The NBA has a chemistry problem

NBA chemistry cover.0 - The NBA has a chemistry problem

How NBA teams struggle to create chemistry in an era when rosters are turning over faster than ever.

The NBA is a league of change. Recent roster turnover has been spurred by a number of factors, from an inflated salary cap and shorter, more exorbitant contracts, to restless owners, to star players progressively embracing their own power. Teams have been forced, at breakneck speed, to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Before the NBA went on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, chaos was its new normal: compelling, delightful and anxiety-inducing. But the constant shuffle also sparked an existential question among hundreds of affected players, coaches and front office executives: How can chemistry be fostered in an increasingly erratic era of impatience, load management, reduced practice time and youthful inexperience?

“Every year you have six new teammates,” Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers said in an interview with SB Nation. “It’s like gaw-lly! In some ways you wish that would stop.

“It’s a new NBA, man. Guys are playing on a new team every year now, and it has nothing to do with how good of a player you are, it’s just how the NBA is. I have teammates who’ve played on eight, nine teams. I mean, that’s fucking nuts. I don’t ever want to go through something like that.” (Rivers is 27 years old, and on his fourth team in seven NBA seasons.)

Over the past six months, dozens of players, coaches and executives across the NBA spoke with SB Nation about the state of the league’s chemistry, and why creating cohesiveness now is more difficult and demanding than ever before. Their responses sketched a blurry future for the league.

“It’s amazing how fast players change in today’s NBA,” Indiana Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan said. “From when I got over here two years ago, Myles [Turner] is the only player who’s still here.

“Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association” at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Tarlow wanted to know how roster continuity relates to team chemistry, so he pulled data from 804 NBA seasons played by 30 franchises between 1979 and 2008. He defined chemistry as “the number of years the five players playing the most minutes during the regular season have been on their current team with one another.”

“I got an actual measurement of how important [chemistry] is,” Tarlow said in a conversation with SB Nation in March. “And it’s pretty dang important. If you keep your team together it’s like a third of a win for a year, which, people don’t appreciate that and it doesn’t seem like much, but if you have a team that stuck together for several years, that turns into another game or two. That’s going to get you into another round in the playoffs.”

Bill Russell once wrote, “There is no time in basketball to think: ‘This has happened; this is what I must do next.’ In the amount of time it takes to think through that semicolon, it is already too late.”

It’s an intuitive idea: The longer we’re around people, the better we know how they’re going to behave under certain circumstances. Just think of the short-hand forms of communication you’ve established with your closest friends, family members and coworkers. Those subtle gestures and glances are especially helpful in sports, where a split-second miscommunication can be the difference between winning and losing.

“You go back to those San Antonio days, the winks and blinks and the nuances [where Tim] Duncan would find Tony [Parker] on a backdoor, or Manu [Ginobili] would find Timmy on a lob, that evolved over time, and lots of times [time] isn’t afforded,” said Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, who spent nine years as a Spurs assistant. “You need time to have that sophisticated camaraderie, gut feel, instances on a court that require split the moment decisions.”

Continuity by itself doesn’t lead to winning, of course. In some cases, it might only extend mediocrity. And if winning a championship is an organization’s organization goal, then it should first pursue star power. But continuity is a boon to coaches, who can implement more complex strategies if they’re able to retain a core group of players year after year.

“Right now with the influx of new players, you’re having to really keep your playbook and your schemes at a basic level because you are teaching more,” Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego said. “You’re just starting almost at a ground level every single year in a lot of different ways, where the teams that have had success for years and years, they’re building on every single year.”

As one former Spur told ESPN: “To take the time to slow down and truly dine with someone in this day and age — I’m talking a two- or three-hour dinner — you naturally connect on a different level than just on the court or in the locker room. It seems like a pretty obvious way to build team chemistry, but the tricky part is getting everyone to buy in and actually want to go. You combine amazing restaurants with an interesting group of teammates from a bunch of different countries and the result is some of the best memories I have from my career.”

Of course, Popovich was also good at finding players he wanted at the table.

“The more you can stay together, the more the chemistry builds. But still chemistry is more a function of the character of the players than it is anything else,” Popovich said. “I always talk about getting over yourself. And if there’s somebody in your organization that hasn’t gotten over himself or herself they’re a pain in the ass and they make it harder for everybody else because they can only feel about their success. They can’t be happy for somebody else’s success. It has to be about them. If you don’t have that then nothing else is gonna help you have chemistry. You can’t make it happen.”

