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.


At 11/20/2007 10:45 AM, Blogger MC Welk said...

And yet it was KG kicking a ball 30 rows up and getting ejected from the Delta Center in '03 that made me love him more.

At 11/20/2007 11:10 AM, Blogger Jawkbox said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11/20/2007 11:11 AM, Blogger Ziller said...

Not to ignore what is a thoughtful post, but damn do I want to play Marble Madness all of a sudden.

At 11/20/2007 11:54 AM, Blogger Nicholas said...

I love KG, I love Jesus Shuttlesworth, but as a longtime Rockets fan, I really don't like the Celtics. Because they've been bad for so long, I've been indifferent, but those 80's teams...ugh. Larry Canary, Danny Mange, Kevin McHell--I hated those guys. And I'm probably the only person here who did. But even I must admit, I'm interested to see how this year's Celtics team plays together over the course of an 82 game season. I wonder, if they start to lose games, will KG be able to maintain control? Will bad attitudes start to wear him down? Will they manage to keep their egos in check the entire season, and will they manage to avoid infighting? What about injuries? If KG or Pierce or Allen are injured, does the entire team go tumbling down with them?
This year will be a true test of what kind of player KG really is; I think this post correctly implies that the Celtics this year will live and die with KG.

At 11/20/2007 12:37 PM, Blogger jawaan oldham said...

With all apologies to T-Wolves fans, it's a shame KG wasted the first 12 years of his career out in the wilderness, playing with (mostly) CBA talent and (all) substandard coaches. Seeing what he's managed to accomplish already---in such a short time---on a real team with actual basketball players is impressive.

I'm a Knick fan, so it may sound weird when I say that it feels like all is right with the universe when the Celtics dominate (or have the potential to), but it does. KG is the kind of singular force that belongs in green. He's awesome in the original sense of the word: he inspires awe.

At 11/20/2007 12:53 PM, Blogger Andy B said...

KG didn't waste any time in the wilderness. He had a shot with Cassell and Spree here and almost made it, but when Cassell and Spree came back the following year demanding ridiculous extensions and then quit on KG and Flip, KG's quiet leadership wasn't very influential.

When Pretty Ricky strolled to the locker room after Casey pulled him for a lapse of effort against Detroit, KG lost it and threw a basketball at McDyse in anger. Shortly after, Casey was let go.

KG may have learned some coping skills during his time in MN that he has passed off to Peirce, But KG still can't control his passion for the game and this will prove to be McHale the genius and KG's time in MN neither ill-spent or wasteful.

What is forgotten over the past two years that KG played and sat the last 10 games so the Wolves could secure lottery picks, is the KG, never the complainer and always available to play, was in fact nursing nagging injuries that were slowing his effectiveness. KG has also been notorious for those of us watching him in the wilderness for disappearing in the fourth quarter after posting monster numbers during the first three quarters. Rather than blaming this on his lack of competitiveness, I think it is a product of age meets passion. KG doesn't know how to pace himself through a game or a season. Boston has been relying on KG, Pierce and Allen to play 38-40 mpg so far, and I suspect it will take a toll on the aging three over the course of the season.

At 11/20/2007 1:29 PM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

@Nicholas: I hated those Celtics teams, too. In fact, I would be very surprised if you and I are in the minority on this one.

Nice piece, Burns!

At 11/20/2007 2:03 PM, Blogger Dan Filowitz said...

I wonder how much age plays a role. Perhaps Pierce is more receptive to this type of leadership now that he's a more mature adult.

But it can't hurt that KG appears to be one of the most authentic stars in the NBA, in the sense that other players seem to pay him plenty of heed, and believe that he is pure of motive and worthy of respect.

At 11/20/2007 2:33 PM, Blogger Adam said...

It's also worth remembering that KG can be very, very tough on players he doesn't like. Wally will forever be Exhibit A; Marko Jaric is a more recent example. And I say that as a big Garnett fan.

At 11/20/2007 2:58 PM, Blogger Pooh said...

The only part of Andy B's comment I really agree with is that KG does not know how to pace himself - he makes me think of this Shoals post title...

At 11/20/2007 3:05 PM, Blogger db said...

Is KG really just one among peers? He does have the MVP and is far and away a better defensive player than PP and Allen. Not trying to compare him to Bird/Magic/Jordan, but I immediately saw him as the alpha dog on this team, regardless of the just one of the guys rhetoric.

And damn, Marble Madness!

At 11/20/2007 4:01 PM, Blogger roadkiller said...

I also despised those '80s Celtics teams and was a proud owner/wearer of a "Celtics Busters" t-shirt. This was a given for me having spent my formative basketball fandom years in the L.A. area with the showtime Lakers, but I can't tell you how many people from other parts of the country tell me that they loved those Lakers teams and rooted for them during those classic battles against Bird-terd and the Cs.

