When LeBron chose Miami over New York, I was bitter. But not bitter enough to sway from my longstanding belief that chemistry is a word used by teams of lesser talent. I jumped on the Jeff Van Gundy 72 wins bandwagon. I did not think LeBron's claims of mulitple championships were premature or outlandish, but realistic. They had two of the best three players in the NBA, and three of the top 15 (clearly Bosh has played his way out of that category now). Before the Heat, the NBA's evolution was becoming more conducive to such a sudden mass assembly of stars. The Miami Heat (Wade and Shaq), Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe and Pau) and Boston Celtics (Allen, Pierce and Garnett) succeeded immediately. There was no logical reason to say LeBron's Heat would not follow suit other than to hopefully play the "I told you so" card a later date.
Seeing the trend and hoping to capitalize before it was too late, the New York Knicks got in line. Every other recent championship had landed that knock out blow, whether via free agency or trade, and now it was New York's turn. So they took a bunch of body shots and traded away half the team for Melo, who would hopefully turn into that championship right hook. As of now, the results are less than ideal, with the Knicks amassing a 7-8 (as of this writing) record since the deal.
Of course it's too early to tell with the Knicks and Heat, but they have caused me to reevaluate my time steadfast chemistry formula. It can be generally agreed upon that better players improve the play of their teammates. And I'm not just talking about the LeBron's and Kobe's, but all great players. By default, they draw attention to themselves, allowing teammates to ride their coattails to wins and championships (see Robert Horry - Yes, Robert Horry. I can't wait for the backlash on that one). The discrepancy, then, is by what margin does one player elevate a teammate's play over another.
This, in a sense, is the crux of the Kobe/LeBron debate. Kobe purists point to the championships. LeBron's faithful note that when Kobe had no help (between Shaq and Pau), he merely lead the Lakers to the playoffs as a low seed, complemented by a first round exit. LeBron, on the other hand, carried some role players, a heavy backpack and the most disgusting free throw form in the NBA - Anderson Varejao - to the #1 seed and deep playoff runs. Using my previous logic, I have always staunchly supported LeBron as the NBA's best. He does more with less. But now he has more and is doing less. So where do we draw the line between chemistry and individual play?
I have always assumed that teams, and not players, possess chemistry, with familiarity being the means to that end. But looking at the current makeup of NBA teams, some players simply breed chemistry while others do not. I'm not simply talking about players that dominate the ball. The nature of the game dictates that great players have the ball in their hands. Point guard is simply the word used for players under 6'3, not necessarily those who pass the ball best. Nor am I talking about the great passer as high chemistry players (although some clearly are).
From my outside perspective, chemistry seems to be built into a player's game. It's an innate, unteachable talent not necessarily limited to the NBA's best. That said, not all the great ones have it, and sometimes greatness supersedes chemistry. And Dwyane Wade bulldozed his way to an NBA championship as the rest of his team watched happily from the sidelines. Writers recently praised Kobe for his ability adapt his game to a team-first mentality, but all basketball fans know that nothing has changed. When the playoffs role around, it's Kobe Bryant vs. the opponent, with contributions only coming from others when he's in need of help. Sometimes, this is the best method. If you take away Kobe's attacking mentality, he loses his competitive edge. As much as team chemistry benefits the team, you cannot rip the heart out of your best player's natural inclination.
So let's get back to the present. Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony, despite excellent play throughout their careers, missed this chemistry gene. We all know of Melo's ball-stopping habits. Billups, however, presents a less clear situation. Sure, he nearly won back-to-back titles with Detroit. But sometimes multiple chemistry players can make up for one guy. And that's what Billups was. When one bucket or one big play was needed, it was Billups' no-fear mentality that brought games home. He relished the moment. He cherished it. He couldn't get enough of it.
This, I believe, is what is at the heart of the Heat's late game issues. Dwyane Wade is that killer, selfish, give me the ball guy. But how can he play his game when the ball consistently rests in the hands of LeBron, the clearly better player? LeBron wants rings, but not the moments that lead to them. Wade wants both.