The Leaderless NBA

Editor’s Note: The footnotes appear at bottom of the page rather than next to the corresponding paragraph where the footnote is placed, still working to resolve this (one work-around is that footnotes open in separate window next to essay when clicked on).  Enjoy the footnotes nonetheless; they are worth the obligatory “scroll time.”

Bill Russell ain’t got nothin’ on Dwight Howard.  So maybe Bill Russell won a few championships (alright maybe more than a few, 11), put together an MVP season or two (or 5), and, hell, even coached himself (and his teammates) to an NBA championship once upon a time (as one of the only successful player-coach stints in recent sports history)[1], but the great Bill Russell was never wise enough to be a personnel man.

Dwight Howard is a new breed.  Sports pundits have always marveled over what a perfect athletic specimen D12 is for the center position, but his brilliant brawn has blinded us from his acute managerial and scouting prowess.  Little did we know, but he has a knack for knowing what creates a championship team.  By god, he has the secret formula!  Let’s get him some chalk and a board and see what he can teach us…wait, your grand plan for improvements around the Amway Center is Monta Ellis and 31 year old Stephen Jackson…hmmm…can we get that chalk back, I believe Office Depot allows same day returns….


Mr. Howard was quoted as saying a big piece of why he is forcing his way out of Orlando is because he does not have a “voice” in team personnel decisions.  “The stuff that I have asked for, the stuff I felt our team needed to get better, none of it has happened,” said Howard.  And Howard is not alone in his desire for executive and personnel decision-making power as a player.

Dwayne Wade perhaps the “OG” Player-GM pushed Pat Riley aside last summer and pulled off the greatest free agent coup in NBA history in recruiting LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and of course, himself to his very own “Miami-Wade” county.  Carmelo Anthony (or shall I say LaLa Anthony) catapulted into “management” last season to extract himself (herself) from Denver and paired himself with Amar’e Stoudemire in mid-town Manhattan.

This era is brand new, so we cannot break out our “jump to conclusion mats” quite yet as to the success of these new Player-GMs.  However, early indications are not promising.  While Dwayne Wade recruited the most talented basketball player in the world in LeBron James, the two virtually play the same position and spent the entire last season stepping on each other’s feet as much as two kids at a middle school Sadie Hawkins dance.  Carmelo and LaLa’s executive decision matched his small forward offensive focused game with offensively inclined power forward Amar’e Stoudamire arriving at six seed and a sweep out of the playoffs.[2]  And then you have D12 and his desire to acquire Monta Ellis, yet another shoot-first point guard who cannot get him the ball (a lot like Gilbert Arenas with better knees and cooler tattoos).

We have arrived at a new era in the NBA one defined by: The Player-GM.  Very few players throughout sports history have ever been able to be successful player-coaches (Russell, a notable exception).  We are at the precipice of this new era, where the players know best how to construct a championship team.  This despite the fact that many of these newly self-appointed Player-GMs have little or no formal college education, obtained no managerial experience whatsoever, and have never demonstrated any expertise in the nuances of understanding putting personnel together that fits on a chemistry level.

When Harry (Billy Crystal’s character) met Sally (played by pre-lip injected Meg Ryan) in the cleverly titled When Harry Met Sally he shared with her that “there are two kinds of women in the world: high maintenance women and low maintenance women.”  She responds, “so which one am I?”  He retorts, “you’re the worst kind, you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.”

There are two kinds of NBA superstars in today’s Player-GM era: the ever lessening and endangered low maintenance types (self-driven leaders, inspiring of others, humble, lead-by-example) like Derek Rose, Steve Nash, and Kevin Durant[3] and then there are the high maintenance (but think they are low maintenance) types.  Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony headline this type of superstar; they have un-worldly athletic gifts, but also believe their shit (and awful personnel ideas) smell like Yves St. Laurent aftershave.  These high-but-think-they’re-low maintenance types are driven by a narcissism[4] that somehow indicates to them that their basketball skills are so tremendous that somehow these physical skills instantly translate to brilliance in front-office decision making abilities.

