When David Lee joined the Boston Celtics this offseason, one of the dates he circled on his calendar was in early October. The Celtics were traveling to Milan, Italy, for an exhibition game, and Lee saw the trip as the perfect opportunity to bond with his new teammates. A team dinner was organized, friendships were made.
In his 11th NBA season, Lee, along with Amir Johnson, are the most experienced players on the Celtics roster, a group with 10 players who have played fewer than five seasons in the league. Coming off a championship season with the Warriors, Lee learned an important lesson about setting the tone in the locker room.
"One of the most important things I learned with what we developed in the last few years in Golden State is that team chemistry is very, very important," Lee said. In Golden State, he would often organize dinners and get-togethers with help from Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala.
"How guys get along is just as important as what you're doing on the court," Lee continued. "I think it shows on the court -- how a team plays together, the way you move the ball, the spirit of the team. It helps a lot. With us being in Europe, it was the perfect time to accomplish that."
In today's NBA, it's rare to see a core group of players stick together for more than a few years. That makes establishing a rapport in the locker room a more pertinent issue. As the roster turns over, new relationships and bonds have to be formed. It's a constant process in a league full of change. Reports this week indicated Lee -- who has played sparingly with the Celtics -- will likely be dealt or bought out by the team this month as the Feb. 18 trade deadline approaches.
Team dinners like the one Lee organized in Milan are not the type of player gatherings that become public information, however. When a players-only meeting happens during the season, it is usually in a moment of crisis. This year, well-publicized players-only meetings have taken place in Cleveland, Houston, Sacramento and Washington.
After a four-game losing streak in November, Rockets players held a meeting to clear the air. When asked about what was discussed, Dwight Howard simply replied: "What happens in the room, stays in the room." A day later, coach Kevin McHale -- who had guided Houston to the Western Conference Finals a few months prior -- was fired 11 games into the season.
In Sacramento, the Kings had their own players-only meeting after a six-game losing streak dropped them to 1-7. "We got some issues that we got to carve out," DeMarcus Cousins said. When pressed for specifics, he declined, only to add: "Us players, we got to stick together. We got some issues in-house we need to figure out."
Of course, that's the conundrum with these private meetings. The actual discussion points are rarely discussed in public, yet the meetings themselves are public knowledge.
"Sometimes they're just called so you can tell the media and coaches that you've called a players-only meeting," Lee said.
Even without the players divulging any specific details, it's not hard to figure out the problems at hand. Opponents were blowing out the Rockets, and there were questions about James Harden's effort and the offensive fit of newly acquired point guard Ty Lawson. For the Kings, the tumultuous relationship between Cousins and coach George Karl has often been a point of friction around the team.
Players-only meetings aren't restricted to teams at the bottom of the standings. Sometimes there are internal problems that need fixing even if a team is winning, and the Cavaliers are a perfect example. Before the start of training camp in 2014, LeBron James organized a players-only meeting to set the tone for the season. After a loss in November to the Raptors this season, they had another meeting. After management fired coach David Blatt last month, the Cavs called yet another players-only meeting, this time organized by well-respected veteran James Jones.
The Cavs, mind you, are the best team in the Eastern Conference. But even contending teams have pressing issues that need solving. Two years ago, the Indiana Pacers started 46-13 and finished as the top seed in the East. In March, the Pacers lost 112-86 to Houston, their third straight loss. At 46-16, they had an impromptu players-only meeting, the first in a series of such gatherings called until the figured things out.
"We've had plenty of players-only meetings," Roy Hibbert said in April of that season. "We've had plenty of sit-downs with the team and coaches, some with upper management listening in. Maybe we should all go to group therapy and have an airing of grievances."
The Pacers rallied and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but lost to the Heat in six games.
At shootaround in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel was on the fence regarding the usefulness of players-only meetings.
"Sometimes they can be counterproductive," Vogel said. "You never know how people are going to react, what is said in there. Sometimes things that are addressed need to be addressed, sometimes people say things that offend their teammates and it makes things worst. I think everyone's different."
Lee agrees, though he has seen players-only meetings help a team work through its issues.
"We've gotten some good things out of it," Lee said. "More than anything, it's always important to have an identity on a team. Often times, by game 40 or 50, that identity can get skewed. We've had players-only meetings where we've gotten back on the same page. It's not guys calling each other out. Instead, it's just saying this is what everybody has to value on the court, and if we do that it'll make it easier for everybody."
A players-only meeting can make a coach wonder where he stands with his team as well. Former NBA coach Chuck Daly once quipped: "Not good. Not needed." On the other hand, Vogel believes these sessions can be a healthy process for the team.
"I think coaches actually appreciate it," Lee said. "I don't think it becomes a players-versus-coaches thing. It's a situation where players want to get on the same page, maybe a few guys aren't on the same page."
So, do players-only meetings actually work?
After theirs, the Rockets won their first game under new head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, then dropped three in a row. At 26-25, they remain a team performing under expectations.
The Kings won three straight after their players-only meeting and are at about .500 since. At 21-28 on the season, Sacramento is in the race for the final playoff spot in the West and -- more importantly -- has avoided headlines involving locker-room friction for a few months.
The Cavaliers are 5-2 since their meeting and the promotion of Tyronn Lue, but with winning a championship as their sole goal and the Warriors as the clear favorite, it's unclear whether their airing of grievances will help them win a title this season.
"It comes down to the breakdown of the team," Lee said. "Unfortunately, chemistry is something you can't fake no matter what, no matter how many players-only meetings you have. A group is either going to get along or not get along. A lot of times it just comes down to the character of the team."