The Truth Behind NBA Chemistry: Who Has It?

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The Truth Behind NBA Chemistry: Who Has It?
USA TODAY Sports

We talk about chemistry in the NBA all the time, but it's hard to say what it actually means. The off-court variety is almost impossible to define. You can be in a locker room and sense it, at times, but to actually come up with a written description of what ideal chemistry should be is pointless.

On the court, however, we can at least come closer to figuring out which players excel when paired together. And the results often don't follow the narrative we hear from the media.

For example, Russell Westbrook's recent on-court outburst had many pundits questioning whether there is something rotten within the Oklahoma City Thunder's dynamic duo.

Going back even further, many like to say that Westbrook takes too many shots late in games and that this will be the fatal flaw that prevents this team from winning a title.

But if you look at the way that Westbrook and Durant play together, everything seems fine.

Looking at the league's five-man units, in terms of plus/minus (per 48 minutes) so far this season, the largest trend of the lineup data stands out: The league's better teams are the ones with the better lineups.

This is intuitive, but it is interesting that the Orlando Magic are the only team below .500 that has proven capable of producing more than plus-5.0 points per 48 minutes.

As a baseline, all the lineups in the NBA that have played at least 200 minutes together are listed, even those that haven't performed well. There should be little surprise that the Miami Heat are very good, but it is impressive that they have the top two lineups in the entire league.

The Thunder, too, have a pair of the best, although it is interesting that the team's big lineup, with both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, has fared so well this season. During the NBA Finals last year, many people thought that the team should have played smaller rather than rely so much on the traditional center/power forward combination.

With basketball being a five-man sport, it's easy to analyze the five-player units and leave it at that, but if we look at smaller four- and three-man groupings, we can more specifically analyze what player pairings are most responsible for their teams' success. 

Miami's dominance in the four-man units is almost comical. There are many things that can be interpreted from such data, but the most obvious is that LeBron James is an unbelievably good basketball player. The four best four-man lineups in the NBA all include him. 

If you needed any additional evidence other than the game tape to prove that he deserves another MVP trophy, there you go.

Another interesting wrinkle: The Eastern Conference dominates these rankings, holding down the top nine spots.

Almost as impressive as the Heat are the Indiana Pacers, which show how far a team built around a strong starting lineup can go. It really doesn't seem to matter what combination of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert the team puts on the floor; as long as four of them are involved, the team thrives.

This may speak to the importance of continuity.

Obviously, the emergence of Stephenson, who appears in the top four Indiana lineups, is a change from last season, but the Pacers' starting lineup was the best in the NBA last year in terms of net rating (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100).

Generally, NBA fans clamor for improvements to the roster in free agency; everyone is always looking for a big splash. However, the ongoing success of the Pacers shows that a team can continue to improve organically as the players improve their on-court chemistry and learn to play better alongside one another.

This same phenomenon gives reason for Memphis Grizzlies fans to fret.

The Grizzlies have four lineups among the top 25 four-man units, and they all include Rudy Gay. Perhaps, they can replace his production, as the Pacers did by subbing in Stephenson for the injured Danny Granger.

It's possible that Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will continue to jell as they have for the past several seasons, and the team will continue to succeed with suffocating defense and the post threats from its big men.

The team relied a lot on Gay's ability to create on the perimeter, however, which could make an already-bad offense even worse. 

So if the team tanks down the stretch, it may show us how delicate on-court chemistry can be.

Getting down to three-man units, we're starting to weed out some of the players who may be simply benefiting from those around them. The New York Knicks, for example, had two four-man units in the top seven.

But looking at their only elite three-man unit shows us just how vital Raymond Felton has been to their success.

In the team's two uber-successful four-man units, we see the names of both Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith, two players who have been lauded for their ability to move the ball around the perimeter this year.

The three-man potency of Felton, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, however, suggests that they are the three straws that are really stirring the drink. This also aligns with the quick drop-off in wins the Knicks experienced when Felton was sidelined.

One other nugget this data may suggest is that Denver coach George Karl knows what he is doing. All season, he has drawn curious looks from media members and bloggers who wonder why Kosta Koufos is still starting over JaVale McGee, who the franchise awarded a $44 million contract this offseason, according to Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports.

Well, while McGee's name appears nowhere on any of these charts, Koufos is a part of the team's four elite four-man units and its top three-man unit. This is one case where individual production probably doesn't tell the whole tale in terms of how a player can increase the on-court chemistry of those around him.

His numbers are pedestrian (7.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game), but the lineup plus/minus figures make it abundantly clear that Koufos has been a big part of the team's success, even though McGee is the player who draws more attention.

Again, though it is getting boring to even mention, we also see a lot more of the LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh in the three-man units, as Miami has three of the top six three-man units in terms of plus/minus (per 48 minutes). The Heat also have the only three lineups in this top 25 that shoot above 50 percent from the field.

Remarkable.

We're also starting to see how great the Thunder duo is too, with three combinations of Westbrook/Durant producing a plus/minus per 48 minutes of at least plus-8. All three lineups also score more than 104 points per 48 minutes. 

The defense rests: The Oklahoma perimeter tandem are Thunder buddies for life—but not the two you might think.

Kevin (Durant) and Kevin (Martin) instead top the league's best two-man units by a wide margin. Then again, Durant/Westbrook do finish fifth, with a dominating plus-11.3 per 48 minutes, so we can rest assured that any personality quirks the two might have don't bother their on-court production.

One other interesting note: While many of the other familiar combinations from above show up here on the two-man list, this is the first we are seeing any San Antonio Spurs' combinations, with Tony Parker/Tim Duncan ranking second and Parker/Danny Green coming in fourth.

It's hard to put a finger on why that might be. Why don't the Spurs have high-producing three- and four-man lineups?

I'll mainly chalk it up to the unknowable wisdom of Gregg Popovich, but it is likely because, at its core, chemistry is something that develops between two players. Parker and Duncan undeniably have it; history and these numbers bear that out beyond doubt.

Then, the rest of the team likely falls in line behind them and adjusts to their style of play accordingly. Everything just trickles down the roster and helps create, in terms of record, the best team in the NBA.

We may be seeing something similar on the Los Angeles Clippers bench.

Their so-called "Tribe Called Bench" has been a huge part of the Clippers' success all season. Given how well Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes have played together, it is no surprise.

Generally, one team's bench is playing against the opponent's reserves, so even just one dominant duo that has great chemistry can quickly overpower the sewn-together second units that most teams put out on the floor while their stars rest.

The numbers don't lie, and it's awfully reassuring when the stats match our eyeball tests, too. That said, chemistry still remains one of the few areas of basketball that's difficult to quantify. Just like a group of musicians, we can tell when NBA players are making beautiful music together, but it's harder to tell exactly how they did it—or which players are primarily responsible for the harmony.

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