Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pecking Order

Sue writes:

>>About the lead player being the most important and guarding his spot [from the "Follow Up Thoughts" post below]...WHY? Isn't this supposed to be a team? Why should [a couple of players] matter so much?<<

Well, first let me say that this issue of pecking order isn't exclusive to the Blazers. As far as I can tell it's a league-wide phenomenon. I can't say exactly how it plays out on our team or even if it does. Not being there, we can only talk in generalities. Furthermore, I'm not sure anyone not intimately involved could explain the "WHY?" of it. My assertions about key players exerting influence over their teammates were more descriptive than prescriptive. I don't know if there's a better way to function...I just know how it appears to be in the NBA.

Age and experience are two factors which naturally create a hierarchy within a team, and appropriately so. I have a friend who worked in the periphery of the professional wrestling business for a long time. (Nobody famous, don't worry.) I know, I know...it's not a competitive sport the same way basketball is, but there are similarities. The athletes involved are competing against each other for ring time and position in the company while at the same time having to work together intimately to put forth a saleable product. The same thing is basically true of pro basketball if you replace the word "ring" with the word "playing".

My friend sat down with me one day and tried to answer my questions about "respect", the unwritten code that governs interactions between wrestlers. He said you could never understand it fully from the outside, but in a nutshell wrestlers police each other to make sure everybody is doing the right thing for the business and giving honor to (and learning from) the people who have been in it longest. Younger guys need to learn the ropes from the more experienced wrestlers, otherwise the company would devolve into chaos with everybody doing their own thing in the ring and backstage both. So basically the first time you enter a locker room you sit down, shut up, and wait to speak until you're spoken to. If you show willingness to learn about the team and endure whatever tests they put before you, you'll be brought into the fold and allowed to contribute. If you don't listen, if you don't bear up with good grace, or if you don't show the ability to contribute, you're ostracized.

The NBA experience is somewhat analogous. Young guys, no matter how accomplished, need someone to show them the ropes. This is even more true in recent years when players are being drafted younger and younger. Rookies go through an initiation process. They carry bags and run errands for the vets. They're put through the wringer to make sure they can hack being part of a team under pressure. In some locker rooms rookies aren't even allowed to speak (and that's the coach's call). The goal is to teach respect for the game and the team. Young guys may have basketball skills, but that doesn't mean they've learned how to win in the NBA yet.

My wrestling friend said when it works well, this system preserves order, makes for a better overall product, and smoothes over a lot of the natural tension that arises when guys are competing against each other and depending on each other at the same time. One of the ways it can break down, however, is when the overt leaders aren't really in it to teach or preserve the public good and instead use their power to benefit themselves, making the team their personal playground. This kind of system puts a lot of power in the hands of a few people and intentionally mutes the contributions of those not in power (who presumably don't know enough yet to contribute intelligently). One or two bad leaders can really mess up the whole group and the group has little recourse.

Talent also factors into NBA team hierarchies. Simply put, Zach has more ability to put the ball in the basket right now than Jarrett Jack. That means Zach is going to get a lot more touches and shots. Let's say the two are at loggerheads over some issue. If Jarrett goes to Zach and says, "I'm going to freeze you out...you'll never get the ball from me," Zach is just going to laugh in his face. For one thing, 11 other people on the team will still pass Zach the rock. For another, as soon as the coach notices his guard refusing to pass the ball to his best player, that guard is going to get yanked. But look what happens if Zach says, "Get in line or I don't get YOU the ball!" Zach is a key piece in 60-70% of the team's offensive possessions. There's no reason he has to pass to Jack ever. And nobody will be complaining that the kid isn't getting his shots either. Furthermore, all it takes is one whisper from Zach that he really feels more comfortable with Telfair making the entry passes and all of a sudden Bassy gets more consideration from the coaching staff. So now...who has to follow whom in this situation?

Are such overt threats ever made? Maybe...but they don't really have to be. Everybody knows the score already, so there's great incentive to fall in line.

Contracts also figure in here. It's not so much that whoever's paid the most has all the say, rather that the stars usually have long-term, lucrative, guaranteed contracts in hand while the youngsters are still struggling to get that level. Zach could walk out to midcourt, stick a kazoo in his rear, and blow the Star-Spangled Banner and he'd still get paid $100 million over the next six years. Jack had better hit his shots, hustle in practice, and hang on coach's every word because his contract is three years, six million and he wants the next one to be higher. If Jarrett doesn't want to run a drill coach gets in his grill and he runs it double-time. Zach has considerably more freedom to do what he wants (or not do, as the case may be). If Jarrett doesn't run the drill the rest of the team will call him a fool and do it anyway. If Zach's not buying into the system, what's the point, really? What are you going to do...make him ride the pines? Bigger, longer contracts usually translate into more influence on the team.

As with age and experience, contract and talent considerations put a lot of power in the hands of a few players. If those players are on board, working within the system, and working hard, it's a powerful motivator. If they're only in business for themselves, it can tear a team apart. And it's not so easy to dislodge them either. What if Jack were actually capable of scoring Zach-like numbers? How's he going to do that without the ball? And is it in Zach's best interest to make sure he gets that opportunity or to make sure he doesn't? Again, maybe it's not as overt as that, but such things do happen.

Having some kind of pecking order is unavoidable. It may even be necessary. One of the great keys to success is making sure whoever is at the top of it has the goal of winning and doing what's best for the team, not just the self. As I've mentioned before, the David Robinson to Tim Duncan handoff was one of the classic examples of things going right, and it's no accident that team is the way it is. When it goes wrong, however, the marks of leadership become not having to listen, not having to work hard, and the power to enforce one's self-interest at the expense of others. These are the things to which younger, better players learn to aspire...the signs that they've "made it". And that's how you change from a franchise that happens to lose some games to a flat-out losing franchise.

--Dave

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