26-Day NBA Warning: Culture Change

Inspired by the NFL Warning series by Robert Mays at Grantland, the NBA Warning series is exactly what you think it is: tackling certain individuals, storylines and trends to look forward to as we count down the days until the start of the 2013-14 NBA season.

The NBA finally feels like it’s all the way back with media day followed by the start of training camps across the league this week. In Brooklyn, the Nets are ready to compete for the team that can pose the biggest challenge to Miami moniker, having acquired Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

And of course, in one of the first drills at training camp this week, Garnett was heard yelling to his teammates that if “you cheat the drill, you cheat yourself.” His new teammates are already taking notice, Deron Williams — the leader of this team, maybe only in terms of talent was asked about the new group that’s congregated at Nets camp, and was not shy about pointing out the change from a year ago: "I don’t want to say night and day from last year, but it’s just a different feeling."

Of course, all of this is moving towards what we already could’ve predicted months ago when the Celtics and Nets consummated their trade for Garnett: a narrative of culture change and improvement in chemistry that will push the Nets to that next level which they aspire to reach.

This should come as no surprise given Garnett’s history. After a mostly successful run in Boston, his departure left many to lament the loss of his presence and how it influenced practice habits, accountability on the court, and most important of all: chemistry.

Ah, yes. In the first four paragraphs, the two most dread words in the sports conversations of today has come up: narratives and chemistry.

These two things are seemingly connected because the existence — or the belief by some that it exists — of one (chemistry) helps construct the other (narratives). Any talk of the correlation between a team’s positive culture in the clubhouse or locker room and its success in the standings is brushed aside because, well, I think the actual answer is because of the availability of statistics today, there’s so much information for us to construct an understanding of what’s happening in the game that it makes no sense for something intangible to actually matter. But I think the real answer may be simply because we can’t measure it or haven’t attempted to, so we assume it to be irrelevant.

This belief, of course, is not my own, but driven by some research I did when I was listening to Slate’s Hang Up And Listen podcast this week, in which Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus joined the show and was asked: just how much does chemistry really matter in sports, if at all?

I was surprised to hear Miller — who of course, is part of the Sabermetrics crowd — was actually open to the idea that there was value in team chemistry, except it is inherently difficult to make the case for it when no attempts at measuring it has really happened in sports.

Another point — simple, yet rearranges the perspective on this, at least for me — that Miller noted was that why is it that an entire field of study exists in examining workplace environment and productivity at jobs but we’re so quick to write it off when it comes to sports.

Miller’s colleague at Baseball Prospectus, Russell A. Carleton, examined the entire issue of measuring chemistry in this piece back in February this year. Similar to Miller, Carleton doesn’t seem to dismiss the notion of chemistry having an impact in sports, pointing out:

"Often, I hear well-meaning sabermetricians deny the claim out of hand. How can anyone possibly buy into this stuff? There’s no proof! But if we’re going to be fair, the chemistry-performance link falls into the "reasonable hypothesis" category. We just don’t know either way. It might not be true, but it at least passes the "if you say it out loud, you don’t sound foolish" test."

The article examines the possible ways to actually measure chemistry in a baseball clubhouse. The premise of it would start by understanding the different social networks that exists within the team, identifying these links and then using questionnaires and observations to attempt to quantify the relationship between chemistry and performance.

Of course, it all sounds great on paper but understandably, these methods — in a weird way, just like baseball — requires a large sample size and even then, it’s hard to find a scenario where you can actually understand the causation, if any, between one and the other.

The problem might not be simply finding a reasonable way to measure the value of chemistry, it’s convincing people to believe that those measurements and the data it provides is actually reliable. After all, you could break down the entire argument for the cause and effect by simply pointing out that it may be that performance causes improved chemistry, and not vice versa. One only needs to point to the familiar scenario where a team that’s improved in the standings speaks of a change in the chemistry of the team, and similarly, the sudden narratives of a negative locker room when the team is on a losing streak.

I’m exploring all of this because while I’m not sure how comfortable I’ll ever be with attributing positive performance with how well people like each other on a team, I do think rejecting the entire notion that there’s some value in chemistry seems too extreme and naive for a community of sports folks who are generally thoughtful and always considerate of additional information for the understanding of the game. Of course, no one-to-one direct relationship exists between the two, there will not be a magic flow chart where we can deduce just how much chemistry means in a particular scenario for a given team. But I think at the very least, chemistry and a change in culture can serve as a catalyst to better performance, and if it does, then it is probably worthwhile to consider it, and find a way to measure it.

Or as Carleton concludes in his piece:

"But if you ever wondered why even the "smart" teams pay so much attention to such a squishy thing as "team chemistry" consider this: the effect might be small or maybe even non-existent, but the cost of trying to optimize it is miniscule. It might be the cost of some cheap props from a dollar store. Even if a loose clubhouse adds half a win, if the cost is 25 bucks, that’s a deal. And even if the interventions fail, they probably won’t make things worse. So why not try?

And maybe the effect is a little bit bigger. Right now, we don’t know, but I think we as sabermetricians do ourselves a disservice if we assume that chemistry doesn’t matter. And maybe some day, we’ll get a chance to prove it one way or the other.”

So Garnett yelling at his new team and encouraging them to avoid shortcuts in drills on the first day of training camp might not translate into much of anything. But perhaps the accumulation of these incidents and the arrival of a new assertive voice in the locker room — and, a guy who has come out and said the goal is for the Nets to hold opponents to 80 points a game — will result in a net positive to the overall performance and win total of the team this season.

Let’s all at least agree that it’s a reasonable hypothesis.

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