Still, every coach tries to get everyone on the same page. As players digest their new surroundings, it’s important that everyone — coaches, players and executives — understand their expectations for one another. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni boiled his own approach down simply: “Don’t ask somebody to do something they can’t do. If you’re gonna have to change a guy, you might not want to bring him in in the first place.”

It is impossible for any team to keep all 15 players in the locker room happy at the same time; they’re human beings who are all going through their own real life issues. But a haphazard onboarding process will create headaches down the road. According to Buchanan, coaches have to be able to anticipate players’ questions.

“‘Why am I not getting to do this?’ or ‘Why am I not getting to play more?’ or ‘Why am I not playing with that guy?’ or ‘Why am I not starting?,’” Buchanan said. “You try to get that communicated up front so the player knows what he’s stepping into, because lots of times chemistry issues evolve from a lack of communication.”

When general managers and coaches are unaware of loose frustrations, they risk one player venting to another, sewing animosity that does irreparable damage to the entire team. Left unattended, a team can spiral into soap opera.

“It’s not difficult to create chemistry,” Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said. “It’s more about sustaining it through the course of 82 games with so many ups and downs. Obviously [we had] some of those moments with John [Collins] being out and Kevin [Heurter’s] injury. Roles start to shift and some guys weren’t ready for it, so the frustration of that kicked in.”

The Hawks have done two things to stave off that seemingly unavoidable discomfort. The first is an all-in dedication to how they play, in which everything revolves around pick-and-rolls with Trae Young and a rim-rolling big. By keeping the gameplan simple, they can plug in pieces as needed.

“When Trae masters it and everybody else understands it, you know, you roll a little bit harder and you shake up a little bit better, and you slash a little bit better. That’s who we will become,” Pierce said. “Any big that comes to our roster [knows,] ‘I can play here because I know I’m gonna get the ball at the rim.’”

The Hawks also have a breakfast club that Pierce took from his time as an assistant under Brown in Philadelphia. Every time the club meets, players stand up in front of their teammates and discuss something that matters to them. Earlier this year, Collins enlightened the room with a powerpoint presentation about what it was like growing up in a military family. Heurter talked about growing up in upstate New York and losing high-school friends in a drunk-driving accident.

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Former Hawks center Alex Len gave a particularly tender presentation last season that moved his head coach.

“You’re barking at Alex Len. ‘This fucking guy, he doesn’t compete, he doesn’t appreciate this,’” Pierce said. “Well, Alex Len talked about why he couldn’t go to the Ukraine for the last seven years. ‘Wow, I didn’t know you had such a tough time with that. I’m over here fucking yelling at you for not rolling in the pick and roll. I don’t know you’re dealing with this Ukraine thing for the last seven years and not being able to go home and see your grandparents. My bad. I’ve got to get to know you a little bit better.’”

Three years ago, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive asked a communications coach named Steve Shenbaum to work with his team. In 1997, Shenbaum founded a company called Game On Nation, which helps corporate executives, military personnel and government employees in addition to professional sports teams.

Within the past decade, Shenbaum has been brought in by the Lakers, Trailblazers, Nuggets. Cavaliers, Grizzlies and Mavericks, and agent Bill Duffy has asked Shenbaum to assist several of his clients, including Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming and Greg Oden. He has more than 100 improvisational and conceptual exercises to help clients build self-awareness, selflessness, confidence and other traits that enable character development.

A favorite is called “last letter, first letter,” in which two teammates have a conversation with one rule: as they take turns speaking, they must start with the last letter of the other person’s last word, and keep the conversation going. The exercise forces both parties to listen, let one another finish and focus in ways they otherwise might not.

“My hope is I am planting seeds and empowering the players and the staff to take what they’ve experienced and run with it and multiply it,” Shenbaum said. “I want them to see each other in another light.”

Shenbaum has many telltale signs of good and bad chemistry, but a big one is how well veterans are buying in. In a league that’s getting younger and younger, it’s imperative that older players command respect in the locker room and impose a will to succeed.

Dudley believes veterans who might not even be in a rotation can earn their money by bringing everyone together in ways a coach or GM can’t. During his one year in Brooklyn, he organized dinners, trips to the movies, parties and other events away from the game that involved the whole team.

