Dylan Burkhardt

As a casual Pistons fan, it has been painful to watch the franchise spiral from a model of chemistry and hard work to a team that doesn’t even look interested in the playoffs. I was reading a post by Matt Watson over at Detroit Bad Boys that hit the nail on the head in regards to the Pistons. There just isn’t anyone on the Pistons that you would call a leader.

What’s even more frustrating than the lack of on-court production is the apparent lack of fire. For all the talk about how the Celtics would have been a better matchup, Kevin Garnett actually seems to instill more fire and confidence in his teammates than any of Detroit’s starters — and he’s yet to even don a uniform.

The scary part for me is wondering how this will apply to next year’s Michigan team. Dave Merritt’s pre-game speeches have been well documented and CJ Lee’s hustle and grit arguably saved the season. Both Merritt and Lee had been through thick and thin and were mature enough to lead this team. Their styles complemented each other perfectly and their leadership warranted their combined 30 minutes per game.

For those of you that want proof in the difference that CJ Lee made. Michigan’s efficiency margin after CJ Lee’s first start at point guard took a pretty noticeable jump. There was also a noticeable jump in eFG%, both the offensive and defensive numbers improved by over 6%.

                      Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
With CJ Lee           60.1    1.05    1.02   +0.03
Without CJ Lee (Conf) 61.2    0.99    1.06   -0.07

Next year there is no pair of fifth year seniors and it is a mystery who will step up and lead this team. Common wisdom would point toward DeShawn Sims or Manny Harris. DeShawn is a senior and the second leading returning scorer on the team. Manny is unquestionably the most complete and best player on the team. But at second glance it’s tough to imagine either Harris or Sims taking on a similar role to Lee or Merritt. After all, Sims admits to having mental lapses and Harris was not without his own issues last year.

Now I’m not saying these two don’t have it in them. Go back and watch the Purdue game again. Manny was vocal and passionate, he pushed Sims and Sims responded. There are other instances of the two players putting the team on their back but that was the best performance from a leadership standpoint that I have seen from Manny. The duo has to take the next step. Harris cannot afford performances like his games at Penn State and Iowa. Likewise Sims needs to avoid drifting and dozing off against teams like Clemson or Ohio State.

Sims and Harris are the assumed candidates but the leader of a team doesn’t always have to come from the top. Looking up the roster for next year, I’m not particularly sold on anyone else. Zack Novak is probably the most competitive kid on the team but he’s also only a sophomore. Zack Gibson will be a redshirt senior next year but his play has been underwhelming over the last two years. Stu Douglass provides a bit of moxie with the ball in his hand but again he is young and not very vocal. Anthony Wright has experience but I think he falls closer to an easy-going guy than a motivator or leader.

I am not trying to say that Michigan is destined to a Piston-esque season next year. In fact, I’m quite confident that this team will improve by leaps and bounds next year. There will definitely be a transition period during the first month or so of the season. The team returns nearly everyone statistically but removing the leadership from a team is akin to pulling the wrong block in Jenga.

The encouraging part to me is that this happens all the time in college basketball. Michigan State will go through the same thing with the loss of Travis Walton and that is just one of many schools that will experience a similar situation. In college basketball more than the professional game, players take on the identity of their coach. These coaches’ ability to create leaders is what separates the pretenders from the contenders and is essentially what differentiated this season from the last decade. I am confident that Beilein understands this because one of the dimensions he stresses the most is team chemistry.

  • Rob

    Interesting post. Someone will step forward. I think Sims, Harris, and Anthony Wright will be team leaders next year. Wright is a great locker-room guy and will fill that void left by Lee and Merritt. Sims and Harris lead by example, which is important on a team will young players.

    The NBA and college basketball are different because – as you noted – college teams have to replace players every year. College coaches are more important than their NBA counterparts to maintaining a team’s continuity. John Beilein has demonstrated an ability to develop team chemistry, so Michigan will be okay.

  • NVE

    Excellent topic to discuss since chemistry/leadership is one of our greatest causes for concern next year. The talent level will be a definitive upgrade, but it’s unclear how or if that will translate into Ws and Ls. Grady was more talented than Lee, but we started playing better and winning when Lee took Grady’s minutes. He proved himself to be the better leader/chemistry guy, and that means he was the better player. Same goes for Merritt, so in my mind we just lost two of our best players. Not talents…players.

