ThinkTank Panel Note: This is sort of a Continuation of the Brandon Jennings Post. The ThinkTank Panel recommends reading the Jennings Post first. It may make more sense that way.
Being a superstar has broad implications. One implication for the player, as backwards as it may seem, is now that he owns the team he is somewhat immune to responsibility for its failings. Remember the player took ownership by everyone concluding that the team’s best chance for success is that player doing what he does best. Ergo any non-success must be the fault of something inhibiting that player from doing so. And most often it is the coach who gets the blame.
A perfect example of this is Skiles with the Bulls. As mentioned in the Brandon Jennings post Skiles took the Bulls to the 2nd round, but traded his authority to Ben Gordon when he didn’t have to (the bulls swept the 1st round series with the defending champion Heat. Gordon played well but was not pivotal to winning a sweep. They lost to the Piston in round 2.) The next season the bulls got off to a slow start. Skiles had lost his authority to the new superstar Gordon. Skiles and Gordon clashed over Gordon’s role on the team. Gordon as superstar dictated that Gordon has to be Gordon for the Bulls to win. The perception was that Skiles kept Gordon from being Gordon and that was why the Bulls were losing. Skiles was fired. Of course most people, especially in Chicago would say in hindsight they should have kept Skiles as coach and gotten rid of Gordon back then. Such is the luxury of being superstar.
This explains why NBA teams and pro teams in general go through coaches so quickly compared to college coaches who seem to have longer tenures. The reason is simple. In college if you sacrifice your authority to a player, most likely he goes pro and is gone the next year. The turnover of athletes in colleges means a coach rarely is owned, and if so it is very short lived. No school is going to choose a coach who could remain at the school for decades with a player who can only remain four years maximum. But rest assured even the hardest most notorious dictators in college basketball have been owned at one time or another come tournament time. But owning your coach in the final four usually means becoming a high draft pick so there is no aftermath in the college game.
In the pros coaches are generally about 1/3rd the cost of a superstar player. Also fan loyalty tends to be to players first before coaches. So as an owner you’ll most likely side with a player over a coach, because it’s better for the bottom line.
Now thus far I’ve given the impression that superstardom is synonymous with players who are full of themselves or uncoachable. That is not the case. In fact the vast majority of superstar players are very coachable, which is an attribute that contributes to their greatness as superstars. However the ugly truth is, they still own their coaches.
The vast majority of superstar players in all sports own their coaches but willfully submit to the coach’s authority. They do this for a number of reasons, as an example to the rest of the team, to share the burden of responsibility for winning, and because they realize that owned or not the coach is vital to a team’s success. So it’s true that great players and great coaches win championships together. But they are not equals. The coach is there because the superstar allows him to be.
Case in point is Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson. Phil is undoubtedly the Greatest NBA coach of the current era, maybe of all time excluding Red Aurbach alone (but not for the reason you think, more on that in a future post). But Michael Jordan owned Phil because the best way to win any given basketball game is to put the ball in Jordan’s hands and let Mike be like Mike. But as a great player Michael Jordan recognized he needed Phil to win a championship, and it was Phil Jackson alone who convinced Michael of this. Together the Bulls won 6 rings, but if at any time a choice had to be made between the 2, not only would Jordan be the Bulls choice, it would be Jordan’s choice to make. Jordan owned Phil, the Bulls, the City of Chicago, the NBA and the world.
But just because Phil needed Michael to allow him to coach does not in any way diminish the fact that Michael needed Phil to win. This fact, along with the fact that Jordan owned Phil was proven by your defending NBA Champion LA Lakers and Kobe Bryant.
In 2004 the Lakers had to pick between keeping Shaq and Phil Jackson or Kobe Bryant. They chose Bryant. Enough said.
Perhaps the best way to explain the superstar phenomenon is to give an example where it could have happened but did not.
In 2001 Vince Carter helped engineer what may be the ultimate Superstardom opportunity of all time. Carter was already a star by promotion. He had won rookie of the year, the NBA Dunk contest in spectacular fashion and lead his Toronto Raptors to the 2nd round of the playoffs where they were deadlocked in a game 7 with the 76ers. This is the infamous “graduation day” game where Carter had attended his College graduation ceremony at Chapel Hill NC that morning and then hopped a charter flight to Philly to make tipoff. The Bottom-line is Carter’s 18ft jumper at the buzzer came up short and the Raptors lost by 1 point. Had Carter made that shot he would have ascended from his sport celebrity status to Superstardom. He would have owned not only the Raptors, basketball fans, and the sports world but educators and the stay in school movement would have made him their superstar/champion as well.
But Vince missed. Ergo, none of his teammates believed Carter alone constituted their best chance to win, his coach was not indebted to him, and he did not get the strange but ubiquitous free pass on blame for the teams short comings in the near future. In fact Carter got all of them very quickly. He wilted under the criticism and scrutiny and eventually got shipped out of Toronto labeled as a selfish, lazy, malcontent who could not be trusted. Where a superstar is created by capitalizing on the faith of his coach, team, and fans, Carter’s vilification was a collective loss of faith created by a missed shot.