Lessons from the Last Dance: A team is a reflection of its best player and leader

Dwight Howard had the seeds of leadership, but his uneven temperament and inability to finish games may have held the Orlando Magic back. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Dwight Howard had the seeds of leadership, but his uneven temperament and inability to finish games may have held the Orlando Magic back. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images) /

Michael Jordan’s leadership bordered on bullying, but there was no denying its success. The Chicago Bulls were a reflection of their best player.

The stories of Michael Jordan as a competitor are legendary.

The Orlando Magic know that better than anyone. After defeating him in the 1995 Playoffs — 45 is not 23, after all — Jordan reshaped himself and drove the Bulls to a historic level. You do not pull on Superman’s cape or tug on the Chicago Bulls’ horns in that sense.

The stories of Jordan as a teammate are also legendary.

He reportedly would not let Horace Grant and other teammates eat on the plane after poor games. He punched Will Perdue and Steve Kerr during practices. He endlessly berated teammates like Scott Burrell. His trash talk game was legendary on top of all that.

There were several powerful moments throughout the course of Episodes 7 and 8 of The Last Dance. The lasting image of Episode 8 with Jordan on the floor of the locker room at the United Center sobbing over winning his first title after his father died bookended a very personal story in Jordan’s life.

But it is the end of Episode 7 that really gave a window into his views of winning basketball games and leadership. All the needling of Burrell throughout the series came to a head when we finally saw Burrell on camera.

Burrell seemed to brush off Jordan’s insults. He seemed like a fairly even-keeled guy who understood this is just how Jordan’s wired and he cannot let it affect him. Take everything in stride.

His teammates knew Jordan was demanding in a sometimes unhealthy way, but it helped them win.

Jordan’s attitude was different. Jordan said he did all this, he pushed and went harder at his own teammates, because he wanted them to come along with him. His leadership style might be that of a tyrant, he said, but that style would prepare his teammates for the battles to come.

He needed to know he could count on them when it mattered. If they could withstand Jordan, he knew they would be ready when he needed them. It was all about building his trust. This is just how he did it.

In an emotional moment in the documentary, Jordan broke down this philosophy before calling for a break (and the episode’s end).


The most poignant and important line for any leader came from Jordan too. He said he never asked his teammates to do something that he would not do himself. Over this quote, the documentary showed Jordan leading the team in wind sprints.

His play was unquestioned.

Jordan indeed dominated everything. He was the best scorer, the most in shape and the driving force of that offense. The team had no choice but to look to him and lead. And his ability to back up his demanding style only made him and his team greater.

Give the Bulls credit — yes, Jerry Krause deserves credit here — for finding players that could handle Jordan’s demanding attitude. In that sense, great management and organizations did matter to support the team.

But Jordan was still the driving force. Everything always comes back to the team’s best player in the NBA, especially when championships are on the line.

Leadership is something that goes beyond the basketball court. Whoever the leader is in whatever the situation is sets the tone for the entire organization. Everyone in their orbit takes their cue from the leader.

If there is a lesson to come from last weekend’s episodes of The Last Dance, it was this truth about leadership.

In basketball especially, a team is a reflection of its best player. It is impossible to lead without the ability to drive and force a team forward in a sport like basketball. In the critical moments, everyone’s eyes are on the best player to do something.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

And while being “clutch” is certainly not the be-all, end-all of leadership, making that last play is a sign of leadership in some way. when all is said and done, the team turns to one person and he better be able to deliver.

He sets the table for everything that happens in the game and finishes the meal when the game is over.

Leadership is not merely telling everyone what to do, it is the responsibility to push everyone to that level and take over when it is called for.

Leadership in Orlando

This is a theme throughout Magic history from the team’s championship days to today. Finding strong leaders who have the will to win as much as the ability to lift up their teammates to be ready for those moments is a constant story in Magic history.

Shaquille O’Neal derisively called Stan Van Gundy the “master of panic” during Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic days, claiming that one day Van Gundy’s hysterics would cost his team. While Van Gundy certainly seemed to wear on the Magic by the end He might have been pointing to the wrong guy.

Dwight Howard was a dominant defensive force. He got after it defensively throughout his entire career. That turned the Magic into a championship contender. He dominated the Eastern Conference Finals and in a must-win Game 6 pulled the team with him into the Finals with perhaps his best-ever performance.