As a fan, it is unnerving that NBA free agency is now hostage to high school like clique behavior.  For true insight into where a player is going in future summers, it would seem the Chris Broussard’s and Adrian Wojnarowski’s of the media (both NBA scoop artists) would be better off hunting down which players are on Dwight Howard’s Xbox friend list or LeBron James’ birthday invitee list to ascertain where they may be on the move to next rather than where they will win the most titles.

The high-but-low-maintenance stars think they are low maintenance because they make basketball look so easy and inherently bring 50 regular season wins to a city near you.[5]  However, the high maintenance behaviors arrive when they insist on playing assistant GM, demand their posse fly on team flights, or get their friends hired onto team payroll in the case of LeBron James with his tenure with the Cavs.  Just ask Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, these I believe-I-am-low-maintenance-because-I-win-50-game types have more demands than a Van Halen world tour rider (only brown M&Ms).

These superstars skipped right past the player-coach dynamic (and have thus far missed on the whole actually winning NBA championships thing) and anointed themselves Player-GMs.  They force the moves, demand their teammates, and then lose before late June comes around.  It’s a real fun cycle like that.

Player Leadership

(cue the record screeching sound as the needle is ripped away from the previous paragraphs…I promise the snark stops here)

In fairness to Howard, Melo, and James, the guys with all the education, managerial experiences, and supposed knack for piecing teams together have not exactly done a bang up job as of late.[6]  Isaiah Thomas, Danny Ferry, and David Khan all come to mind.  I can have empathy for these guys if they are trapped in a situation where the GM (or even the owner) trade for all the wrong players and especially the wrong contracts or are convicted slumlords (in the case of Clippers owner Donald Sterling).  However in the case of Carmelo Anthony, it gets less excusable.  The Nuggets have committed ownership and a GM who made sound decisions.  Same goes with Dwight Howard’s owner Rich DeVos (he just paid $62 million to Gilbert Areans NOT to play for his team, so his team could get better).  This seems to suggest a genuine commitment to winning.  As for Magic GM Otis Smith, perhaps that topic is saved for my next essay.

Dwight Howard’s suggestion of the Magic acquiring Monta Ellis as the 2nd banana for the team to re-enter Championship mode is particularly interesting because he does not seem to recognize the real flaw in his team (or his game). Ellis certainly can score.  However, Monta has never been the embodiment of team leadership, rarely seems to extract more out of his teammates, and has never been known for his keen ability to distribute the ball to his teammates.

The underlying foundational problem for the Magic is that they actually need a “number 1 guy,” not a 2nd banana.  The same for Carmelo in New York and the same went for LeBron before he left Cleveland (and gained Wade).  Unbeknownst to these high-but-think-they’re low-maintenance ballers is what actually is required to lead a team: to start, how about leadership.[7]  These three players in particular[8] seem to think raw talent trumps all.  None of these players, in 7+ years of NBA experience, have been the #1 go-to-get-on-my-back-I-will-take-you-to-the-promise-land-guy deep into the playoffs.[9]

Leadership is a funny thing.  In watching Tim Tebow overachieve the past seven weeks, and more importantly somehow extract overachievement from his teammates, pundits have pointed to his “intangibles” and “leadership,” but no one can quite put words to what precise characteristics he has that comprise his remarkable leadership.  Let’s give it a try…


In psychology, the study of teams and interpersonal interaction is largely done through the theoretical lens of what is referred to as “systems theory.”  Practically speaking, it is not usually utilized to study teammate interactions or team chemistry issues (it applies quite well though), but instead intervening and helping with families in psychotherapy.  Systems theory provides an excellent theoretical guide for how to understand groups of people and the complex web of multifaceted relationships that make up a group or family dynamic.

The “organization” or “structure” of a system/family (or team) is the most fundament piece to a successful system.[10]  People need roles.  Human beings thrive on knowing what is expected of them.  If a role is too large or small for one member of a family or team, then problems will occur.  If certain roles or tasks are occupied by two members of the same group, then conflict will arise.

