Rajon Rondo has just thrown an underhand parabola of a pass that’s traveled nearly three-quarters of the court, and Jared Dudley is running up the right sideline tracking the ball like a wide receiver. As soon as he catches the pass, he goes right into his shooting motion as if the ball is too hot to even hold. His legs splay as he glides to the side, the momentum of his run carrying him and his jumper forward. A split second after the ball leaves his fingertips, the third quarter buzzer sounds.
A full-court view shows every one of his teammates tracking the ball all the way to the hoop, watching intently until it swishes through the net. Dudley extends his arms like Maximus in Gladiator, both hands in his patented three-fingered celebration. As he runs back to the bench, he transforms into a human bumper car, bouncing off teammates who are swarming him for chest bumps that Dudley absorbs from all angles until he settles onto the bench. These Lakers are having so much fun they can barely contain themselves. Soon enough, they have a win, too.
When LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the anchors of your team, the first strength you think of probably isn’t chemistry. Talent? Sure. Basketball acumen? Maybe. But, chemistry? That’s probably way down the list of things you’d think of when describing what makes a team with two players as talented as them on it special. But, if you ask those around the team or, hell, even just listen to them talk, they’ll be the first to explain that a key reason for this group’s success this season is that they get a long so well.
In a recent episode of “The Lowe Post” podcast, Danny Green was asked about things he didn’t know about AD, but has since learned after playing with and being around him this season. After talking about some of the on-court things that he’s learned about his superstar teammate, Green pivoted to what AD is like off the court. His answer is both illuminating, and a peek behind the curtain into the elixir that has slowly became a key component for this team’s strong play (emphasis mine):
Off the court, (AD) is very similar to LeBron. Those guys are very humble guys who enjoy their teammates. They enjoy hanging out and kickin’ it, and bringing everyone together. They’re the reason our chemistry is so good off the court. We have a group chat and they’re the ones chiming in, talking and making other guys feel comfortable to talk and bring things to the table… They’re the leaders, they talk about everything, we hang out, we do everything together.
“And we have fun. Regardless if we’re winning or losing. This is probably the most fun season I’ve had off the court, by far. By far.
As powerful as chemistry is, though, there are things chemistry cannot do. Chemistry can’t turn a 28% 3-point shooter into a marksman. Chemistry can’t take on the challenge of guarding Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo for a key 15 minute stretch of a playoff game. Chemistry cannot initiate your offense when LeBron is on the bench, beat a defender in isolation for a layup, or force the defense to respect your jumper when you turn a corner coming off a pick and roll. Talent and skill can do those things, but chemistry can’t.
And herein lies the rub.
Despite having the second-best record in the NBA through 45 games (36-9), the Lakers have holes on their roster that are clear as day. These holes do not outweigh the top-end talent on the team, but in a league in which the playoffs become a war of attrition where opponents pinpoint your weaknesses and try to force you away from your strengths, those holes can be highlighted and exposed to the point of demise. The only way to fill those holes is by getting different players whose skill sets address them.
But any addition to this team necessitates a subtraction of a player already on it. And any subtraction risks the disruption of that chemistry. These things are delicate and must be treated as such. As an outsider, it’s very easy to simply disregard this. After all, the NBA is a talent league. The team with the best players almost always wins. The Warriors didn’t “ruin the league” with their chemistry, they ruined it by adding Kevin freaking Durant to a team that had just won 73 regular season games and came within a nut-punch of a championship.
The Lakers, then, must actively look at ways to upgrade their roster. There are ways to improve this team to make it an even stronger contender, and not doing their due diligence on that would be a dereliction of duty.
That said, they must also take any potential disruption of their chemistry into consideration before making a change. A swap of players who might fit better from an X’s and O’s standpoint would surely help on the court, but if there’s a chance it hurts the team off the court, this too must be a factor in the decision making. That might sound silly on its face, but is it really?
We often think of the fallout of the Lakers losing out on Kawhi as this mad scramble for whatever leftovers remained on the free agent market. But, hindsight would give this Lakers front office more credit than that. Rob Pelinka and the rest of his staff signed a good group of veteran players who all understand their place in the league and their role on this team. They’ve all bought in, following the lead of LeBron and Davis, but also of Frank Vogel — a coach who has brought a positivity and affability that, combined with his preparedness and ability to communicate, has also contributed to the tenor of togetherness — to the point that it’s clear every single person (be it player or coach) are all rowing in the same direction.
Of course, talent still does rule. And there’s little chance I’d turn down a talent upgrade or a better fitting piece who can contribute on the court to enhance this team’s chance at a championship. This season the race for the title is as wide open as its been in a decade and the Lakers are one of the two or three teams who can lay claim to true contender status.
What I’d hope, however, is that the same care that was taken in crafting this roster in the first place is also applied to any potential changes that could come. Because chemistry does have a cost, and predicting correctly which way the ledger will shift when making a change can make all the difference in the world. Especially to a Lakers team whose strong chemistry has become such a key facet of their identity.
Because, the fact is, many of the players fans might think are most expendable are the exact players who seem to be contributing in ways that go beyond their simple on-court production. And even if your argument is that Kyle Kuzma is the best player to trade since he has the most value, his cheap contract makes it nearly impossible to not include more players as salary ballast in order to get the upgrade you want. And once you go down that road, you run into the same problem of getting rid of players who have clearly become a part of the fabric of this team.
Like it or not, Rajon Rondo is a clear leader in the locker-room, someone who is well liked by his teammates and is known to be able to offer advice and guidance that helps on the floor even when he’s not on it. DeMarcus Cousins is injured and is a longshot to play at all this season, but has a clear friendship with Davis and Rondo while also having a stature in the league that allows him to constructively critique LeBron on ways he can play better — including keeping on him about his defense. Similar anecdotes about the value Quinn Cook or Troy Daniels offer are surely there too, even if they’re now only likely to get spot minutes during regular season games, much less see significant time in the playoffs.
Letting go of any of these guys could have drawbacks, not the least of which would be how the teammates they would be leaving behind would feel about it. Don’t take my word for it, though, take LeBron’s. “We have enough right now,” James told reporters after beating the Nets when asked if the team needed another piece. This team believes in themselves, and that belief might just end up mattering more than what outsiders think can be improved on.