Chemistry 101

I never was good at science – I only took chemistry up to grade 11. However, I do know the importance of chemistry, especially in regards to compiling a winning basketball team. With some of the free agent moves going down this past week, apparently some GMs need a refresher course in Winning Chemistry 101.

Yes, the most important thing for a championship team is talent. You aren’t going to win if you don’t have a roster full of top-shelf talent. But the most talented team doesn’t always win – look no further than the Pistons beating the Kobe-Shaq-Mailman-Glove Lakers squad in 2004. That is because when it comes to adding talent to a roster, eventually the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in. More talent does not equal more wins and more rings. After a certain point, chemistry and players willing to accept and thrive in the role they are assigned is more important than talent.

I’m of course talking about this past season’s top two teams – the Lakers and the Magic – tearing apart their rosters. Both teams’ key players were relatively young and thoughts of long time domination for both wasn’t a far-flung idea. Then Orlando went out and lost three starters – Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee & Hedo Turkoglu – from this year’s team. Its true that Rafer Alston wouldn’t have been the starting point guard if Jameer Nelson hadn’t been injured, but losing three starters from a championship contending team and only getting Vince Carter back in return isn’t a recipe for prolonged success. Then there is the case of the champion Lakers. They have replaced their young breakout star of the playoffs – Trevor Ariza – with the combustible Ron Artest. Now, on paper that is an upgrade in talent – at this point in their careers Artest is the better player of the two. And the defensive intensity that he brings to your team – not to mention his scoring ability – is substantial. But he’s not exactly the most stable of players.

This is where that chemistry word comes in to play. Turkoglu – not Dwight Howard – was the heart and soul of the Magic with his versatility and size. Ariza was a formidable third scoring option and solid defender for the Lakers. Not to mention both guys worked well within their team’s structures. While adding Carter and Artest might upgrade your talent level, it is at the expense of your team’s chemistry and cohesiveness. In my not so humble opinion, the Magic and Lakers are worse off today than they were a few weeks ago. I won’t be betting on either to win the title next year (not that I would ever dream of gambling).

I’m a big believer that the core of a team has to be together for a couple of years before they become serious title contenders. While there are exceptions to the rule (2008 Celtics), if you go through the list of recent NBA champions you’ll see that their key players were given multiple seasons to gel. The Spurs and the Pistons are prime examples of teams that kept their core guys together for a long time and, subsequently, each spring and summer they were among the last teams standing. Look what happened to the Pistons this season when they did break up their core by shipping out Chauncey Billups.

But you can’t put all the blame on the GMs. It is next to impossible to keep winning teams together, especially in today’s day and age. There are too many factors conspiring against keeping a team intact. The salary cap and the luxury tax (especially now with the economy tanking). Players with different agendas – some guys aren’t interested in being the second or third banana on a team; some guys would rather play closer to home or in a bigger media market; some guys only care about the dough – the highest bidder wins. Basically it is all the same reasons why I argued that they should get rid of the NBA draft. The teams that can keep their big happy families together (those dastardly Spurs) tend to be perennial contenders. But in today’s NBA, rightly or wrongly, the players call the shots so teams have to do the best they can patching together their rosters from year to year. Power to the people. Death to the dynasty.