NBA Chemistry 101: Which Roster Experiments Will Blow Up?
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By Jeremy Woo/Sports Illustrated
When youth mixes with experience, or big personalities collide, or rivals become teammates in the name of winning basketball games, the figurative distinction between general manager and mad scientist can be blurry. Unlikely combinations of players and coaches have given us some of the most memorable teams ever, and also some of the most volatile.
Those labels aren’t mutually exclusive: The Bad Boy Pistons, the Kings of the early 2000s, the Jail Blazers and the Celtics’ Big Three. The We Believe Warriors, the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, Kobe and Shaq and Kobe and Dwight. We could go on. You get the idea.
In the spirit of those unlikely combinations, we decided to run a few tests of our own. Our predictive methods were highly scientific, because after all, we’re talking chemistry. With the new season fast approaching, here are five of the league’s most fascinating experiments going down this season.
Observation: An aging future Hall of Famer and the NBA’s most enigmatic personality join a spotlight-seeking rising star, an embattled coach and a front office that might be running out of ideas.
Team Hypothesis: Best case, the playoff experience and a major personality shakeup could breed improved chemistry and a return to the postseason.
Evidence: The existence of this photo.
A photo posted by Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) on
Complications: High usage rates, shot selection, pack dynamics, Connect Four tournaments, the existence of the three-point shot and this video.
The Experiment: It’s fair to say the Bulls needed a reboot, but swapping two franchise icons for two former postseason antagonists is pretty jarring. Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade tortured Bulls fans during their prime years with the Celtics and Heat, respectively, and they’ll slide in for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in every “Big Three” portrait like it’s nothing. The outlook’s not especially sunny in Chicago, but it’s decidedly shinier, at least for now.
While what looked like a rebuild attempt in June that quickly shifted to a fresh win-now rhetoric, this is a team that feels completely fluid. The Bulls aggressively dangled Jimmy Butler for assets on draft night, according to reports, and both Rondo and Wade’s contract structures allow them to return to free agency next summer.
The leading positive spin here is that Wade’s steady hand and acumen keep the Bulls focused enough to get back to the postseason. Trepidation as to how everyone might get along is legitimate, before you even consider the issue of how to space the floor with three guards who aren’t shooters by trade. The bar is not unrealistically high for this group, but it’s still way too easy to envision this team breaking bad within an organization that’s radiated instability for years.
Conclusion: Highly combustible. There’s high potential for passive-aggressive subplots. This might have made for the greatest season of Hard Knocks ever. It might be hard to look away.
Observation: A pace-oriented coach who hates playing defense is calling the shots for one of the league’s most gifted scorers, who also hates playing defense.
Team Hypothesis: Insert Mike D’Antoni and subtract Dwight Howard, allowing James Harden to finally be his best self.
Evidence: Harden’s 2015–16 season, every D’Antoni-coached team finished top five in pace from 2004–09, Houston’s five regulars with career three-point rates of 35% or better, Steve Nash’s two MVPs and Linsanity.
Complications: Playing defense, geriatric Nene mood-swings, playing defense, beard oil and short shorts.
The Experiment: Philosophically, the D’Antoni hiring was a supreme basketball fit and the ultimate screw-it move from Daryl Morey, unless the most convincing of advanced statistics suggested eschewing convention for a total punt on one side of the ball. That might be a bit harsh, and to be fair, the Rockets carry role players that can cut it as individual defenders, but there’s no secret what the M.O. is going to be here.
That said, Houston deserves some kudos for shaking up the locker room and doubling down on D’Antoni ball with Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and a public commitment to shooting three-pointers and letting James Harden do literally whatever he wants.
The Rockets went from 54 wins to 56 wins and a conference finals berth to an extremely moody 41 wins and the public sacrifice of J.B. Bickerstaff. Now, their direction is only totally offensive in a literal sense.
Conclusion: Proceed with caution. Harden will duel Russell Westbrook for the scoring title, the Rockets will lead the league in threes attempted and probably win 39 games. D’Antoni teams are fun, but the formula always fizzles out a little faster than we’d like.
Observation: The most confounding organization in the league spent big on a new-look, still bizarre, personality-heavy roster.
Hypothesis: With Dave Joerger in charge and Matt Barnes watching his back, Boogie Cousins can begin to focus his energy and lead the Kings out of irrelevance.
Evidence: The 2015–16 Memphis Grizzlies, the 2016 Rio Olympics, a new arena, a Jeff Koons sculpture and Suicide Squad.
