My good friend Chris Arnold, the long time emcee for Mavericks games at the American Airlines Center and currently working the midday shift on 105.3 The Fan, always tells his listeners, “Ya never know.” As it relates to the Final Four of the NBA playoffs, he couldn’t be more right.
Chemistry is such an elusive concept. Everyone wants it. Few achieve it. With the nature of sports being what it is and teams changing out personnel every year, sometimes multiple times during a season, that VOILA moment when you know it’s right happens far less often than everyone hopes it will.
Let’s check the Warriors and Rockets in the West. Golden State looked to have a pretty good thing going on last season. 51 wins, a young team growing with their young coach, a guy who engendered tremendous loyalty. The coach is fired and replaced by someone who’s never coached, but played for arguably the two greatest coaches of this generation. Would the lessons Steve Kerr learned from Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich play out as hoped? 67 wins and a spot in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1976 suggests it’s worked spectacularly.
Meanwhile, Houston also went through massive change after winning 54 games last year but losing in the first round to Portland. Their coach remained, but the roster changed, seemingly to the point that Kevin McHale wasn’t sure from night to night who would be in his lineup. Indeed, if you look at the roster now from when it was last year six of the nine players in the Rockets’ rotation weren’t with the team at the end of that Portland series. Two of them, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, were barely with the team at Christmas, while Pablo Prigioni was acquired at the trade deadline in mid-February. And yet, filling in around James Harden and Dwight Howard, it has worked spectacularly to where the Rockets are in their first West Finals since 1997.
You have the same kind of dynamic in play in the East. Atlanta took a major jump forward this year winning a franchise record 60 games, at one point winning 32 of 34. They’re in their first conference final in 45 years. They did it despite making NO change in their rotation from the team that took Indiana to seven games last year, instead growing organically in the second year of learning Mike Budenholzer’s system. Meanwhile, Cleveland went from a dumpster fire to contender the moment LeBron James decided to leave Miami and return home, but it also took two huge trades right after New Year’s to bring in Timofey Mozgov from Denver, and J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from New York to completely solidify this team. The Cavaliers were supposed to be a Super Team with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but they didn’t truly reach their title potential until those trades were made. And as great as LeBron is, we’ve seen he can’t always do it alone.
Which of course brings us to the Mavericks and the decision to trade for Rajon Rondo. They hoped that Rondo could solidify what was lacking to allow them to take the next step forward. It didn’t work. The Mavericks aren’t the only team to ever make a big in-season move believing it would be the one that settled the unsettled. It’s great to have it right from the start as the Warriors and Hawks did, but more often than not there are imperfections that arise. A key injury or performances just drop off. Teams are too competitive to simply allow themselves to slip into nothingness (ok maybe not Philadelphia or New York), especially if they fashion themselves a playoff team. So you try. And you hope you get it right. The Rockets and Cavaliers did and they’re still playing. The Warriors did it to a lesser degree and they’re still playing. The Mavericks didn’t, and they’re now thinking about next year. Chris Arnold is a VERY smart man. Ya Never Know.