The Rockets have a better record than the Lakers. If anyone had suggested, even after the James Harden trade, that the Rockets would be three and a half games above the Lakers at the All-Star break, they would have rightly been laughed at. Everyone expected the Lakers to make a championship push and the Rockets to fight for a playoff seed at all. The Lakers have as huge a collection of talent as any team in memory, while the Rockets, outside of Harden, are wanting in the star category. The explanation for these teams defying expectations could be many things (such as injury, which has plagued Los Angeles this season), but that intangible thing called chemistry must play a part.
Everyone knows interpersonal chemistry exists. Teams of athletes, office workers and scientists all have to manage personalities and relationships. In the context of the NBA, the NBA 2K series of games even has a chemistry stat for teams which helps determine team effectiveness. What is less discussed is to what degree this affects teams. “Veteran leadership” is often cited for teams like the Boston Celtics, or a “winning culture” for teams like the San Antonio Spurs. Are these terms just a more professional way of describing team chemistry? It’s obvious that players would prefer teammates they get along with, but can we tell if this actually increases wins?
Before trying to quantify anything, the answer would certainly seem to be “yes.” Teams like Houston, San Antonio, Miami, L.A. Clippers and Boston typically have few reports of locker room disagreements and all are meeting or exceeding expectations. The Celtics, in fact, have gone on winning streaks since losing key players to injury, rallying around fallen comrades. The Lakers, like Washington, Sacramento, and to some degree Brooklyn, have faced turbulence and turmoil behind the scenes, and have struggled in the standings. While many teams seem to be able to keep disagreements and gripes away from the media, we can assume that to some degree calmer team culture will correlate with fewer negative stories.
One of the well-known examples of inquiry in this field is this study by Berkeley researchers Kraus, Huang and Keltner. In 2011 it was written up by countless media sources, and the results are well-known: players and teams that touch more often account for more wins. While every study will have questions about methodology, this is an instance where the well-known but little-measured phenomenon of chemistry was quantified. Certainly, looking at the benches of Houston and Los Angeles (Notable towel hero Robert Sacre aside), there’s a difference between the typical representations of these teams. Houston’s young stars joke and play, while the Lakers grimly march forward. While this narrative may be as much in selection of coverage as anything else, the Lakers have been publicly casting aspersions on one another in interviews, while the Rockets have maintained a more unified face to the public.
Is there another way, then, to measure chemistry? One possibility is assists. While this of course is by no means a one to one measurement, it stands to reason that teams with greater affinity and trust will be more likely to pass the ball more. Some teams will obviously be more assist prone than others simply due to system (Oklahoma’s assist-light tendency springs to mind), but there may be a tendency for teams with cohesive public images to be more willing and able to find the open man.
Sorting the teams by assist ratio (the percentage of possessions that include an assist for said team), the Spurs lead the league with 19.2. Atlanta, Boston, Orlando, L.A. Clippers, Miami and Chicago are the next six down the line. Apart from questions about Josh Smith, these teams are all known for a quiet if not necessarily stable locker room. Houston and Oklahoma City both hover near the middle of the pack, which may have as much to do with their similar styles more than their chemistry, which appears to be healthy in both cases. The Lakers follow immediately after OKC, implying that either their locker room is healthier than anticipated, or a team that should have more assists is hindered. The bottom of the pile, however, tells a clearer story. Memphis, Sacramento, Cleveland, Brooklyn and Charlotte all live in the bottom seven slots, with Memphis topping them at 23. Memphis has lately had locker room issues, and the rest of the teams have been struggling with this all year.
It may simply be that more prestigious teams and organizations tend to cluster at the top of the assists rankings because they have more complex systems and more scoring options. However, it seems unlikely that it’s a coincidence that the teams known for strong locker room culture also tend to pass the ball more. Building a team identity and managing a team intelligently can lead to team chemistry, as with teams like the Spurs or the Bulls. Some teams, like the Lakers, have a well managed organization that simply put together a team with negative chemistry. Teams such as the Wizards, who seem to perennially struggle with player cohesion also seem to endlessly struggle to find quality.
There’s difficulty in finding ways to measure chemistry and its impact upon winning. It’s easy to see the effects, however. When a factor is as widely known as team chemistry, it’s worth trying to get a measure of exactly how important it is, rather than simply treating players like interchangeable machines that generate stats. And we know it’s powerful, because the supposedly 30-win Rockets are already there with half the season left, and the expected 60-win Lakers are two seeds below them.