The most critical element of the structure or organization of a family is good leadership at the top of the family.  Leadership is a top-down process.  If you go to the playground on a weekend and observe the interaction of kids with their parents for 2-3 minutes, you will know in a Gladwellian Blink-like second who is running that family and if there is healthy leadership at the top.  A further example of this power imbalance is a really bad episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16: dad works all the time and can only be in charge of gift giving, mom is lost in her world botox and calf implants, and the child is left to fend for him/herself.  The brattiness of the child is usually a direct product of the void in leadership in the family.  The effect of poor leadership is not just noticeable with annoying[11] behaviors of teenagers.  Infants as young as 7-8 months are remarkable at perceiving and absorbing the emotional state (i.e. anxiety, confidence) of their caretakers; especially if the caretaker is not comfortable in their leadership role.[12]

A healthy hierarchy and familial organization is found when children know their parents are in charge and parents allow their children some developmentally appropriate autonomy, but still govern their children’s interactions in the world.  This allows all family members the freedom to be themselves in their roles.  However, children are constantly growing and changing and these roles change over time.

Changing roles is when things can get complicated because what is essentially asked of a group/family is for multiple individuals to change in congruence with each other (giving up some roles, gaining different new roles or tasks), and this usually takes place without any direct communication about each parties’ role change.  It is a very difficult “dance” between multiple parties with little or no verbal communication; usually only subtle non-verbal cues of needed or desired changes.

This is where good leadership is paramount.[13]  A good leader can sniff out the change that is coming, adjust their own role in whatever way is needed, foster communication about the changes that are emerging in the system and group, and help others psychologically and emotionally prepare for their change in role.  Or in the case of NBA ownership: allow their star players to shine as brightly as they can, build talent around them, but not cater to their every whim, in turn, ceding control to them.

A prime example of this kind of change is when Kobe Bryant forced Shaq out of L.A.  This sequence is synonymous to an adolescent/young adult having success at an internship, but knowing that daddy paved the way for that opportunity.  Kobe won 3 titles with Shaq, but also went through a personal/professional metamorphosis where he knew he was ready to be the leader.  You can never have two leaders on the same team.[14]  It was a reasonable progression and expectation for Kobe Bryant to want to graduate to adult life, lead his own team.  It was also understandable for Shaq to not want to give up the throne of L.A while he still had a year or two left in his prime.  With grand poobah Phil Jackson, maybe the only member of the early 2000’s Lakers system that could have successfully intervened, off fly-fishing in Montana everything quickly spiraled out of control.  What transpired next was a Roman like blood battle for the emperor’s chair that resulted in Kobe’s ascendance as King of L.A., the original talent-taking to South Beach with Shaq shipped to Miami, hurt feelings communicated in F-minus rap songs, and eventually a truce between Shaq and Kobe brokered by…are you ready to go full circle here…none other than…Bill Russell.

The problem with the new generation is most of these guys have not been on teams where they have learned how to win championships.  Kobe’s time with Shaq (and Phil Jackson) was a tremendous luxury for him as he learned what it takes to win at the highest level.  Especially for the new generation of players who usually soak in only one year of college, they miss out on learning how to win and lead (especially for those fortunate to study under Professors Krzyzewski andddddd…oh wait all the teaching coaches are gone from the college game).  Unfortunately he is one of the last vestiges for teaching winning with dignity, leadership, and honor, the amateur coach, has been replaced with sleazy salesmen who only excel at recruiting.  Is it any wonder Doc Rivers sent his kid to Duke?

The greatest NBA players and example of leadership had some of the most gifted teachers and leaders the game has ever seen.  Michael Jordan had Dean Smith.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had John Wooden.  Bill Russell had Red Auerbach.  This is not a coincidence.  Leaders are not simply born into the world, they are fostered and taught to understand that within the fiber of their beings they have the ability to lead themselves.  One who can lead himself, quite easily leads others.

