example and insane talent. Duncan by sheer work ethic and singular focus (Duncan is the only guy with a potential heir apparent in Tony Parker). KG and Pierce are an effective duo – it’s interesting that the leadership skills of both of these individuals were called into question before the merging of their talents. I also wonder if this is part of the problem in Boston as it pertains to Rajon Rondo. Does the PG that led the Celtics in last year’s playoffs want a piece of the leadership pie, and are the veteran leaders resistant to hand him a slice?
Obviously, the Kings have no one like this today. And when I say that, I mean that none of the players on the Kings roster are like these guys today. I am not saying that someone like (say) Tyreke Evans may not eventually become one of these guys.
Let’s go to the next level. Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony/Chauncey Billups, Dwight Howard, Gilbert Arenas. Johnson is the lead figure for Atlanta, and he has had some tangible playoff success. At the beginning of last season, I had Kevin Martin and Joe Johnson on about the same level. Be it the level of talent around Johnson or the fact that Johnson has been able to stay healthier, right now Joe Johnson > Kevin Martin. Dirk is Dirk. He is a great, great player, but I think that he is really more Robin than Batman. If Michael Heisley were running the Mavs, Pau Gasol might still be slaving in Memphis and Dirk could be dancing in LA with Kobe. Billups is a self-made leader, but in his current environment he shares some of that with Anthony. Conversely, I think that ‘Melo might be the next guy to make the jump – he’s still only 25. Arenas is a great but oft-injured talent (proven NBA fact - as a player, you cannot lead if you are not playing). Howard (23!) just needs to continue his development. UPDATE - Brandon Roy should have been included here as well, per the thread comments. I looooooove Brandon Roy.
Next, the guys that are just developing their games and their persona to the point where you can begin to consider their potential (you know, where we were at the beginning of last year with Martin). Andre Iguodala, Danny Granger, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose. Will these guys become great team leaders, or are they destined to be great NBA players but no more (see Redd, Michael)? I like Rose and Durant on this list, with Granger as my sleeper.
My "you might have had an hourglass figure, but your time is up" candidates: Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Great talents, but they seemingly lack that ability to grab a team by the scruff of the neck and drag it forward with them.
The "I’ll lead, but you’re not going to like where we end up" candidates: Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson.
Let’s make one thing clear. I am not saying that any of the guys outside the elite list suck or lack as players. Certainly, I would take most of those guys for the Kings, and many of them might instantly ascend to the role of leader in Sacramento (‘Melo in a Kings uni – mmm). But what is apparent is that true leaders are a lot rarer than we might think. The idea of finding a leader for the Kings is certainly easier said than done.
The constant to all of this leader business is that these guys are amongst the best players (if not the best player) on their respective teams, they log big minutes, they lead by example, and they shine when the game is on the line. There is a big difference between these guys and a veteran presence. As much as we love Bobby Jackson (for example), he is no longer physically capable of being a team leader. Desmond Mason might be able to make this team and even contribute some meaningful minutes, and his time in the league might rub off some positives on his younger teammates. But a team leader Mason is not.
I guess that my conclusion (or at least as close as I ever come to a conclusion) is that the Kings will need to develop or obtain a leader if they are to again ascend to the level of NBA elite teams. But given that there are only eight teams that have that elite leadership, and that almost half the teams in the NBA are in the same boat as us, it is OK for us to open this season without that clearly defined leader. It is not ideal, but it is OK. We are, after all, a team on the rebuild.
A three hour tour…a three hour tour.