Team Chemistry And The NBA, Dec. 4, 2012

Hi gang, first let me thank various respondents for their kind comments.

Watching the games of the first month of the NBA has been very interesting to say the least. Although most of the noise coming from the various basketball media nabobs concerns the top teams, I’ve been more interested in following the progress of a number of   the league’s bottom-feeders from past seasons. Some of these poor teams have only been struggling in the past few years, while others (Washington, Minnesota, Toronto) have had a number of years wandering in the desert.

So how do poor or mediocre teams vault from their ignominious positions on the NBA ladder of success and get into the plus-.500 or playoff contention area.  Obviously a lot of it has to do with having better players, but a lot of it has to do with team chemistry. Chemistry I define as a team utilizing their talents to the ultimate. Many fans have looked at their teams and thought to themselves: “if we only add player X or players X, Y, and Z  we’ll go places.” Does it always work that way? As every long-suffering fan knows, of course not.

At the start of the season many of the bb pundits had picked the Lakers as the team to beat for the title. A number of them even had the Lakers only losing maybe five to ten games and crushing the opposition. The Heat would not even stand in their way as the Lakers mowed down the puny teams assigned to play them.  Adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard  to a team that already had players like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol would be too much for any other team to oppose.

The results after the first month of play have proved to be quite different. Even though several Lakers are playing up to their level (Bryant, Howard), Gasol  and a number of other Lakers are playing not so good. Nash had been hurt and out several weeks, but even when he was healthy the Lakers stumbled off the mark. They are currently under .500. You could have made a lot of money in Vegas betting on them to be sub .500 after one month.

The other night I viewed a  game between the Lakers and the Orlando Magic. I had picked the Magic to have a rotten year and struggle to win twenty games. They  beat the Lakers in L. A. and looked good doing it. What surprised me was how well the Magic moved the ball. If there is some stat for number of passes per offensive possession, the Magic might lead the league. They really zipped the ball around on offense. In contrast, the Lakers did not. The Lakers have problems. Maybe too old and not enough firepower off the bench. And poor chemistry.

Does that mean a team that moves the ball on offense better than the opposition will automatically win? No, of course not. But good team play can overcome deficits in talent. At least in the short run. Over the course of the season I expect the Lakers to perform much better at least getting into the playoffs and possibly going past the first round..  I doubt we’ll see Orlando in the playoffs.

How about my team the Milwaukee Bucks. What has adding several promising  players done for them this year? In the college draft I was very pleased to see the Bucks obtain pf John Henson who I thought was one of the more underrated players to come out of college last year. Few experts touted Henson who after suffering an early injury has looked real good including one game against the Heat of all teams where he had 17 pts. and 18 rbds. almost leading the team to victory. Henson missed a short last second putback that would have won it. They lost in o.t. The Bucks have a few other big men like Larry Sanders, Sam Dalembert, and Epke Udoh who have played very well at times and provided the inside scoring, rebounding, and defense the Bucks have lacked since they got rid of Bogut. Or at least since he started his travail of constant injury.

The Bucks also retain two of the quickest and best offensive guards in the league in Jennings and Ellis. Plus a number of good players off the bench in Dunleavy and Ilyasova. They even have another good-looking rookie shooting guard in Doron Lamb even though like Henson, he doesn’t get a lot of minutes. Or as many as Henson gets. And I like the way the Bucks move the ball on offense despite having two starting guards who have a propensity to chuck up an occasional bad shot or two…or three.

So I’m looking at my Bucks and thinking they look like a team that could win 40-45 games this year. And as they’re currently playing .500 ball, it looks my expectations could be realized. But last night they got whipped by a New Orleans team missing star rookie Anthony Davis and one of the leagues best scoring guards in Eric Gordon who has been out all season with an injury. What gives? How can a team come within an eyelash of beating the Heat in Miami, but go to New Orleans and get stomped by a team that healthy is no match for the Heat? I can’t figure it out.

Of course any team, even the best ones, can have nights where things just don’t go right, but the best teams aren’t nearly as erratic as the mediocre or bad teams. Which is why they’re the good teams.

And argument for the talent-is-everything crowd would be the Heat who added James, Wade, and Bosh and mixed them with a number of mediocre to good players.  The Heat have been to the finals the last two years winning it in 2012.  There were critics of the Heat who said their big three would be unable to play well together, but there’s nothing like winning a title to disprove that idea.

An argument against raw talent being everything is last year’s Knicks.  They had one of the best frontcourts in the league in Chandler, Anthony, and Stoudamire,  but only finished six games above .500 and  lost to the Heat in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Anyone who watched the Knicks last year observed that the Knicks with Anthony on the court had poor ball movement. Of course last year was the year of Linsanity where a little regarded player, Jerermy Lin, took  a Knicks team missing several of their star players on  a seven game winning streak. With Lin being the whip that moved the team, the Knicks played great team ball.  Knicks fans were very excited expecting a Knicks team with their star players back and Lin would do a lot of damage in the playoffs. It didn’t happen. Lin got hurt and missed the playoffs. The Knicks couldn’t get past the Heat.

But there have been several teams I and a number of other people thought  early on would be very tough throughout this season. I saw the Celtics dismember the Nets in a preseason game (yes, I know it’s only preseason), but the game had both teams playing very hard.  The Celtics won decisively, and I thought they were on their way to a 60 win season. Naturally, they stumbled out of the blocks and are currently only one game over .500.

