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The Problem With Player Comparisons

Player comparisons are common in prospect analysis, but are they doing more harm than good?

Ben Dowsett

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Early in his tenure as Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey was scouting the 2007 NBA Draft with his front office team. At one point, the staff landed on Marc Gasol, an older-but-intriguing Spanish big man prospect. What happened next has become lore in NBA circles, and is captured in an excerpt from author Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds:

Freshly exposed to the human mind, Morey couldn’t help but notice how strangely it operated. When it opened itself to information that might be useful in evaluating an amateur basketball player, it also opened itself to being fooled by the very illusions that had made the model such a valuable tool in the first place. For instance, in the 2007 draft there had been a player his model really liked: Marc Gasol. Gasol was twenty-two years old, a seven-foot-one center playing in Europe. The scouts had found a photograph of him shirtless. He was pudgy and baby-faced and had these jiggly pecs. The Rockets staff had given Marc Gasol a nickname: Man Boobs. Man Boobs this and Man Boobs that. “That was my first draft in charge and I wasn’t so brave,” said Morey. He allowed the general ridicule of Marc Gasol’s body to drown out his model’s optimism about Gasol’s basketball future, and so instead of arguing with his staff, he watched the Mem­phis Grizzlies take Gasol with the 48th pick of the draft. The odds of getting an All-Star with the 48th pick in the draft were well below one in a hundred. The 48th pick of the draft basically never even yielded a useful NBA bench player, but already Marc Gasol was proving to be a giant exception. (Gasol became a two-time All-Star in 2012 and 2015 and, by Houston’s reckoning, the third-best pick made by the entire NBA over the past decade, after Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin.) The label they’d stuck on him clearly had affected how they valued him: names mattered. “I made a new rule right then,” said Morey. “I banned nicknames.”

In reality, what Morey was banning wasn’t simply the use of nicknames during the draft process. No, he was banning an underlying factor: In Gasol’s case, the nickname became a psychological crutch.

Every time Morey’s staff evaluated him, it stuck in their predisposed thinking about him – something Morey often refers to as “anchoring,” a subconscious effect that none of them even noticed as it was happening. Every time they heard his name, watched him play or talked about him, they were unknowingly influenced by that negative “Man Boobs” bias they so often reinforced to each other verbally. Morey wasn’t having it after that.

As Lewis’ book and other popular outlets have discussed at length over the years, this general theme has been among the foundations of Morey’s time at the helm in Houston. No NBA GM spends more time thinking about the way they and their staff think, to use a common parlance – as Morey told Lewis, “Your mind needs to be in a constant state of defense against all this crap that is trying to mislead you.”

All of which takes us, conveniently, to one of the most well-worn traditions in NBA draft analysis, and often one of the most misleading: Player comparisons.

At their core, player comps are some of the easiest psychological crutches to reach out for. They offer the mind a quick, convenient way to compartmentalize a whole bunch of granular details into a much simpler package. The average human brain will struggle to accurately recall and give accurate value to a couple dozen stats and measurables for a prospect; the same brain won’t have nearly as much trouble with simpler breakdowns of the same information: “He looks a lot like (Pick Your Comp).” It makes basic sense.

Look even a single level deeper, though, and some of the issues with this approach become clearer.

“If you say, ‘This kid is going to be the next MJ,’ for example, you are really putting a ton of pressure on that kid,” a former Western Conference scout told Basketball Insiders.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s exactly what happened to DeShawn Stevenson, likely the most infamous example of the draft comp gone wrong: Stevenson’s single NBA comparable was His Airness. We obviously have no idea whether that comp made its way into the Jazz’z front office before they selected him in 2000, but the theme transfers across fans, draft experts and even team scouts. And on the organizational side, it’s much more than just a problem of occasionally placing the wrong expectations on a given player.

Again, a lot of this is just natural human psychology. Our brains spend every waking hour breaking complex things down into simpler ones for us to process, from elements like vision spectrums to basic, everyday conversations.

“We all think in comparables,” Morey told Basketball Insiders via a phone interview. “[Comparables are] actually a good heuristic, but with everything you use in life, usually the greatest strength of something also becomes its greatest weakness.

“One of our greatest strengths is being able to quickly make heuristics that allow for quick, fairly effective decision making while using comparables. But it also becomes our greatest weakness that we get overly anchored and hung up on those comparables in terms of how we think of that person.”

