You’ve heard of a friends-and-family discount? In the NBA, it’s more a friends-and-family danger.
People get in the players’ ears. It’s well-intentioned, but it can be corrosive to a team’s focus and approach. Let Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford explain:
“Chemistry is rarely by accident,” Clifford said last week during training camp at UNC Asheville. “On a roster of 14 guys, you can’t have three or four who want more, who are unhappy. They’re talking to people – family or friends – who tell them, ‘You need more, you need more.’
“I don’t think that’s anybody’s fault, it’s just human nature.”
The then-Bobcats had exceptional chemistry last season, which played a role in their unexpected 43-39 record and a playoff berth. That grew from several sources – Clifford’s transparency with the players, the reserves’ lack of selfishness, the fact that core players like Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson were so sick of losing.
To newcomer Al Jefferson, it was something he’d never seen over nine NBA seasons in Boston, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.
“First time I’d ever been in a situation where everybody put team first,” Jefferson said. “When you have team-first, that’s when you can get up there with the San Antonios and the Miamis – guys who win championships.
“I was really surprised to see guys like MKG (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), Kemba and Gerald have that type of attitude at such young ages. I can say when I was a first- or second-year player I didn’t have an attitude like that. I’m not ashamed to say that.
“That’s why those guys are so far ahead of where I was. It’s such a team-first attitude in that locker room it’s amazing.”
It’s also perishable. For the now-Hornets, this preseason is all about change: A new name, new uniforms and plenty of new players. That’s exciting, but it’s no given the chemistry that helped right the franchise’s course will carry over season-to-season.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said veteran point guard Jannero Pargo. “If you change one player, one aspect of a team, you change the whole dynamic. But we have a good core of guys, so it can be done.”
Pargo didn’t play much last season (242 minutes over 29 games), but he was important in establishing that team-first atmosphere. He constantly stayed ready to play, putting in extra work outside practice, and never griped about his limited role. Clifford said when a nine-season veteran has that approach it rubs off on younger players.
The same could be said of Josh McRoberts, Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts, all of whom left the Hornets in free agency over the summer. They were replaced by free agents Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts and draftees Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston.
Clifford said there’s no question the talent level is improved from last season. The unknown is how well those pieces will fit together.
“There’s no better way to motivate NBA players than to be in a situation where they know they can win,” Clifford said. “One good thing about our team is they know they have a long, long way to go, but if we make progress we can have a really good team.”
Walker is highly attuned to the value of chemistry from when he led Connecticut to the national championship in 2011.
“Every year you have to start over,” Walker said. “The thing about this team is we have good guys as well – new guys, but good guys.”
Henderson said a big factor in last season’s success is Clifford’s approach. He minimized in-season drama by being so transparent with each player.
“There are no secrets – everything is out in the open,” Henderson said. “You want to know where you stand, and coach Cliff always makes that clear.”
Right now everything is cool, everyone is happy. But, as Clifford noted, that’s true for all 30 NBA locker rooms this time of year.
“Coaching is always easy until the games start,” Clifford said. “You lose games and guys are unhappy, and then you find out.”