A tepid rage filters through me when I hear the phrase; it might just be a phonetic thing: “Veteran leadership” sounds dumb. It’s a concept that commentators thoughtlessly invoke without explanation like we all know what it is and it need not be defined. We heard the term a lot during OKC’s extended playoff run last season. Derek Fisher is bringing his veteran-y veteran-ness into that tyke-filled locker room in Oklahoma City and giving the Thunder the sort of age and dead limbs that champions are made of. It’s not that I don’t believe that a Derek Fisher type provides some kind of valuable service to a young team that is difficult to quantify, but I believe in it like I believe in moderate politics and Anna Faris’s talent—it’s difficult to locate and figure out exactly what it’s doing.
Perhaps this is because the act of “veteran leadership” happens mostly out of public sight—on team charters, in locker rooms and practices. I assume it sometimes involves knowing where to find a good steak restaurant in Minneapolis. Other than the specific instance when a level-headed guy like Shane Battier bear-hugs a teammate who is cussing out the referee and talks him down, where do we see direct, tangible results of a veteran’s presence on a team’s roster? One occasionally hears about vets teaching their tricks to youngsters, but it’s not like Tristan Thompson started trying out Antawn Jamisonian scoop shots halfway through his rookie season. It’s hard to believe in what you can’t see.
I think we can perhaps discern the effects of veteran leadership best when it’s noticeably absent. The Kings, for example, have been a rudderless team over the past few years in part, the story goes, because they have a bunch of guys in their early 20s, and DeMarcus Cousins, who occasionally adapts scenes from The Yellow Wallpaper to the basketball court. They’re a fascinating, schizoid tapestry of a team that can just as easily upset the Thunder as lose by 26 to Golden State, but the dominant narrative is that the Kings have too many selfish players, Cousins chief among them.
This dominant narrative isn’t altogether wrong (though, as Eric Freeman rightly points out, “It would probably be easier for [Cousins] to mature if anyone treated him like an adult.”), but the language used to describe the Kings’ conundrum is telling. ”Selfish” is a term that has a thoroughly pejorative meaning. For example, Kobe is rarely “selfish” when he goes Optimus Prime in the fourth quarter of a game, but when he clanks three straight contested jumpers down the stretch, that adjective tends to creep back into the picture. And petulance is somehow twinned to “selfishness,” I think because we associate inflated egos with childishness. (A two-year-old is the ultimate egotist.)
But you can shift the meaning of something pretty significantly by using a close synonym. Put another way, the Kings have too many ball-dominant players. A ball-dominant player isn’t an inherently bad thing (most great players have high usage rates), but having three of them in your starting lineup is a problem. Categorizing the Kings’ flaws using a more clinical term posits their problem as with the construction of the roster, not the temperament of the players. The problem becomes based in mechanics, not character. But they’re a very young team and Cousins is a lightning rod, so “selfish” is the go-to descriptor when talking about why they struggle. My point is, they might need an adult in the locker room, but what they require just as urgently is a pass-first point guard. Focusing too readily on their youth obfuscates the latter need.
But let us, for the sake of trying to think through our “veteran leadership” question, treat the Kings’ old guy deficiency and say they somehow acquired an exemplary professional like Tyson Chandler. Putting basketball acumen aside for a moment, how would he—try not to retch—”change the culture” of the Kings? Surely, he has stories to tell and wisdom to contribute. He has spent 11 years in the league and persevered through some rough stretches. (It’s easy to forget the first half of Chandler’s career was considered a disappointment.) I don’t know if DeMarcus Cousins would listen to Chandler, but he’d have about as good a shot as anyone at getting through to the third-year big man. Regardless, the onus would be on Cousins—who seems like a smart, thoughtful guy who might be a whit insecure and has a poor handle on his temper—to open himself up to whatever advice came his way. The same goes for the rest of the Kings’ supposed lesser knuckleheads. Counsel is something one must actively seek.
At the beginning of last season Reggie Miller admonished LeBron James after Marv Albert mentioned that LeBron had asked—I can’t recall whom, exactly—an all-star on a rival team about how to deal with the pressure of expectation. That was obviously cheap tough guy rhetoric from one of the NBA’s most unpleasant, bloviating media personalities, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that some players hold the same myopic-jock worldview as Miller, especially extremely gifted players in the first few years of their careers.
To become a lottery pick requires a degree of self-belief that can easily become poisonous. One has to balance the arrogance of believing they’re one of the very best basketball players on the planet with a humility that allows one to persistently improve. I think Cavalier fans will watch Dion Waiters try to calibrate his arrogance over the next few years. His fearlessness is a necessary component of his basketball-playing person, but he needs to sometimes defer to his coaches, teammates, etc. (He’s also about to become a 20-year-old millionaire after growing up broke on Philly’s south side, so throw that complicating factor into the mix.) He has to figure out the solution to a difficult question: how does one maintain intense self-belief and still know when to ask questions?
You’ll notice I’ve strayed from my initial question. I’m talking around the notion of veteran leadership in an attempt to glimpse its form—I think it has its paws in all these slippery concepts I’m discussing. And all these slippery concepts—locker room pH, perceptions of players and teams, arrogance vs. humility, youth development—are relevant to a Cavaliers team that has to decide in a few months what do with its veterans when the trade deadline approaches.
Chris Grant has been deliberate in expressing to the fans and media that he wants to construct a team out of “high character” athletes and cultivate a organization-wide “culture” conducive to developing young talent and steady, sustainable improvement. He has been even-handed in his decision-making; I wouldn’t call anything the Cavs have done over his tenure radical or unexpected. His general managership has been characterized by calculated risk: taking Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters earlier than most people expected, accepting Baron Davis’s bloated contract in exchange for the Clippers’ lottery pick, trading up a few slots for Tyler Zeller.
Grant mentioned, when introducing Waiters and Zeller to the media, that the plan on draft night was to only select two players. He didn’t want to use all his draft choices and take four rookies. Reading between the lines, he seems to think one doesn’t start a youth movement by throwing 20-year-olds against one’s roster sheet and seeing what sticks. It’s a more careful process.
But how careful? The Cavaliers are a deep shade of green. The only players on the team with more than three NBA seasons are Andy Varejao (30), Boobie Gibson (26), C.J. Miles (25), and the crippled remnants of Luke Walton (71). If they jettison Varejao (whose stock is high) and/or Gibson (an expiring contract and great three-point shooter), how does that effect the team in terms of the sort of “culture” Grant is trying to create? Are “veteran presences” crucial to the development of Waiters, Irving, Thompson, et al. or is the “culture” strong enough that the growth of those players doesn’t require the sort of wisdom that comes only with experience? I don’t have answers to those questions, but Grant and his front office staff will either implicitly or explicitly answer them in the near future. It must be the most vexing part of being an GM: you have to assign value to even the most nebulous stuff. They’ll put numbers to the immaterial and quantify for themselves the value of whatever the hell “veteran leadership” might be.