The announcement of a new NBA award is always time for celebration, if only because players deserve to be recognized for their achievements in public. On Sunday, free agent guard Chauncey Billups became the inaugural winner of the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, a trophy designed to identify the best locker room presence and workplace friend in the league. (Oddly, players were not allowed to vote for their own teammates, which would seem to defeat the stated purpose.) It was a nice way to honor Billups, a widely respected veteran who has earned plaudits for his leadership over many years.
Naturally, Billups celebrated his new award by questioning a teammate's on-court mindset on national television. From ESPN.com:
Chauncey Billups said Monday that Blake Griffin might be "too nice" and NBA opponents often take advantage of that aspect of the Los Angeles Clippers power forward's personality.
Billups, who was an on-set guest on ESPN's "First Take," was reacting to commentary on the program that Griffin is perceived as "soft" around the league.
"I don't agree that Blake Griffin is soft. But what I will say about Blake is that he's maybe too nice of a guy," Billups said. "Because there's been times in games where people take shots at Blake. And I tell him if that's me, you're going to have to take this two- or three-game suspension, and I'm going to punish somebody.
"That's just how I'm built. Blake is not really built like that. He's ... too soft of a guy inside for him to be like, 'All right, I'm just going to hurt somebody.' He just won't do it. I wish he would, and I think that people would look at him a lot different if he did that. But he's just not that kind of person."
Billups said "there's nobody that works harder" than Griffin, but the three-time All-Star would benefit if the Clippers were able to add "a veteran down low to help him ... to push him along a little faster."
It should be clear that Billups isn't waging a war on Griffin or criticizing the entirety of his professional existence. Yes, it's a little bizarre that Billups says his Clippers teammate isn't soft and then calls him "too soft of a guy inside" (though it's unclear if this means in the paint or in his mind, although basketball players often don't differentiate). But he also has great things to say about Griffin's work ethic. Perhaps all he's really trying to communicate is that Griffin needs to develop a veteran level of toughness soon if the Clippers are to compete for a title.
Unfortunately, Billups didn't communicate these ideas in the best way. For one thing, it's not clear how earning a multi-game suspension helps the team as a whole apart from sending a vague message about not messing with a star player. On the other hand, Griffin is that star player, and it's typically considered poor form for a playoff team's top scorer to sacrifice himself to prove a point of indeterminate value. As Billups implies at the end of this blockquote, that's what veteran role players are for.
On a deeper level, though, Billups seems to be assigning his approach to the game as the best available choice, rather than as just one of a varied number of styles that can combine to win a team a championship. At various times in their careers, players like Dirk Nowitzki have been criticized for not having the appropriate mindset to win, either because they were too nice or lacked a killer instinct. When Dirk won his championship, those opinions changed overnight, even if he remained fundamentally the same person. In truth, Nowitzki really just found the ideal combination of teammates, coaches, and management to build a winner. After seeing many different types of teams and players win titles over the years, it would seem clear that there's no one way to reach that level.
Oddly, Billups's suggestion that Griffin needs a tough veteran teammate inside suggests that he understands this concept, even if he doesn't articulate it in the best way. In practice, Billups understands that veterans can teach young players new ways of approaching the game over time, and that different personalities mesh to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
What we have here, really, is a case of someone articulating sound concepts in a fairly retrograde manner. Billups has enough hands-on experience with teammates to know how to put these ideas into practice, but it appears that he needs to work on the best way of communicating them to the public.