Sidney Lowe was asked an important question about the Jazz the other day during my radio show, a question that had to be answered. Has to be answered. The assistant coach swung away with a great amount of candor. But his honesty raised more questions about exactly where the Jazz are in their ongoing development as this season skids toward a halt.
First, the set-up.
Lowe was talking about the San Antonio Spurs, and the way they are self-led to greatness by certain players, by alpha dogs who demand excellence from themselves and their teammates, who always play hard, who usually play well, and who speak up and out when the need arises.
“It’s so important with good teams,” he said, “that you have that guy or a couple of guys who control the team themselves. … When you have those guys on the floor that control the team, that the other guys look up to and when they speak, the other players listen, that’s when you have something special.”
It’s tricky complicated, Lowe said, because vocal leaders can’t just be loud, they must have the necessary credibility that comes only to those who back their words with the strength of example.
He talked about Tony Parker and Tim Duncan and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
“Those guys could speak because they gave it every single night,” Lowe said.
Second, the straight dope.
Asked if the Jazz have any player currently on the roster who either is that kind of guy or who could soon fill that forthright leadership role, maybe not at the extreme level of an MJ or a Bird, but at a more modest level, Lowe allowed a long pause and a sigh.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s a situation where you have to be willing to separate yourself from the friendship, you have to be willing to separate yourself from it being your best buddy, you have to be willing to tell that guy that that’s a bad play, or that he has to move the ball, or he’s got to defend, or you’re not doing something, or you have to rebound. You have to be willing to do that, and I don’t know if we have anyone who is like that.”
Third, the hard truth.
If they ever want to climb back into real contention, the Jazz must find someone who is like that. Lowe knows it. Everybody on God’s green earth knows it. It makes you wonder if the Jazz are taking that into consideration as they ponder their coming draft position and what players could be available at that spot. Talent is good. Talent with a maladjusted sort of urgent drive that causes a player to push the whole thing forward is better.
“It’s a tough order,” Lowe said. “I think that sometimes those guys can be groomed to be that way. But so many times, when you look back over the years at athletes who are leaders, really, born leaders who are not afraid to talk, it’s born, it’s something that’s in you. It’s just in you. I don’t know if we have that guy yet.
“I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m sure it can. But I’m not sure if any of the guys … [pause] … Trey Burke. If I had to say one, if I had to say one, I would say Trey Burke might have that quality, that characteristic in him where he’s not concerned if he says something to one of the guys, even if he’s thinking they might talk back. That’s where you can’t be afraid. You can’t be afraid that if you say something to someone that they’re going to come back at you.
“That’s what it’s going to take, though. That’s what it’s going to take, that kind of guy that’s not concerned about someone getting upset because he told them that they’re not getting the job done. Having said that, you can’t make mistakes yourself. You’ve got to play hard every day, every single second out on the floor.”
Leadership on the young Jazz was talked about a lot early on, before the season started. It hasn’t been talked about so much since the Jazz have lost 47 of 69 games overall, and 11 of 12 in more recent days. It’s a heavy burden to toss on a rookie, but Burke seems to have the talent, the fortitude, and the general makeup, at least moving forward, to play that role. He has to be the Jazz’s equivalent of E.F. Hutton. When he talks, people listen.
To do so, he’ll have to shoot better than 38 percent. He’ll have to hit big shots and make big plays at the end of games. Moreover, he’ll need another strong voice. Who’s going to join in? Derrick Favors? Andrew Wiggins? Jabari Parker? The candid answer is, just like Lowe said, nobody knows. Not yet. Perhaps that answer is more telling than anyone wants to admit.
Fourth, a cry for help.
Whoever it is, whoever it might be, he’ll have to care as much about winning as he cares about breathing, and he’ll have to be good enough, convincing enough, to make everyone around him care more than they ordinarily would, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.