Dirk Nowitzki said something the other day about the rapid-fire turnover that has been part of the Dallas Mavericks' makeup since the 2011 title-team breakup (and really, before that, too, because that's how sports in the free-agency/salary-cap era works).
"I've probably played with 1,000 teammates,'' the Mavs icon said, not meaning it as a gripe but rather a wildly-exaggerated observation. "You learn in this game it's about business."
The trick to success, then -- besides being loaded with talent AND chemistry, and Dallas seems lacking in the former department -- is to at least be loaded in the latter department.
Adding talent isn't automatic. Those old Red Sox teams that became defined as "25 guys taking 25 cabs'' eventually morphed into the 2004 Boston team that was down 3-0 in the ALCS before somehow overcoming the loaded Yankees to win the series and then move onto a sweep of St. Louis in the World Series. How was that possible? After all, the Derek Jeter-led Yankees boasted arguably baseball's best roster in 2003 and had added the "best player in baseball,'' Alex Rodriguez. How could they lose?
"We just weren't the same team," said Jeter. ... and without saying the word, he was talking about the "chemistry'' that evaporated when A-Rod rolled into town.
The Mavs have lived this. Dallas' 2011 team did not boast the NBA's best roster. But it had a superstar who was also a "glue guy'' in Nowitzki and his spider-web-like positivity spread across the roster and throughout the organization. From Jason Kidd (a legend) to Jet Terry (a player with such self-confidence that he considered himself a legend) to Tyson Chandler (not especially reknown as a "leader'' or a "tough guy'' or a "star'' before that fateful season) to Brian Cardinal ("The Custodian'') that roster had ... "it.''
Now, it didn't know it had "it.'' You only know it afterwards, when a Jet is somehow superior to a King, when J.J. Barea is somehow a starter in an NBA Finals, when the Basketball Gods decide that the anti-Dirk impudence of LeBron and Wade need be punished.
So you can't know you have "it'' when it comes to greatness and you can't know you have "it'' when it comes to chemistry. That's especially so with this year's Mavs roster, an assemblage of unwanted oldies and misfit toys and unproven kids and, maybe most of all, guys whose entire reputations wobble precatiously atop their injury situations.
How can Dirk know that he has "chemistry'' with Jeremy Evans, his running mate at forward in Thursday's loss at the Clippers? Do they even really know each other? Are they even really friends yet? The elder Zaza and the rookie Justin Anderson seem to share buoyant, glue-guy personalities that can help a club get through the practices and the buses and the planes and the hotels ... but does that mean they are all pals with one another yet?
"I like our chemistry, I really like the vibe that the team has," head coach Rick Carlisle said in review of the first week of the season. "They like each other, they help each other. I think we know who we are. And it's early to understand that. but we know we're a team that's dependent on one another."
Maybe it's so easy to see the bright light for some of these fellas because they damn sure know what the darkness looks like. Consider, chronologically ...
*Immediately after the title season, here comes 2011-12's Lamar Odom, a cancerous presence in the organization regardless of whether you feel sympathetic for a plight that surely includes mental illness.
*In 2012-13, here comes O.J. Mayo, starting with such promise due to his willingness to follow Carlisle's lead but a spiritual no-show in the final week of the season.
*In 2013-14, here comes Monta Ellis, an on-court behavioral reclamation project who blossomed here in so many ways before his burning desire to succeed caused him to flame out in the eyes of an organization that this summer didn't bother asking him back.
*And of course, last year, here came Rajon Rondo to join Monta and maybe to poison that well with acts of basketball mutiny that includes being a "team leader'' who opted to quit on his guys literally in the middle of a playoff game.
*I suppose we can add DeAndre Jordan to this tragic pile, too, because he was a Mav for a week this summer -- really and truly, based on the handshake agreements that traditionally rule free-agency deals -- and the "darkness'' there might take a long, long time for this franchise to recover from.
Unless they recover via the magic of chemistry.
They beat Phoenix in Game 1 even though Tyson Chandler was "supposed to'' put up a 20/20 and lead his new team to victory in its home opener. They put up a fight in Game 2 at the Clippers even though they were supposed to get slaughtered by DeAndre and company, staying afloat for most of the time because JAGs like Dwight Powell and Raymond Felton discovered ways to counter superstars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Carlisle swears he enjoys the challenge of roster-building and development; I know for certain he enjoys the teaching aspect of development and when he signs his new five-year contract extension I guess we'll have our evidence that he likes roster-building, too, because that's going to be the job for the Triangle of Trust here for awhile. Carlisle is the NBA's second-best coach (no, not you, Doc Rivers) but maybe he's a work-in-progress, too, learning on the fly about what strokes work and what strokes don't.
When Rick says this year's Mavs "understand that collectively is the only way we're going to get it done," he seems to be subtlely insinuation that last year's team ... and a few editions of the club before that ... did not.''
If it was just about "likeability,'' this would be an easier task on the inside and this would be easier to forecast from the outside. I found Jason Kidd to be highly-engaging, but I certainly understand if some around the NBA consider him a jerk. I thought Lamar Odom was a disinterested turd from the day I met him, but I certainly understand when others announce that he's "universally beloved.''
What matters here is whether Dirk thinks Deron Williams is "highly-engaging'' (or better, "reliable'') and whether Carlisle thinks JaVale McGee is a "jerk'' and whether everybody from Parsons down to Mejri understands the value and shares the desire to figuratively jump into the same cab together.
Dirk's view on this seems established.
"Once we're all healthy, we can be a dangerous team,'' he said, and that's a separate (and important-on-it's-own) issue from the "chemistry'' one. "We've got a bunch of veterans that've been around 10-plus years, want to play with each other, want to win and want to compete. ... Honestly, we've only been together for a short amount of time, butI love the chemistry of the team. We're playing well off each other and we can only get better from here."
There are 30-some-odd ways to skin the championship cat. The dynastic 1974 Oakland A's featured superstars who engaged in clubhouse fistfights with each other, one of the brawls putting Ray Fosse in traction. The Cowboys teams of the early 1990's were fueled by Michael Irvin's godfatherly leadership that includes illicit partying. Those 2004 Red Sox that upset the regal Yankees nicknamed themselves "The Idiots'' because ... well, they were idiots. ... except for the fact that their bond was so powerful that they could allow each other to call their teammates that.
The 2015-16 Mavs don't seem like pregame brawlers. They don't seem like illicit partiers. And they don't seem like "Idiots.'' But they seem like they like each other. And in that sense at least, they are therefore better off that a disjointed 2014-15 edition of the squad that won 50 games and wasn't very damn happy about it as they piled into their metaphorical 25 cabs.