View Full Version : In NBA, it's 'I' before 'we'

11-01-2004, 01:33 AM
In NBA, it's 'I' before 'we'

By DAVID MOORE / The Dallas Morning News

Imagine you're an NBA coach. You've preached the importance of playing together as a team your entire career, only to see the concept corrupted by money, ego and other factors beyond your control. You tell your team to play the right way, then watch it get beat by those that don't because the opponent has more star power.

You're frustrated. You don't blame your players for turning a deaf ear. You don't know where to turn. Then...

What you have is the coaching equivalent of a perfect storm. You extol the virtues of playing like the Pistons and provide two high-profile examples of what can happen if you don't.

"They were a true team," said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, who lost to Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals. "It was exciting. They put the emphasis back on team and what it's about."

Too many franchises have drifted from that emphasis. In a sport where one player can have a bigger impact than any other, where pop culture and NBA stardom often intersect, where Q ratings are as much a part of the vernacular as pick-and-roll, staying focused on team is increasingly difficult.

Don't lay all the blame at the expensive shoes of the players. A salary structure that creates inequities and divisions leads to breaking teams apart. There are also more young players coming into the league, players who grew up having teams built around them who are suddenly asked to fill a role and complement someone else.

"It's much more difficult to put teams together now," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who has put together two championship teams with the Spurs and served as an assistant on the U.S. Olympic team. "I think everyone has figured out an abundance of talent doesn't necessarily ensure anything. But a group of players that fit, given an adequate amount of talent, that could present a much better opportunity to be successful in a big way because you have people who accept roles, who understand when they're in the game and when they're not, who care about the whole more than the individual.

"There is a real emphasis on that these days, to try to bring in people who will fit."

Star search

The star system drives the NBA. You see it in marketing the league. You see it in endorsement opportunities and rap singles by players. You see it in the number of championships.

The Pistons won the title in June without a dominant star. You have to go back to Seattle in 1979 for the last time that happened.

Elite teams are defined by and associated with their best players. How often have you heard that San Antonio is Tim Duncan's team? Miami is now Shaquille O'Neal's team. The Lakers belong to Kobe Bryant.

The star often takes billing over the team. If a player is unwilling to accept that designation, such as Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, he opens himself to criticism from the media for shirking his responsibility.

Coaches and general managers have always had difficulty structuring a team around star players when everything else sets them apart. Perhaps the best at putting those teams together through the years has been Jerry West, the president of basketball operations in Memphis.

"One of the things I really believe in strongly is the character of players," West said. "People who know their roles are willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the team. You can have a lot of great players with bad attitudes and not be successful."

Please see West's former employer, the Los Angeles Lakers, as an example.

"Coaches will talk about how they need to get the ball late to a Duncan, O'Neal or Bryant," West said. "All of a sudden, some guy raises up and shoots a shot.

"You tell the guy that's not what we were running. But the player will say, 'I had a good shot, and I was wide open.' And why were you wide open? Because you can't shoot."

Having talented players accept lesser roles will always be a struggle in a sport that puts only five players on the court at a time. Too often, a player feels like his identity is lost.

Coaches can now point to Detroit and argue it's better for a player to draw his identity from the team.

"There are teams that could have been a lot better if they were willing to play together," said Mavericks guard Michael Finley, who swallowed his ego and scored less as the team has developed.

"Sometimes, you have to give a little in order to take a lot. You might have to go from being a 25-point scorer a game to being a 21- or 22-point scorer just for the betterment of the team. It's not that the focus is being taken away from you individually. It just makes it more of a team concept.

"The team concept always wins over individual talent."

Young guns

A high school player has been taken with the first pick in the draft three times in the last four years. Eight high school players were taken among the first 19 picks of the June draft.

Only four college seniors were taken in the first round. The rest were underclassmen and international players, many under the age of 20.

There are two key points to be made here. One, young players don't know the game as well. And two, if a player is good enough to enter the NBA before his 20th birthday, he's never been asked to fit into a team. Teams have been built around him.

Criticism of the U.S. Olympic basketball team has focused on the selection process and the lack of time the team had to prepare. What's been lost is that team had a lot of young players who, for the first time, were asked to adapt their game and play a role.

"It probably is harder to get young players to play together as a team," said Larry Brown, the coach of the Olympic team and the Pistons. "Not because they don't want to, but because they have not been asked to. Most young players have not been through four years of college, where as freshmen and sophomores, they had defined roles and maybe had to sacrifice for some of the older kids.

"To me, kids want to be coached. We shy away from doing that and they're the ones that suffer, but I truly believe they all want to play the right way."

Cap matters

The salary cap also breaks teams apart.

Talk all you want about how egos and petty jealousies led to the O'Neal-Bryant split. Owner Jerry Buss simply couldn't pay both players maximum contracts and have enough money to build a competitive team around them. He tried the last two years and failed both times.

Every marquee name that traded places this off-season wound up on a team where the best player was in his first contract. That's the only reason those teams had the financial flexibility to make the deals.

And they'll be penalized for it down the road when they try to retain other players.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of teams that end up having to overpay people because this guy or that guy happens to be their best player," Popovich said. "They in no way should command the money they do, but since they are the best player on the team, the team is basically a hostage to it."

"Everyone knows it. Agents know it. Players know it. Coaches know it. General managers know it. But, it's not going to stop. It really is unfortunate because it hamstrings some teams for a very long time."

Owners are looking to get out from under long-term obligations. They are looking for flexibility to rebuild a team if what they have isn't successful.

What Detroit did was grab everyone's attention. It let everyone know a strong coach with an emphasis on team can buck the odds.

"The good teams in basketball are very close," West said. "Usually, there is one ingredient that makes them win. That's a team that plays very well together, goals are spelled out before the start of the season, and the players know their roles. That is where you have to give coaches a lot of credit.

"You don't win with individuals. You win with numbers of individuals."