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Ego Tripping Through the NBA

The era of the superteam has brought with it some supersize personality-management issues. For the Sixers, Warriors, Heat, Celtics, and other franchises, what happens in the locker room between players can dictate success as much as X’s and O’s.

Elias Stein/Getty Images

Steve Kerr wants a new job title. It’s not that he doesn’t like his gig. He does. He just thinks the label is off by a factor. Coach doesn’t sound quite right to his ear.

“I like Premier League soccer,” Kerr said. “They call the coaches ‘managers.’ From now on, I’d like to be known as a manager, if you guys don’t mind. Everyone calls me a coach. I’m a manager. It’s all part of it. Obviously, it takes on even a greater significance when you’re talking about a situation with an All-Star player, one of the best players in the league, joining our team, coming off an injury.”

Golden State’s head coach turned manager was sitting courtside at Staples Center after shootaround Friday morning when he had that particular epiphany. When I relayed that story to my editor, Chris Ryan, he agreed that it was a fascinating concept and told me it reminded him of how Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp (who manage Man City and Liverpool, respectively) are as concerned with shaping the internal culture of a team as they are with tactics. To which I replied … totally. Could not have said it better myself, so I just copied it down and let him say it.

Anyway, the whole topic came up with Kerr because DeMarcus Cousins was scheduled to make his season debut later that same evening against the Clippers after suffering an Achilles injury last year. When I asked Kerr about the inherent complications of coaching so many different, hypertalented personalities and the attendant importance of interpersonal communication, he replied with the Premier League parallel. To his mind, the team’s culture and how players interact as people is every bit as important as how they fit on the court.

For his part, Cousins made a point of trying to be a good company man. When he was asked by a reporter whether he anticipated that Kerr and his coaching staff would let him “have free rein” and “do everything you can do immediately,” Boogie couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“I don’t know about all that,” he said.

Cousins had 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block, and three 3s in just 15 minutes in his game against the Clippers. He said he “felt like a kid on Christmas.” His first bucket was a dunk, followed by a scream, followed by a celebratory stink face. It couldn’t have been more on brand.

Of course, the Warriors’ evolving ecosystem isn’t just about how they plan to play now that Boogie is available. There are other issues to consider beyond how and where to deploy Cousins on the court. To Kerr’s point, he isn’t just tasked with making sure all five of his All-Stars are involved in the game flow and get enough touches to satisfy their individual expectations. He’s also responsible for interacting with five very different humans and giving them the sort of guidance he hopes will keep them all pointed in the same direction and toward yet another parade. Which is partly why folding Boogie into their unit is so interesting.

When Cousins signed with the Warriors last offseason on a one-year minimum deal, there were two predominant thoughts. One was, “Holy shit, the Warriors are gonna start five All-Stars.” The other was, “Holy shit, this might be the end of the Warriors.” The latter take was obviously predicated on concerns about chemistry. Cousins has a reputation for not always playing nice with others—including others who were previously rivals but are now his teammates. It wasn’t that long ago when Boogie wanted to body-slam Kevin Durant in the Smoothie King Center hallway, leading to an all-time great hold me back photo. Last week Cousins said all the right things about wanting to fit in with the Warriors—which is precisely what he did earlier this season. Even when he wasn’t playing, he played the role of peacemaker during the Warriors’ first game against the Clippers in Los Angeles. You might recall that KD and Draymond Green got into a pretty public intramural spat that evening—with Cousins serving as the unlikely relationship counselor. He helped separate his two teammates, then threw his arm around Draymond and tried to calm him down.

“I honestly don’t really even think it’s thought about,” Cousins said Friday when asked to recall his part in the sideline squabble heard around the world. “It’s just a little bump in the road. It’s a team. There’s going to be disagreements. There’s gonna be arguments. And it probably won’t be the last one. It’s about overcoming that and coming back together and getting the job done.”

Cousins said that’s exactly what Durant, Green, and the Warriors have done post-drama. Whether you believe that or suspect there might be something still lingering beneath the Golden State surface, Cousins was unquestionably right about one thing: That wasn’t the first tiff the Warriors ever got into with one another, and it probably won’t be the last. That isn’t unique to Golden State. What we’ve seen from the Warriors at times this season is something that’s played out in other outposts across the league: Being good at basketball obviously goes a long way, but quality chemistry matters, too, when trying to find the right mix of players. What happens between their ears is every bit as important as the X’s and O’s between the lines. Which is why Kerr believes proper management—of disparate personalities and egos—is paramount. Not just for his five All-Stars, but for all 15 guys on the roster. And not just for the Warriors, but for all 30 teams.

