Two weeks ago, the Washington Wizards acquired Nene and shipped JaVale McGee to the Denver Nuggets. Gone were the talented, immature and inconsistent ways of McGee, and in came the steady, blue-collar production of Nene. Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis weren’t at all subtle with their post-trade message”
“Nene is a versatile player who will bring experience and a physical presence to our frontcourt. He is a strong rebounder, tough defender and a fierce competitor. His veteran leadership and postseason experience will be a positive influence in our locker room.”
“Nene is coming to us from a winning program. He has played in a system that we admire. It is up tempo and high scoring and he has good hands; runs the floor well; and is very strong. He is a team first kind of player. He is about winning and is a respected teammate. He is a family man; a player who is secure in who he is; and a player who has battled through adversity and is dependable and strong in spirit.”
That same March 15 NBA trade deadline day, Derek Fisher was unceremoniously traded from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Houston Rockets, had his contract bought out, and then signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder that next week. Thunder general manager Sam Presti spoke of Fisher providing intangibles and veteran leadership to Kevin Durant, rookie Reggie Jackson and Russell Westbrook. Fisher did not shy away from the role:
“As a leader, which can happen from the bench, can happen from the locker room, but I’m a basketball player so it also can happen from the court. So I’m just looking to be as helpful as I possibly can to every player on this team. I’m not here to take anything away from anyone. I’m here to only add and support and assist and I feel it’s a great process that’s already been established with this team.”
An owner and a general manager often have a feel for how they think an incoming veteran player will work out, and older players will make declarations of leadership when they know (but won’t admit) that their skills have diminished. But when a veteran arrives on an established team (or in the Wizards case, a youthful, unestablished one), the head coach is the one who must incorporate these veterans into the rotation — which leaves the question, does that marriage really work, and is it even necessary?
Before his Pacers took on the Wizards last week, Indiana head coach Frank Vogel spoke about the importance of a veteran presence, and what it could do for a young team:
“You need veteran leaders, and we talk to our team all the time — coach coached teams don’t go very far, player-coached teams usually go on deep playoff runs. Guys that hold each other accountable in the locker room without having to have a coach get on everybody for every little thing, those are the teams that succeed. David West has come in and been a great leader for us, and he’s led by example.”
Speaking of Mr. West’s leadership-by-example tactics, during the Wizards-Pacers game, he dislocated his pinky, which limited his effectiveness on offense. He re-entered the game in the fourth quarter, and he had three big offensive rebounds (technically they were tap outs) to help the Pacers narrowly defeated the Wizards, 85-83. After the game, he spoke about veteran leadership, and more specifically, those game-winning plays:
“I’m not going to hype up the leadership thing too much because chemistry, good coaching and good players are important parts of winning too. But there are a lot of young players who haven’t experienced much in the league, so when a veteran like me comes in and leads by example, and plays hard every night, that’s contagious, and it makes life easier for the coach. Like tonight at the end of the game, my finger was hurting, and I could have sat out, but I wanted to come in and keep fighting, and that’s what I did.”
West’s teammate, Paul George, took notice
“Man, he was huge. If he didn’t get those tip outs, they would have had multiple chances to score. West is a former All-Star, he’s been battle-tested, so he brings a lot and knows what it takes to win.”
On Monday night, the Detroit Pistons defeated the Wizards, 85-83. The box score shows that Ben Wallace only had five points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes of play. But on an evening when Greg Monroe was in a funk and Jason Maxiell was virtually non-existent, Wallace’s minutes and help defense was invaluable. Pistons coach Lawrence Frank spoke about the veteran leadership/play of Wallace after the game:
The early reviews on Nene and his presence have been mixed. In his first game as Wizard, his energy, along with his 22 points and 10 rebounds, was the reason the Wizards defeated the Nets. He played an equally strong game against the Atlanta Hawks last Saturday when he had 14 points and eight rebounds. Against the Pistons, Nene even came up big in the last minute of the game with two baskets on Ben Wallace.
But he was also a non-factor against the Pacers, and he’s sat out the Boston game due to back spasms (it is worth mentioning that on NBATV’s “The Association,” Nuggets coach George Karl complains about the lengthy amount of time Nene spent in the training room). Still, since Nene was brought in to lead and positively affect the young players in Washington, it is John Wall’s opinion that matters most:
“[Nene] takes a lot of pressure off the guards if you can give somebody the ball in the low post that can score and also pass. We had to get used to cutting because we know we might get the ball back. Before, we just cut nonchalantly because nine times out 10, you wasn’t getting the ball back.”
Perhaps Vogel’s theory about player coached teams is right. There may not be a playoff berth in the Wizards’ near future, but if Nene can encourage the Wizards’ guards to throw the ball in the post, and cut to the basket with urgency, that is certainly a start.