“Then, when we were in film sessions and I would call them out, they took it as love and not criticism,” Dudley said. “You’re developing a relationship and then you can tell them, Spencer [Dinwiddie] or a guy who thinks he should play more, ‘this is why you’re not playing. This is your role for this team.’ Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson], he got benched: ‘Hey Rondae, for you to stay in the league, this is what you gotta do. On this team you’re not a starter anymore but there’s gonna be times they call on you.’ He stayed ready.”

Almost everyone interviewed for this story agreed that chemistry can’t be forced. Players on contending teams have to go through organic hardships together before they can become comfortable enough for the difficult conversations that facilitate progress. Some teams don’t believe it’s necessary or appropriate to ask their players to spend more time together than they already do. They believe that players should figure out issues among themselves, and that a front office’s biggest role is doing good background research on everybody they bring aboard. Coaches are there to take a team’s disparate pieces and position them to succeed.

“I think everybody’s budgets on team meals now has skyrocketed league wide because of the San Antonio Spurs,” Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra laughed. “The more important thing is getting a team on the same sheet of music about your style of play and an identity on both ends of the court, understanding what’s important, what the standards are, the expectations, role clarity. These things fasttrack, in my mind, chemistry. It’s always nice if guys like each other and they go out to eat on the road, have dinner together. But that doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Spoelstra knew early on that Jimmy Butler’s oft-misunderstood persona would have no trouble fitting in with several players on Miami’s roster because they all shared the same sense of duty.

“I’ve noticed with Goran and Jimmy in particular, they have such a beautiful on-court chemistry because they’re in their 30s, they’re only about winning right now. They don’t care about anything else. If you want to define on-court chemistry, in my mind it’s how willing are you to help somebody else. And how willing and able are you to enjoy somebody else’s success when it happens.”

The “character vs. talent” debate isn’t new among NBA decision-makers. But going forward, we may see teams value the former more than they have.

“If you get a group of four new players who you bring onto your team and they’re all team-first, unselfish, competitive, self-motivated players, there’s a decent chance that the chemistry is gonna have a chance to be good,” Buchanan said. “Doing a ropes course, that’s great in theory and may work for a business, but professional athletes, they develop chemistry by knowing they can trust each other because they’ve been together through tough times on the court.”

Searching for answers that don’t exist

Chemistry is worth deep investment, but perhaps it can be overanalyzed, too.

“We try to make the simple complicated at times,” ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “Going out to dinner is a far different chemistry than playing chemistry. You read a lot about, ‘We play paintball together.’ Who gives a shit, you know?

“I don’t believe it’s the reason why a team is either good or not good. I think you’ve gotta get great players, and when you have them you gotta try and keep them.”

There are endless ways to cultivate chemistry, but teams can still only guess at what will work in every situation. Statistics aren’t a good guide. They can’t quantify personality flaws or gauge emotional intelligence. When intuition is the best way to make a decision, some front office executives lean too hard on what they can measure instead.

“I think a lot of these GM’s, they really don’t take [chemistry] into consideration,” Utah Jazz center Ed Davis said. “They’re starting to treat the NBA like 2K and more just looking at numbers instead of, ‘are these two players going to get along?’ And I think you’re gonna start seeing GM’s lose their jobs.”

Top-tier skill, athleticism and on-court awareness is very often the bottom line for NBA teams, but those still trying to crack chemistry’s mysteries have good reason to believe they aren’t running a fool’s errand, as vulnerable as their circumstances may make them feel.

“There’s something very powerful about newness,” Shenbaum said. “And if you embrace it early, whether it’s a new coach, five new players, the star left, if you embrace it early you can actually create a very authentic bond.”

Defining chemistry can feel like trying to catch the wind. It is omnipresent and elusive at the same time. Until the NBA’s best and brightest crack the formula, they will have to deal with increasing levels of uncertainty in what was already an uncertain business.

Time will tell if NBA teams ever learn how to overcome their mounting challenges — from the shifting ways teams are built, to how on-court strategy is implemented, to the quality of the game itself. But there’s no denying that chemistry is a force multiplier, complex and intractable. And in an era of basketball that demands urgency more than ever, that fact can be frightening.

A lot of players and teams will continue to fail in familiar ways, well-laid plans crumbling because players, coaches and executives never understood each other on or off the court. Only now, they may not realize their mistakes until they find themselves starting all over. Again.

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