“That,” Kerr put it plainly, “is the whole job.”

Brett Brown wouldn’t disagree. While speculation about the Sixers’ imminent self-destruction might have been premature (on behalf of The Ringer and our collective curse, you’re welcome, Sixers fans), the obsession with the team dynamic in Philly isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, that focus predates Jimmy Butler’s arrival by quite a bit. There have been urgent calls to pay attention to the franchise chemistry for a while now—and they often came from inside the Sixers’ house.

From the moment Brown was hired, he emphasized the need to build a program. That’s his preferred nomenclature. Not franchise or organization, but “program.” At first, that sounded like the kind of happy if ultimately hollow TED Talk pablum that someone, fresh off winning lots of games as an assistant in San Antonio, might employ while losing lots of games as a head coach in Philly. In context, though, it also made sense. “Program” is the kind of word you use for college hoops, and most of the kids he was coaching back then became the NBA’s version of one-and-done types—young guys hoping to make names for themselves who were here today, gone tomorrow. But even after the roster stabilized and the Sixers morphed into Eastern Conference contenders, Brown never wavered on that front. I long ago lost track of how many times I’ve heard him stress the importance of culture. Regardless of how you might grade him out as a basketball coach, it’s hard to doubt his sincerity there.

Perhaps that’s why Brown often comes off as calm while everything around him is frequently frantic. Over the past five years, the Sixers have been the basketball embodiment of the “this is fine” meme. In that way, they were uniquely suited to add Butler to the mix. Where his reputation for torching teammates and fomenting drama might have scared off other teams, the Sixers have grown accustomed to dealing with one unreal story line of their making after another. What was one more?

When ESPN recently reported that Butler “aggressively challenged” Brown in a way that “witnesses considered ‘disrespectful’” during a film session in Portland, much pearl-clutching and hand-wringing ensued among the media and fans alike. There have been questions about Brown’s system and Butler’s fit in it—the Sixers hardly run any pick-and-roll, which evidently bothers Butler because he’s good at it—and whether those concerns might make the 29-year-old wing think twice about staying in Philly when he becomes a free agent this offseason. All of that is fair. But it is also fair and important to note how the Sixers handled that particular family squabble. Mostly they just shrugged. A source close to Butler told ESPN exactly what you’d expect: that his “intense, direct style can come off as combative,” but explained that’s just how he expresses himself. Meanwhile, Brown did his usual Brown thing: He absorbed the hits, thereby softening the blow on everyone else.

”What’s most—by a mile—lately, on my mind, is the growth of a team, and the cohesion and the ability to share in somebody else’s success,” Brown said. “The ability to communicate candidly, to coexist. That’s all I care about.”

The reply was straight out of the Brett Brown program playbook, and it offered an interesting contrast to how Butler’s “intense, direct style” was received in Minnesota. No family relatives of his teammates called for Butler to be traded; no former coaches of his teammates called him a bully. To borrow from Boogie, that wasn’t the first row the Sixers have gotten into, and it won’t be the last. If nothing else, they’re no strangers to crisis management, and they don’t shy from it.

There’s something to be said for experience in that respect. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been (only kinda) jokingly referred to as the president around these parts. Now we’re seeing what kind of commander-in-chief he is during wartime. It all traces back to Kyrie Irving, who has had an interesting past few weeks. He crushed unnamed teammates for “being able to coast by in certain situations” and getting “away with your youth and stuff like that,” admonished “the young guys” for not knowing “what it takes to be a championship team,” and implored the lot of them not to be comfortable being the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference pecking order because “I’m not comfortable with it.”

That, in turn, prompted Terry Rozier to offer that the Celtics might be too damn good for their own good. Rozier told Yahoo that the problem was the Celtics have “young guys who can play” and “guys who did things in their career,” as well as “the group that was together last year” that came within one win of reaching the NBA Finals. Adding Irving and Gordon Hayward to that mix was “a lot.” In the end, Rozier surmised, the issue with the Celtics is that they’re “too talented.” That’s a hell of a conclusion, and it had my Boston buddies texting me in a momentary panic (which I may or may not have enjoyed).

