In a recent Q&A session with Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson had the following exchange:
What does Dirk Nowitzki have to do this year to improve on an MVP season?
Dirk can get better, and there are some things that Dirk can improve in that may not be basketball-related. It may be leadership-related. Dirk can get better on and off the court. And that's why I've been stretching him. He's the reigning MVP, and if he's not willing to be stretched by his coach, then he never would have improved. So he's willing to be stretched. And his stretching may not be necessarily on the court, but it may be in the area of leadership, and we're willing to help him get better in that area.
In case you didn't catch that, allow me to spell it out for you: Avery Johnson believes that Dirk hasn't been the leader of his team to this point. Here's what Mavericks blogger Tim McMahon had to say in response to this:
Dirk's off-the-charts work ethic sets a tone for this team, but he does not have a take-charge personality. Not sure how that's going to change a decade into his career.
The reason that I bring this up is because I see yet another parallel between Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. Both players have been recognized as the best players on their respective teams for several seasons and have the stats to back up that claim. While Nowitzki has had more postseason success (arguably due to a far superior supporting cast to this point), their careers have followed similar arcs as two of the premier international players in the NBA today. However, with the levels of success that both of them have achieved, there has been a widespread perception that even though they are the best players on their teams, they are not their team's leader.
I realize that you can lead a team in many different ways. There is the obvious example of being a vocal leader who not only encourages teammates and exhorts them to raise their level of play, but also criticizes them when necessary and is someone who commands the respect of his entire team (example: Steve Nash). Next, there is the clutch leader -- the guy who takes control of a game, demands the ball when a score is needed and relishes pressure (example: Kobe Bryant). Then, there is the consumate leader. He is the player who does both things listed above and finds ways to win games, even if it means letting others take the big shot (example: Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan). There have been times over the past two seasons that Dirk has been either a vocal leader or a clutch leader, but not consistently enough for him to be considered a true leader of his team. When he criticizes his teammates ,it always seems to be in the wrong manner, often by using the media to deliver his statements, which creates problems in the locker room. In the same way, Pau has hit game-winning shots for his team and has encouraged his teammates in tough situations, but has also been quoted in Spanish newspapers (some of questionable repute) asking for a trade or complaining about the supporting cast the front office has provided. These are not the traits of a true consumate leader (you listening Kobe?), because what that does is create disharmony amongst the team, the organization and the fans. By doing things in this manner, Pau and Dirk have undermined their own leadership of their teams.
As ChipC3 said to me earlier today, a team without a leader is like a foot without a big toe. Without the big toe, it is impossible to even maintain balance, much less walk in a straight line. For the Mavericks and Grizzlies to reach the full potential of their respective talent levels, someone will have to step up and captain their ships. O Captain! My Captain!