Suns Mastering Science of Sports Chemistry

by Matt Petersen

A few weeks ago – after the Suns emerged unscathed and unchanged from the trade deadline – Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek voiced aloud the reason Phoenix hesitated, then ultimately refrained from pulling the trigger on any deal.

“We felt this year we’ve done a nice job with the chemistry and the guys all get along, they’re all playing hard,” Hornacek said. “It was probably a tough time to break any of that up. It’s great that the team stays the way it is and we just keep going.”

In a classroom setting, chemistry is a fine science, able to be broken down to finite levels of understanding.

It couldn’t be more different when it comes to sports. There, it’s an intangible elixir that, once discovered, lifts a team above and beyond its normal limits of achievement. It can’t be fabricated, mimicked or manufactured. It just happens, often without rhyme or reason until hindsight – every sports fan’s greatest asset – has its day.

How did the Suns develop their chemistry? I was intent on finding out.

I tracked down Goran Dragic, the star with the ever-ready smile who seems to personify what happened to the Suns this season. Everybody likes Dragic and the Suns. They’re better than people predicted, taking the league by storm and can’t get enough love from the same people who had them (at worst) riding shot-gun in this season’s tankmobile toward the next NBA Draft.

“What exactly do you guys do?” I asked him.

Dragic had barely started talking when a whoop erupted from the locker room five feet beyond us. P.J. Tucker emerged, wearing an extra shirt, though it was worn on top of his head in truly comedic fashion. He raced through us and a group of other players and team reps in the hallway, his antics making all of us lose our professional composure to unbridled laughter.

“Stuff like that?” I managed to get out.

“Yeah, like that,” Dragic got out between laughs.

When No. 25 Texas upset No. 6 Kansas on Feb. 1, P.J. Tucker – a former Longhorn – couldn’t get to the arena fast enough. For the Morris twins, both former Jayhawks, Tucker was the last person they wanted to see.

Did the 28-year-old give them a hard time?

“Had to,” Tucker guffawed. “I had to collect.”

He said this in the locker room with both Morris twins present. Both were shaking their heads and laughing at the same time.

Dragic said that – each and every player’s willingness to actively play the chemistry game – has been the key.

“Especially in the locker room, everybody’s making jokes,” Dragic said. “Everybody’s teasing each other. Sometimes if you tease somebody they get mad, but nobody on this team. Everybody embraces that. Everybody’s joking back. I think that’s the beauty of friendship and everything.”

Tucker found that out firsthand three weeks later, when Kansas got its revenge by embarrassing Texas for a 31-point win. The Morris twins were merciless. Tucker, appalled. The team, entertained.

In the end, it’s another fun memory from what has become a fun season.

There are countless "chemistry moments" that don't involve teasing. Dragic says the team constantly sees movies or goes out to dinner together. They don't simply go their separate ways as soon as they got off the floor.

As for on the floor, they're a band of brothers (a phrase mentioned in one of their intro songs) there as well. Just check the last 10 seconds of this video for proof.

“That’s a part of what makes our team good,” Tucker said. “I think that’s the x-factor for our team, that we all get along. We all hang out together. We all laugh and joke together. When we win, lose, whatever, we’re always together. We’re a little different in that fact from some other NBA teams.”

Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough agrees. He has worked through and witnessed all kinds of locker rooms. Lottery years. Champinoship teams. Playoff hopefuls.

In Phoenix, McDonough saw something unique. When the trade deadline came, he was intent on preserving it.

“As much as you’d like to think every team in the NBA is like that, it’s not the case,” he said. “It is a pretty special and unique thing that all the guys buy in, accept their roles and play so well. We didn’t want to do anything to screw with that. We didn’t want to touch our core unless it was for a superstar that we thought would help us now and in the future. That’s why we decided to leave it alone and I’m excited to see what the group can do.”

Phoenix was in the midst of a three-game win streak when the trade deadline passed. Then they lost three in a row. Goran Dragic tweaked an ankle and Leandro Barbosa suffered a sprained toe. Ish Smith and Archie Goodwin saw their playing time increase dramatically.

When Dragic and Barbosa returned, Goodwin didn’t play in a Sunday win over Atlanta. Smith didn’t see the amount of crunch time he’d played the previous week.

After the nine-point win, the smiles were the same. The post-game chatter, ribbing and talk was unchanged.

McDonough had explained the key role chemistry had played in keeping the team intact at the trade deadline. I wanted to know how he, a general manager who prided himself in letting Hornacek and the coaching staff do their jobs without too much front office interference, had viewed the team’s chemistry for himself.

“You hear it from the players. You see it in the way the players practice and play and interact with each other,” McDonough said. “They genuinely like each other. They’re genuinely pulling for each other. The coaches say ‘they do everything we ask them.’ You don’t see any agendas in terms of any guys worried about minutes or touches or points or any of that. They just want to do what’s best for the team.”

McDonough has seen this all season. Shavlik Randolph, a 6-10 big man signed just last week, was brand new. What did he notice after a whopping two days with the club?

“Just how much camaraderie this team has,” Randolph said. “There’s no one that doesn’t like another person. The locker room is great. The guys are very encouraging, especially for such a young team. I’ve been part of teams that have older guys that know how to do that, but this team is so young. They’re able to do that. What they’ve done this year is amazing.”

Yes. Yes it is.