NBA Management Leadership

The final piece of this diatribe on the State of the NBA Union is the leadership at the top.  Like we visited before with the family analogy, leadership is top-down.  A system is only as successful as its leader.  With the NBA, individual teams succeed or fail based on their leaders: owners and GMs.  The healthiest and most consistently successful mid-market teams (using mid-market teams in order to control our measurement for success by removing teams like the Lakers that have inherent advantages like marketing $$$, an abundance of sun and busty-attractive woman, killer nightlife, and beaches) have the strongest and smartest leaders: Dallas (Mark Cuban), Oklahoma City (Sam Presti), and San Antonio (Greg Popavich, R.C. Buford).  Reciprocally, the teams mired in the most turmoil for the past decades the Knicks (James Dolan, Isaiah Thomas) and L.A. Clippers (Donald Sterling) are devoid of strong, healthy leadership.

Question: You randomly stumble across 500 million dollars in a brown paper bag on the bus tomorrow morning and have the privilege of purchasing your very own NBA franchise.[15]  In just as great a stroke of luck David Stern, the benevolent fella that he always is, says “just because I like you I am going to give you a special choice in starting your team.”  You can either start your team with Sam Presti as your GM for the lifetime of your ownership or I will place LeBron James on your squad for you to build your personnel around.  Who do you choose?

I do not know the answer to this question…but at least it leaves you thinking.  I will say though that there are probably on 5-6 super-duper stars in the NBA that guarantee you a certain amount of on-court success.  We as fans and media get extremely caught up in the importance of these players and drool at the possibility of our team acquiring one of these players (just look at the fan commotion surrounding the Suck-For-Luck movements early in the NFL season).  But mustn’t there also be 5-6 super-duper GMs in the league that can simultaneously win now without sacrificing the team’s future.  Obviously fans are drawn to the on court athleticism, as should be the case, but just know that if you are lucky enough to obsess over a team with great management you will probably be a less frustrated and agitated sports fan (cut to the scene of Green Bay Packers fans smiling and nodding right now).


Let’s zoom out one more layer to get a fuller picture of the current state of flux and leaderlessness in the NBA.  NBA Commissioner David Stern is in the most precarious, uncertain moment of his entire career.  The domain sale papers have surely been drawn up in the last couple of weeks.[16]

The NBA is lacking at the top and not just in need of someone to hand out fines if guy’s get into fights.  The NBA is lacking the true patriarch it blossomed with in the 1980s and 1990s.  With the talent pool in the NBA right now, the league should be stronger than ever.

Which begs the question, “Who the fuck[17] is in charge of the NBA right now?”  If you asked a completely unknowing observer from the outside and simply had them view the last two years, they would say the league is run by its superstars.

It is David Stern’s responsibility to put a structure in place to prevent the NBA from being run by 25 year old athletes.  He swung wildly and missed at such measures to do so in the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement.  It is David Stern’s responsibility to help all facets of the league to know and understand their respective roles.  Anything less is a failure in leadership.

By no means is it an easy job, but he has clearly lost the psychological power to impart his will on the players and owners.  Dwight Eisenhower once said of this challenging task, “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”[18]  As a leader, attempting to forcefully jam a solution down another party’s throat (like what we are seeing in Stern’s methods with his handling of the Chris Paul trade) is an admission you are no longer in control.  For it is the leader who gets the other party to chew, embrace the flavors, and willfully swallow that which at first they did no want to eat.

If you have appropriate control over a system, all parts fall into place.  The David Stern of 1995 had complete control over how all aspects of his league evolved.  The David Stern of today looks like a tyrant grasping for his last bits of power.

It comes back to 7-8 month old infants.  Even they can perceive their caretakers’ uncertainty if its there.  Of course the new generation of young NBA superstars can unconsciously sniff out that David Stern has lost his fastball.  These players have filled this void with their own style of leadership and ideals for how they think the league should be run.

