OKC Thunder and Miami Heat Dominate Without 'Chemistry'

Ethan Sherwood Strauss@SherwoodStraussNBA Lead WriterAugust 7, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder congratulates LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat after the Heat won 121-106 in Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 21, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Obviously, whatever the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder did last season, they did pretty well. Or at least, they did it better than the competition. 

Currently, these are basketball's two best teams. They also have plenty of years to spare, especially the Thunder. So if these are the two teams that may define the current era of basketball, then I wonder: Is this an era in which talent outweighs chemistry?

To specify, by "talent" I mean the finished, on-court product—I do not mean "potential." When I say that LeBron James is "talented," I mean that he's really good at basketball and not that he can jump high or run fast. When I say that Oklahoma City and Miami have the most talent, I mean that they have the best players. 

As for "chemistry," this is another term that requires some specificity. By "chemistry," I do not mean that a team gets along or responds to veteran leadership. I mean on-court chemistry—better understood as having a well-defined division of labor between players who can fill all necessary roles.

My best example of this on-court chemistry would be the 2007-2008 Boston Celtics. They played elite defense and offense and had a clearly defined division of labor.

Kevin Garnett was the big man and roving defender. Paul Pierce could create his own shot in a pinch. Ray Allen did not need to dominate the ball and could benefit from the open threes his quality teammates created for him. Rajon Rondo brought the ball up and dished it out. Kendrick Perkins could protect the rim and rebound, while not involving himself in the offensive goings-on. 

This team operated with supreme synergy, until it aged a bit. It was a "team" in the sense that its principals had unique jobs, jobs that theoretically did not overlap much. As for weaknesses? I'm not sure this team possessed any, save for lack of playing time together. The flaws and faults came later, with aging and injury. 

Now look at the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Miami lacks a big who can shot-block and rebound. In general, the Heat have poor big-man depth. Oklahoma City lacks a true distributor and ranked last in the league in assist percentage. The Thunder also have no offensive post players to draw opposing defenses inward. 

In composition, the Heat have two players who prefer to dominate the ball on possessions (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade), in a set-up that Bill Simmons refers to as "dueling banjos." The Thunder have three scorers whose primary options are to shoot. 

In theory, these are damning drawbacks. In practice, such gaps either didn't much matter or were vastly compensated for by other qualities. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are so good that their jobs overlapping is no big deal. The same goes for D-Wade and LeBron James. 

We're in a basketball era in which the pieces don't have to fit. They'd better be awesome pieces, though. 


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