But there were plenty of other instances where Dwight Howard seemed to look small and fall short. Especially offensively, he could go long stretches without impacting the game on that end. And Orlando could not get him the ball at the end of games because of his poor free throw shooting.

The Finals in 2009 were especially humbling. He missed a pair of free throws in Game 4 and seemed frustrated with the defense against him. The Magic were as close as they could get to the title.

This should have been a humbling lesson for Howard. But his focus was always all over the place. He got into it with officials throughout his career. And after a momentary burst in offensive understanding, he quickly fell back into old habits.

The legacy of his career, as Bill Simmons put it on The Book of Basketball 2.0 in discussing Howard, is he never figured out how to be a leader. He never figured out how to push his game to a level that would make his teammates better and carry his team over the hump.

He never could take over all facets of the game as you would expect from someone who was considered one of the five best players in the league at the time. That maturity and tone-setting on every end is the big blemish in Howard’s career and why it might have eventually derailed.

Leadership should not be entirely about results. You can be a good leader and not get to the title. Like a coach, a player who is a good leader keeps everyone involved and focused on their goals. He pulls them up and helps them realize their full potential.

Howard’s 2010 season should have ended with a title. But he was as frustrated as everyone else when the Boston Celtics went up 3-0.

Ultimately, everyone takes their cues from the best player. They turn to him to lead when times are tough and find a way to help the team regain its rhythm or carry them to the finish line.

Howard could dominate games, but when his team was in a rut, he was not the one to lift them. While Van Gundy was the “master of panic,” Howard would often lose focus. When his team was stuck, he could not get them out. Especially in the Finals.

The Magic probably had too many similar personalities who were chill and cool in that 2010 season. That is ultimately why a team like the Celtics was able to upend them. They had that little bit extra a great team needs.

Learning to lead, discovering the secret

This is not limited to Howard. Teammates taking their cues from the best player is something that goes on throughout Magic history.

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During a reunion of sorts between Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Dennis Scott during the 2012 All-Star Weekend, O’Neal told them he blamed himself for the Magic’s Game 1 loss. It was not Nick Anderson‘s missed free throws that cost them the game. It was O’Neal not being able to lift his team further.

He was young then, of course. That was an important lesson for him to take. He did not understand what it takes to win a title. Horace Grant provided a lot of that institutional know-how. O’Neal needed the experience.

He corrected that as he grew.

Undoubtedly the team’s confidence was shaken after Game 1 of the 1995 Finals. O’Neal did his best to carry the Magic. But he was overpowered by Hakeem Olajuwon too. O’Neal took that loss hard and became an example and leader for his team moving forward.

Tracy McGrady famously bristled at receiving the captain’s ‘C’ from then-general manager Jon Weisbrod.

Tracy McGrady did a good job leading his team and scoring when the team called for it. But unlike Jordan, he never discovered the secret to making his teammates better.

Maybe the problem was actually that McGrady had bad teammates, to begin with. But McGrady’s sometimes aloof, sometimes angry approach did not click with his teammates and did not mean much more than a token playoff appearance and gaudy playoff appearance.

Too often the Magic’s offense devolved into McGrady isolating with everyone else watching him play. McGrady’s leadership certainly came under question.

The current Magic team has some very good players who seem to fit together. But they lack that clear leadership. Their best player, Nikola Vucevic, is a solid and consistent player. That the team can count on him every night is part of his appeal.

But Nikola Vucevic is too steady. The upper spikes of his play do not bring the team further. He does not have the killer in him.

Consistency is good for this team. They need someone to be good every night and pace them to the end. But they do not have someone that can get them to the end. Or push them to be a whole lot better. This is part of the Magic’s problem. They need better top-end talent to get to the next phase.

Cues from the best

Leadership is never perfect. The good ones are always the one who succeeds in the end. And everyone has to have their own leadership style.

But it is also clear in this league that a team goes as far as its best player. And it is almost impossible that a team’s best player is not viewed as the team’s leader when the chips are truly down.

Teams take their cues from their best player. That is just a plain fact in this league and in this game. It does not matter how they get the most of their teammates, it only matters that they do and they lead with their actions on the court.

Jordan for as much of a bully as he seemed to be, he drove his team to another level. The Bulls acutely tapped into that and found players who could support and take that, building their team around his leadership and their best player.

Next. The Last Dance: Orlando Magic were just another sleight for Michael Jordan. dark

Ultimately this is what drives championship teams.