When I watch the Celtics play, especially late in the year and in the playoffs, the word I think about is ‘connected.’ They are connected on both ends of the floor, but especially on the defensive end. The hardest teams to beat – and the best teams I’ve ever coached – are connected. They play for one another, with an unselfish mentality, as one unit.
Connected teams are tough to beat because they refuse to let one another down. Every team wants to win, they want to execute the game plan and they want to help their teammates. But not every team is fully connected. There is a difference when you are playing for one another, with a bond that drives your competitive edge.
Connected teams are great to coach and tough to beat. How do you get there? It’s interesting to look at the Celtics journey this year, under first-year head coach Ime Udoka. They were a bit of a mess early in the year, with Marcus Smart calling out his teammates for selfish play. They seemed disconnected for the better part of two months. Clearly, getting connected doesn’t happen overnight. But there are certain approaches that can help you get there.
A great place to start is to celebrate unselfishness. Define the actions that are unselfish and help your team win – the extra pass, calling out screens loud and early, communicating in rotation on defense – and make sure you celebrate them constantly. Give out an extra point in drills for an assisted basket to emphasize the importance of ball movement. Work on scramble situations where everyone has to work together to get a stop. You don’t have to force people to share the ball or sprint back on defense. Define them as a way of taking care of your teammates and get your players bought in to one another.
We often use the word ‘chemistry’ when it comes to teams that play well together, but I define it as an unselfish approach to playing the right way. And the right way is what helps our team win. I don’t necessarily think that all of your players have to like hanging out with each other to be able to play well together on the floor (although it certainly doesn’t hurt). They have to be committed to one another on the floor, and it’s hard to do that if they aren’t unselfish.
Another aspect of connected teams is a relentless competitive edge. Connected teams play really hard, and they don’t take plays off. It’s one of the things I loved about the Heat-Celtics series. Both teams compete at a high level all of the time as part of their DNA. Again, I think everyone wants to win, but a competitive edge is different. It’s built over time, and it’s build with discipline and accountability in what you do every day. I’m not really sure how to manage that over an NBA season, with teams playing over 100 games. I understand why there are some nights in that league where the players just don’t seem to compete. I’m not sure how you can do it at a high level over that many games. Creating competition around everything you do in your program will help create a connected group. Define what it means to compete in your program and demand it. Don’t ever let up on competing. Make sure your players know they are in an environment every day where their best approach is expected.
I’ve talked a lot in this space about the importance of a defined defensive system, and I think it’s a big part of your team being connected. They have to know exactly what is expected of them, with no grey area. Most players grow up with an understanding of how to play offense – when to pass the ball, when to shoot the ball, etc. But how to defend as a team isn’t taught as much, and doesn’t come as naturally. To be connected as a unit on the defensive end there can be no doubt. You can make mistakes. But there can’t be any uncertainty. Decide how you want your team to play, teach it to them clearly, and then drill it every day, until it becomes second nature.
Personnel always makes a difference, so consider the make-up of your team when it comes to forming a connected group. Both the Celtics and the Heat are great examples, when you look at players like Jimmy Butler and Marcus Smart. They both play like the are trying to make the team, night in and night out. So many of the players on both teams play that way. It helps to have guys with something to prove on your roster. Overachievers and guys with a chip on their shoulder will go a long way towards your teams connectivity. There is no big ego with them, just blue collar work ethic. I’ve always said I want a couple of guys on my team who aren’t “good enough” to be there. They drive the competitive edge and the commitment you need to have to one another to be elite.
I’ve also found that it helps to play a lot of guys. It’s harder to get everyone bought in to your culture if there are haves and have-nots, and certain guys know they are going to play, regardless of what happens day to day. Playing time needs to be earned, and I’m not saying you just play 11 to see if it’s a good idea. But give everyone an opportunity to earn real minutes and it will add to the connection you are looking for.
Connected teams are great to coach and hard to beat. It helps to have great players with no ego like Jimmy Butler, but those guys are pretty rare. You can help your team become more connected with the right personnel and the right approach.