The U.S. Marine Corps has a very select group of leadership characteristics for every Marine. Using that set of adjectives as a template, we thought we’d come up with a group of five top-tier players who use those values to both unify and lead their teams. It’s an ability to play well within a larger group while providing direction that’s most important on an NBA hardwood, and these players work not just to look good on the court, but drive the whole team to win.
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The single nicest NBA player we’ve ever spoken with. A player who is respected almost universally around the Association by players of all different sorts. He’s loyal to his team, and will willingly sacrifice individual accolades for the betterment of the team — witness his pair of Sixth Man of the Year awards after taking home last year’s hardware.
And it’s not like Crawford is just a cog in the machine, like the role he inhabits for the Clippers. He’s got the one-on-one skills to be the primary scorer; he shows the courage to hit the court and go for the win either on his own or working together. But it’s his ability to put team first that soldifies his inclusion, and it’s why he continues to be in discussions for Sixth Man of the Year at the end of the season. It’s rare you find such a gifted player who also wants to win as badly as Crawford does, and his godfather status around the league comes in handy for resolving any sort of inter-unit squabbling.
This MVP candidate can do it all on the basketball court, but he’s got the tact to know it takes more than a single player to win in the NBA. A team needs an everyman, and Steph is starting to morph into the league’s best without ruffling any young feathers in Golden State.
Witness the smooth assimilation of rookie head coach, Steve Kerr, despite the termination of a former coach, Mark Jackson, who owned the undying respect of his former troops. There’s no way Kerr gets this year’s Warriors team to buy in without the support of Curry.
Stephen is perhaps the deadliest offensive player in the NBA today, but he’s been taking the initiative to expend just as much energy on the defensive side of the ball because that’s what Kerr asked of him; that’s part of what the Dubs needed for the best start in the NBA earlier this season.
3. John Wall
Wall, since he was drafted by the Wizards, is all about teamwork. Wall has brought the Wizards to the playoffs because consistently, and constantly, he sets his teammates up for the shot, hitting a career high of 18 assists against the Knicks before breaking the hearts of Raptors with 17 assists in the first round of of playoffs, putting the Wizards up 2-0. Wall doesn’t care if he wins: He wants the team to win.
2. Tim Duncan
The consummate professional and leader, Tim Duncan actually asked to mentor the No. 1 player on our list. Duncan is getting old, but a prime Duncan would have been No. 1 going away. He’s one of the few players on this list who hit all the right notes of leadership, from the dependability his teammates rely on to the unselfishness he’s shown building them up.
We’re not even going out on a limb by saying he’s the best leader in the NBA today, capable of coddling, or excoriating teammates and peers to his team’s desired ends, which always centers around getting a win. The fact that he’s strung together five titles over a 15-plus year career, including a seven-year gap between titles from 2007 to last year’s win, speaks volumes. His leadership is inexorable.
Duncan might not say much on the court except for the occasional bug-eyed reaction to an official, but he’s got his finger on the pulse of the Spurs like no one else not named Gregg Popovich. His role as San Antonio’s on-court leader could be coming to an end when this season reaches its conclusion, but we like to think such a natural-born leader will give it one more try, especially with No. 1 waiting in the wings to take over.
The soft-spoken — or better yet, almost mute — Kawhi Leonard has flourished learning within a narrow Spurs blueprint. While Popovich plays a drill instructor on TV, we all know he’s just as demanding behind the scenes. But that type of structure is perfect for a player who lacks any pretension; a player who is so seamlessly fits with the group. That’s Leonard, who has morphed into one of the better all-around wings in the league and he just turned 23 in June of last year. There’s no way that happens as quickly outside the sometimes stringent realm of the Spurs.
It’s his ability to use his best judgement and align his own skills with those around him that makes him the ideal teammate; He embodies all a teammate’s best virtues. Leonard’s potential to evolve into whatever his team needs is the secret that lies at the heart of any Spurs success. Kawhi — as he exemplified by winning the Finals MVP last summer — will do the repetitions and lead his unit with an unshakeable belief the system will get him ready to perform in the most arduous of circumstances.
Kawhi out-performed the clear-cut best player in basketball last June while on the biggest stage. That’s a player others can count on to get the job done when it matters the most. For Kawhi, that’s his time to shine, so he might not ever got an All-Star invite, but he’s gonna be playing deep into the summer every year.
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To lead in the NBA is the toughest task in sports. The interplay between the various discordant players, with their own personalities, can blend into one autonomous squad with the right leadership. Sacrificing for the betterment of the team is often the hardest part, but whatever niche your team needs to succeed is how these players exemplify their teamwork.
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