Chemistry Lesson

HOUSTON - There are dozens, if not hundreds, of things that go into the construction and actualization of a championship-caliber sports team. Talent, to be sure, is one such component. Sound in-game strategy and overall stewardship are others. Not to be overlooked, of course, is the amorphous but nevertheless oft-discussed and forever scrutinized subject of chemistry. We may not know what it is but we sure as heck know it when we see it – at least that’s what millions of sports fans, radio callers, columnists and armchair analysts convince themselves of every day.

By definition, chemistry is the investigation of the properties of matter and the ways in which they interact, combine and change. From a sports standpoint, the hoped-for chemical reaction is achieved when a team of individuals seamlessly and harmoniously mesh in such a way that the result leaves observers awestruck by the potency of the newfound power unleashed. When the experiment goes wrong, however, viewers are far more likely to end up feeling less like Louis Pasteur and more like Beaker.

So perhaps it is only fitting that on an evening when millions of viewers wait in breathless anticipation for the epic finale of Breaking Bad – a show that is at its very core about chemistry and its wide-reaching ramifications – we come now to the case of the Houston Rockets and their own search for the sort of special spark that can launch the club into the NBA’s stratosphere. Fortunately for Rockets fans, there’s no fear of Walter White relocating to Houston (note: that’s just a guess – not a spoiler) and wreaking his own outlandishly destructive brand of havoc here. What there is, however, is a collection of supremely talented players that still must prove they can collectively harness their individual talents in a way that allows the team to transform theorized potential into tangible, positive results.

Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale knows a thing or two about this subject from his playing days that produced some of the finest team basketball ever witnessed when he shared the floor in Boston with fellow Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. His belief: True on-court chemistry is much more a matter of natural fit than friendship.

“We stepped on the court and our games complemented each other, and if we didn’t say a word to each other, it (still) fit,” said McHale, recalling his title-winning days with the Celtics. “Two guys can get along great, they can be best friends, they can have dinner every single night and still not be able to play together – that doesn’t make any difference. It’s how they play together and that’s really honestly what it is.

“You can’t force chemistry. This isn’t Match.com. (Our players) are going to have to go out there and find chemistry. There’s no guaranteeing anything. Until you’ve done it, there’s no guaranteeing you will do it.

“The best thing is that, when it really happens naturally, is when you play with guys where your skill level complements them and their strength complements your weakness, and it just flows. The stuff they can’t do, you do very well. And the stuff you can’t do, they do very well. And you go out and play and it fits.”

The kind of fit described by McHale is precisely what prompted the Rockets to make Dwight Howard their No. 1 offseason target. Pairing the game’s preeminent pick-and-roll roll man with screen-and-roll studs like James Harden and Jeremy Lin was a no-brainer. Ditto for the club’s dedication to filling out the rest of the roster with a bevy of long-range marksmen. It all sounds so good in theory. And in these early, early days of morphing that theory into results, the Rockets are already starting to see positive signs.

“We’ve run a couple pick-and-rolls while playing five-on-five,” said Jeremy Lin following Sunday’s practice session. “You can just tell the defense doesn’t know what to do because you might have Dwight rolling, and then you have Chandler [Parsons] in the corner who is a great shooter, and you have to choose between the two. And if you don’t stop the ball then me or James is going to come down the lane and make a play.”

Much more work remains to be done on this front – and many others – of course. For example, Lin also noted that he and the rest of the Rockets’ playmakers must do a better job of getting Howard the ball more quickly when he has his man sealed, and that Howard is still trying to get a good feel for the fact that Houston’s willing passers are capable of delivering the ball to him anytime and from anywhere. It will take months, if not more, before anything truly definitive can be said of this experiment. The Miami Heat’s Big Three – now two-time defending champions – kicked off their inaugural season together by starting the campaign 9-8. Instant chemistry is nice and all, but the kind the Rockets are after is the sort that peaks in the spring and summer – not the fall.  

All that having been said, when a legend like Hakeem Olajuwon, himself no stranger to the significance of hoops alchemy, says he likes what he’s seeing from Houston’s newest dynamic duo, it most definitely demands one’s attention. 

“What I can see, the chemistry is wonderful,” he said when asked for his early observations from watching Howard and Harden work together. “I really wouldn’t call it sacrifice because it’s complementary. You need each other. James was telling me that last year sometimes he was so tired. Now, it’s sharing the burden so it’s much easier for him. When you bring a superstar to the team, it’s welcome because it makes your job much easier. It’s not taking anything away; it’s adding … so that you can achieve more with less effort. It’s a one-two punch that’s wonderful.”