Brad Stevens was pretty much considered the best young basketball coach in the world, and the Celtics were stocked with both young and proven talent. They were set to become a powerhouse in the East and compete with the Warriors for the NBA title. But then they didn’t.
After underachieving a lot of the blame fell on Kyrie Irving and issues in the locker room. Selfish and moody, Irving was creating chemistry issues in the locker room, not getting along with Jaylen Brown and other Celtics young players.
The answer for most when the question is asked “what happened with the Celtics” generally involves the word “chemistry.” And Kyrie is the guy taking the hit. Forget about the fact that Kyrie was a huge part of an NBA Championship team in Cleveland with LeBron and hit the biggest shot in the history of the franchise to win game 7.
It’s interesting to me that once he hit free agency, the Celtics seemed really happy to see him go (and to replace him with Kemba Walker, a great talent and also reportedly a great “locker-room guy”). And the Nets were thrilled to pay Kyrie boatloads of money to join Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan in Brooklyn.
By all accounts, Brooklyn is the big winner in free agency. And Kenny Atkinson, their coach, and their front-office staff, are all known as very smart people. So why would they want the guy responsible for ruining the Celtics chemistry and their chances to hang another banner?
Because chemistry is a moving target. Chemistry is a vague term we use to fit the narrative we believe. We blame bad chemistry when we unexpectedly have a poor season. We credit good chemistry when things go well. But we never really define exactly what it is, so the goalposts continue to move.
So how do you define chemistry? Is it guys getting along in the locker room? Is it guys hanging out together on the weekends? Joking together in the hotel on the road? Or is it guys making the extra pass on the floor? Guys picking each other up defensively? Or guys sprinting back to help their teammate when they committed a bad turnover?
It might be some of that, it might be all of it. It might be important to you, but if it is you should really define what it is for your team. And you should work to develop it. If it’s that important, know what it is and make sure you create more of it.
I’ve never been a huge believer in chemistry – unless you consider chemistry in basketball terms. I’m a big believer in being unselfish, in sharing the basketball, in sprinting to help side and having each other’s backs on the defensive end. Is that good chemistry, or is that good basketball? I’m not sure my guys need to go to the movies together to step in and take a charge for one another. But does great chemistry help foster that environment and make your team better? Well, maybe it does. If you believe in it, cultivate it.
I’m a big believer that the environment around any team is essential to the success of that team, and that environment is created by the coach. Now in the NBA, maybe it’s different. I’ve never coached in that league and the power dynamic is different. But I still feel like the accountability and expectations set by the head coach create the right environment. So I have a hard time putting chemistry issues on the players. Think about guys like Dennis Rodman, one of the most eccentric teammates in the history of the league, who won multiple championships with different team. Or a guy like Boogie Cousins who was seen as selfish – didn’t look like he hurt the Warriors chances of winning a title this year. If one player actually does define your chemistry, something is wrong with the leadership from the top.
Obviously the Cavs had the right chemistry to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals to take down Golden State. But clearly the Celtics didn’t have the right chemistry with Kyrie in the fold. Now the Nets are counting on the fact that Kyrie can create the right chemistry, along with Kevin Durant, to make them a title contender.
Chemistry is a moving target. If it’s important to you make sure you define it and cultivate it. That will allow you to measure the level of impact it has on your team.