When a very good team drops seven of nine games – as the Orlando Magic have – those examining the tea leaves often arrive at a singular conclusion: It must be chemistry. It can’t be the talent, because Orlando has an embarrassment of riches, a roster so deep that Brandon Bass routinely logs DNPs. They lost Hedo Turkoglu and Courtney Lee, but added Vince Carter, Ryan Anderson, Matt Barnes and Bass.
But what does good chemistry mean? Are we talking about on-court fit? Are we talking about a group of guys that goes to the movies together on road trips? Remember the slew of articles about the Cleveland's team chemistry last season? When the Cavs ultimately lost the Eastern Conference Finals last spring to Orlando was it because something upset that chemistry? Or was it because they ran up against a team that had a unique combination of size, speed and flexibility to offset the Cavs' strengths?
It's one of those classic chicken-and-egg questions: Does good chemistry produce winning, or does winning produce good chemistry? When you stop winning, is it because the chemistry has gone bad, or does the chemistry go bad because you've stopped winning?
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy isn't a man with a lot of patience for abstractions. He deals in reality. Those blue cards that forever pop out of his inside jacket pocket? They're professional basketball sets, schemes designed to produce opportunities for his players to score two or three points. Van Gundy's initial answer to the "good chemistry vs. winning" riddle prior to Monday night's game against the Lakers was, "It's both." But then he elaborated, essentially saying that if you want chemistry, call a chemist:
We were 17-4 at one point. Your chemistry shouldn’t get worse as you go along. We’re just not playing well right now. People want to point to a lot of psychological reasons and all of these things. I’ve heard hangover from the Finals, but what, it came on late after the first 21 games? I’ve heard chemistry, and so I guess ... we had chemistry for 21 games...
When you’ve had as many people as we’ve had -- and it’s all of us really -- not playing well, you’re not going to look like you have great chemistry because you’re not executing and the ball’s not moving, and everything else. To me, call it what you want, it doesn’t matter. We’re just not playing well.
Matt Barnes has been the most publicly vocal Magician during the team's recent slump. He called out the Magic for lacking heart following their lackluster effort at Portland Friday night. When asked whether good chemistry produced winning or vice versa, he repeated the question to himself, then considered it for another instant before answering.
"You can probably get there both ways, but I’d say when you get on a winning streak, you have good chemistry," Barnes said. "You play consistent and hard, and then you have good chemistry."
Ryan Anderson had a similar response. "Honestly, if you win, your team is going to come together more," Anderson said. "You’re going to have a better attitude. You’re going to want to practice harder. You’ll want to be the best possible team you can be. But when you see everybody struggling, or things just aren’t going our way, that’s when you sort of split apart. Then guys start talking about their own things. I mean, I think good chemistry can make a winning team, but you need to win to get that good chemistry."
The Magic have a lot of things going for them. By the time they're fully engaged in a second round series in early May, this bumpy stretch might be nothing more than a footnote, that rough patch in January before the All-Star break. The slump might even be instructive. If Orlando comes out of it okay and reasserts itself as one of the League's elite teams, will it be because they're able to cultivate better chemistry or because they remember how to perform tasks that produce winning basketball -- things like funneling penetrators to Dwight Howard, making defenses pay for overcommitting on Howard down low, spacing the floor effectively for their high screen-and-rolls, and coming off those screens like they mean it.
Chemistry might help the Magic accomplish some of that. Then again, chemistry might just be a euphemism for understanding how to execute your stuff.