Chemistry, that certain special something between people who just seem to get along, doesn’t come along every day.
It is significant but abstract, and in sports — especially professional sports — it’s valued at a premium, even though it can be elusive.
“It’s hard to find, especially with guys making this type of money, with egos,” said Celtics captain and point guard Rajon Rondo.
But an ESPN The Magazine article from October 2013 detailed how more Major League Baseball teams — including the Boston Red Sox — are exploring the idea of quantifying chemistry to help better construct their rosters.
One aspect noted was that some teams, such as the Red Sox, have tried using more extensive background checks to gauge a player’s personality, which then helped them carefully determine if that player fits into the construct of their team.
NBA sources have heard rumblings of teams experimenting with the notion of trying to quantify chemistry — though it’s unclear if the Celtics are one of them — but it’s still in the earliest stages and nothing conclusive has yet been found.
Even still, chemistry is considered to be one of the next frontiers in the basketball analytics revolution, a notion raised several times at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conferences held last month in Boston.
Celtics rookie coach Brad Stevens, whose team plays the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday at TD Garden, is enticed by the idea.
“The chemistry stuff matters,” he said. “It matters a lot.”
Stevens’s teams at Butler University were known for their exceptional togetherness. And while other important factors were obviously involved, such as skill, talent, and game plans, those teams also had tremendous success, reaching consecutive national championship games in 2010 and 2011.
“I was at a level where people looked at [chemistry] and valued it and it was huge, huge, huge, huge,” Stevens said.
Stevens suggested that basketball teams might be able to gauge chemistry through lineup analysis — that is, how certain players function together in varying combinations.
But while he believes that finding the key to improving chemistry would be valuable, he’s also a firm believer in another approach.
“You could make an argument that you’re quantifying chemistry and you could make some sound arguments,” Stevens said, “but I think it’s more about somebody deciding, coming to that decision personally, that I’m going to embrace that role.”
Would that method be easier than just finding the right pieces and putting them together, perhaps with the goal of artificially manufacturing a certain level of chemistry?
“Well, I think part of it is moving parts, but I think it’s also encouraging everyone to embrace a role and be content in that and try to be the best they can be to help the team be the best it can be,” Stevens said.
“But there’s all kinds of intangibles that go along with that, way beyond numbers and trying to figure that out. I wouldn’t put it past some of the people in these organizations to figure it out, but it’s really hard.”
Celtics forward Jared Sullinger raised an eyebrow when asked about the subject.
“It’s kind of tough,” Sullinger said. “You can’t really gauge a team off chemistry. Sometimes the teams that don’t get along are the best teams.”
Sullinger added, “Chemistry is definitely underrated to me, personally, but to build a team off chemistry and not talent and certain pieces that you need is not a smart idea.”
Sullinger then said if a team had the proper balance of talent and the pieces it needed, improving chemistry would of course be valuable. Still, he reiterated that basketball teams are able to successfully function without good chemistry, too.
“I’m not saying from experience, but I’m saying from guys I’ve talked to in the past that have played in the NBA that have disliked a player, but once you step onto the court and you’re inside those four lines, all of the sudden, they’re buddy-buddy,” Sullinger said.
“I’ve seen it for myself. I’ve done it before — not at this level, but at another level. It’s just how basketball is. Competitive nature takes over. Chemistry has a lot to do with stuff, but at the same time, it just depends on who you are.”
Rondo pointed out that the value of chemistry also varies depending on the sport.
“Chemistry, I don’t think that matters in baseball,” Rondo said. “Big Papi doesn’t have to get along with everybody. He goes up there and he makes a hit, he catches every ball that they throw to him at first base — he’s doing his job. It’s simple.”
Rondo added, “Football is probably the best sport to give you an example. If he doesn’t sell this fake and if he doesn’t make this block at that angle, if the quarterback doesn’t sell the draw play — then the play doesn’t work. It’s all about team chemistry. All 11 players are pretty much [tied together] on each possession.”
And though individual players can dominate in basketball, Rondo believes that team chemistry plays a considerable role.
“Basketball, every once in a while, you can [run an isolation play] and you don’t need five guys,” Rondo said. “But for the most part, to win a game, to win a series, you need five guys all together.”
And maybe some day, analytics could help teams do just that.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.