While watching Cavaliers games this season, it’s not tough to notice it’s a much different experience than last season. Not only are the players on the court, but the style of basketball is much different from the type of basketball this team played last season. Also, last season the Cavaliers ran away with games in the 2nd half and this year the Cavaliers routinely let teams back into games in the 2nd half. But to keen observers of this team, one of the more noticeable differences is the team chemistry.
In Bill Simmons’ latest book, The Book Of Basketball, he talks about the time he met Isiah Thomas poolside at a Vegas hotel and mustered the courage to ask him about “The Secret”. You see, back when the Pistons were The Bad Boys, they often talked about “The Secret” to their success. So Simmons naturally wanted to know what it was.
Well, The Secret isn’t anything new. It’s been around all sports for a very long time. But in basketball, a sport where any individual can affect a team more than any other sport, The Secret is more important than ever. I don’t want to ruin anything about Simmons’ book (and I would highly recommend it to any basketball lovers out there), but essentially what The Secret boils down to is chemistry.
I think there are two types of chemistry in basketball. One is internal, and one is external. What the Cavaliers showed last year was a whole lot of external chemistry. From the pregame posing and preening to the team jumping around and dancing on the bench to celebrating wildly at any little success the team had. Last year’s Cavs showed a form of chemistry that gave them a tangible edge in most games. There’s no question talent is important, but would the Cavaliers have been able to have the success they had on the road, against the Western Conference, and in the end games of back-to-backs without feeding off the energy from their external chemistry? I sincerely doubt it. It’s hard to put any kind of scientific study on this, or to determine how many wins chemistry is responsible for. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it’s not important.
This year’s Cavaliers team is different. They don’t have the same external chemistry. Part of it is the NBA rule change forcing teams to stay seated on the bench. Some of it is the fact there are five new players on this team (Shaq, Parker, Moon, Powe, and Green). Some of it is LeBron himself. As the leader of this team, everyone follows his examples. Remember last year when LeBron would be hamming it up on the bench? Mugging for cameras, dancing, hugging teammates and encouraging the players who were on the court in his absence. This year, LeBron frequently seems sullen and disinterested when he’s on the bench. Sure, he still has the occasional outburst, but by and large he’s a very different person on the bench.
I realize this sounds like criticism, but I assure you it’s not. It’s just different, that’s all. Different doesn’t have to mean ‘bad’. I’m sure some part of LeBron has to be tired of watching his teammates consistently give away leads while he’s on the bench, forcing him to come back into games and try to do everything himself. But that’s not the overall impression I get from LeBron. I think LeBron was “humbled” by the Orlando loss last year. Humbled isn’t exactly the right word, but I think LeBron feels like he needed to learn something from that loss. And what I think he felt he needed to learn was that external chemistry doesn’t win games on its own. There seems to be a paradigm shift in focus with the team this year, and I think their eyes are on a different, bigger goal and prize. The regular season feels like it has been rendered moot. This team knows they can skate into the playoffs on their own natural talents. It’s the playoffs where this team needs to come alive on the court. And it feels like this team is trying to embrace this mentality.
Remember, though, that there is another kind of chemistry. That is internal chemistry, and this is much of what The Secret refers to. In order to win an NBA Championship, you need players who are willing to sacrifice individuality for the greater common good. The Cavaliers seem to have internal chemistry, or sacrifice, in spades. Remember how JJ Hickson was given Anderson Varejao’s starting spot, even though Varejao was healthy and having a solid season putting up near double doubles every night? Varejao hasn’t muttered a word about this. Instead, he’s accepted it because he realizes it was the right thing for the betterment of this team as a whole. That’s a sacrifice in both pride and mentality, and it’s an example he set for the whole team.
Has Jamario Moon let it get him down when he has games where he’s had to give up minutes for Delonte West to return, despite the fact Moon has been the most efficient bench player for this team? Has Ilgauskas complained about how having Shaq here and starting has negatively affected his production and individual value to the team? He might think it privately, but he’s not saying much about it publicly. And will anyone complain about letting Leon Powe get his minutes when he returns from his injury? It seems doubtful.
This Cavaliers team was built on versatility, and a major part of versatility is a willingness to do whatever is asked of you. For all the setbacks we’ve seen this year in regards to unmet expectations, nobody on this team has panicked. From Danny Ferry (refusing to be rushed into trading for Stephen Jackson) to Mike Brown (sticking to his instincts on defensive principles despite the team being slow to recognize them this year) to the players themselves, this has been an organization unified on this belief in one common goal, and that’s what internal chemistry (or, “The Secret”, if you will) is all about.
Last year was about talking the talk, this year is about walking the walk. For all my concerns I see with this team, the one thing I feel better than ever about is this team’s sense of purpose. Yes, the chemistry is different this year, but the organization as a whole is hoping that when this season is over for the Cavaliers, the end results will be different as well.
(Photo Credit: Tracy Boulian/The Plain Dealer)