But the best part about the whole affair—unless you’re a Celtics fan, at which point there was no best part—was when Kyrie tried to walk it all back and admitted he “did a poor job setting an example for these young guys.” Aside from the fact that he’s only 26 and could still be reasonably considered a young guy himself, there was delightful irony in his statement. It wasn’t that long ago that he was the up-and-coming kid who was annoyed when a certain superstar used similar tough-love motivational monologues.

LeBron James must have found that pretty amusing. One minute Irving was angling to break free and command his own team, the next he was picking up the phone to offer an impromptu, long-distance mea culpa. (Unlike a certain Ringer executive, I hope Kyrie never stops talking.) But if James did some similar soul-searching, he might consider his role in their premature separation. It’s not all on Irving. After Kyrie hit the eject button on his copilot seat in Cleveland, a longtime Cavs employee told me the organization had been bracing for it because LeBron wanted to control everything, up to and including the narrative around him and the Cavs, which grated on Irving and others. And while we’re talking about Kyrie sounding like LeBron and apologizing to him, here’s a little more irony: James sure could use a player with Irving’s ability and skill set these days. Maybe the Cavaliers were always destined to break up the band sooner than later, but it’s hard not to wonder how many more hits they could have belted out if only the franchise could have figured out a way to keep LeBron and Kyrie singing the same tune.

It’s something the Warriors have no doubt considered with respect to their situation. After all, they’ve spent a lot of time this season fielding questions about whether this might be the end for KD in Golden State—especially because Draymond reportedly called Durant “a bitch” during their fallout and told him to hit the road. No wonder KD got all pissy about it and (hilariously) told the media “don’t ask me that again.” (Free advice for athletes everywhere: The surest way to get asked a question is to tell journalists not to ask it. We’re stubborn bastards.)

The top-tier teams have a lot at stake when it comes to managing personalities and interoffice issues, but that doesn’t mean they’re alone. This season, we’ve witnessed a player mutiny in Chicago, several coach vs. front office quarrels in Sacramento, and a bizarre and messy near separation in Dallas between the Mavericks and their 2017 first-round pick. In New York, when he’s not busy calling the Turkish president a “freaking lunatic” while trying to avoid extradition, Enes Kanter has kept David Fizdale on high alert by frequently complaining about playing time and, most recently, falling out of the rotation. Kanter thought he should be an All-Star this season; Fizdale has his own truth. And then there’s everything that happens in Washington. The Wizards are wonderful that way.

Meanwhile, in Miami, Dion Waiters, ever the team-first good soldier, declared “fuck patience” after playing just 12 minutes in a lopsided loss to the Bucks last week. It was only his fifth game of the season after returning from an ankle injury. Waiters told reporters he was “tired of this,” said the “next step is being back in the starting lineup” and he planned to “get back to my regular self.” In a way, the Heat are a poor man’s version of the Celtics. There can be a downside to depth when there are too many mouths and not enough minutes to feed them.

When asked whether he would discuss his feelings with his head coach rather than simply venting to reporters, Waiters replied with typical aplomb, “I ain’t saying nothing to nobody.” Erik Spoelstra later told the media that Waiters’s comments wouldn’t help him get more minutes—but that’s sort of what happened in the immediate aftermath. Two games after his tantrum, Waiters played 22 minutes and scored a season-high 21 points. Sometimes it’s just easier to grease up the wheel to keep it from squeaking.

As Kerr put it, “every team, all 30 teams” have to “dig themselves out” of holes of their own making during a season. The whole job is to figure out a way to help his guys snap out of it. He’s pretty good at that, and unlike some of his peers, he doesn’t generally let us see him sweat while he’s at it. Winning eight titles (five as a player and three more as a coach) probably helps take the edge off, and it can’t hurt that he’s been around the game for a long time in just about every capacity.

“Being in the NBA, being on a team in the NBA, being around it for a long time—whether as a GM, a broadcaster, and now as a manager,” Kerr said, pausing on that last word for a brief moment to give a quick smirk, “I think you just get a feel for the daily ritual, the ups and downs of the season, the marathon that the season represents and how many emotional swings there are.” Kerr changed the on-court system when he took over for Mark Jackson, and the Warriors were clearly better for it. Kerr gets full marks for empowering the Warriors to play fast and shoot a lot of 3s and engage defensively. But what he’s best at might be harder to quantify, though no less important: identifying those emotional swings and getting his guys to ride them out without anyone feeling too queasy along the way.