Can You Quantify Chemistry?

BOSTON — The individual basketball ability of a particular player isn’t too hard to quantify. But what about a player’s ability to complement other players?

Some people at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this weekend tried to determine the best way to put a team together. Two research papers regarding NBA chemistry were presented on Friday, each using a different method to figure out what types of players mesh well.

Robert Ayer, an MIT MBA, first presented a paper (click for pdf) called “Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other.” Using data going back to 1977, Ayer grouped players in 14 different categories like “Limited, role-playing centers” and “Wing 3-point shooters.”

Then he determined the best two (or three) players from each team and measured if that team overachieved or underachieved according to their overall talent level, while also taking coaching into account. By doing that, he could figure out which Big 2 and Big 3 combinations helped their teams overachieve most.

Ayer’s conclusion was that the best Big 2 combination was from Category 8 (“Multi-faceted, high scoring wings, with high assists for their position and are great 3 point shooters”) and Category 12 (“High scoring post players, high rebounds, high block”). Current examples of those players would be Joe Johnson and Dwight Howard.

His best Big 3 combination was those two same players plus a player from Category 7 (“High scoring, high assist, high steals, high turnover point guards, who don’t shoot 3”). And a recent example of the best Big 3 combination would be Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Howard in 2009 (players can change categories from year to year).

Category 8 is the type of player that best complements any other type of player, according to Ayer. In addition to Johnson, Paul Pierce and Danilo Gallinari. That makes some sense, because every star that can draw a double-team needs somebody to knock down shots, but one-dimensional shooters (Kyle Korver) will hurt you in other areas.

Ayer also concluded that you can succeed with two players from Category 2 (“High scoring, dynamic guards”), like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, but it helped if you played at a fast pace.

Are Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire a good fit? Yes, but the stats Ayer used don’t account for defense beyond steals and blocks.

Later on Friday, group from NYU-Polytechnic Institute presented a paper (click for pdf) called “NBA Chemistry: Positive and Negative Synergies in Basketball.” They gave every player “skill” ratings for ball-handling, scoring and rebounding, and then figured out how well the skills (including duplicative skills, like two good offensive rebounders) worked together.

We measured synergies by how many additional points a combination of two skills create. For example, Chris Paul‘s offensive ballhandling is worth 4.8 points, while Reggie Evans‘ offensive rebounding is worth 3.1 points. We calculate that a team with Chris Paul’s offensive ballhandling and Reggie Evans’ defensive rebounding will have a 8.1 point advantage. Therefore we calculate synergies as worth 0.2 points (8.1-4.8-3.1).

The group then used their findings to propose mutually-beneficial trades. For example, when Paul was with the Hornets and Deron Williams was with the Jazz, the group believes both teams would have benefited from a straight-up swap of point guards. The Jazz would have been better with Paul’s ability to create turnovers and the Hornets would have been better with Williams’ scoring.

Both papers attempted to take a step toward measuring chemistry in basketball, an elusive factor in analytics to date. Each method has its flaws (Ayer’s 14 categories produce 364 different 3-man combinations, and the NYU group’s categories are rather broad), but you could see how, if refined, they might help a team put a roster together.


John Schuhmann is a staff writer for Send him an e-mail or follow him on twitter.


  1. BID says:

    history doesnt lie….in over 95% of the championship teams there has been at least one superstar and by that i dont mean that by just having a superstar your teams is going to win but teams with at least one superstar are closer to a championship than teams that dont

    • storm says:

      yeah that’s half true but can you name at least one other player except Wilt that won at least one championship ring as a lone superstar…

  2. the bottom line is that one player doesn’t win championships..we all know this though..a couple months ago I compiled a list of players that I thought were the most important “complimentary” or “role players” on their team:

  3. storm says:

    This is all too pointless… Gm’s care about cap salaries to ticket sales…
    if every player in every team can mesh easily without considering team relationships, potential, or willingness…
    The Lakers would have a 4-peat back in 2004… or the A. Iverson and C. Webber would have made the playoffs back in 2007…

  4. Dan says:

    This is interesting, but in some ways seems unnecessary. Don’t GM’s already know that a high-scoring, dynamic guard and a high-rebounding dominant big man make for a great one-two punch?

    Further, even knowing that it would be ideal to have, say, a Dwight Howard on your team to complement your D Rose, it doesn’t make it any easier to actually make it happen.

    I also wonder if chemistry might be sometimes unique to individual player relationships, which would open a whole different can.

    Finally, you’d have to consider that chemistry between “types” might shift year to year and especially as we see different positions dominating the game (as point guards seem to be doing more often lately) or as the league tweaks different rules.

  5. lad says:

    Never understood WHAT and HOW CHEMISTRY In a BASKETBALL game can be QUANTIFY. CHEMISTRY as we said only occurs if and only if a team plays well (offensively) and is winning (HEAT,OKC,BULLS), but, when this team are loosing, only means that there is NO CHEMISTRY, of course not!, taking for example LOSs LAKERS, they have the same players who got the team a championship ring until now( less L Odom), this only mean the CHEMISTRY gone from that year up to this year? I believe CHEMISTRY don’t give L Lakers a championship ring, it is TRUST brought them a ring. TRUST to yourself as a player, TRUST to the SYSTEM, TRUST to the PLAYERS……. TRUST is the Key factor that will make a TEAM become a TITLE contender or possibly a CHAMPION, look at BULLS way back M JORDAN era, They don’t have a legitimate center to hold and defend the rim from opponents but they hold the title for 6 years. Problem with those Why DALLAS beat MIAMI on a championship match? though MIAMI has all the edge in every aspect of the game againts DALLAS. My opinion is, neither of the two (DWADE and L JAMES) wanted to sacrifice their STATs, they want to be a hero for the team

  6. Jadm14 says:

    That’s just.. Awesome.

  7. Fr3D says:

    Sounds like a bunch of mad scientists trying to build the perfect team. What about untapped potential and simply, sheer motivation/determination?