Perhaps the only thing that’s more difficult than winning consistently in the NBA is learning how to win in the NBA.
“It’s not easy being good,” Rudy Gay said. “It takes a while. It takes people stepping up and actually being that vocal leader. You have to do that. You have to have somebody.”
Shortly after Gay was traded to Toronto, he said those words in a media scrum following a disappointing loss. He was right.
The Toronto Raptors are currently trying to learn how to become good. They are a relatively young team, a mismatched roster, a group of players who each do certain things well individually. Unfortunately, there is enough overlap in skill-set that the roster does a lot of the same things well, while other things do not get done at all.
Playing against the best each and every night, the hardest challenge for a franchise trying to get from Point A to Point B is to make their goals align. Winning is always a goal. This doesn't change with a roster full of young players. What does complicate things is the need to develop those young players, teach them how to play in the league, how to be successful, how to survive.
These two distinct goals of developing players and winning games, more often than not, are in direct conflict with the other.
Gary Payton, mentor to DeMar DeRozan, talked about the struggle that rebuilding franchises have in the landscape of today's NBA. His quote, in full, is as follows:
"That's the problem of what the NBA is about nowadays. When I came into the league I had already had six or seven, eight veterans who had been in the league for nine or 10 years. We learned from them. They taught us. They made us go and take bags to the car. They made us become men. Told us how to do this, how to do that. Then when these kids now are getting drafted, they're 19. You become a star of your team at 19. The next year, that same team if you're not that good you're going to draft another 19 year old star. Now this 19 year old star is coming into this team with this star just turning 20 and he's saying, 'You are a leader? You're not, you're the same age as me. We're going to go play PlayStation together.'
"That's just not the way it goes. That's why it's so hard now for the NBA guys like the Clevelands and the Washingtons because they've got a young team and they don't know how to win together. You have to get a little older in your career to understand that you're going to talk to another kid and mentor him and tell him you've been there before. None of them have ever been in the situation before. None of them have been in a championship drive or won a championship so they don't know what to do or what to say to another player on their team."
Easy to see why Raptors coach Dwane Casey enjoyed coaching Payton in Seattle so much, isn't it?
The Hall of Fame finalist broke down the plight of rebuilding franchises perfectly.
The NBA is about drafting for the future and banking on potential. The problem comes when that young potential and unharnessed talent arrive to their new team only to discover that they don't know how to play at this level yet, that there's no one there to help them in their locker room and that the pressures and expectations of being the face of a franchise often fall onto their often still slight shoulders.
What's worse is when a team continuously finds itself in the lottery and keeps bringing in young talents who have no choice but to teach each other as the losing seasons continue to stack up.
Patience through a rebuild is important, but learning how to deal with losing can create another dangerous problem if it happens too long: Young players who become numb to the losing seasons that continue to pile up.
Former Raptors coach Butch Carter discussed the topic of trying to win with a young core in an appearance on Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN in November. His words echoed those of Payton.
"When I first got here in Toronto, I argued with Isaiah (Thomas) about it," Carter said. "You can't develop five guys. There's not enough time to develop five guys and if you make a commitment that you are going to develop five or six guys you are ultimately going to fail."
Harsh words that hold harsh truths for a lot of the teams trying to advance while following this model. Unless you luck into Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the lottery, the reality can be a lot of losing and changing courses. Repeatedly. Coaching changes and blame-shifting as the front office and coaching staffs try to keep their jobs do little to help the development of players.
As the season winds down for a Raptors team that will not -- barring many a miracle -- play past April, the focus will turn to the coaching staff and front office. Decisions will be made about the future direction of the team and who will be charting its course. While the extent of these changes are not yet known, a change -- and likely more than one -- is going to come.
While patience is crucial when it comes to rebuilding a franchise, so is entrusting the franchise to the right people.
As Gay has been stressing to his teammates, it's not easy being good.
As the players around the Raptors locker room are learning, it's even tougher trying to become good.