The Thunder are no strangers to the idea of the importance of good teammates. From Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s relationship, to the idea of “Thunder U,” to the current version where Paul George opted to stay with Westbrook, relationships are at the core of NBA teams’ success.
A recent quote by Corey Brewer, who spent part of last year with the Thunder, spoke of Paul George re-signing with the team in light of the presence of Russell Westbrook. Chris Bengel of 247Sports captures this:
“I had a feeling that he was going to go back,” Brewer said on the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast. “He was enjoying himself. He was having fun. It was a good situation for him. They like each other. People make it like ‘Oh, people don’t like playing with Russ.’ But Russ is a great guy. When you’re on his team you realize you want to play with him. I guess from the outside looking in you think ‘Oh, he does this, he does that.’ But he’s a great guy and a great teammate.”
What makes a good teammate? Is it the guy who puts up crazy stats that everyone wants to follow for success, or is it the one that just changes the atmosphere, whether its in the locker room, the practice floor, or in a live game?
Here are my five favorite guys who were known as great teammates, and five of the worst ones.
The good ones
Full disclosure: I am a big Spurs fan, so it’s difficult to not put this guy up at the top. Who wouldn’t want to play with him? All except maybe... Kevin Garnett! But really, how many other players gave themselves to their team over the course of a 19 year career while always setting aside personal goals for the sake of the team?
Aside from Kobe Bryant, there aren’t too many stars that preferred staying with their team in an age that most are hopping around from team to team looking to see if the grass was greener elsewhere. Carrying the name “The Big Fundamental” suggests that he gave himself to playing the game the way it was meant to be played which strongly incorporated him being a good teammate. Much of Gregg Popovich’s culture that he built up was due to the loyalty of Duncan. What would we have thought of Pop if there wasn’t a Tim Duncan? In addition, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are two other stars who also stuck around for incredibly long times as well. It’s hard to believe that if Duncan was a poor teammate that your two side-kicks would have wanted to hang around for years and years.
Here is a player that went from team to team and was able to make each of them better because of his focus to improving the entire flow of the game that benefited everyone. Shane Battier is one of the ones who defined that modern plus-minus stat. This is a guy who didn’t average more than 14PTS or 6RBs per game, yet teams reached a new level when this non-all star was added to their team. He was a great teammate because he knew the little secrets of the game that made everyone else’s game better. Also, it goes to show that not every great teammate had to be well liked to still be valued and appreciated.
From Michael Lewis’ definitive profile on Battier:
“I used to try to talk to people, but then I figured out no one actually liked me very much.”
Seven rings from three teams. Was he bumped around because teams couldn’t stand him any longer, or did they seek his presence when they were trying to build a championship team? You know the story. Big Shot Bob didn’t care for stats but had a knack for when it mattered. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Rockets, Lakers, and Spurs kept winning when he was on their team. He never made an all-star team and never average more than 12PTs per game, but he was sought after and is now revered as a ring collector. If you were a contender, you never knew when you’d need Horry, just that there would be a time when you wanted him taking the big shot.
This guy was fun to watch and fun to play with. Everyone seemed to want play with him during his golden years with the Suns. He was the classic point guard type player that got everyone involved and kept the game going at a fast pace, laying the groundwork for the modern game we see today.
Even though Nash never played on the biggest stage of a Finals series, many would agree that we do need more PGs to follow his favorable presence to those around him.
I am putting him in here not just because he was an excellent teammate, but also because his rival shows up on the opposite list. I realize the other names are mostly recent ones so I felt the need to throw in some historical ones. Russell is know for racking up 11 rings, something that will never be repeated. Yet this alone only demonstrates some of the chemistry that he influenced on his teammates. He cared about winning more than anything and he knew that getting to the top meant being a team player.
In an interview with Bill Simmons, Russell shared what it means to be a great teammate:
One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.
The not so good ones
I am not a big Iverson fan, having watched him from his freshman year at Georgetown throughout his pro career, but I have long since respected him for two things; his 2001 MVP year and the fact that we will never see another player like him again.
Aside from that, he played in such a way that did not advance the league. Aside from his propensity to do too much ISO, shoot the ball too much and seemed to be more of the Question (hence he was referred to as the Answer) to his team’s success. He infamously clashed with coaches and had a notorious aversion to practicing. Toward the end of his career with all of his accolades behind as a top scorer, steals, and that MVP year, precious few competitive teams wanted him on their roster.
When you are as unstoppable as Wilt was, why wouldn’t players want to play with him? The Big Dipper set records that won’t even be approached again, like 50PTs per game in a single season, scored 100 points, and even led the league in assists one year. Just like Shaq, his mere size gave him an unfair advantage.
His numbers point to dominance, but his obsession with statistics pointed to another thing that we don’t consider a virtue and we don’t classify as a good teammate. Just like when Kobe put up 81, my first reaction is the rest of team must have gotten bored seeing him put up that many shots. There is the age old debate about who was better, Russell or Wilt and we know it goes like this; Russell cared about winning and Wilt cared about numbers.
Ron Artest/Metta World Peace
It’s one thing to get into tussles with other players because it’s a competitive game, and we might even think a guy watching everyone else’s back is a note worthy asset to team (see legendary enforcers including Charles Oakley and Rick Mahorn). However, it’s another thing to have such lack of presence to leave the court to tussle with a fan. The “Malice at the Palace” will go down as one of the darkest moments in league history, and Artest was at the center of it, capping a long career where he crossed the line that hurt not only himself but his team as well.
Oh, and there was also that one time he nearly killed James Harden.
Kobe is a tough one because he was very successful at taking his team to the highest level and succeeded. He was either a co-leader or led five teams to a championship, so he passes the Iverson/Wilt test.
That said, throughout his career Kobe carried the aroma much like Iverson that just hurt his team. Both players pushed their fellow teammates away, relying on their own talents at the expense of others. The most egregious example? Shaq himself. To alienate the most dominant big man of his era underscores Kobe’s lack of ability to be the teammate his team needed him to be.
Even with Kobe’s success, I am still amazed how obsessed he was with calculating every little thing to be like Mike or just to be noticed as being the greatest. And that was just it, it was like he was thinking inside his head all the time saying “this is what a GOAT player does, so I need to do that.” Even today he can’t help himself.
I am sure there are plenty of others I could list here, but for Thunder fans, Melo stands out. He came to the team in hopes to add a third super star that would help them to compete with the likes of Houston and Golden State. Instead of that, we saw the same ball holding Melo refused to try to fit into the system to help his team, which infamously led to his displeasure during the playoffs and his salty exit interview.
He probably wasn’t the best fit for the Thunder from the beginning given Westbrook’s similar desire to have the ball in his hands, but he should have recognized the opportunity and been more willing to take his own game a step back to help others step up. Bye bye Melo, the chemistry should be a little better now.
Anyway, this makes for interesting conversation because it forces you to think in what sense does being a good teammate bring success, and to what degree they are correlated. Most of the time the correlation holds, but sometimes success comes despite a player’s ability to blend with his teammates. It raises the eternal question. What is more virtuous — success, or the pursuit of a strong reputation regardless of it?
Who is your top all-time best teammate?
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Who is your all-time worst teammate?
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