Team chemistry can be engineered

These days the term “engineer” has changed meaning from “grimy guy driving the train” to a verb synonymous with create.

As in engineering a disease-resistant soybean or engineering a leveraged buyout. Unfortunately, with an unskilled engineer, the train can quickly run off the tracks.

Witness the imminent player upheaval in the NBA. First, there will be the NBA draft, which took place this past week. On top of that, many notable NBA players have or can soon become free agents, among them LeBron James, whose last move between teams was so significant that it has come to be known simply as “The Decision.”

Much will be written over the coming months about the elusive question of how all of the available talent, both young and established, can be assembled for the purpose of winning championships.

After all, four years ago, James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat to win championships. How did that work out for “King James?”

The Heat have won two of the last four NBA championships. Not bad, but they were resoundingly thumped by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 championship series. The Spurs won this year’s championship because they played unselfish, team basketball. They had extraordinary team chemistry.

Perhaps the most elusive question in sports is how one goes about assembling a highly successful team. Can you engineer a championship team? Can you engineer team chemistry?

I never warmed to “The Decision.”

The notion that a player or a group of players can figure out who to put together for championship success strikes me as deluded and dangerous. What do I know? I have the sense to know what I don’t know.

“Moneyball” (written by Michael Lewis) has precipitated a revolution in sports. In fact, “Moneyball” and the awareness it created about the metrics used for evaluating player talent in baseball, has given birth to the field of sports analytics.

Every sport, and I mean all of them, has undergone a major rethinking of what counts and what gets measured when evaluating players. The same level of analysis has been applied to basketball for some time now.

A 2009 New York Times article called the “The No Stats All-Star,” focused on Shane Battier as the player the Houston Rockets had to have, even though Battier flew under the radar by historical statistical standards. What was so special about Battier (then of the Houston Rockets, now a two-time ring-winner with the Heat)?

The article didn’t say, and for good reason. Of what use are your proprietary analytics if everyone knows them?

The Rockets, under the direction of analytics zealot and General Manager Daryl Morey, are widely recognized as the league leader in stats fanaticism.

But the Rockets haven’t won it all. Bad stats? Not really. Talent plus chemistry is the real championship gold.

The problem of how to select players who fit together, who create powerful team chemistry, is the holy grail in sports analytics and it cuts across every team sport. Do any teams have the answer? Probably not.

Like the Holy Grail, team chemistry might be forever cloaked in mystery and intrigue.

The problem is there are too many variables, many of which you can’t begin to know until after you have assembled the team.

Then, past performance on one team might look very different from future performance on another team. There are too many unknowable, moving parts.

So maybe it’s something in the individual that can be measured, you say, which is good thinking. Well, if you know much about “measuring” personality (e.g. Myers-Briggs, the most widely used psychometric), it is an inexact science, at best.

Ultimately, it’s possible to put together the right players to create a championship basketball team.

What’s clear and knowable is that players shouldn’t be engineers. It’s impossible for players to know whom to assemble to form a championship team, including King James and any other players he brings to his “roundball” table.

Rosenberger is a professor of business at Juniata College. He teaches Juniata’s sports management course.