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What This NBA Season is Teaching Us About Chemistry

Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports

When the Rockets landed Ty Lawson in the offseason, there was speculation about how this could vault Houston to the top of the Western Conference. He was the missing link to their void at point guard. The combined playmaking abilities of he and James Harden were likely to cause problems for their opponents, including the reigning champion Warriors.

But currently the Rockets are 5-10 after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season. They’ve already fired their head coach, and they don’t appear to be a threat at all to the 16-0 Warriors.

Lawson has posted horrendous numbers (7.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 2.7 RPG, and 31.6 FG% in 30.3 MPG), and this comes after splendid recent statistical seasons with the Nuggets (15.6 PPG and 9.6 in 2014-15; 17.6 PPG and 8.8 APG in 2013-14).

And while James Harden is still cooking in terms of his scoring average (28.7 PPG), his shooting percentage rests at an ugly 39.5 percent. He hasn’t been sizzling like he has in years past, as his career field goal percentage is 44.1 percent.

It’s also interesting to consider how Harden’s field goal percentage dips to 35.2 percent when Lawson is on the court, per NBA.com/Stats. They also share an offensive rating together of 97.7 and a defensive rating of 109.2. By comparison, consider Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and how dominant they are together on both ends of the floor, boasting an offensive rating of 117.4 and a defensive rating of 96.6.

It’s clear that the Lawson and Harden experiment isn’t working. Some may argue that they just need more time to learn how to play together. Perhaps they’ll learn how to mesh with one another and peak as the season progresses. I’m not buying these arguments, for a couple of reasons.

For one, we’ve seen plenty of concerns through 15 games. The struggles they have are vast and aren’t going to be fixed in a short period of time. They may improve, but it’ll likely only be marginal, certainly not to the point where they’re ready to contend with the Warriors.

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

Secondly, and more importantly, the playing styles of Lawson and Harden aren’t configured to complement each other (which was a concern voiced by some as soon as Lawson was acquired). This is something general managers often fail to recognize. When you look at recent statistics of Lawson and Harden, you can absolutely conclude they could be dynamic together. But it’s not that simple.

Here’s the core issue: Neither Lawson nor Harden are great at playing off the ball. They’re not adept at cutting and coming off screens, because that’s not their game. They’re built to handle the ball and create for themselves and teammates. When they’re forced out of this role (which has often been Lawson this year), they lose their identity. More than that, their value is greatly diminished.

The thing about Curry and Thompson is that they’re both great with the ball and off the ball. Defenses have to be mindful of the various ways each of those players can beat you. This isn’t the case with Lawson or Harden. So, putting those two together naturally creates problems. The chemistry just isn’t there.

Most successful offensive teams usually blend one ball-dominant guard with a slew of quality off-the-ball players. Think about Rajon Rondo with the Celtics when they had Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. This was a dream scenario for a playmaking guard like Rondo, who’s never been a good off-the-ball player because he’s not a quality shooter. But playing alongside deadly shooters in Allen and Pierce, as well as a formidable big man and stellar mid-range shooter in Garnett, Rondo could dominate the ball and find open teammates everywhere. It was a perfect mix of a superb floor general with three Hall of Famers who knew how to play off the ball.

It’s difficult for teams to construct an offensive attack like this, because they often look past how chemistry could be lacking between two ball-dominant perimeter players. Even LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had to learn how to play efficiently together in Miami, with Wade specifically taking a back seat to LeBron and at times becoming more of a slasher. Oftentimes, players aren’t willing to adapt their games for the betterment of the team, and some aren’t really even capable of it because they don’t have the skills to adapt. This is what I fear with Lawson.

Let’s consider how a player such as George Hill would fit in Houston’s approach better than Lawson. Hill has never registered nearly as impressive statistics as Lawson, but there’s every reason to believe he’d be a better sidekick to Harden than Lawson.

First of all, Hill is a better career three-point shooter, and he’s also a superior defender. More importantly, Hill doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He can function as a spot-up shooter, he runs the floor well in transition and he’s capable of understanding how his role may change on any given night. Hill is the type of player whose worth is underestimated because he doesn’t contribute eye-opening numbers, but he does the little things and sports high basketball intelligence. It would’ve been much more sensible for the Rockets to target a running mate for Harden of this mold. It would’ve created much better offensive rhythm.

It seems that few organizations understand how to build a roster with a healthy model of chemistry. The Spurs get it, so do the Warriors and a handful of others. But all too often, we witness teams adding a player that may spark more victories on NBA 2K, but in reality, the newcomer inhibits fluidity in the offense. Lawson’s presence on the Rockets is a case-in-point example.

Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The offseason additions of the underwhelming Clippers (currently just 7-8), namely Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, are also examples of this. Both players have displayed versatility in their past, but they’re not exactly what the Clips needed due to their at times reckless play and shooting inconsistencies. Once again, here are a couple nice acquisitions on paper, but they’re not sensible maneuvers in view of chemistry.

Finding cerebral players who thrive on and off the ball is obviously an ideal solution, but it’s quite frankly an unrealistic one because there aren’t many weapons quite like Curry and Thompson. So a realistic solution is building a team around a ball-dominant perimeter player and then discerning what type of players can best serve as support. Think the Clippers with Chris Paul, but they have a need to target more efficient complementary pieces than Stephenson and Smith.

Or, a team can adopt a model like the Spurs, in which you blend a host of intelligent players without one ball-dominant player, relying on a recipe of ball movement, cutting, screening, unselfishness and sacrifice. The Hawks are emulating this. So are the Warriors, but the Warriors also possess numerous incredible playmakers so they’re just flat-out insane.

Developing the right type of chemistry in the NBA is nothing new, but we’re seeing it amplified this season. It’s vividly clear which teams have embraced a questionable approach, and it’s evident that some organizations are neglecting the impact certain players will have on others.

The successful franchises are the ones who discern these tendencies before they happen, creatively looking to fortify their roster with the right kind of depth and chemistry. The struggles of the Rockets and the success of the Warriors should crystallize this reality.

Truthfully, this is what makes basketball beautiful. Becoming a winning team is far more than just assembling talent, but it’s identifying the right type of talent. The 2015-16 season is exclaiming this truth: You can’t overstate the value of chemistry.

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