There’s that word again – “anchored,” or anchoring. It’s a psychological term, a cognitive bias that describes the human tendency to rely far too heavily on the first piece of information that’s offered to us.

Car dealers, as an example, are masters of anchoring. Do you know a single (non-wealthy) person who ever paid the full sticker price listed on a vehicle while it sat on the lot? No, right?

Everyone likes to think they used their leverage and negotiating skills to talk the dealer down a bit. In reality, that sticker amount was never even the price they intended to sell it for. By starting you at a higher number and then allowing you to think they’re giving you a discount later, they’re fooling your brain. In many cases, this psychological pull is easily strong enough to make people go way over their original budget.

Now apply the theme back to basketball: If one of the first things you hear about a prospect is a player comparable, that’s going to stick with you whether you think it will or not. Every subsequent bit of research you do on the prospect will be colored by that impression, even if only in tiny, unnoticeable ways. The biases will show through, whether or not you’re even aware they exist. That’s how you get Eddy Curry as the next Shaq; it’s how you get Darius Miles as the next Kevin Garnett.

* * * * * *

Part of the problem is a bit more practical, something Morey and multiple current or former team people mentioned: The ages being compared.

You’d like to think most NBA teams themselves are past this, but look at the ages and experience levels of the comps being made on popular draft boards littered across the internet. These prospects are often teenagers and are rarely over 22 or so; we’re comparing them directly to full-grown NBA men who have often completed their entire career already. Even for the discerning analyst who looks to more evenly match the ages, that same anchoring theme will be nearly impossible to get past once the name of an NBA veteran is already in your head.

“That’s one thing that’s challenging with comparables, is that you can’t help but be anchored to how that player looks and plays now,” Morey said, using one simple pre-draft measurable as an example. “If you ever compared the weights of players in the league now to when they were at a pre-draft camp or one of their age ranges while they went through college, generally people are shocked at the body changes that have happened.”

The use of these kinds of comparisons differs between organizations at the team level. Most team officials who discussed the theme for this story said that their prevalence was simply a natural thing – even among front offices that are ostensibly against placing value on these kinds of broad comparisons, eliminating the shorthand from everyday conversation among basketball lifers is pretty much impossible.

In fact, the largest danger of player comps on the team side often doesn’t come from the teams at all. It comes from the prospects themselves.

The Rockets grabbed point guard Aaron Brooks with the 26th pick in 2008; Brooks became a solid NBA player, which is a big win for that draft slot. In Lewis’ book, Morey describes how small guard prospects who interviewed with the Rockets after 2008 constantly named Brooks as someone they modeled their games after. Even when the comp came from a separate party, Morey considered the anchoring effect so strong that he banned all intraracial comparisons – from then on, if a member of his staff wanted to comp a player, it had to be to another player of a different race. In subtle ways, this made it more difficult for the mind to make the connection.

“It’s a very smart strategy for a player to comp himself,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “It has to have some grounding in reality, in that otherwise people can’t even process it.”

What he’s saying is that the comp has to be just close enough to give the mind a solid framework to build around, but often nothing more than that.

“The reality is, the anchoring effect is so strong. If I was a prospect, I’d name-drop as many successful players that are within – not even close, but in the orbit – of the player as possible,” Morey continued. “Because it will be literally impossible for evaluators to get those names out of their heads.”

A bigger guard with speed and good passing instincts? Tell them you model yourself after John Wall. A big with even the slightest hint of shooting or passing touch? You’ve spent hours studying Dirk Nowitzki or Nikola Jokic, whether or not that’s actually true. Make these comps early in your interview, and reinforce them – even some of the sharpest basketball minds on earth will struggle to discard them.

Look, this isn’t to suggest some glaring league-wide issue. Morey isn’t the only guy in the NBA capable of focusing more heavily on the thinking processes that drive team decisions, even if he was one of the first to implement a particular level of thought here. Other smart front offices are hip to the gaps in this kind of analysis, to one degree or another. Even among media and popular draft analysis, the best never attach themselves too closely to a single comp.

“I’m not saying comparables aren’t useful,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “What I’m saying is that you have to use them very carefully and in a broader way.”

In Lewis’ book, he offers an apt description for a new definition of nerd: “A person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.” When the best the mind can come up with is “Man Boobs,” does it deserve to be trusted? Maybe not. The next time you see a player comparison, just remember that even the information you think you know can still fool you.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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