COMMENTARY | If you look around the NBA, all of the successful teams have a vocal veteran leader.
San Antonio has Tim Duncan, Boston has Kevin Garnett and the Los Angeles Lakers, even though they are struggling this season, have Kobe Bryant. That trio of players has won championships and has earned the respect of their teammates because of what they do on the court combined with how they challenge their teammates.
Miami has a group of guys who lead the team in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen. None of those players are known for barking at teammates but after spending time in that locker room, it's clear all three players combine to set the tone for their teammates.
Most teams have a point guard who acts as an extension of the coach. Teams like the Clippers have Chris Paul, Chicago has Derrick Rose, and Memphis has Mike Conley Jr.
Even Oklahoma City, a team led by quiet, young guys in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, took things to another level when Kendrick Perkins arrived a couple seasons back.
Toronto's Achilles' heel since Antonio Davis and Charles Oakley left town has been the lack of a vocal leader in the locker room and on the court.
When you look at Toronto's current roster, the guys with the most experience are Mickael Pietrus (10 years), Sebastian Telfair (nine years) and Amir Johnson (eight years). Pietrus has barely gotten off the bench since Rudy Gay arrived, and Telfair is a backup point guard who barely plays. Johnson leads by example by playing through injuries, but he's not the kind of player to give tough love to a teammate or call him out.
"I was lucky because I had veterans who came in and didn't let me settle," Morris Peterson explained when he was in town last weekend. "If I was sitting out in practice they were going to say something. Now you get young guys sitting out of practice, and you don't get guys saying anything. I was scared to miss practice because I thought I was going to get beat up or something. Just little things like that make you listen to the guys in front of you."
When you look at Toronto's current roster, there isn't a single player who will call a teammate out for dogging it in practice or not playing up to the level Dwane Casey expects. The big story coming out of practice last week was that DeMar DeRozan video-bombed Amir Johnson during an interview. The kind of jovial, country-club mentality is something that has permeated the club the past few seasons. The tough leaders Peterson talked about who helped the team succeed back when Davis and Oakley were here because they set an example. Guys like Johnson, Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Telfair aren't loud guys, and they would much rather have a good rapport with their teammates.
It's easy to point at the roster and say it's flawed by claiming it's lacking vocal leaders, but, as the old saying goes, leadership comes from the top. This season, Casey has been preaching the need for accountability. He told the media -- and I'm assuming his players as well -- that if guys aren't getting at it on the defensive end or fulfilling the roles that the coaching staff has asked, they will find themselves sitting on the bench during games.
This line of approach with a young team is a great one if you're going to be consistent and follow through. The problem is Casey hasn't. When Andrea Bargnani made his return from an elbow injury earlier this month, he was fed minutes and eventually given a starting spot even though he wasn't cleaning the glass or getting at it on the defensive end. Meanwhile, two guys who were, Jonas Valanciunas and Johnson, lost their starting spots and minutes.
Moving forward, the team needs to address the need for a veteran leader on the court and locker room. But, the Raptors also need the coaching staff to apply some tough love.
The Raptors will continue to struggle on the court unless both of these leadership issues are fixed.
Ryan McNeill lives in Toronto and has covered the Raptors for the past five season with media passes. You can follow him on Twitter @ryanmcneill.
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- Sebastian Telfair
- Amir Johnson