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CHEMISTRY LESSON

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Four years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were one of the best teams in the NBA. Built around scorers Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, the Bucks won the Central Division with a 52-30 record and reached the Eastern Conference finals before losing to Philadelphia in a seven-game series.

Believing that the Bucks were one tough inside player away from getting to the league finals and maybe even winning a championship, general manager Ernie Grunfeld added one significant piece to his team's puzzle: veteran forward Anthony Mason.

"When we started adding to the team, the dynamics changed and everyone thought they should have the ball," Allen recalled.

Said Cassell: "When we added other pieces, it just didn't add up."

Grunfeld, now in his second season as general manager of the Washington Wizards, still says injuries contributed more to the team's late-season slump in 2001-02, when the Bucks finished 41-41 and failed to make the playoffs.

But he acknowledges Mason's personality and on-court demeanor, which had caused their share of problems in New York when Grunfeld was general manager of the Knicks, were not a great fit in Milwaukee.

"The talent is very important, but it's also important to have good chemistry guys on your team, guys who fit in, guys who understand their roles, players that are good for the harmony," Grunfeld said. "At times, not everybody fits into every situation."

Chemistry often determines a season's outcome for NBA teams, but sometimes it's not the overriding ingredient.

Teams such as the Detroit Pistons that won back-to-back championships (1988-89 and 1989-90) - not to mention the Los Angeles Lakers who won the first three titles of the millennium or the six-time champion Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan - often battled each other as hard as they did the competition.

"If you have Shaq and Kobe, it will work," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who played on three championship teams with the Bulls and one with the San Antonio Spurs in a four-year span. "It takes good chemistry to make it work, especially if you're not more physically gifted than everyone else."

Kerr, whose punch-out with Jordan during a Bulls practice became the stuff of legend, said the competitive and often combative nature of Jordan fueled a team to one championship season after another.

"He drove us hard, but it was effective, and we had an effective totem pole," Kerr said. "There was no question who was in charge. It was Michael and Phil [Jackson] and Scottie [Pippen]. All had a strong bond between them, and everyone fell into place beneath them."

Even if a team has two of the top five players in the game, as the Lakers did for much of the eight seasons Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal spent together, it doesn't automatically mean NBA commissioner David Stern will be handing over the trophy come June.

It took Jackson's arrival in Los Angeles to get the two superstars playing together, but eventually this triangle didn't work either when the Lakers lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals two years ago and to the Pistons in the NBA Finals last season.

Wizards reserve Samaki Walker, who played on the Lakers' 2001-02 championship team, recalled how the two superstars were able to coexist.

"They both had their own issues, but when it came time to play basketball, they put their issues aside," Walker said. "Both of them wanted to win. When you have two guys that want to win and the emphasis is not to show up each other, I think the team can do well."

But Walker could see in last year's NBA Finals that the team's infrastructure had deteriorated because the relationship of the superstars had hit a low.

"Just watching their body language, I could tell that things were getting a little tiresome and it was time for them to go their own ways," Walker said.

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said chemistry has become another overused cliche in sports.

"There's been teams that win a lot of games that have bad chemistry, and there are teams that have great chemistry but are terrible," Saunders said. "I think it's getting players to sacrifice some of their own ego for the success of the team."

With the Wizards, Grunfeld's latest reclamation project is off to the franchise's best start (26-15) in more than two decades in large part because the team is acing chemistry.

The addition of forward Antawn Jamison - and the subtraction of Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner - has transformed the team's locker room.

"We have a young team, and Antawn is respected," Grunfeld said. "He's brought a professionalism to our locker room. He plays the right way, for the right reasons. He's a hard worker, he competes every night. He's a caring type of individual, and I think that rubs off on the other guys."

Larry Hughes, who before recently breaking his right thumb had helped turn around this woebegone franchise with Jamison and Gilbert Arenas, said it's much easier to get along when the team is regularly winning games.

"Winning really cures all," Hughes said. "If you're winning and playing good basketball, it will keep you going in the right direction."

Along with the Wizards, good chemistry has contributed to the biggest turnaround in the league this season.

A year ago, the Phoenix Suns were a disjointed bunch of runners and gunners who went from winning 44 games in 2002-03 to 29 games, fired coach Frank Johnson after 21 games and traded point guard Stephon Marbury and shooting guard Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks.

With the addition of free agents Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, the Suns won 31 of their first 35 games before an injury to Nash sent them into a tailspin. Nash is back and the Suns are winning again, sharing the best record in the West (34-10) with the Spurs going into last night.

Aside from Nash, Suns general manager Brian Colangelo also credits coach Mike D'Antoni.

"Coaches need to learn their personnel so that it's not just about basketball; it's about managing personalities and managing a team from that standpoint," Colangelo said.

In 14 years as an NBA general manager, Grunfeld has not used the same blueprint everywhere.

"There is no set formula," Grunfeld said. "Chemistry and talent, it's good to have both, but you can still win if you don't have one or the other."

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