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A chemistry lesson on History Week: Celtics bonding during Team USA training camp

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What can trading for DJ and trading away Perk teach us about Kemba for Kyrie?

2019 USA Basketball Men’s National Team Training Camp - Las Vegas Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Even with all the advancements in analytics and player efficiency, it’s difficult to account for team chemistry. Cutting down on low percentage mid-range shots or forgoing offensive rebounds in favor of transition defense might eke out a few more points and a handful of wins, but over the course of an entire season, there may not be anything more important than a happy locker room. Eighty-two games is not just a marathon of the body and the mind. It’s a eight-month work trip with co-workers.

We’ve seen how a single player can change the DNA and outlook of a team with Boston’s last two championship squads. In 1983, Red Auerbach replaced a 35-year-old Tiny Archibald with a 29-year-old Dennis Johnson as the Celtics’ starting point guard. Archibald had spent five seasons with the Celtics, including three as an All-Star and running point for the ‘81 championship team. Johnson may not have been the offensive dynamo that Archibald was, but he was a defensive stalwart and a steady presence in a back court that would be playing a supporting role to Boston’s vaunted front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. On his passing in 2007, Bird called DJ, “a great player, one of the best teammates I ever had, and a wonderful person.”

More recently, we’ve seen chemistry experiments blow up team morale and locker room peace, often risking a championship contender. In 2011, there were many reasons why trading Kendrick Perkins made sense. Perk was coming off an ACL tear and Boston had picked up Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal in the off-season to man the middle during his rehab. Perkins had also rejected a four-year extension with the team and didn’t seem to be in the Celtics long term plans after that season.

“It’s not even about a teammate,” KG remarked on the trade. ”You feel like you’ve lost a family member today. Tough day.” That team would later unceremoniously be eliminated by the Heat in five games of the East’s second round.

Chemistry is tricky. You can’t plug-and-play a player’s production from another team into yours and think that everything will translate. Kyrie’s most efficient year--nearly 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game on 49% shooting--is closely matched by Walker’s third straight All-Star season of 26/4/4 in 2018-2019. It should be a simple swap, point guard for point guard. However, building a team isn’t a math problem.

We’ve heard enough chatter since the season ended to know that Irving’s demeanor rubbed his younger teammates the wrong way. Jaylen Brown acknowledged that “last year, honestly, I can’t see it being any worse than that.” To his credit, Kyrie admitted to his struggles with leadership. It was the first year that he was thrust into the role with expectations higher than most other teams’. A phone call to LeBron James didn’t need to tell him that.

So far, Kemba’s approach has been completely different. Instead of simply assuming a leadership role, he’s meshed with his new teammates as an equal. Sure, he doesn’t have Irving’s resume that includes a championship and hitting one of the biggest shots of the decade, but he seems to be treating this as more of an opportunity rather than a responsibility and burden.

Walker told NBA.com’s Sekou Smith that Team Shamrock’s stint with Team USA can only help build camaraderie heading into training camp next month:

“They’re just some really good young dudes and I just enjoy being around them,” Walker said. “And the age difference is really crazy to me. J.T. is like 21 and J.B. is 22 and Marcus is 25. And I’m 29 and feeling like, wow, this is cool. It sounds crazy. I remember when I was 21 in this league. I was a rookie and just trying to figure it all out. And these guys are young vets already. Like I said, it’s crazy.”

Had that been Kyrie, he would have likely framed the experience as young kids getting experience with veterans that have been there before. This is the delicate balance of chemistry. But as Brad Stevens noted in a recent interview with NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg, there are eleven other guys on this team.

We don’t know how Gordon Hayward fits into this mix, but it’s promising that he chose to sign an offer sheet with Charlotte to join Walker back in 2014. We don’t know who starts at the 5, but by all accounts, the stable of centers are all of high character. We don’t know how this core four will react as elder statesmen when they have to rely on a roster that could rely on a handful of rookies.

For now, this is a good start. Rome was’t built in a day, but a successful trip there can help. When the 2008 championship was assembled, they traveled to Italy for a few preseason games. They saw the sights. KG bought everybody expensive suits. It became the foundation for Banner 17. Next year’s squad may not be championship-bound, but if Team USA includes all four Celtics on their trip to China for the FIBA World Cup, it could have similar benefits.

After practice at their rival’s practice facility in El Segundo with Danny Ainge in attendance, Walker said, “I’m all about the camaraderie. I’m all about the togetherness. I’ve always felt that you’re off-the-court relationships translate onto the court. I’ve always felt that way and I’ve always been big on that. It’s why I’m trying my best to get acclimated to those guys as best as I can.”

A good start indeed.