PHOENIX — Leadership is a funny quality when it comes to NBA locker rooms. It isn’t necessarily dictated based on talent or the player with the loudest voice, although those can certainly be determining factors. It often isn’t appreciated when it exists, but it’s definitely noticed when it’s absent. It isn’t inherent in everyone, but as is the case with the 2012-13 Phoenix Suns, it can be inherited because of personnel transformation.
The culture of a team may not solely be influenced by its leaders, but they certainly have a hand in shaping a level of chemistry, upholding a sense of professionalism and instilling a winning attitude.
And say what you will about the summer departures of the Suns’ most recent leaders — Grant Hill and Steve Nash — but if one thing is obvious heading into Phoenix’s home opener on Oct. 31, those two will not be easily replaceable. While their void will be noticeable on the court, as has been talked about at length for the past three months, it’s in the locker room where their influence will be truly missed. That isn’t a slap in the face aimed at the current team, but it’s hard to ignore losing two of the game’s greatest ambassadors, two of the franchise’s most beloved figures in the community, two men who not only made their teammates better on the court but drove them to also be better off it. Hill and Nash had the talent, the wisdom, and the vocal presence, but they had something you can’t teach: instinct.
Although the Suns enter this season with a number of guys who would love to tell you that they’ve “been there before,” go down the roster and tell me who you believe will be that guy to stand up when the team is mired in a four-game losing streak or is being blown out by a lesser foe in the first half of a home game? Who will be an extension of Alvin Gentry and hold a team meeting on a moment’s notice? Who will have the instincts to push when it’s time to push and hold back when patience is required?
This organization has built a team with a mix of veterans, promising talent and young blood. But Alvin Gentry and Co. are an eclectic bunch to say the least. Several of the potential starters have made their living off the bench or in complementary roles. Several of the potential bench players have underachieved or are looking for their second or third chance in the league.
So where does the leadership come from?
The obvious choices to take the reins are Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat, almost by default. With Channing Frye’s unfortunate diagnosis and Goran Dragic’s recent return after an almost two-year stint in Houston, Dudley and Gortat are the longest-tenured players on the team. They’ve both spent time with Hill and Nash. They’ve both endured the pressure-packed moments of either a conference finals series or in Gortat’s case an NBA Finals series. They both have five years of experience under them and are the team’s lone returning starters. And maybe most importantly, they are well-respected among their teammates and within the organization.
“To me this is natural,” Dudley said of stepping up to become the team’s next leader. “I feel like I have always been a natural leader. The difference is now I can’t goof off as much, because we don’t have someone like Grant who is the stable guy. I have to be the stable guy.”
Look, I am confident Dudley has the capability to grow into a Grant Hill-type role in the locker room. But that doesn’t happen over night. You don’t just flip a switch between being the team’s morale booster and being the team’s leading voice. Dudley hasn’t needed to be a vocal leader with a team since his senior year at Boston College in 2007. He should be the guy and he wants to be the guy. That much is known and admirable I might add. But words don’t just make it so, and Dudley knows that.
“Grant did everything right 100 percent of the time,” said Dudley. “I told GM Lance Blanks that I am more of an 80-20 guy. That’s just who I am. But I am 27 and I have two kids, so it’s time for me to grow up a little bit.”
Dudley has built a nice niche as the franchise’s most likeable guy over the past few seasons. From Twitter contests to JMZ videos to his ability to make key contributions whether as a starter or a spark plug off the pine, there is no doubt the fifth-year pro is a fan favorite around the Valley. But can he be the driving force that influences the locker room culture, while also maintaining his charm and flair for comic relief? Despite all the lip service, that much is still a virtual unknown.
For Gortat, the Polish Gazelle seems to be more interested these days in proving doubters he can succeed without Nash by his side. Most of the talk during the preseason has revolved around what he’ll bring to the court in the absence of a two-time MVP and how his game won’t change despite the offseason turnover. Little, however, has been said about what kind of role he even desires inside the locker room.
Focusing on his on-court role is not an issue. Neither is wanting to succeed out of the spotlight of Nash. In fact, it’s extremely understandable. But for a guy who has played second-fiddle to stars his entire NBA career, while the number of reasons listed above indicate he should finally be able to call this team his own, is Gortat really ready for such lofty off-court expectations? To me, the jury is still out on him as well.
More than just role players
Changing the culture in any locker room doesn’t just happen during a one-month preseason. So to expect the Suns to have their locker room situation fortified in the coming weeks is just foolish. For some teams it takes months, others a full season and well there’s also those that never figure it out. Either it’s too many voices and not enough ears or not enough voices and too many ears. At the moment, the biggest concern down the line is that the Suns run into the latter problem.
But there is a chance others will step up.
As was mentioned earlier, leadership qualities are not just based on statistics on the back of a basketball card, the number of All-Star appearances or years a player has in the league. But it does help, and in the case of Alvin Gentry’s squad, leadership may be best suited for those who have some hardware to show for on their respective resumes.
Although Shannon Brown and Jermaine O’Neal will in all likelihood begin the year as bench contributors, the two offer the 2012-13 team something far greater than franchise familiarity and widespread likeability. They’ve both succeeded at a high level, Brown in a team sense and O’Neal on a much more personal level.
“I’ve been in winning locker rooms, and I know what it takes to create the belief required not only to win games but to win championships,” said Brown, who served as Kobe Bryant’s backup during the Lakers’ 2009 and 2010 title seasons. “With Steve and Grant gone, it’s up to people like me to hold others accountable. And that’s something, after watching former teammates do it, that I am not afraid to do. You can’t win as a team if you’re not accountable as a team.”
Now in his 17th year in league, O’Neal has gone from one of the league’s youngest stars to one of its oldest veterans. But even at his ripe young age of 34, O’Neal understands what it takes to take a team to the next level, regardless of talent or experience. He’s played with great leaders like Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, and Kevin Garnett, who not only had Hall of Fame-caliber talent but also a Hall of Fame-caliber presence. He may not have their collective desire to lead — after all those are some high-profile figures — but he knows that without that internal desire it’s very easy for any sort of success or growth to be sabotaged.
“What’s going to separate us from being a good team, a playoff team, and a bad team, a non-playoff team, is how fast we bond and how serious we take this,” O’Neal said.
Not so serious
O’Neal’s sentiments seem to be right on the mark. As it is, this team heads into the season with plenty of question marks — from the growth of Goran Dragic’s game to the untapped potential of Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson to the offensive capabilities of Gortat without a true pick-and-roll point guard — so to add another one as important as a leader-less locker room would be alarming to say the least.
It may be a role that’s handled by committee or determined based on situation rather than tenure or experience, but one way or another, this team can only move on without Hill and Nash, if the players truly make a concerted effort to create something of their own. Whether that starts with Dudley or Gortat or requires the expertise of Brown or O’Neal has yet to be determined. One thing is for certain, Alvin Gentry — a man who is coaching without a guarantee after the 2012-13 season — doesn’t seem to be overly concerned even if the rest of us are.
“I think they genuinely like each other, I feel that,” Gentry said to reporters at Media Day. “That’s a good start. I just think the more time you spend with someone the more you’ll bond with someone. Obviously ultimately we want to become a very cohesive unit, and if you have that then you have a tendency to have mutual respect for each other. When you do that, good things usually happen.”
For his sake I hope cohesion happens sooner rather than later, because if it doesn’t, Gentry may ultimately be the one who takes the fall.