It's funny though, now the player I hated more than anything in the world has my respect and admiration...no hard feelings against Bird, he was a pimp. But McHale remains a slimebag in my book, illustrated by his obvious collusion with Ainge to send KG to Boston and turning down (in my opinion) the Lakers' better offer mostly for grudge reasons. As a fan, I don't have to grow up and like McHale, but as a "professional" basketball executives one would think he could put that rivalry behind him to some degree and do what's best for his team (the T-Wolves, not the Celtics).

Of course, maybe I'm just bitter because the Lakers didn't get KG...

At 11/20/2007 4:28 PM, Blogger Andy B said...

@Roadkill I loved Bird, McHale, and Parish and in the 80s, without a Wolves team, Minnesotans seemed partial to Boston over LA because of McHale. But, I do think pairing KG with Kobe would have been more exciting than Allen and Pierce and I would have loved to see it happen.

McHale's association with Boston, not withstanding, I don't think LA could have matched the potential young building block in Jefferson, the expiring contract in Ratliff, 3 more young guys out to prove themselves who you don't have to pay beyond this year and two first round draft picks. It was a pretty fair return for a player of KGs caliber and MN was out of options for putting together a team around KG.

Now, imagine two years from now. Boston is old without any help from recent drafts. Foye, Jefferson and Brewer have matured for MN. The wolves lottery luck finally pays off with Mayo running the point. THey draft another couple more first round picks to fill out the bench and rotation around McCants and perhaps one or two from Green/Telfair/Smith/Gomes and sign a capable Center via free agency.

Boston window has closed and the Wolves are the toast of the West. McHale has been vindicated.

At 11/20/2007 4:42 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

I don't know whether McHale turned down the Laker offer for KG because the Boston one was better, but McHale most assuredly has a huge chip on his shoulder when it comes to the Lakers. A few years ago the Lakers tried to acquire Tom Gugliotta from Minnesota (back when Googs was still good) and offered Eddie Jones in trade. McHale turned that deal down (knowing the Lakers had Kobe ready to step in for the departing Jones), and instead saw Googs walk as a free agent to Phoenix that summer. It's as clear a case of an NBA GM cutting off his nose to spite his face as I've ever seen; choosing to take nothing in exchange for a player rather than getting a great player like Eddie Jones in return, simply because the deal might have helped push the Lakers over the top in their quest for Shaq's first title.

I'm way off topic here, so I'll reign it in. I think that Doc Rivers will have to really keep an eye on KG this season and not lean on him too heavily or else KG probably will wear himself out. In the LEastern Conference the Celtics really do not need KG to go 40 mpg as they try to rack up 60+ wins. Ride the bench and especially rest up later in the year once they start to have home court locked up otherwise the Celtics could be out of gas in the postseason.

But rested or not I don't see them being able to beat the Spurs in the Finals.

At 11/20/2007 4:51 PM, Blogger Andy B said...

I guess I'll just continue in this vein as McHale's apologist.

@YAms, McHale didn't turn down the Laker offer to the Wolves to spite the Lakers. He still thought he had the nucleus to build around KG, Marbury and Googs. He didn't believe that Googs would turn down a better offer from the Wolves so he wouldn't have to play with Marbury and he didn't know that Marbury was going to eventually skip out on him as well.

Just some dumb bad luck for McHale after actually putting something together that looked pretty good on paper with those three.

Jeez, hes still kicking himself over it.

At 11/20/2007 5:06 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

@BR,E: So this what it sounds like when doves cry.
I gotta admit, it's nice to see other Celtics haters on here, though I'm probably still in the minority as a Rockets fan.

@Wild Yams: I don't think the Celtics could beat the Spurs in the finals either. I also think the Celtics will lose to the Pistons coming out of the East, making that matchup a moot point. The Pistons have a legitimate shot at beating the Spurs in a finals matchup this year.

At 11/20/2007 5:13 PM, Blogger Pooh said...

@ Nicholas

Pistons fortunes depend on how much run Flip is prepared to give the kiddies, especially on nights when one of the big 4 don't have it. Hayes, Murray, Samb and especially Johnson (am I crazy for seeing a little Ty Thomas in him?) really seem to bring a surge of energy that is lacking from the generally buttoned down (Sheedsplosions aside) Billups/Rip/TP/Sheed/McDyessorMaxiell junta.

At 11/20/2007 5:42 PM, Blogger Maxwell said...

I try to rein in my superstitions, but I am convinced that we can avoid a Pistons-Spurs finals if we never mention it as a possibility. In my happy place, the Sonic Youth go on a 40-2 late season run to sneak into the playoffs. Of course, in that bizarro world Studio 60 is a top ten hit, and nobody wants that.

At 11/20/2007 6:37 PM, Blogger Kaifa said...

