LOS ANGELES -- If you look hard enough, you’ll find a statistical analysis for just about anything in basketball these days.
There’s probably a formula that could tell you how well a team will do when its starting point guard wears a certain color headband on the road on the second night of a back-to-back.
Yet as scientific as basketball has become in some circles, there is still no statistical analysis for team chemistry.
You can’t quantify what a team dinner, a trip to the movies or a holiday party at a teammate’s house can do when you step onto the court. But if you ask anyone on the Clippers, their chemistry at the moment is just as important as any statistic they have posted during their team-record 11-game winning streak.
“I’m a big believer in the chemistry of the team,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “I think it’s very important when you have a number of guys that are used to playing a few more minutes and getting more touches. It’s about buying into what we’re trying to do. Do they get frustrated at times? Of course, but the ultimate goal is it’s about the team and winning.”
It would be understandable for Jamal Crawford, the Clippers' second-leading scorer, to be upset about coming off the bench and playing just 30 minutes per game. It would be easy for Eric Bledsoe, the fastest and most athletic player on the team, to be upset about playing just 18 minutes per game off the bench. And it would not surprise anyone if Matt Barnes, who is playing the best basketball of his career, voiced his displeasure with playing only 25 minutes per game.
All three would probably be starters on most other teams this season. The per-36-minutes numbers for Crawford and Bledsoe would put them in contention to be All-Stars. As it is, they aren’t even on the ballot.
That’s just fine by them. They knew what their roles would be on the team before training camp started. In the case of Crawford and Barnes, their roles were spelled out to them before they even signed with the team.
“When the team was put together, we explained to everyone their role and this is how I envision it and this is what we want to do,” Del Negro said. “If you want to be a part of it, we want you. If you don’t, we’ll move on. That’s just kind of how everyone was presented with it.”
Not only did everyone buy into it, they showed up a month before the start of training camp to get a head start on the season.
Crawford and Bledsoe as well as new Clippers additions Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins would show up to the practice facility every day in September for pickup basketball games. The pickup games attracted NBA players from around the league, including Barnes, who was a free agent at the time.
Barnes was so consistently impressive over a couple of days that Chris Paul told him the Lakers would be smart to play him more this season. Barnes informed Paul he was a free agent and that it didn’t look as if he would re-sign with the Lakers. It didn't take Paul long to call Del Negro and Clippers general manager Gary Sacks. A few days later, Barnes was on the Clippers.
The seeds for this team’s winning streak in December were planted in September when Crawford would team up with Bledsoe, Barnes, Odom, Turiaf and Hollins in those pickup games. If it was surprising to see six new players start the season playing as if they had been teammates before, it’s because they were. By the time the season started, they were already on the same page.
“Everyone coming in here in September I think really helped us,” Crawford said. “And then going to China for the preseason where it was just a week of us, where we had three-hour bus rides where we got to know each other off the court helped. By doing that, it broke down some walls if there were any there.
"If you care about a teammate off the court, you’ll run through a wall for them on the court."
Much of the caring off the court has been spearheaded by Paul, who will take the team out to dinners and movies on the road or have them over to his house for get-togethers. He has encouraged players to bring their kids to the training facility after practice and inside the locker room after games. Postgame in the Clippers locker room is now filled with almost as many children as players.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” Paul said. “When you have that connection off the court, it makes you want to fight for each other just as much on the court.”
There’s no statistical analysis to show how far this kind of team chemistry will take a team, but the Clippers are having a good time finding out.