Chiron's Undelivered Lesson
My impression of Paul Pierce crystallized upon his ejection from game six of the 1st round of the 2005 playoffs. With the Pacers down one with a few seconds remaining, Jamal Tinsley, fat Snidely Whiplash that he is, intentionally fouled Pierce by punching him in the neck. Pierce, his brain undoubtedly occupied with the unending task of repressing any expression of joy, responded by shoving Tinsley, drawing his second tech, and giving Indiana the free point that would send the game to overtime. Pierce’s actions, both inexplicable and unforgivable, revealed an undeniable psychological weakness and egotism that I was sure would forever bring down his game.
Last Tuesday, a similar circumstance arose at Conseco Fieldhouse. As Pierce drove to the hoop, Tinsley smacked him hard across the face. Immediately, Pierce turned towards Tinsley, his usual scowl replaced by what those in the business of psychology would call “the crazy eyes.” Yet miraculously, Pierce managed to stifle his rage, approach the free-throw line, and drop to the floor for a couple of push-ups. While no one would confuse his emotional state with Zen-like calm, he seemed able to control his temper, rather than the usual converse. After draining both free throws, he then proceeded to score 13 points in the next three minutes.
While several newspapers interpreted the push-ups as an attempt to show up the Indiana crowd, in a radio interview after the game, Pierce revealed that they served the sole purpose of managing his anger. The interviewer, sounding as shocked as I was at Pierce’s newfound sense of self-restraint, asked where he learned such a coping skill and Pierce replied that Kevin Garnett had suggested the approach earlier in the season. Garnet managed the impossible; he convinced Pierce, a star who for years had seemed largely immune to discipline and reason, to show some discipline and act reasonably, thus displaying the true and unique nature of KG’s leadership.
Generally, leaders in the NBA have been identified by their ability to “make their teammates better,” a quality that has been most frequently bestowed upon the three Golden Age superstars. On the Showtime Lakers teams, Magic Johnson acted as drill sergeant, mocking players who arrived late to practice or demonstrated any lack of effort. Jordan and Bird took similar, but more passive-aggressive approaches to ensuring that their teammates played to their liking. This Machiavellian attitude could not have yielded success without two prevailing facts: each leader was undeniably the dominant force on their team and their teammates relied disproportionately upon each leader to attain their own career goals (money, rings, etc.). Expectedly, the effects of this deified trio’s leadership were ephemeral at best. Despite years of Jordan’s influence, Pippen behaved childishly in his absence, most famously refusing to enter a playoff game upon learning that the final play would be run for Toni Kukoc.
Leadership that depended on fear and dominance would tear apart a team centered around roughly equal stars. Yet KG leads, not from a position of superiority, but as a peer among stars. He helped Pierce control himself without even needing to engage him in the moment. Garnett is so respected among his teammates that a player as demonstrably self-centered as Pierce managed to take a somewhat ridiculous suggestion from a peer completely seriously. In a similar situation, Jordan or Magic probably would have barked at Pierce to settle him, or in their minds, put him in his place, a tactic that I imagine only would have intensified his rage. Instead, Garnett found an appropriate time to privately suggest to Pierce an alternative response to a cheap shot and managed to reach him without offending him. I’m not suggesting that Pierce doesn’t want to become a better player, his effort and work ethic are self-evident. However, the process of changing problem behaviors of someone whose sense of self on the court is so closely tied to his alpha status requires a delicate touch from a non-threatening source who commands a great deal of respect. I can’t imagine any player other than Garnet could fill that role.
Jordan, Bird, and Magic did indeed elevate the play of their teammates, both by aiding extrinsic motivation and by occupying opponents so much that the game literally came easier to their less-talented compatriots. While Garnett is a prodigious talent, defenses don’t regard him the same way they did Jordan, yet his Celtics teammates obviously seem to be elevating their games in response to him. Instead of playing the role of ruthless dictator, Garnett has deftly dealt with those around him, particularly the volatile Pierce, who has shown greater restraint in both his temper and his shot selection. Garnett seems to reach and motivate his teammates in ways few other players or even coaches can, helping them change their behavior without threatening their self-respect.
In the past, Garnett has been surrounded by teammates who lacked either the ability or desire to help win a championship. In Pierce, he’s paired with a player who wants to and can win, but has never demonstrated the maturity to do so. When properly motivated, Pierce has the ability to take over a game in ways that elude even the likes of KG and Ray Allen. Only by breaking the traditional mold of NBA leadership, can Garnett get the most out of Pierce and in so doing, has managed to help turn his fragility into strength.