Re: Celtics-Pistons: I also think that the Pistons should be the best competition for the Celtics in a series to come out of the East. Sheed on KG and Prince on Pierce is maybe the best duo to cover them this side of Duncan/Bowen. And Hamilton should be able to make Allen work a bit on both ends of the court.

I haven't seen the Pistons yet but am becoming more and more intrigued the way people keep talking about their bench. I always find it compelling to have a bench that's thought of as a unit in and of itself rather than a random collection of single substitutes. The Lakers also have that going with Walton/Farmar/Bynum/Radman, and they are amazing to watch as well. Didn't the Kings' bench during their good years even have a nickname for themselves? And which teams despite the Pistons and Lakers have a bench with an interesting story going for them?

wv: cwxfilf - the name of Chris Webber's private sex tape with Tyra

At 11/20/2007 7:36 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins (fka spinachdip) said...

kaifa - that would be Da Bench Mob, which makes me simultaneously happy and sad because it reminds me of Ice Cube when he was scary.

wv: evkss = composite of Tony Parker's wife and Jadakiss.

At 11/20/2007 7:37 PM, Blogger rebar said...

the pistons bench (when it includes rodney stuckey) will be unfucking believably kool.


"the wild bunch"

"flip's kommandos"

"fan club sheed"

wv wlddq: flemish for Free Darko

At 11/20/2007 7:46 PM, Blogger Sleeve said...

I'm happy that the Wolves are getting some burn on this site; they're the FD version of the Baby Bulls, the less-fucked-up version of the Hawks, and the infinitely worse version of the early 90's Blazers. Dinner is on the stove, I haev no time to show my work. Sorry.

At 11/20/2007 9:29 PM, Blogger Maxwell said...

Boykins--+1. Tremendous nickname. Go to work or get a job? I'd rather roll with da bench mob.

At 11/20/2007 10:48 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins (fka spinachdip) said...

cheers, max.

Going completely off-topic, I caught this through TrueHoop, but Marbury has a doozy of a quote ("That's factorial") in NY Mag's Daily Intelligencer: http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/41005/

It's been quite a month for Steph, what with losing an aunt, a mentor and a starting gig.

At 11/20/2007 11:55 PM, Blogger rebar said...

boykins totally kicked my ass.

kevin love looks like a big angry baby.

At 11/21/2007 12:28 AM, Blogger badly drawn boykins (fka spinachdip) said...

I should clarify - "Da Bench Mob" was the nickname for the Kings' bench back in the late 90s.

Sorry I wasn't clear, since it looks like I'm taking credit for it.

At 11/21/2007 3:02 AM, Blogger Maxwell said...

Boyk--whatev. I was giving you points for knowing, not originating.

At 11/21/2007 4:22 AM, Blogger Kaifa said...

Thanks, BDB, I couldn't remember.

And to think that the identity of the Kings' second unit relied heavily on Scot Pollard - scary.

At 11/21/2007 5:18 AM, Blogger Plug said...

McHale will win the BNA Exec of the year award for his work in turning around the Celtics. Just watch.

wv: fsaine = stimulants for sys admins

At 11/21/2007 3:36 PM, Blogger PC said...

Seven paragraphs follow the quote "My impression of Paul Pierce crystallized upon his ejection from game six of the 1st round of the 2005 playoffs." But what if that moment was an expression of frustration that didn't reflect what kind of person Paul Pierce is. Then I guess the rest of the post was a waste. Pierce is a workhorse, a team player, and one of the most underrated players in the NBA.

At 11/22/2007 3:34 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

Man, you Laker fans are so delusional.

First of all, you didn't have a better offer. Bynum and Odom? Please. Odom is an underachiever who has big skills but is hardly the guy McHale wants to lead his kids. Jefferson is better than Bynum. Always has been and probably always will be. Bynum has large talent but Jefferson is a true basketball player and puts the rock in the hole.

Plus the Celtics gave MN two #1 picks, including MN's, which will be Top 5.

Plus Ryan Gomes, who is better than anyone the Lakers would have thrown in unless they would have given up Luke Walton, who is a comprable player (probably a little better at this point).

But the real reason is that the Lakers ownership has F'd up the team completely and KG wasn't about to get involved in that. He called Kobe and Kobe said good luck with it, but don't expect me to stick around.

Fact is, Jerry Buss has destroyed the Lakers, first by trading Shaq for garbage because Buss didn't want to pay Shaq his $$$$.

Second, by giving his idiot son the keys to the kingdom, and then watching as instead of building to win he drafted a 17 year old kid to build for the future. I.E., losing Kobe.

I live in LA and am a Laker fan, but come on, the whole "we had a better offer for KG" garbage is just patently ridiculous and just more evidence that the typical Laker fan is totally delusional.

At 4/13/2009 3:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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