By Kevin Dowse
It’s hard to quantify. It’s even harder to manufacture. It’s more valuable than talent. It’s the worst song ever released by Arcade Fire.
Chemistry: it’s a difference-maker on and off the court, and can salvage a season even when the wins aren’t coming in. It’s fun to watch and can swing a team over the hump of a talented playoff squad into a true contender.
It’s been a major theme this season, and it keeps popping up in the media feed. From the Jimmy Butler Effect, to Golden State, to our own Raptors and even the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies (!!) chemistry has driven some of the most fun storylines in the league this year.
The Butler Did It (Affected Chemistry, Jimmy “The” Butler Did That, haha, He Affect—guys, don’t leave)
Since Butler’s exit from Minnesota, the Wolves seem to be having actual fun playing basketball. Karl-Anthony Towns smiled for the first time in over a season, KG was in the stands wearing a “99” Prince jersey, and they even rattled off a couple of wins! Tom Thibodeau lost one of his all-time Thibs Types™, but maybe this will allow his grinch heart to grow a couple of sizes, and start embracing the team he has rather than trying to turn them into the 2012 Bulls. Since the trade, Dario Saric has been stealing minutes from Taj Gibson, which might just be a sign that Thibodeau finally realized that players’ ages are not some sort of real-life 2K rating. Plus we got to see Towns dunk so hard on Paul Millsap that all of Millsap’s fantasy stats for the night were disqualified.
The big question with Butler’s arrival in Philly was, of course, “how long until Butler calls a press conference to outline his specific hatred of each individual teammate?” Between Fultz’ and Simmons’ fear of shooting, and Embiid’s enjoyment of…enjoyment, it seemed like Jimmy would have immediate issues. Butler’s said and done all the right things so far though, between supporting Fultz, and draining a game winner against Charlotte. There may yet be growing pains, either through personality (how big a deal with this Fultz thing be?) or on-court product (it’s still hard to envision any game plan which takes the ball out of Simmons’ hands), but it’s looking all right so far.
“Steve Kerr says this has been his toughest stretch as Warriors coach”
First of all, that’s a real headline. Second of all, fuuuuuuuuuuuuck you if this is your toughest stretch as a coach. But third of all – GUYS Golden State is finally in-fighting and losing games! This will all blow over and they’ll for sure win another championship, but for right now it’s fun to watch and to speculate. On top of the inter-personal issues (read: two of their key players are weens), it’s really becoming apparent how much this is Steph Curry’s team and how essential he is to their system. The ball movement, the floor spacing, the calm demeanour comes from Steph. Klay and KD taking turns hoisting shots makes Golden State a far more human team. Steph’s constant motion, his ability to hoist 3s from the parking lot, and his promotion of ball movement, is what gives G-State their special something. KD is likely a better player pound-for-pound than Steph (though it might just be a difference of #2 to #5). And on a different team, maybe KD is the missing thing that puts them over the top. But for these Warriors, it goes how Steph goes.
Friendship Isn’t Everything
Yes it is. Don’t listen to me. Nothing is or could ever be as beautiful as the friendship between Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. This shirt comes close, but not really. But as we’ve seen from the Raps this season so far, sometimes you don’t need best-friendship to unlock chemistry. The additions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have awakened something with this Raptors team. We’ve seen Lowry playing, maybe, the best ball of his career. Serge is a new person playing at the 5. Pascal’s taken another step. We’ve even absorbed a slow start from Fred and Delon, and the GoDaddy-Cursed CJ, without much difficulty. And it’s clear we’re not even playing at our best yet. But there’s just…something, when you look at this Raps team defend, run the break, move the ball. The pieces are more complementary than they’ve ever been, and we have a bunch of different guys who mesh well together in different ways depending on what look we need. There have been troubling moments – some wildly unimaginative offensive sets from supposed offensive wiz Nick Nurse, and some difficulty executing across an entire game. But you get the impression that there’s another gear set to kick in at some point this season. With luck, the offense will become more consistently fluid (the open 3s starting to fall should help that considerably), and the Raps will get back to full health. When that next gear kicks in, the Raps will look (even more) like a serious contender.
Sure, They Can’t Score
But no one can score on them, either. Just a quick shout out to the old, forgotten, given-up-on Memphis Grizzlies. Their main lineup has only scored around 92 per 100 possessions, which is approximately what my team scored that winter I played pickup in a church basement. But that lineup also has a positive net rating, because they’re only allowing about 89 points per 100. The Grizz are somehow winning with a bottom 10 offense, and currently sit at FIRST in the Western Conference (as of this writing). Something’s working for Memphis, and it starts with the health of their veteran stars in Conley and Gasol. Both are having bounce-back seasons after dealing with injuries and general malaise. They look happy and healthy and are spreading that vibe across the team. People are settling into specialized roles: Shelvin Mack is giving them hot 3-point shooting, and a second steady ball handler with a comfy assist-to-turnover ratio. Add in Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and JJJ causing nightmares to their opponents on D, and Memphis is meshing in just the right way. They’re getting just enough done to come out ahead night after night. It may not last all season, and I think it probably won’t, but I would love to be proven wrong.