David Stern has responded very erratically in the past few days, especially as it relates to the Chris Paul trade.  The worst thing a leader can do is communicate a confusing message, as Stern has done all week.  Like any decision from a well-intentioned leader, there are usually good intentions behind it.  In this case he would seem to be trying to protect small-market teams from becoming completely irrelevant (avoiding a league where you have 7-8 great teams and 22 chump teams with half-filled arenas) and also trying to extract maximal value for the New Orleans Hornets franchise.  However, when you are trying to please many different parties you must be very skilled and strategic in your leadership.

A smart parent never tells their child not to explicitly date a particular boy they do not approve of.  They deftly maneuver using indirect techniques to get their daughter to believe the boy is not up to her standards.[19]  But if you use a very direct technique and say you cannot date that boy, than you have already lost.

The 2010 and 2011 free agency periods have fundamentally changed the NBA business.  Players are dictating nearly everything.

Unfortunately for the fans, David Stern has his own teenage rebellion revolution on his hands and no longer has the indirect techniques to quell this uprising.


Sometimes, you just need a change.  Rumors say that David Stern was just waiting to complete this last CBA deal before handing off his role to his deputy Adam Silver.  But in my eyes Silver is too close to David Stern.  He will never be given a chance (by players or media) even if he does have good policy and ideas.  David Stern has simply done too much damage in letting the league and the power structure shift to young players and owners not ready for the responsibility in front of them.

Once upon a time, David Stern and Michael Jordan were close allies.  This era will go down as Stern’s most significant achievement.  Management, ownership, and players worked in tandem to grow a better league.

Now we need a new figure that can work with this new generation of high-but-think-they-are-low-maintenance superstars.  This leader must garner their respect, enough so that they can return to the confines of their roles as players and not fret so much and so loudly about personnel decisions.[20]

My solution: look to the beginning; go with a figure like Bill Russell.  He is one of the few NBA legends that seems cogent, respected, and admired universally in the multiple facets of the NBA system.

I know very little about Bill Russell.  I have not met him, much less read a biography on him.  For all essential purposes all I need to know about him is what I have read on his Wikipedia page and the way I see the young players actually respect his presence in league history.

Right now the league needs stability.  Bill Russell is not the long-term answer to the leadership crisis in the NBA (he is 77 years old after all).  But he genuinely seems to care about the well-being of the league, as evident by his intervention with Kobe-Shaq.  The league, Stern, seems to respect him enough to recently name the NBA Finals MVP trophy after him.

It’s time for a change.  Sure, the NBA owners would flip out about the lack of fiscal credentials under Russell’s belt, but that is why the league has accountants and lawyers and other league lay people.  They can handle the details, and the new commissioner can handle the big picture issues.

Stern and Silver must go and allow a new power structure to emerge that can handle and control this new generation of players and better help the owners help themselves.

Maybe all that the league needs to heal its leadership crisis is its first former Player-Commissioner.

[1] Unless you were a Cincinnati area bookie in the mid-80’s, only then might you deem Pete Rose’s player-manager stint as an unadulterated success

[2] Yes, Tyson Chandler will significantly upgrade the defense this season, however in looking at the Knicks roster something still feels missing to start how about a point guard.

[3] We probably include Chris Paul in this group…but the three-ring-circus he helped create this week keeps him off this short list for now.

[4] Cue the scene of Dwight Howard wearing his Superman cape with an aw-shucks grin on his face or LeBron James removing his jersey to reveal his back tattoo reading, “The Chosen One.”

[5] Not to mention the part where they basically guarantee their ownership a boatload of money.  This cannot be underscored enough, but as fans this really does not effect us.

[7] I just broke that whole, you’re not supposed to define a word with a word rule, but I’m actually executing the rare use of defining smaller word with a larger version of the same word (leader with leadership), so maybe I can get away with it just this one time

[8] Carmelo could (just maybe), be the exception to this as he did lead Syracuse to a championship in college.  With that said, Jim Boeheim was the unequivocal leader of that team.  In the NBA, it’s very rare to actually find a coach who is the leader of his team.

[9] LeBron in 2007 being maybe the only exception, however by the looks of it he was too young to know how big a stage he was on.

