Leading by example: Why Courtney Lee has an important role to fill before being traded

Michael DeStafano kicks off a four part series on the main components of “tanking” which is the word often used to describe the process of developing young players at the cost of winning.

There’s a right way to develop, or tank, and there’s a wrong way. In this four-part series, DeStafano will look at four main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are performing from a player development standpoint when wins and losses aren’t the best indicator.

Leadership in Uniform
Leadership in Suits
Development of Individual Talent
Development of Culture and Identity

This is Part 1

Leadership in Uniform

Despite the recent 5-game skid and the fashion in which the team has lost, there’s actually been a lot to feel good about this year for Knicks’ fans: we’ve got young talent on the roster; the honeymoon in Golden State seems to be over; and Duke’s Big Three all look great.

We can feel good, despite the losses. We’re supposed to lose.

But for all the positives – the rookies, Frank’s defense, Dot’s emergence, THJ’s step forward, Noah Vonleh’s awakening and Trey Burke’s recent re-resurrection – the bright future we want to believe is just around the corner is NOT a given.  There are real problems here, problems that could affect both the development of individual talent AND the ability to establish a culture that free agents will find attractive.

For me, it’s all about leadership. The problem right now is we have none.

Hardaway’s good at the emotional part, getting people fired up after big shots and clapping his hands to show he’s ready and excited to play defense. But leadership is also about demonstrating the right way to play, and let’s just say this isn’t one of Timmy’s strengths. Young guys are impressionable, and when they see their “leader” trying to perform beyond his capabilities, it can be contagious and result in bad habits.  We are already seeing this THJ Effect a little bit in Allonzo Trier’s recent shot selection.

Kanter seemed like a natural fit for this role six weeks ago. Then he lost his job. I won’t pile on, but tantrums on and off the court are not what we’re looking for.

Besides, both guys are in their mid-20s. No matter how hard they are willing to try, neither has the experience to be the sort of leader a roster this young needs.

The same can be said for Lance Thomas, despite his age. The problem with the lovable hustler as captain is that players don’t really buy it. They respect ability and production – what have you done in your career? – first and foremost. Lance has all the personality traits to be a good locker room presence, to offer enthusiasm and advice from the sideline or in practice, and to set a good example with his understanding of defensive principles, but the ideal leader for this youth is someone accomplished and capable (on both ends), someone with just the right blend of age, experience, and ability.

This is why the Knicks miss Courtney Lee so much.

Lee has been to the playoffs five times on four different teams. As a rookie, he started in the NBA Finals opposite of Kobe Bryant. He’s been in winning cultures, and he plays the right way. He doesn’t take bad shots. He works on defense. He does all the little things. He’s never been a star, but he knows his role and does that – and only that – to the best of his ability.

It’s not enough that he’s on the bench in a suit. These Knicks, particularly the ones that can’t legally consume alcohol, need him on the court in practice and games. Sure, he could affect winning – his presence could help them win a few games – but more importantly, he could show guys, with his voice and his example, how to be a true professional. He has the type of presence that would, I don’t know, keep teammates engaged enough to run the correct play out of a timeout, or eliminate on-court confrontations after failed rotations, or make guys think twice before playing hero ball. As someone who’s spent significant time as both a starter and reserve, he could help guys deal with demotions and crises of confidence.

Leadership doesn’t work the same when you’re in street clothes. These Knicks need his example on the court, in addition to any wisdom he may share on the bench and in practice.

This is Vince Carter’s role in ATL. It was Vince’s role, along with George Hill and Garrett Temple, last year in Sacramento (Fox and Hield this year? Those vets helped). It’s Dirk’s new role in Dallas.

The Knicks need at least one of these veteran leaders. This season is about development of both individual players and team culture. The players will learn, one way or another, in practice and through game reps (which is why the recent allocation of minutes is inexcusable), but the culture part requires more than playing, more than coaches saying, “This is how we want to play, and this is how you carry yourself.” It requires someone, like Lee, to show guys the way and call them out when they aren’t following.

He needs to be traded sometime soon. Ideally he would’ve played these first two months, helped this team establish its identity, and then vacated his minutes by December. But now, when you see the youth struggling, the sloppy, undisciplined product on the court, and the overall lack of a steadying presence, the better alternative is to get him back in the lineup and let him play into February.

Rumor has it he’s running again. That’s great news. This rebuild, if it’s going to be a short one, needs him running under the bright lights in orange and blue as soon as possible.


Leadership in Uniform – C

Regarding Lee, it’s no one’s fault that he’s been hurt. But he’s the only veteran leader who can lead by example on the roster. Lance was never enough. Remember that year when we thought we’d turned the corner? The effect ‘Sheed, Camby, JKidd, and Kurt Thomas had? One or two of those type of players would help. The guy we sent home and then stretched could’ve helped, if not for all the drama.

There is still time for the Knicks to find the right balance between veteran leadership and developing the youth, but given the players on the roster, a lot rests on the return of Courtney Lee.

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