This article is taken from the Jan. 14. issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Remember right after "Moneyball" was published, when baseball execs began to embrace the logic of, "Hey, if we put together a lineup of high-OBP hitters, we might score more runs," and everyone else was like, "Wait, that's obvious -- why didn't they always do this?"
I don't want to jinx it, but we may have reached a similar tipping point in the NBA. If you're a hoops fan, you should be delighted. If you're Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or GM R.C. Buford, you should be miserable. If you're Ricky Davis' agent, you should resign before he becomes a free agent this summer. If you're a sarcastic sportswriter who loves making fun of bad GMs, you should be in mourning. (Note: I'm writing this column dressed all in black.) And if you're a Knicks or a Heat fan, throw down two shots and hit yourself in the head before reading on.
Here's the new mantra for savvy NBA teams: "Chemacterility." Why haven't you heard the term before? Because I just made it up. But it's an amalgam of three concepts that have formed the foundation of the Duncan Era in San Antonio: chemistry, character and (cap) flexibility. As soon as Duncan arrived, in 1997, Popovich and Buford began to avoid bad guys and bad contracts, preferring role players, quality guys and short-term deals. They're so fanatic about chemistry that when Luis Scola jumped to the NBA this summer, they traded his rights, partly because they weren't sure he could adjust from being a star in Spain to being a supporting player here. They didn't even want to take the chance he'd screw them up!
Even though the Spurs have won four titles with Duncan, for whatever reason, every other GM except Detroit's Joe Dumars has continually refused to emulate them. But that changed this summer. Sure, Danny Ainge revamped the Celtics by acquiring Ray Allen and KG, but the rest of his game plan has been equally important to the team's early success, and it hasn't received nearly enough fanfare. He filled a depleted roster with unselfish, high-character guys like Eddie House, James Posey and Scot Pollard and refused to pursue any moody vets. Thanks but no thanks, GP and Troy Hudson!
Much has been made of Boston's team slogan -- "Ubuntu," an African word meaning unity -- but you need to attend a Celtics game to understand why they're on pace for 139 wins this season. In the layup lines, everyone is high-fiving and joshing. Before the opening tip, Posey greets each starter with a prolonged man-hug and inspirational words. The nightly sequence might hark back uncomfortably to Rocky and Apollo's beach snuggle, but it works. During games, bench players stand and cheer as if they're being coached by Mark Madsen. In garbage time, the starters root just as passionately for the scrubs.
These guys eat dinner, hang out, work out and play video games together. They don't care about stats, acclaim, shots or minutes. It's a team in every sense. Even better, Boston's future is protected for years to come: Allen's contract expires in 2010, Pierce's in 2011, KG's in 2012. The Celtics are good, and they will continue to be good. What more can you ask for? When you can mix talent with chemacterility, you have something substantial.
Now, if you're a Blazers fan, you're thinking, Wait, that sounds familiar! After enduring the debilitating Jail Blazers Era, the locals despised the team so much that Portland's suits targeted chemistry guys out of self-preservation. Quite simply, Blazers fans needed to like the team again or the franchise was going to be run out of town. When the Blazers spent a 2005 lottery pick on Martell Webster, then-GM John Nash defended the reach pick by telling ESPN, "We think we took an outstanding young man. He's a terrific character, somebody that the community of Portland can be proud of." Was he drafting a councilman or a shooting guard?
That mind-set led Portland to Jarrett Jack, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. It also convinced them to give away Zach Randolph for Steve Francis and Channing Frye, then to buy out Francis, the world-class sulker, for $30 million, nipping any chance he'd contaminate the kids. Maybe those last two moves seem like an over- reaction -- you don't just give away 20/10 guys, right? -- but their devotion to cleaning house was admirable, and smart. (Note: Sure, Darius Miles still lurks. But when he's done rehabbing his knee, he'll surely be looking at a Francis-like buyout. Well, unless they can trade him or frame him for something. After that win streak in December, it's clear that keeping Miles makes as much sense for the Blazers as replacing Zac Efron with Pacman Jones for High School Musical 3 would for Disney.)
Although their initial rebuilding plan centered on creating cap space after 2009 and stockpiling enough assets to swing a KG-like deal, the Blazers sped things up this season by becoming the poster boys for chemacterility. They've also left the average NBA fan perplexed. After all, Boston's resurgence makes sense because they have three All-Stars; the Blazers have one emerging star (Roy) leading a mishmashed collection of youngsters and role players. They're a good raw team, but 13-in-a-row good? Without Oden? After they thumped a more talented Raptors team on Dec. 19, Jason Kapono told reporters, "Their chemistry is so good right now, and that's so hard to deal with."
Have you ever heard anyone blame the other team's chemistry for a loss? Me neither. Clearly the Blazers have stumbled onto something. On the flip side, look at the ongoing catastrophe in Miami. Poor D-Wade looks like Will Smith trying to carry I, Robot: His supporting cast stinks, and the script sucks. Who'd blame him if he were thinking about his next movie? Shaq's monster contract killed their cap through 2010, which would be fine if he hadn't developed rigor mortis over the summer. Even worse, Posey was allowed to leave, and the team violated chemacterility Rules 1 through 23 by trading for Davis and Mark Blount. That made about as much sense as holding practice next to a leaking nuclear reactor.
(Last note, I promise: Yes, I know, Miami looks like San Antonio South compared with the damage Isiah Thomas has inflicted on the Knicks. As a belated holiday gift to New Yorkers, I'll skip the gory details. Just know that Isiah is to chemacterility what the Saw series is to wholesome family comedy.)
Regardless, Popovich and the Blazers' Kevin Pritchard have to be cringing. Their secret is out: Talent and chemistry go hand in hand. Will we ever see a team willingly trade for Davis or Blount again or sign a knucklehead like Randolph to an $86 million extension? Sure. There will always be desperate GMs. But I expect more teams to copy the Celtics and Blazers with shrewder signings, more short-term deals and a higher premium on character.
So welcome to the era of chemacterility. Who knows? Brian Scalabrine's five-year, $15 million deal might seem reasonable someday. (I lied: Okay, that's a stretch.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.