Feb 11, 2021 - Sports

How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected NBA team chemistry

Illustration of a basketball as an atom will little electron basketballs
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In a league where every movement is tracked and every statistic is measured, chemistry remains the rare, unquantifiable variable that dictates NBA wins and losses.

The intrigue: Fostering NBA chemistry has become increasingly difficult now that players change teams so often. But nothing has ever impacted chemistry-building quite like the pandemic. The question is: has it helped or hurt?

  • On one hand, most social-bonding experiences (i.e. team dinners) are off limits. Teams are also practicing less, which limits on-court chemistry in a sport where knowing your teammates' tendencies means everything.
  • On the other hand, there's a heightened sense of camaraderie due to COVID-19 and the protocols each player must follow, which could improve chemistry in new ways.

Consider this: Due to the short offseason, rookie Anthony Edwards made his NBA debut just 33 days after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Timberwolves.

  • He barely had time to get to know his teammates before embarking on a season in which he's encouraged to stay in his hotel room on the road.
  • There are countless stories of NBA teammates developing off-court friendships that translated to on-court success. It's harder to do that this season, especially for rookies and players who changed teams this offseason.

The bottom line: So, amid the strangest season of their lives, have NBA teams come together or drifted apart? The truth is, we'll never know.

  • "Everyone you talk to around the league has an opinion on chemistry," sportswriter Michael Pina, who wrote a great piece on this topic, tells me.
  • "But unlike almost everything else in the NBA these days, there's no way to verify whether or not they're right."
Picture of Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban. Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

I reached out to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to get his take on NBA chemistry and how it has been affected by the pandemic.

How important is chemistry in the modern NBA?

"You can't win a championship without it. Chemistry alone won't make you a winning team, but a winning team without chemistry won't win a championship."

How do you think the pandemic has impacted chemistry this season?

"I can only speak for us, but I think it has helped in many ways. The entire travel party realizes that they are in this battle against COVID together; that they all have the same goals to stay healthy and win games. It's created a unique bond that is unlike anything in the past."

What do the Mavericks do to foster chemistry? Has that been impacted?

"Well, certainly the old team activities playbook is out the window. But we have a psychologist that travels with the team and is available 24/7 to help players and staff deal with the stress that all of this creates. It's not easy on anyone, particularly when guys are quarantined and the stress levels go up even more."

Is basketball chemistry similar to chemistry in any workplace?

"No. Not at all like regular business. Night and day. There is far more transparency in sports, so chemistry is more important. In regular business, culture is critically important; you want everyone to understand what's important to the company. But that's different than team chemistry."
Go deeper