[11] If you are seeking out a fun drinking game- the next time you watch an episode of the Kardashians take note (and a shot) every time Kim or Kris Humpries use the most loaded version of the words “annoy” and “weird” when having significant conversations about their future.  The following is Kim’s irritated response to Kris shitting all over her for raising conversation around the fact that they are not living together 35 days post-marriage-“you’re sooo weird, stop being annoying right now!”  Their lack of capacity to communicate actual personal thoughts or emotions is quite jarring.  I’m not sure those two are going to make it.

[13] Or the need for a therapist or consultant comes into play

[14] A family is a little different from a team in this way.  If a family has two parents available, then they must work in unison as one leadership front.  In sports, you tend to have your one leader, or it starts to get complicated and conflictual.  Take note of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City this season and you get a clue for what happens with two leaders.

[15] I hear New Orleans has team for sale and they have this really good point guard on their team…

[16] I think this is where I am supposed to include an advertisement link to and start raking in the big bucks, but lucky for you I’m new at this whole internet thing and don’t quite know how to pull that off

[17] I apologize if you read this far, arrived here, and are unsure whether you can read on due to the gratuitous use of an f-bomb.  Trust me, it’s warranted in this context.  Just know, I got your back.

[18] Yeah, so I may have just did a google search to find a good leadership quote to fit this scenario…what you thought I read a biography of Eisenhower…much less could quote it off the top of my head?!

[19] It is kind of like the final mission Leo DiCaprio’s team in Inception if you take away all the dreams and stuff

[20] It’s terrible for the league’s image to have players whining about their workplace suitemates when the consumers, fans, of the league are struggling to keep jobs at an unprecedented rate in American History.


7 thoughts on “The Leaderless NBA

  1. I appreciate that you bring it up an additional level to D. Stern. I think you’re absolutely right that his lack of leadership, presence and sound deliberation have had an enormous effect, not just within this off-season, but past years. The trickle down effect of anxiety and loss of control from Stern have definitely influenced the issues surrounding GMs and Diva Players. I think it also adds to the utter confusion those outside the system have when looking at the NBA. Without recognizing/understanding the ways in which Stern’s negative/lack of/non-existent leadership has influenced the state of the NBA, we spend much more time with the most basic (and typically interesting) facet, the players.

    Tons of good stuff in here. Loved reading it. Forget the dissertation…focus on this.

    • Hey guys,First of all congratulations with the baby Second of all I’d like to say I’ve been relaly enjoying the podcast, been following since podcast #1 and was wondering if you are going to start a fantasy basketball/football league for your listeners?GreetzPaul

  2. Pingback: The Employed Ones: Free Agency Culture of the NFL vs. NBA «

  3. Cancel the season, and let them find work like the other milnlois who are without jobs; maybe a job at Mickey D’d where they will not be able to meet their mortgage and maybe they’ll understand what the rest of the Country is dealing with.I don’t deny them their salaries; careers in pro sports can be short for many reasons, and the revenues are there to compensate them on equitable terms however; to be nit-picking over little niblets that can be mutually divided and agreed upon, while the rest of America is fighting to pay their mortgage, put gas in the car, to put food on the table, etc., etc., is just lacking common sense.Let alone realize the businesses that will be seriously hurt, and possible fail, as a result of not having a season!!!I don’t wish hard times on anyone but, maybe a good dose of reality would help them see the logic, the rationale and the common sense that there comes a time, and point like with the inflated prices of houses when common sense must be the main focus of any, and all discussions.Come on boys on both sides; time to get mature, grow up and settle this thing.

    • 6:19 and here you go1. Derrick Rose, Memphis2. Michael Beasley, K State3. OJ Mayo, SoCal4. Eric Gordon, Indiana5. Kevin Love, UCLA6. Danilo Gallinari, Italy7. Russell Westbrook, UCLA8. Jerryd Bayless, Arizona9. Brook Lopez, Charlotte10. Joe Alexander, West VirginiaGlad to see there’s more than two competitors this time, as was case for NFL draft.Don’t be suirrpsed if Mayo is second, Beasley third. Character is important.

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