Jared Dudley spent most of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 title-winning season on the bench. But the 14-year-old veteran had no doubt he played a vital role for the bubble champions. “Behind every president, behind every top lawyer, they’ve got a secretary they can’t live with, they’ve got a manager who organizes the schedule,” Dudley said in an interview two years ago.
“That’s what I bring to this team,” said Dudley, who played for seven different teams before retiring and becoming an assistant coach for the Mavericks. “I’m in the middle of everything we do.”
Besides having the talents of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, LA has built special chemistry during this championship season, proving the importance of locker room generals like Dudley who made sure the Lakers spent quality time together away from the basketball court, whether it was at the movies or at dinner, getting to comfortable in each other’s company to foster accountability.
Behind-the-scenes leaders are often underestimated because their work doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Chemistry cannot be quantified, at least not in the sense of measuring the quality of relationships between players. However, there is a way to measure a certain component of the chemistry development process: list continuity. Basketball-Reference keeps track of the oft-overlooked metric, calculated as the percentage of a team’s total regular season minutes clocked by players on last year’s roster.
On closer inspection, the numbers indicate a correlation between continuity of roster and competitiveness, food for thought for title-seeking teams. Contenders are constantly looking for opportunities to take NBA stars away from their opponents, like Kevin Durant’s draw in Brooklyn. But what if a championship favorite needs a roster move rather than a revolution and a deal for a top player like Durant fixes his weaknesses, making more bad than good?
Since 2000, only one NBA team has won the Larry O’Brien Trophy, with newly acquired players occupying more than 50% of total regular season turnover minutes – the Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat in 2006. Only three others made the NBA Finals.
But the 2005-06 Heat seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Miami had an extraordinary offseason heading into that year’s title, from Shaquille O’Neal taking a pay cut on a new five-year contract to the biggest deal in NBA history, which included five teams and 13 players. In that deal, the Heat traded 33-year-old Eddie Jones, among others, for two young starters in James Posey and Jason Williams, as well as an X-factor and former All-Star Antoine Walker. The impressive haul gave the Heat such an attractive roster that team president Pat Riley left the front office to coach just 21 games into the season, beginning his second coaching stint with the team.
The stars lined up for the Heat to enter the franchise’s first-ever championship run and immortalize the Strong 15 group in NBA history. But outside of Miami’s triumph, history shows that stability is a title favorite’s best friend. In 15 of the 23 seasons played since the turn of the century, the two teams in the finals have posted a continuity percentage of at least 60. As many as three out of five champions have reached the 70% threshold, which the defending champion Golden State Warriors missed by just 2 percentage points last season.
But it’s an injury-induced anomaly rather than a sign of volatility that is creeping into the operations of a franchise that has been the epitome of permanence in the era of the Splash Brothers. During Golden State’s streak of five consecutive Finals appearances between 2015 and 2019, returning Warriors players spent 80% of the time on the court in all but one season – 2016-17, the year the arrival of Kevin Durant which inevitably required a reshuffling of the list. Lineup continuity is a common trait of some of the greatest teams in NBA history. Michael Jordan’s three-round double teams with the Bulls, Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers and the late Bill Russell’s Celtics each dipped below the 70% line only once during their period of domination.
The Lakers’ nightmarish 2021-22 season is the latest example of how important roster cohesion is when building a title contender. Neither Dudley nor anyone other than Davis, James and Talen Horton-Tucker survived the offseason purge that preceded Russell Westbrook’s arrival. As a result of the roster overhaul, new players ended up taking up 75% of the Lakers’ total minutes on the field. Combined with the injuries, the lack of chemistry ultimately proved to be an obstacle LA couldn’t overcome, especially when compared to the dominance of two well-oiled machines in Golden State and Phoenix. “Both teams pretty much brought back the exact same teams,” James said in December. “So when it comes to camaraderie and chemistry, they have that.”
The Lakers face a similar conundrum again this summer: Should they trade Westbrook and completely abandon their previous unfortunate decision or give the so-called Big 3 experiment one more chance in the hopes that familiarity between their main players, in addition to an impeccable health record, will be enough to bounce back from their 2021-22 fiasco. Higher in the Western Conference pecking order, the Suns appeared to have chosen stability over the tantalizing prospects of greener pastures with Durant, matching Deandre Ayton’s contract offer in restricted free agency and closing the door on a sign. and exchange for the immediate future.
Now all eyes are on the Celtics – will they resist the same temptation to level up with a trade or will they stick with their young core and development path?
Even if the Suns had traded for KD, they would have retained enough players this summer to prevent their continuity percentage from falling too low and reaching levels that have proven problematic for teams in the past. Boston has already made a few personnel changes this year, acquiring Derrick White on a mid-season deal before trading for Malcolm Brogdon this summer and signing Danilo Gallinari in free agency. If incoming players take up the regular season minutes freed up by outgoing players (about 5,000 of the total 19,905 minutes recorded by all of the Celtics combined last season), Boston is still looking at its roster continuity percentage to hold toward the mid 70s. next season.
In order to bring KD to Boston, AthleticismShams Charania reports Celtics may have to ship rising star Jaylen Brown and Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart in addition to other players as the Nets intend to take “all the last bits” from potential suitor Durant. That would effectively gut the core of a team that has missed just two games of the franchise’s first championship in 14 years and made four conference finals in the past six seasons. While the Celtics would get a generational, albeit aging, player in return, they could land below 50% roster continuity in 2022-23 following a Durant trade, which is a historically precarious spot.
On the one hand, Ime Udoka and Brad Stevens can rewind the tape, watch Riley in Miami award more than half of the rotational minutes to newcomers, and hope the KD-led Celtics follow up with a title. It’s Kevin pinball During, after all. On the other hand, Udoka and Stevens might realize that what the Heat did to give themselves a championship shot was to trade an aging star for a few starters in their prime to surround an already well-known All-Star duo with even more weapons. — and that the KD trade would do the exact opposite of Boston.
Continuity may not guarantee success. But it is important. Games will slow down and smooth out when run by a group of players who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, especially if they’ve spent quality time together that has united them more in pursuit of the same goal. . (Ideally under the supervision of an experienced, uh, veteran secretary who can handle locker room chemistry.)
In an environment as competitive as the NBA, the pursuit of perfection never stops, distorting the value of what teams already have. But history shows that sometimes “perfect” really is the enemy of good.