First, if you have the patience, read this article by Michael Lewis from this past weekend in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. You may or may not be a fan of professional basketball - for many of you, my guess would be no. But I presume that many of you read either the abridged (read this for sure if you have not!!) or full version (then go buy the book) of his story about likely 2009 NFL 1st Round Draft Pick Michael Oher in his book titled The Blind Side. And my guess is if you did you liked it.
If you have not read it, perhaps it makes more sense why Michael Oher's name seems to come up more than others when NFL fans kibbitz and project ahead to this year's draft. The reason is because he became a household name for many football and sports fans when Michael Lewis used him as a centerpiece case study for his overarching theme about the historical trend of NFL Offensive Tackles being viewed as the second most important commodity on an offensive roster - behind of course the asset that OL are supposed to protect, the Quarterback.
So if you liked Lewis' unique knack for poignant story telling and his commendable analysis and understanding of the world of sports, take some time to at least some of his latest article, even if you hate basketball. The subject of his latest work - Houston Rockets SF Shane Battier. Unlike so many of the 300 or so NBA athletes in the league at any given point, Battier can not jump through the roof; he's not lightning fast; hell; he's not really even able to create his own shot off the dribble - he instead has to rely on getting open looks off the penetration and passing of others. Despite not possessing the demonstrable athletic gifts of his peers, Battier has been highly acclaimed for his ability to defend some of the league's best scorers. But his value goes way beyond that and that's essentially the story that Lewis is trying to shed light on in his feature story of Battier and the Houston Rockets front office. Rockets GM Daryl Morey is leading a behind the scenes and largely unnoticed revolution in the game of basketball that's attempting to better understand individuals' value to team success on a more information rich level than can be provided by the naked eye.
The enjoyment of the article really though is Lewis's ability to again tell a great story in Shane Battier first and foremost from a personal and human perspective.
Here's a few of the introductory paragraphs:
Early on, Hoop Scoop magazine named Shane Battier the fourth-best seventh grader in the United States. When he graduated from Detroit Country Day School in 1997, he received the Naismith Award as the best high-school basketball player in the nation. When he graduated from Duke in 2001, where he won a record-tying 131 college-basketball games, including that year’s N.C.A.A. championship, he received another Naismith Award as the best college basketball player in the nation. He was drafted in the first round by the woeful Memphis Grizzlies, not just a bad basketball team but the one with the worst winning percentage in N.B.A. history — whereupon he was almost instantly dismissed, even by his own franchise, as a lesser talent. The year after Battier joined the Grizzlies, the team’s general manager was fired and the N.B.A. legend Jerry West, a k a the Logo because his silhouette is the official emblem of the N.B.A., took over the team. “From the minute Jerry West got there he was trying to trade me,” Battier says. If West didn’t have any takers, it was in part because Battier seemed limited: most of the other players on the court, and some of the players on the bench, too, were more obviously gifted than he is. “He’s, at best, a marginal N.B.A. athlete,” Morey says.
The Grizzlies went from 23-59 in Battier’s rookie year to 50-32 in his third year, when they made the N.B.A. playoffs, as they did in each of his final three seasons with the team. Before the 2006-7 season, Battier was traded to the Houston Rockets, who had just finished 34-48. In his first season with the Rockets, they finished 52-30, and then, last year, went 55-27 — including one stretch of 22 wins in a row. Only the 1971-2 Los Angeles Lakers have won more games consecutively in the N.B.A. And because of injuries, the Rockets played 11 of those 22 games without their two acknowledged stars, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, on the court at the same time; the Rockets player who spent the most time actually playing for the Rockets during the streak was Shane Battier. This year Battier, recovering from off-season surgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle, has played in just over half of the Rockets’ games. That has only highlighted his importance. “This year,” Morey says, “we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.”
Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.
Solving the mystery is somewhere near the heart of Daryl Morey’s job. In 2005, the Houston Rockets’ owner, Leslie Alexander, decided to hire new management for his losing team and went looking specifically for someone willing to rethink the game. “We now have all this data,” Alexander told me. “And we have computers that can analyze that data. And I wanted to use that data in a progressive way. When I hired Daryl, it was because I wanted somebody that was doing more than just looking at players in the normal way. I mean, I’m not even sure we’re playing the game the right way.”The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not just basketball and football, but also soccer and cricket and rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts — each one now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved.
I encourage you to read on, but even at that point, that's enough information for me to ask my question that brings back the Pittsburgh Steelers. First though, we're not trying to be sabermetricians or mathematicians here on BTSC. We use what numbers we can to support what we see and feel as fans. Hell, I think we all generally agree that Football Outsiders' metrics, while useful to some degree and certainly unique and pioneering, only really confirm what we already know - Peyton Manning's good; so is Heath Miller; Adiran Peterson's ridiculous, etc etc.
So without the 'metrics' to back it up, who are some of the guys who help the Steelers win games, perhaps more often than not in ways that don't show up in the box score? For older readers, who are some of the former Steelers who embodied these characteristics? I'd imagine back then when there was less statistical accumulation on offense, certain players really didn't have their true impact on the game measured by the old records and box scores.
Since football is played by at minimum 11 guys at a time rather than just 5, I'd contend that 'chemistry' matters even more in football than in basketball, so based on what little we know of what goes on off the field, throw in some guys whose presence around a team might some who quantifiably translate into on-field success if someone with a slide rule tried hard enough? Who are our glue guys, past and present?