On Sunday, mixed among the pageantry of the NBA All-Star Game and the star-studded buzz of the game’s greatest players sharing the same stage, look past the glitz and catch a glimpse of the most important factor dictating whether a loaded roster ends up melding into a championship-contending team or dissolves into a drama-plagued, underachieving mess.
The fact is this: These guys have to like each other.
On one side of the ball will be two — and maybe three — Eastern Conference starters from the Miami Heat. Miami’s head coach, Erik Spoelstra, will be there, too, a showcase of the defending champion’s continued dominance. And why? Because these guys like one another. Because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, for all their issues, have few if any issues with one another.
They’ll go hard together at a Western Conference All-Star roster with its own glaring examples of the NBA’s Liability Principle. The Los Angeles Lakers boast two All-Star starters, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, and that’s about all they boast. They are a dismal 25-29 and will return after the break to try and scratch out a playoff berth. Championship dreams? Dream on.
The Clippers, too, speak to the fact that chemistry is more than a cliché. League sources say Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have found a comfortable rhythm together this season, both on and off the court, and that goodwill has shown in post-game interviews, in quiet interactions between the two players and in the Clippers’ 39-17 mark and 17-game winning streak earlier this season.
They may not be the close friends that LeBron and Wade are, but there is a trust and affection there every bit as important as what they do on the court together.
This shouldn’t be rocket science, true, but the NBA and sports in general aren’t all that different than life. We get tempted by the sexy and easy choices — by the thrills that seem to break the monotony — without always getting down to the gritty details of whether or not the alluring will work, or last, or bring us the joy we think will follow so easily.
It’s true in marriage. True in work. True in relationships. True in following our dreams or trying to lead a simple, happy, easy life.
It’s true in everything: If you like what you do — and particularly whomever you have to do it with — good things usually happen. If you don’t, failure becomes a lot more likely than success.
This separates the Heat and the Lakers more than any other factor. More than health, more than whether Mike Brown or Mike D’Antoni or Phil Jackson should be their coach, more than Kobe’s age or LeBron’s ridiculous excellence this season.
The Miami Heat wanted to be together. Wade and LeBron are close, legitimate friends. There’s an ease they bring out in one another, a refuge they can offer the other when storms (sometimes of their own making) wreak havoc on their season and spirits. Chris Bosh also has a camaraderie with those two guys that make the Big Three as much a social group as a basketball force.
One is so much easier with the other.
It’s easy to forget now, but the Heat two years ago were reviled so universally that it rattled them, LeBron in particular, and helped cost them a championship. Reviled by the media. By fans in almost every city in America. By other players. By other coaches. By other front-office personnel. They were universally loathed everywhere but their own locker room. And yet with a crushing weight of expectations, with an unproven and oft-criticized (and at-times undermined head coach), a lack of depth, serious injury issues and its star player saddled by his own shortcomings, the Heat made the NBA Finals.
The Lakers’ most important players this season are not universally loathed . . . other than in their own locker room. Let’s stop playing pretend. Kobe can’t stand Dwight. Dwight can’t stand Kobe. They snipe at each other in the press. They have their media surrogates (Kobe) and their loved ones (cue Dwight’s dad) point the finger of blame at the other. They’re as dysfunctional toward each other as the Heat were two years ago toward everyone else.
Which means, with their own crushing expectations, oft-criticized head coach, lack of depth, injuries and the fact Howard is saddled by his own issues (his back, his immaturity, Kobe) they’ll be lucky to get brushed out of the playoffs by San Antonio or Oklahoma City.
They say the All-Star Game doesn’t matter, that it’s just a showcase and a party and a celebration of the game’s best. That’s pretty true. But watch LeBron and Wade and Bosh — watch closely, at just how much they enjoy playing together.
Then watch Kobe and Dwight and the strain they’ll need to exert just to fake, badly, the idea that they like playing together, too.
That’s all you need to know about why those two teams are in such different situations as we get ready for the regular season’s homestretch.