After what’s been a stellar offseason of work for the Lakers, the questions about this team are starting to come up more and more. It’s not so much that there are doubts about how good they can be (over the past week we’ve heard several players comment about how good the Lakers are on paper), but rather a closer examination of some of the things that can potentially trip this team up from reaching their ceiling.
One such question revolves around leadership. After all, the Lakers have brought in two players in Nash and Howard who are accustomed to being the face(s) of their team(s). With them joining Kobe and, to a somewhat lesser extent Pau Gasol, the Lakers now have multiple players who are used to having a voice in the deciding the direction of a team.
The initial question — Kobe/Nash question — is one that’s been raised by several people, but most notably Henry Abbott at TrueHoop. In a very good post that explored multiple angles to the potential pitfalls of their divergent leadership styles, Abbott cites some situations that show this partnership in leadership could work out quite well. In referencing the perception that their leadership styles won’t mesh:
Not so, says former Suns front office guy Amin Elhassan, who knows Nash well and carries a healthy fear of Bryant. He told me on TrueHoop TV recently that he sees the pairing as “the perfect marriage of good cop, bad cop. Kobe’s the guy who gets on guys — which some people would criticize and say Steve didn’t do enough of in his career. And on the other hand you have Steve to kind of build guys up and build their confidence up, which obviously has been a criticism of Kobe. … I think it’s a perfect, perfect marriage.”
I started to wonder if there were examples of teams that really had paired both kinds of leaders side-by-side. How did that turn out?
A clue comes from a footnote of Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball.” In the tiny type at the bottom of page 478, there’s a Phil Jackson quote, borrowed from a must-read 1999 S.L. Price Scottie Pippen profile in Sports Illustrated:
“On the Bulls,” says Jackson, “[Scottie Pippen] was probably the player most liked by the others. He mingled. He could bring out the best in the players and communicate the best. Leadership, real leadership, is one of his strengths. Everybody would say Michael is a great leader. He leads by example, by rebuke, by harsh words. Scottie’s leadership was equally dominant, but it’s a leadership of patting the back, support.”
Wow. Take a note, Laker fans. Elhassan is looking like a genius: “Good cop, bad cop” is how most people’s pick as the best team ever was led.
I’d point out that you don’t have to actually stray far from recent Lakers’ (and Kobe’s) history to find an example of good cop, bad cop working out quite well. Derek Fisher and Kobe shared a similar leadership dynamic for a recent group of players that went to three straight Finals and won back to back championships. Much like Nash is perceived to be, Fisher was the man that would inspire his mates through his words and pick them up when they were down.
Of course, this current incarnation of the Lakers isn’t just a good cop and a bad cop. They’ve also added Dwight Howard to the mix. And with the big man comes a more fun loving approach to the game (an approach that’s received a fair amount of criticism, I might add) that can surely affect a team and its locker room.
However, I don’t think Howard’s loose, kind of goofy ways will be much of a problem (if one at all), even though there are some doubts. As I told D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog in a recent conversation, I think Dwight’s approach can actually provide another balance to the leaders already in the room.
When the Lakers made their surprising run to the Finals in 2008 one thing that stood out to me was the fun that team had playing together. That team enjoyed being and playing together; had fun on and off the court together. One of the reasons for that was having some young players like Bynum, Farmar, Sasha, and Ariza and the exuberance they had in making that run.
But another reason was because of Lamar Odom. LO was known to keep the locker room loose, to never get too up or too down, and to always have a smile on his face. While they’re certainly different individuals with different life experiences (and levels of — perceived, at least — maturity), that sort of sounds like Dwight Howard. Having him in the fold may end up being the perfect compliment to aging, grizzled veterans Kobe and Nash. Every team needs to take their jobs seriously, but they also need to enjoy playing the game together in order to mesh fully. A team can only reach its full potential if they’re 100% together, after all.
Of course, leadership is never that simple and the characterizations presented above are a bit simplistic. I’ve seen Dwight be as demonstrative as any other player in talking to a teammate. The same can be said of Nash, who I’ve observed barking for one of his guys to get to the right spot on the floor. I’ve also seen Kobe take a guy aside and explain to him calmly what to expect on the upcoming possession (as well as heard teammates recount all the times he’s taken them under their wing to aid in their development). All these guys are complex; they’re human. They’re going to show all sides of their personality when trying to get the most out of their guys.
Next year, we’ll see the many sides of these men in their quest to guide this team to where they want to be. But, from where I sit, they look to have the right mix of personalities to get where they want to go. And, I’d much rather have that be the case than not.