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Can You Engineer Team Chemistry?

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LEBRON JAMES
ROBYN BECK via Getty Images

The "big domino" has fallen. LeBron James just signed a contract to join the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers... in case you hadn't heard. I like LeBron's choice this time for many of the same reasons you might like it, but I have another very good reason for liking it. LeBron, perhaps unwittingly, has gotten out of the engineering business.

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.

Over recent weeks, there has been endless sports coverage of the imminent player upheaval in the NBA. First, there was the NBA draft. More recently, there has been the sometimes wild speculation about where the players making up this year's free agent crop will land. LeBron James, the most noteworthy of these free agents until today, has garnered the most interest and media coverage. LeBron's last move, in 2010, was so significant that it has come to be known simply as "The Decision." Much will be written and said in the coming months on the always important question about how to assemble the available talent, both young and established, to win championships.

After all, four years ago, LeBron 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. Maybe LeBron has this same sense after his experience in this year's NBA finals?

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. Analysts are working on this right now, but they aren't talking.

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. As I read over LeBron's statement about this decision, engineering was no where to be found, and that's the way it should be.

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