Last season, Sonic point guard Gary Payton played an average of 41.8 minutes a game. What this boils down to, mathematically, is a mere 1.6 minutes of rest per every 12-minute quarter. Now, given the incredible holistic difficulty of running and dribbling and talking all at once, this isn't nearly enough down time, even for someone as preternaturally scrappy and competitive as Payton. But here's an even more telling statistic: Payton, last year, heaved up an astounding 24 percent of the team's total attempted shots from the floor, the fourth highest average in the entire NBA. It's obvious from these bloated numbers that the indefatigable Payton was far too often responsible for picking up the slack when the rest of his teammates' play became as unaggressive and unimaginative as an Anabaptist square dance.The question, then, is not how but why this was so. To be sure, nearly all of Payton's individual numbers were up last year, including a career-high 24.2 points per game, and there was lots of cawing and crowing in the sports press about his garnering a Most Valuable Player award... only if. Certainly, if ultimate value can be calculated by the potential impact of a person's absence, there are few players in the NBA whose departure would more quickly and resolutely scuttle a franchise than Payton's would the Sonics. For the past nine or 10 years--and intensively for, say, the last five--Seattle's upper and lower management have been trying, often with startling ineptitude, to build a championship team around the sole person of Gary Payton; in trying to find just the right magical combination of supporting players, team president Wally Walker and the rest of the crew in the front office have cycled through a vertiginous array of players and altered lineups.

That said, I'm going to go out on a limb: I think the crisis of the organization has not been personnel so much as personal. In being the solution to every problem, Payton's also become the problem in every solution. In other words, Payton has been cast as a maverick. Whether this role has been self-appointed or thrust upon him by outside forces is irrelevant. What's important is the distinction that must be made between true leadership and isolated heroism. Over the course of his career thus far, Payton has not displayed--or, more appropriately, has not had the opportunity to display--the qualities of a leader.

Payton, no question about it, evinces a rare and admirable work ethic: He plays a tough, wily, and uncommonly smart game of basketball, always performing at full-throttle and nearly always capable of finding innovative ways of winning. But he's also, at times, a rather unforgiving player. For better or worse, Payton's game is all about respect, and, especially when he's disappointed, the total lack thereof. It goes without saying that a modicum of articulated disrespect for one's opponent might prove felicitous now and again; but Payton is sometimes indiscriminate about who he chooses to turn upon with his psychological gamesmanship of humiliation and rejection. Think a few years back to the squabbles with Shawn Kemp, or coach George Karl. Or look no further than last year. When, early in the season, Vin Baker started showing signs of physical and mental inattention (like Kemp), Payton, for all intents and purposes, phased him out. And when Payton begins to take things into his own hands, questions of cause and effect become pointless.

And so further out on the limb I go: It might be that Payton's particular form of leadership, as yet untapped, is dependent upon the presence of an equalizing force--a player as phenomenally competitive and tough as himself. Whether Patrick Ewing is just such a player remains to be seen.