Complications: Ownership, Boogie Cousins, Matt Barnes, Ty Lawson, Rudy Gay, Derek Fisher, and a long-standing relationship between misery and company.
The Experiment: Sometimes I feel like the Kings are geniuses, but mostly in the sense that they just understand how to keep an asylum running. Vivek Ranadive paid to pry Joerger from Memphis on the heels one of the most bizarrely great coaching jobs ever, which involved using nearly two rosters’ worth of players (including Barnes) to win 42 games before understandably sputtering out in the playoffs. If there was ever a guy who should probably feel at home coaching in the league’s most dysfunctional organization, it’s this guy.
Rudy Gay already wants to be traded, Ben McLemore somehow hasn’t been dealt yet and Darren Collison is suspended eight games to start the season for domestic violence, meaning a Ty Lawson is probably opening the season at point guard. The Kings have more centers than forwards, by my estimation. And that’s all before you get to Cousins, who showed us at the Olympics he’s capable of having fun, and also that referees all over the world enjoy calling fouls on him.
Barnes, who is generally known as a great teammate, could be a key ingredient with his particular brand of intimidation, unpredictability and ability to draw techs. Maybe he absorbs some of the slack from refs on Boogie’s behalf. Eh, it might not work like that. At least Hollywood wants us to believe that insanity, when focused just enough, can produce surprisingly effective results. Enter the 2016–17 Kings.
Conclusion:Explosive. Some men just want to watch the world burn. The Kings have several of them.
Observation: A cool young coach signed on to coach cool young players … and a bunch of really random old ones.
Team Hypothesis: After last season’s prolonged Kobe Bryant goodbye, Luke Walton should usher in an improved aesthetic and a more exciting brand of on-court mediocrity.
Evidence: One Western Conference Coach of the Month award, Kobe’s 31.9% usage rate, Brandon Ingram’s aggressively heavy diet, most of D’Angelo Russell’s bounce passes and every Marcelo Huertas bounce pass ever.
Complications: Snapchat, the Sunset Strip and Timofey Mozgov.
Experiment: When the future of your franchise lies in the hands of two players who can’t legally go out in Los Angeles, replacing a coach who does not understand millennials with a coach who might as well be one can’t hurt. Brandon Ingram is going to have growing pains, possibly in the literal sense, and D’Angelo Russell is going to commit turnovers. Luke Walton will be there with a pat on the back for every critical moment. Maybe all Byron Scott really needed to learn was, “It’s chill, bruh.”
Anyway, the Kobe tour is over, the Lakers can probably win more games than last year and their building blocks are actually going to play. Larry Nance is kind of fun. Jordan Clarkson isn’t bad. If Julius Randle is a poor man’s Tristan Thompson, that’ll probably cut it right now. If Walton gets them playing fast and loose it might get exciting by March, and honestly, fast and loose probably applies better to Marcelinho Huertas than any other player in the NBA.
So get ready for the young talent, but also get hyped for a United Nations five of Huertas, Jose Calderon, Luol Deng, Yi Jianlian and Timofey Mozgov to play together. And maybe Nick Young and Metta World Peace, if they make the team. Underrated subplot: How fast can Luke Walton turn gray?
Conclusion:Promising. Mostly because this can’t get any worse.
Golden State Warriors
Observation: The best player on the second-best team in the West just joined the best team in the West.
Team Hypothesis: Golden State, is, um, better with Kevin Durant.
Evidence: Three combined MVP awards, five combined scoring titles, 73 wins, consecutive Finals trips, Rio gold medals, Harrison Barnes’s basketball relevance and Kevin f------ Durant.
Experiment: The storyline that hijacked the summer isn’t going anywhere. The Warriors are under the microscope and will be stuck there until further notice. The role players are different, the defense may suffer, but at the bare minimum and in a vacuum, swapping Kevin Durant for Harrison Barnes takes you to another stratosphere. For most of last season, Golden State was playing a different game than the 29 other teams. It was beautiful, it was dominant, and it exhausted our full array of adjectives and metaphors.
So, yes, the Warriors blew a 3–1 lead in the Finals with the first unanimous MVP. They also came back from a 3–1 deficit in the conference finals, then poached the best player from the team that almost knocked them out. Preseason prognostications are boring and often chalk, and yet it’s never felt quite so easy. We’ve never seen an experiment like this. It’s nitpicky, but it’s still our civic duty as observers to ask … is this really going to work?
Conclusion: Psych. It’s totally going to work, and it’s going to be spectacular.