Team First

Frank’s efforts at building unity take on creative measures

Developing team chemistry among his players is one of coach Lawrence Frank's priorities.
Dan Lippitt/NBAE/Getty Images
ORLANDO – Lawrence Frank knew little of his players’ personality traits four months ago, when training camp was just under way, having never coached any of them in his previous NBA stops. But he knew he’d have to get to know them fast, in whatever ways possible, and concoct inventive ways to forge the team unity he believes is the fabric of NBA success.

Frank talked at length in his opening remarks to the team on Dec. 9 about the importance of developing a bond of brotherhood. When a player hits the floor, Frank expects a footrace among his teammates to help him to his feet.

In a typical NBA season, where more practice time is available and game days aren’t piled on top of each other, there are plenty of opportunities for team bonding to grow organically. In this most unusual of NBA seasons, the schedule squeezed by the desire to fit 66 games into a four-month regular season, Frank has helped the process along.

On Tuesday, for example – after a back-to-back set of games at Miami and Orlando, a circumstance that means there will be no practice the following day – Frank arranged for the team to be treated to massages at an Orlando resort. The Pistons have seven games in nine nights ahead, so the massages killed two birds with one stone, therapy for body and spirit, as in team spirit.

“The ability to be able to honor your body and do it as a team, I think it’s important,” Frank said after Wednesday’s two-hour practice in Orlando before the team headed to Charlotte for Thursday’s finale of a four-game road trip. “It’s all the little things that matter. They could’ve just had an off day and gone their own way, but it’s nice to be able to treat your body right like that.”

Frank believes there’s a correlation between a keen sense of brotherhood among teammates and NBA success. In fact, he cited a New York Times report from a few years ago that claimed during the 2007-08 season, the Boston Celtics – that year’s champion – touched each other the most via fist bumps, pats on the back or helping hands. That year’s worst team, it claimed, touched each other the least.

Arnie Kander, the team’s strength coach who takes a holistic approach to keeping players’ minds and bodies healthy through the grind of a season, is able to help Frank foster team unity through his unique relationships with the players he treats. He, too, strongly believes in the value of bonding.

He tries to create opportunities to build team chemistry through rehabilitation or workout regimens designed for specific players. So a rehab program for Charlie Villanueva that had him exercising in the sauna evolved into a group of players taking saunas at the team’s hotel on off days or after morning shootarounds.

“Almost like an Indian sweat lodge, we invite people in. There are rules: no cell phones,” Kander said. “It’s the ability to communicate, talk, connect. I’ll put drops in the water to create scents, so there’s aromatherapy. It goes over the rocks, so it creates this entire sensory world which the guys have enjoyed. NBA players go through an entire season but at the end of the season, how well do you know your teammates? They know basketball, they know how to play defense together, but if you know each other at a family level, that’s the ultimate in being together as a basketball family. It’s really turned into more of a spiritual aspect.”

Similarly, the pushup routine Kander developed for Austin Daye has also become a team-bonding activity.

“To me, this has been the year of team bonding,” he said. “Lawrence does a great job, but in what little ways can we help him create it? Basketball is a team game. In what other little physical, mental, emotional, spiritual ways can we create team bonding? With the pushups, we get in a circle and each guy’s got an edge to the circle, so there’s the whole circle of energy, circle of trust thing. We all kind of look up on the (holding of the locked-arms position that’s part of the exercise routine) and look around to see how everyone is holding up.”

Damien Wilkins has played for five different organizations in his eight NBA seasons and he’s seen both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

“Teams normally take on the personalities of the coaches and upper management,” he said. “If the coaches and management are engaged, always encouraging a family atmosphere, then that’s how they will be, from what I’ve experienced.”

The Pistons, he says, have become a very close team, and Wilkins believes it not only contributes to success but ultimately will affect how players recall their experience.

“I think it has a lot to do with winning, but to each their own,” he said. “Some teams probably win that aren’t as close, but at the end of the day, the memories we’re going to take from it aren’t the players, it’s the camaraderie, the conversations we’ve had on the plane, the experiences when you’re out to dinner. We can talk basketball all day, but it’s the camaraderie and friendships that last more than anything.”

Being a single-minded team is merely the first step, of course, in a process that must also address a prioritizing of agendas, where winning basketball is at the top of the list. As Tom Gores maintained at his introductory press conference last June, there is an inherent quid pro quo common to winning organizations. In return for the paycheck and the perks of playing for the Pistons, there is an expectation for hard work in return.

“The best bonding is right here on the court,” Frank said. “It’s great that guys spend time together off the court, and that’s important, but if they don’t compete and fight right here on this hardwood, all that is overrated. It’s a combination of everything. The great thing – what Tom Gores has brought here and what Bill Davidson established – is everything is going to be done first class. And we expect a first-class effort in return.”

The Pistons stared down a stern test of their unity in a 4-20 start to the season. The fact they’ve gone 17-16 since then offers compelling evidence that the team chemistry Frank set as a goal on the first day of training camp, even against the challenges of the lockout-squeezed schedule, has been achieved.