    I have a hard time buying into the part about improving by ‘leaps and bounds’. That says ‘Elite Eight’ and upper echelon Big Ten team to me. My expectation and hope is for this team to avoid the bubble and get a bye/top 5 finish in the Big Ten. Getting out of the first weekend of the tourney would be nice, but I’m hoping for a decent seed and another 1st round win.

    Setting expectations well above and beyond 08-09 feels unreasonable to me given the depth of the conference, another challenging non conference schedule, and the potential leadership gap Dylan illustrates in this post.

  • I’ve got one qualifier for my “leaps and bounds” comment. I expect a better conference performance, above .500. I think that would be a big step and get us safely in the tournament. Especially when you consider most other B10 schools will improve.

    How that translates in terms of tournament success, that remains to be seen and is really hard to predict at this time.

  • gooter9

    The last paragraph is key. Beilein will find and make leaders on the team. Hopefully it’s Manny and DeShawn. If not, Beilein will find others to step up.

  • Blazerine

    I’m with you gooter.

    And my rant…call me a hater or what have you but I think this team will benefit immensely from having a PG who can score, create, and distribute, and handle the ball at a far higher level then CJ Lee ever could. Not to mention defensively we’ll be adding significant length (Morris is 6’3-6’4) long and uber-athletic. He’ll be an upgrade under the hoop if he’s the low man in the 1-3-1 and in man to man defense (which is usually a growing process for the young kids) most PG’s aren’t going to be able to pull up and shoot uncontested jumpshots.

    Don’t get me wrong. I LOVED all the things CJ Lee and Dave Merritt brought to this club but I personally thought they held back the development of Grady and didn’t do much “numerically” in making this team better. Just one man’s opinion. And yes I played basketball and have officiated highschool ball.

    P.S. love this site cannot wait for 2010 Michigan Basketball. Keep it up Dylan, we love it.


  • Old Style

    Sims seems the most likely to me. Although the first step may be demanding the ball in the post a bit more. I’m just excited there’ll be more height available next year.

  • Brick

    I doubt it will be Sims, he doesn’t seem to have that type of personality. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Stu become a leader eventally but I think it’s more likely to be in his Junior year. Next year will be interesting to see if someone steps up into that position.

  • gpsimms

    Let’s not overrate the value of “inspiring pregame speeches.” And secondly, let’s not underrate CJ Lee’s talent. And of course, by talent, i mean hi defense. The team did not play better when CJ stepped in because he “inspired everyone.” The team played better because he was a solid defender. Darius Morris has potential to be a better defender, and I think LLP should take a huge step forward as a defender (supposedly, d was going to be his strength last year, based on how he looked in practice, so i feel like good D out of him is just a year away).

    I think this team will miss Merritt’s speeches 0, miss CJ’s inspiring hussle a little, and his defense a lot.

  • Giddings

    Maybe it will be Darius who steps up? It’s natural for your “leader” to be your PG, and even though he’ll just be a freshman I think that he has the attitude necessary to become a leader. It’s not completely out of the question for a freshman to be the leader for a team, especially when he’s a PG… see Derrick Rose, etc.

  • Clearly pre-game speeches are not the be all end all. But there is no doubt that Lee and Merritt brought a sense of maturity to this team and that they were the leaders.

  • gpsimms

    I agree Dylan, I think people are just overstating Merritt’s effect. I love him and respect all he overcame to make the team, but I don’t feel his graduation will effect anything.

    And for CJ’s case, he made the difference for the team on the court. People are always talking about emotional impact, and they tend to overstate it. CJ was a difference maker on the court, with his tough D and hustle.

    Also the Pistons miss Chauncey because he was a gamer. Again, his leadership helped, but the main impact is what is done on the court.

  • michfan1

    With his energy, toughness, grit, and attitude, I think Novak can become a huge leader on this squad, even if he only gets 10-15 minutes per game. I don’t know about you guys but I see him as the guy jumping off the bench every time theirs a break in action to give high fives and keep everybody focused.