Once upon a time, there were two proud powerhouses in the kingdom of Hooplandia. There was the mighty House Lakers from that yonder western frontier called El-Ay. And there was this other family – House Celtics – from that eastern metropolis named Boston. It seemed not ages ago when the two cage powers were at the top of their game, with storied clashes regaling fans all over the world. The Lakers and the Celtics have clashed a record of 12 times in the NBA Finals, the last being in 2008 and 2010. There was a time when one was either a Laker fanatic or a Celtic diehard, no in-betweens.
Familiar names and legendary rivalries have evolved. There were Boston’s Bill Russell and Bob Cousy up against LA’s Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in the 60s. Wilt Chamberlain came in later for the Lakers. Dave Cowens and John Havlicek emerged for the Celts. They’d clash again during the 80s; with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy teaming up with the charismatic Magic Johnson; while blue-collar Larry Bird got back-up work from Robert Parish and Kevin Mchale. Then came the Shaq – Kobe dynamic duo for the purple and gold, and the triumvirate of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for the green and white.
These days however, the league’s perennial powerhouses are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. Previously feared and recognized as the most dominant teams ever in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics are today mired in controversy and – in the case of the Lakers – are in grave danger of not even making the playoffs!
For the record, a lot was expected of the two teams this year.
Boston was just a game away from the NBA Finals last year despite the loss of its top 2 players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – to injuries. Expectations ran high as the 2 reported back from sick bay. However, their re-entry has not achieved the desired results. Instead, the team has floundered embarrassingly to the middle of the pack in the race for the east.
For LA, the arrival of Lebron James to Hollywood brought back wonderful visions of the Lakers’ Showtime years. Backed up by a talented young crew, it seemed that the team was slowly moving to the top of the western conference at the start of the season. Alas, Lebron was sidelined by a groin injury, and then trade rumors started running wild. From then on, the Lakers have underwhelmed, even with the return of King Lebron.
Fans of both Boston and LA are getting desperate. Both Lebron and Kyrie are not delivering. Some fans had even dreamed of a Lebron-Kyrie Finals match-up, pitting the Batman-Robin tandem from Cleveland. Oh yes, there were visions of the return of the Magic-Bird era – with some striking resemblance in the Lonzo Ball – Jayson Tatum arrival last year. There were intriguing match-ups pitting both franchise’s very promising youth squads. These have since fizzled out. Despite numerous line-up innovations and veteran acquisitions, things haven’t been moving as planned. What seems to be the problem?
The answer is team chemistry. Team Chemistry is an intangible thing that is difficult to spot in team statistics. Despite advances in analytics and technology, team chemistry is still very difficult to totally capture. And it can make the difference between making it to the Finals and not making it to the playoffs at all.
Some players just won’t jell together. Sometimes, it’s the mindsets (errr… egos, perhaps?) that will make things difficult. An example for a comparison would be between the tandems of Utah’s John Stockton and Karl Malone in the 90s, and the celebrated, yet short-lived union of Lebron James and Isaiah Thomas in Cleveland last year. While the Stockton-Malone give-and-go thrived, the James-Thomas dance did not, forcing the Cavs to trade Isaiah in a hurry.
Styles, playing times, number of ball-touches, etc, all these matter a lot to players. Not to mention salaries and media exposure. In the case of Boston, the re-entry of Gordon Hayward has taken away valuable minutes from the vastly-improving Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The re-entry of Kyrie Irving has stunted the steady growth of Terry Rozier and the scrappy Marcus Smart. The quartet of Brown, Tatum, Rozier and Smart had given a good account of themselves in the eastern conference playoff battles last year, almost upending the Cavs in the conference finals. With Hayward and Irving returning, notwithstanding their immaculate credentials, the quartet’s performances have dipped. In this case, it seems that the presence of too many talented guys has worked to the detriment of the team.
In the case of the Lakers, the young turks led by Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram seemed to enjoy playing together, and learning to compete under King Lebron at the start of the season. The arrival of Rondo and the other vets was also supposed to provide stability for the second unit. Everyone seemed upbeat as the Lakers’ youth movement jelled seamlessly with the vets under the baton of the great King Lebron. However, the moment the trade details came out, team chemistry was thrown out the window. That shook up the entire roster, as players started thinking for themselves, trying to show what they were capable of doing. With the trade put on hold, players have been subtly jostling each other, hoping to get the Laker management – and King Lebron – to change their minds about trading them. To a large extent, players have lost their faith on the management, and on Lebron as their leader.
In both camps, the iso’s have taken over, and shooting percentages have gone down the drain. Individual statistics are being padded up, so that, hopefully at the end of the season, these statistics will help them in the bargaining table if and when a trade pulls through.
Team chemistry. When players no longer enjoy playing with each other. When players stop rooting for each other, stop trusting one another. When players think about themselves first as opposed to the team. When that happens, it’s goodbye to team chemistry, it’s goodbye to the team.
For the Celtics and the Lakers to get back on track, they need to relearn some old values. The values of trust and selflessness. The values of sacrifice and prioritizing the team first. The value of working and caring for each other. There is a need to rebuild relationships. And it starts with the stars, like Lebron and Kyrie. They need to reach out to the other members of their respective teams. They have to learn to lead by example. By giving good help-defense, by making sure there’s no slacking on defense. By playing more team offense, less isolation plays. By emphasizing more assists, more screens and picks, by doing the dirty work of rebounding, boxing out, etc. No more finger-pointing. By cheering on the sidelines. Off the court, by talking, motivating, teaching, caring, and even going out together.
Yeah. There goes the key word. Together. That’s what these teams need to relearn: to do things TOGETHER.