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What is Team Chemistry in Professional Sports?

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Former pro basketball player Brian Freeman discusses the importance of team chemistry to the success of an organization.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

One of the blessings of watching the NBA is the abundance of information we have available: every type of advanced statistic, insider reports tweeted to us by any media member we choose to follow, and a simple internet search that gets us in-depth analysis of any player or game in history. It’s pretty stinking awesome. But while in the midst of this information boom, we forget that some things are incalculable. You can measure talent in stats, or physical tools, or shooting percentages, but to make a good team, talent is not always enough.

In the past few years we’ve watched a team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all in their primes, lose a best-of-seven series to a team whose second leading scorer was a 33-year-old Jason Terry. A team with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol finished a season with 45 wins (injuries be darned). And there are the Spurs who have won at least 50 games every year for 20 straight years. (I'm counting the lockout year) but most of those players would be middle of the pack or worse selections in an NBA pickup game.

Talent is very important, but one of the most important factors that determines if a team can reach or exceed its potential is chemistry.

What is Team Chemistry?

Team chemistry is an idea thrown around a lot but not many people other than players understand the actual impact. The old cliche is that good chemistry means “the team is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is a good start, but it runs much deeper than that.

The best way I’ve ever been able to describe the chemistry is that it’s a cumulative team attitude. In other words, it’s the way the team, as a whole, feels about itself and its chances to succeed.

Confidence is a big part of it. Teams that have great chemistry also have a bit of a swagger, some cockiness, and some attitude. Each member goes into every game knowing exactly what their role is and what they they need to do. Even more importantly, they know that everyone else knows their role and will do their job.

The teams with the best chemistry can absorb some adversity—they trust themselves to be able to handle it.

Basketball is a team sport and it takes a combined effort to achieve success. If one person is feeling unhappy or unconfident, it brings down the entire team’s cumulative attitude. If a player is not doing their job in accordance with the way the rest of the team needs them to, the whole team falters.

This applies not only to the game of basketball, but in any setting that involves people working together. When everyone carries their weight, your load becomes lighter. We all have that one person we’ve worked with at some point in our careers who brought in negative vibes and was lazy, making everyone else’s job more difficult. The same thing is true on the basketball court—negativity and lack of cooperation become burdens for everyone else to carry.

One big misconception is that team chemistry means that all of the players are friends both on and off the court. Some of my favorite teammates I never saw outside of basketball; there is a difference between friends and teammates. But basketball across the world is starting to put more value on high-character people.

“You realize you can win championships with all good guys,” an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. “You don’t need to have any knuckleheads on your team like previously thought to win games. I think teams are starting to appreciate good character and realize what that has to do with winning.”

What Affects Team Chemistry?

When I describe the chemistry as a cumulative team attitude, I choose to say, “team attitude” and not “player attitude” for a reason. The cumulative team attitude is impacted by every person incolved with the organization, from the owner down, and that includes the fans and media. The players and coaches carry the biggest part of that burden, but the organization and the way it functions make a difference as well (Google “New York Knicks” for some negative examples).

I played on a team professionally in Europe that was always at least two months late on payments to our foreigner players and never less than four months late to the local players. It then came out that the president was caught stealing money from the team.

That same year—and on the same team—our coach was told he would be replaced and was asked to step down. It turns out the new coach didn’t want the position and so the original coach was actually forced to return to finish the season at the risk of losing out on the rest of his contract. The whole season was just a big cluster of confusion. We were dealing with agents telling players to not practice until they got paid, we were getting lied to by the front office about our money, and our poor coach may as well have been John Coffey being followed around all season by Percy Wetmore.

As for the players, I couldn’t come up with a single negative thing to say about their attitudes. We handled the situation with more class and professionalism than most would, but not even a talented team and multiple ex-NBA players on our roster mattered. The cumulative attitude of that organization was terrible and our play on the court remained a reflection of that.

We finished the season 10-27.

Every player wants to succeed on the court for their benefit—and for their family’s benefit—and most want to succeed for their teammates, as well. But there is a distinct difference when a player wants to succeed not only for himself and his teammates, but for the whole organization.

I have played for teams that made me feel this way. I wanted to win because my coach wanted to win just as badly as I did. I wanted to win because my president did everything he possibly could to put our players in the best position to be successful. I wanted to win because the team volunteers spent 15 hours this week, of their own time, decorating the gym and making the atmosphere as electric as possible. I wanted to win for the fans who take time and pay money to come support us. I felt pride in my team, and it would’ve really hurt to let those people down. Feelings like that stayed with me on the court just as much as the negativity.

At the same time, I had teammates on those same teams who felt much differently about the club. At the end of the day, it’s the attitudes of the player that weighs the most.

What Role Does a ‘Leader’ Have with a Teams Chemistry?

The team leader is the person or people who hold everybody else accountable for staying on track. The leader can be the coach, or the captain, or both. But the best leadership situations put responsibility on every player to be leaders. The leader of the team is the person setting the precedent for what is acceptable and what isn’t. He has to balance between setting a tone for the way the team operates and keeping the respect of everyone else.

He also has to know how to talk to everyone—what you can say to whom and when. It is the leader’s job to know how the players are feeling and make sure the cumulative attitude stays positive. More than anything, if the leader expects everyone else to be able to put their personal agendas aside for the good of the team, he has to be able to set an example and do it himself.

One of my favorite examples of this was the 2016-17 Blazers. For a year and a half, they had two stars on their roster: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But as soon as Jusuf Nurkic was traded to the Blazers, that dynamic backcourt started making sacrifices in order to help Nurk fit in.

The two guards would cross halfcourt yelling at Nurk to get on the block so he could post up and they could get him the ball. They knew that it may cost them shots, but they did what they had to in order to integrate a new teammate they thought could help them win more games. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened, and Nurkic was given a responsibility within the team. He then became more engaged, his confidence grew, and Blazers finished the season with 17 wins in their final 23 games.

In contrast, a week after Nurkic was traded to the Blazers, a more talented big man, DeMarcus Cousins, was traded from the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans lost 10 of their 17 games with Cousins. The Blazers improved more by adding a player with less overall talent than Boogie. Nurk’s shortcomings with success have been well documented, but the Blazers leaders deserve a lot of credit for the way they were able to incorporate him.

Good leadership is part of the battle but everyone has to buy in for it to work. Good chemistry is not easy to come by. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort from everyone for it work. Other times, it just comes together on its own, and more often than not, chemistry never fully comes, so professional teams are now putting more emphasis on chemistry and high-character players than ever.

When watching the the NBA, we’re reminded time and time again that the best players do not always win.

But the best team always does.