It’s funny. After the Denver Nuggets' Game 4 loss to the Los
Angeles Clippers last season, when Michael Porter Jr. spoke out
about the team's play calls, everyone had something to say about
The whole situation made me recall my own experience in
And so has all the chatter about Luka Doncic and Kristaps
Porzingis and whether they are “friends”
off the court.
I figure I'll let everyone in on a little secret: contrary to
what people want to believe, succeeding in the NBA is not just
about competing against the 29 other teams in the league. It’s also
about competing against the other players in your own locker room.
Most players come into the league trying to earn their keep, not
necessarily trying to make friends.
As a young player, when you walk
into a locker room for the first time, there are veteran players at
the end of their careers, each trying to keep his job. There are
journeymen on one-year deals who are trying to stay in the league.
There are other young players who are trying to prove themselves,
too. If you go into that situation thinking about anything other
than playing your role and helping to win games, you might find
yourself out of the league pretty quickly.
Most coaches I played for liked having that kind of competitive
edge in the locker room because it usually meant that everyone was
going to be giving maximum effort.
Even though everyone is wearing the same jersey, it doesn’t
always mean they have the same short-term and long-term goals. It’s
just the nature of the business. Because of that, there isn’t
always room for friendships.
Everyone knows that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant didn’t
really have the best relationship when they were teammates, and
Charles Barkley himself talks about how he and Kevin Johnson
weren’t good friends off the court in Phoenix. I’m pretty sure
Michael Jordan wasn’t best friends with his teammates, either.
At the end of the day, all players know that friendships aren’t
necessary to win in the NBA; mutual respect, understanding each
other’s roles and putting the team ahead of yourself are.
For some players, that’s easier said than done, though,
especially young players who are still trying to establish
themselves. I know because I was there.
I met John Lucas more than 20 years ago during my rookie year in
Denver. He was one of our assistant coaches. What everyone loves
and respects about Luc is that he tells it like it is, but he also
understands how to connect with you. He’s been there, done that and
has seen everything.
One day after practice, I was moping around a little bit and, in
front of the whole team, Luc decided to school me. He asked me what
the problem was, even though he knew. I admitted I was a little
upset because I wasn’t really getting any shots. For the most part,
I was a decoy on the court, standing in the corner, just waiting to
get some scraps on the offensive end. And in front of the whole
team, Luc pulled no punches. In his own way, he explained to me
that in the NBA, a young player like myself has to pay some dues
and work my way up before anyone — including myself — knew where
and how I could fit in. Our established vets were Nick Van Exel and
Antonio McDyess, and we also had Raef Lafrentz — they were the ones
who were getting the shots and opportunities.
Straight up, he asked me: "Do you expect us to take shots away
from Nick and Dyess for you, a rookie named James Posey?"
My job, according to him, was to play my role, support them and
just be ready whenever my number was called.
It was tough.
I was coming off three good years at Xavier and wanted to
establish myself in the NBA, especially being a first-round pick.
But I took Luc’s words to heart because I realized that if I didn’t
fit in or if I got the reputation as being a “me-first” player, my
time in the league could be short-lived.
From that point on, I didn’t complain about my shots or my
touches and just tried my best to succeed in the role that Coach
Dan Issel gave me. Looking back at it, I think that lecture and my
attitude adjustment is part of what helped me have a long,
productive career in the league. I’m still close with Luc to this
Now when you’re talking about young players who believe they
have superstar potential, think about how hard it might be for them
to decide to just “play a role” or play “second-fiddle” to another
star player. That can be difficult. As athletes, we spend our
entire lives being competitive and trying to get to the NBA, then
when we get there, suddenly, we must become a little less
competitive and be satisfied with playing a role on a team. It was
a difficult adjustment for me, so for someone with a more decorated
collegiate career or someone who was drafted earlier than me, I can
imagine it would be even tougher.
When LeBron James returned to Cleveland, I’m pretty sure that
there was some of that with Kyrie Irving, which is probably part of
the reason why Kyrie asked out.
When you put two superstars on a team together, or a superstar
and a potential superstar, they might not be competing against one
another for contracts (they’re both gonna get paid), but they’re
definitely competing for shots, opportunities, legacy and personal
If everyone is more concerned about their personal goals than
winning, then things might not work out. You need everyone to be
selfless. And sometimes, even if everyone is selfless and is only
concerned about winning, you might still hear things here
and there about Player X being unhappy with his role or a lack of
touches or what have you. It happens.
As it relates to Porzingis and Doncic, I’m not saying that any
of this is applicable. I’m not in that locker room, but they
definitely wouldn’t be the first set of teammates to just treat
their relationship as a business arrangement, and there’s
absolutely nothing wrong with that.
When I was drafted in Denver, I had Bryant Stith playing in
front of me. Our practices were intense because we were competing
against each other. We didn’t have fights or anything like that,
but we were physical and sometimes, things got heated. That dynamic
existed in every locker room I was in, and by the time I landed in
Indiana at the end of my career, it came full-circle. I was one of
the veteran players on the team and saw younger players like Tyler
Hansbrough, Lance Stephenson and Paul George fighting for minutes
in order to establish themselves.
The franchise decided to go young, and that was that, but by
that point, I’d already come to understand the NBA player
lifecycle. And I also knew it wasn’t personal. It was just
Now that I’ve been a coach, I can honestly say that we don’t
care whether our players are friends or not, it’s really not
important at all. As a coach, you just want to know that, at the
end of the day, your players are going to respect one another,
believe in one another and do what they need to do to put the team
in the best position to win.
You obviously hope that guys’ egos and personal goals don’t get
in the way of the ultimate goal, but not every player has someone
like John Lucas in their ears as a rookie. It’s easy for jealousy
and resentment to creep in if someone feels like they’re not
getting enough touches or enough shots to prove themselves,
especially if they’ve got people in their ears telling them they
should be getting more. It’s just the nature of the beast.
No matter where you work or what you do, we’ve all worked with
people we didn’t necessarily like. We’ve all seen someone get a
bigger raise or get more responsibilities or a promotion that we
feel like we deserved. I can tell you firsthand: NBA players deal
with the same exact thing.
At the end of the day, we’re all out there competing.