A New Hope
When you think about it, team chemistry really isn’t like real chemistry at all. The latter is formulaic; it can be explained in numbers. You can even impose real chemistry via the melting of an ice cube or a homemade volcano. Team chemistry meanwhile is spontaneous and unpredictable. There really isn’t a guaranteed formula at all.
With this group of Suns being about as tightknit a group of players that I’ve had the opportunity to be around, I wanted to explore what it was that made this team so special. I was also curious about how instrumental chemistry truly was in the success the group has enjoyed this season. As Star Wars Night rolls into US Airways Center on Friday, it should have come to me much quicker the similarities this year's Suns team has to a team from a galaxy far, far away.
In speaking with Channing Frye just prior to departing on our three-game road trip to Boston, Toronto and Brooklyn, the veteran was a huge help getting me started in the right direction.
“I think the thing about this year’s team that’s so awesome is that everybody has their own individual story, but each involves being humbled by having had basketball taken away from them at some point,” Frye explained. “Whether it's because you were being traded around to different teams, whether it be because you’ve had doubters or whether it be because of some other reason; there isn’t a member of this team who has always been a star. They’re here because they battled some kind of adversity to get here.”
There is evidence of that in every corner of the locker room. From Frye who was forced to miss all of the 2012-13 season with an enlarged heart to Gerald Green who had to bounce around several NBA teams – and overseas – before finding a team that fit him best, this year’s Suns team is filled with players who appreciate the opportunity they are receiving this year.
“When I was overseas, I questioned whether or not I would have the opportunity to play back in the NBA,” Green said. “I definitely had doubts, but I kept telling myself that regardless of what was going on, I just needed to continue working as hard as possible. I think everybody who is playing on this team has definitely had a time in their career where things weren’t maybe going as well as they’d have liked.”
PJ Tucker is another example of a player who has had to endure hardships before rising out of the ashes. After being drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 2006, Tucker experienced an up-and-down rookie campaign that included several stops in Colorado playing for the organization’s developmental league team, the 14ers. Following an eventual release from the Raptors, Tucker’s basketball career took him everywhere from Puerto Rico to the Ukraine. Impressive if one is trying to locate Carmen Sandiego, but difficult if one is trying to settle down somewhere and make it their home.
“This is probably the most comfortable I’ve felt as both a person and a professional basketball player,” Tucker said. “It was great playing in Toronto for a great organization, but having the role I have now with the Suns is unbelievable. Going from a position where I wasn’t getting the chance to play a lot to the position I’m in now is something I’m extremely grateful for.”
Other frontcourt players including Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee may not have collected the amount of frequent flyer miles that Green and Tucker have, but both spent time with ballclubs which were already set at their respected positions. For youngsters like Morris and Plumlee, playing time therefore came few and far between.
“Playing in Indiana behind a player like Roy (Hibbert) gave me the chance to study his approach to the game including everything from where he tried to catch the ball to the defensive pace he kept during the course of a game,” Plumlee said. “I had no idea I would be given the opportunity this quickly to apply everything, but I knew in coming to Phoenix I would have a greater chance to play than in Indiana, so I knew it was important to come into the season ready.
“I think the players on this team have had different obstacles we’ve had to work through in the past, but I think we’re all similar in that we’ve had to overcome obstacles. It’s huge to be with a group of guys who are all here together overcoming those obstacles over the course of the same season.”
Even the two players considered to be the primary stars of this year’s team heading into the season – Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic – had to play behind other superstars before receiving the chance to shine themselves. Many believed Dragic to be the heir to Steve Nash’s throne when the time came for the two-time MVP to walk away. It was a challenge Dragic was ready to accept before a sudden trade to the Houston Rockets in 2011 threw that mission completely off-course. As Dragic told Suns.com, adapting to his new city and new team following the deal was no easy task.
“For a couple of months it was really hard to make that transition,” the Slovenian playmaker said. “I thought I would be with the Suns in the future, and now going to the Rockets, I didn’t know what to expect. It took time for me to embrace the new role and get my career back on track.”
Bledsoe, who has always been perceived as a potential star in this league, spent the 2012-13 season backing up a superstar in Chris Paul while patiently awaiting the opportunity to shine as a starter.
“Unfortunately I couldn’t play as much as I wanted in Los Angeles, because I was playing behind an All-Star,” Bledsoe said. “Now Coach (Jeff Hornacek) has got confidence in me and I’ve got full confidence in myself to make some big things happen here. It’s a blessing.”
Playing behind Paul in Los Angeles also helped the young Bledsoe learn the value of patience - something the guard said played a pivotal role in overcoming his recent knee injury.
“To sit and wait (in Los Angeles) – especially as a young player – wasn’t easy,” Bledsoe explained. “You get tired hearing the same old stuff about being patient, but at the same time, that experience did teach me how to be patient and how to learn even when I’m not getting the chance to play. Times like those are tough, but it’s worth it when it finally pays off.”
“All players are going to have ups-and-downs and those times where it might be difficult are tests,” Dragic said. “You’ve got to be tough enough to make it through those times, and if you can do that, eventually you have a much better chance of having a bright future in this league.
“Everybody on this team has had to work hard to get to this point. But in coming to Phoenix, I think everybody found new hope, and that has helped us to enjoy the success we have up to this point.”
Certain collections don’t always make sense. Take the group from Star Wars for example. You’ve got a noble Jedi in Luke Skywalker, a sarcastic troublemaker in Han Solo and a princess… Oh, and a Wookie. There’s no way on paper that group should be able to come together and overpower an entire evil empire. But while it didn’t necessarily happen right away, through the hardships they each endured as individuals, they managed to forge enough synergy to accomplish something amazing.
“I think when the season started, each member on this team had evidence that we couldn’t do it on our own,” Green said. “But we believed that if we came together and tried to do it as a team, we could each enjoy more success. Ever since then we’ve just worked hard to support one another which has helped us grow closer.”
In Star Wars: A New Hope, a young apprentice named Skywalker must discover the power he wields in “the Force.” Skywalker’s mentor, Obi-Wan, describes this Force as, “an energy field created by all living things” which “binds the galaxy together.”
When this three-game road trip began, we were in Boston and not necessarily a galaxy far, far away. But when a bond is strong enough, it isn’t necessarily where you are that matters. It appears that chemistry – whether witnessed in a laboratory or on an NBA floor is about one formula – struggle met with devotion. A chemist must sometimes make numerous attempts to get the results they desire, while even the chemicals themselves must encounter one another in a way that wields certain results. The individuals who compose this years Suns team have had to endure similar hardships and it has made them a better team because of it.
In fact, maybe you can use a number to express the results of what happens when a group of individuals come together and strive to accomplish something greater as a group than as one person. Following their three-game road trip, that number was 38 – as in wins. And with a number of games still left to be played on the season, it’s only one that will rise.