Chemistry Lesson

by January 15, 2014


by Irv Soonachan

Tied score. 11.6 seconds left. Yet there was little doubt how the game would end: Stephen Curry would get his hands on the ball and find a way to win. It didn’t matter that he’d missed his last five shots. With Curry there isn’t much suspense at moments like this anymore, just anticipation.

He forced a switch on a screen just outside the three-point line, jabbed hard on a crossover dribble, head-and-shoulder faked, then let go a high-arcing jump shot just over the reach of the Celtics’ Kris Humphries. The ball dropped through the basket so perfectly angled that it barely grazed the bottom of the net. Automatic.

Curry has become more than a scorer; he is one of the elite players in the NBA and the primary reason why the Warriors are on the verge of becoming serious title contenders. At this point, all the Warriors need are a couple supporting players to fill out their bench and potentially one other ingredient: a leader.

Curry is the centerpiece of the franchise, but is not the leader of the team. Though his natural charisma led former coach Don Nelson to call him “the pied piper,” (“Everybody wants to follow him, do what he does, and do what he says,” Nelson told SLAMonline in 2010,) the humble, soft-spoken guard has been hesitant to assert his will on the Warriors locker room.

Instead, the Warriors have taken an unconventional, decentralized approach.

“There’s no one guy,” explained center Andrew Bogut. “Good teams don’t have one guy…when you hear the same voices over and over again it becomes inane. We do a good job of mixing it up. I wouldn’t say there’s one clear-cut leader of this team, either vocally or on the court. It’s a mixed effort. “

“They do it collectively here,” seconded former NBA player Jim Barnett, who has been a commentator on Warriors broadcasts for 29 years. “This team is unusual. They have a lot of leaders.”

“They can absolutely win a Championship [this way],” he insisted.

So I asked Barnett to describe the leadership structure of the winning teams he played on during his 11-year NBA career.

“When I was in Boston obviously Bill Russell was the leader,” he began. “And we had John Havlicek. But everybody had a say. On the Warriors it was Rick Barry… When Rick came, his personality took over… When I went to the Knicks, the leader was Walt Frazier… In Philadelphia it was Dr. J. Doug Collins had been there a long time, but when Dr. J came over from the ABA, Doug just sort of naturally deferred to him…”

Defining what leadership can do for a team—especially in an era dominated by metrics—is not easy. Warriors fans got an unwanted glimpse during the team’s slump earlier in the season, when coach Mark Jackson repeatedly exhorted his team to play with more intensity, in timeouts and in the media.

Most ballplayers at any level will tell you it’s easy to tune out a coach but harder to tune out a teammate, especially when that teammate is the star of the team. Longtime NBA assistant coach Jerry Sichting, who played on a 1986 Boston Celtics squad that ranks among the greatest ever, says strong peer leadership makes a huge impact.

“It is critical to have it, and it helps if your leader is also your best player,” he said while discussing Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett, who he coached in Minnesota. “Players get tired of listening to the coach after a while. If coaches have to get on players for effort or stand up every time they’re doing something wrong, on or off the court, it gets old. When you have players who police the team it makes the coach’s job a lot easier. It bonds your team and makes it a lot stronger.”

Russell, Havlicek, Barry, Fraizer, Erving, Bird and Garnett all led teams to Championships. If Curry wants to be mentioned in the same breath, he will have to figure out whether his play alone can push the Warriors over the top, or if he needs to, as NBA veterans like to put it, “run the locker room.”

Eventually, he will have to make a choice. Conventional wisdom says that without a strong leader, the Warriors are unlikely to win a Championship. But by taking a stronger leadership role Curry could also risk upsetting the chemistry of a very good team—a team so talented it might find its way to the top in an untraditional way.

All the last-second heroics in the world won’t be enough if Curry doesn’t make the right decision.