And those Nets who looked out of sorts against the Celtics in that preseason game I saw are second in  their division and third only to the Heat in games won in the East. I knew the Nets had picked up some good players in  the off-season, and  I am not surprised to see them above .500 after  a lousy previous season. But I didn’t think they’d be doing quite this well after seeing the trouble they had against the Celts. And they’ve beaten the Celts both times they’ve played them in the regular season.

So again, what gives? Why aren’t the Celtics playing as well as I thought they should be playing. Against the Nets in the preseason game, the Celtics moved the ball exceptionally well while the Nets didn’t. Now I’ve seen the Celtics play several times during the regular season, and they’ve got problems. Meanwhile, the Nets despite losing their last game to the Heat in Miami, have won convincingly so far this season.

Another team I thought would be doing better despite having their main star out on injuries is Dallas. Nowitzki has not played one  minute during the regular season, but the Mavs started out the season playing well. I watched them several games, and they seemed to have good team chemistry. Now they’re playing not very well and are under .500.

So again how can you discern when a team has good chemistry and when they don’t? Is it simply a matter of winning and losing? Not necessarily true. I thought my Bucks last year played very well together despite having only mediocre talent at best. They ran their offense well and could play adequate to good defense. But they finished under .500.  Conversely, I thought the Lakers had poor team chemistry last season, but they were in the playoffs and made it to the second round.  So chalk that up to talent over chemistry.

So we’re still left with the question of what matters most: talent or chemistry? Let’s look at the probably the two best teams in the league–Miami and OKC. Nah, let’s look at another teams San Antonio. Of what I consider the three top teams in the league, I’d pick S.A. to have the best chemistry. During their championship seasons the Spurs had one of the best combinations of talent and chemistry I’ve ever seen. They have a number of stars, (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili…aging but still excellent), but they also have role players who fit in well. I watch the Spurs play, and I see a team that plays very well together. Very few bad shots or dumb plays. On paper, talent-wise they look equal to the Heat or the Thunder and have better chemistry.   Yet they got whipped by the Thunder in five games in the western conference finals last year.

So then two tremendously talented teams faced off in the finals, and the Heat beat the Thunder in five games. Which really surprised me. I thought the overall talent ratio was about equal. Of course, Lebron James proved he was the best player in the league, but I thought the Thunder, with scoring machines like Durant,  Westbrook, and Harden, could take them to at least six games. It was over in five.

But going into the finals, even with great individual players like James, Wade, and Bosh, I thought the Heat played better together than the Thunder. I thought the Heat would win, but I didn’t think five games. But looking back over the regular season, I thought the Thunder didn’t move the ball as well as other teams, and that proved fatal in the end. Maybe it was just a case of the Thunder’s stars not  as seasoned as the the Heat’s best players. But all in all I thought the Heat had better chemistry.

So I don’t know if I’ve answered the question as to how important team chemistry plays, but of course it does matter. While no NBA team can reach the upper stratosphere without  talent, chemistry plays a major role. I don’t think teams need to have superstars as the Piston’s in 2004 with no scoring machine but very tough team defense won the title.  But that’s a rarity if you look at the league champions from the inception. Whether on offense or defense, most champions had one or two superstars. But the championship teams also played very well together. Everybody knew their roles.

But one thing possibly hurting modern teams in their quest for continued dominance is the fact that players move around a lot more than in the old days. To build team chemistry often involves the same players playing together for more than one or two years. Looking at the great Celtic teams of the fifties and sixties,  a few things stand out: they had great chemistry, and the main players stayed together for more than a few years.

During the sixties, Bill Russell, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek were the big three of the Celtics. They’re all HOFers,  and they played together for seven seasons winning the title six of those years. One thing I noticed watching those Celtics teams that even when they didn’t have the best overall talent like during their  last two titles before Russell and Jones retired,  they still had the best chemistry of any team in the league.  That’s what kept them going when other teams were breaking down:  the Celtics played their game. Teamwork and tough defense earned the Celts a few more titles than what their talent suggested they should have won.

In the first decade of this century, the current Celtics again have managed to keep key players together.  The current Celts big three  of Garnett,  Pierce, and Rondo have  played together for six seasons winning one title, losing one finals, and taking  last year’s champs the Heat to seven games in the eastern conference  finals. Although they’re not playing great right now, when the current Celtics are on their game, they remind me of the old Celts. They move the ball well, hit the open shot, play tough defense and have a minimum of isolation plays ala the Lakers and Kobe.

Will the Heat be able to keep their big three together  long enough to win more than a few titles? Maybe. Will they keep that chemistry going? Who knows?  Would I like my team to have both great talent and good or great chemistry? Of course. But we can make a statement that average or poor chemistry i.e. poor team play and great  talent can win a championship?  Or come close? Yes.  The Lakers team that lost to the Celtics in 1969 had poor chemistry,  but West,  Baylor, and Chamberlain brought the Lakers within a whisker of winning it all. (I’ve got another tale about   game seven of that series in another column). So  If I had to choose, I’d take great talent and mediocre chemistry over great chemistry and mediocre talent.  Because even without great chemistry, I expect to see OKC challenging again for the title while my Bucks and Orlando will not be challenging for the title  to say the least.

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