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.
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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.
NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success
Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.
It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.
The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.
But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.
“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”
Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.
“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.
“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”
Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.
“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.
Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.
In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”
“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.
“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”
Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.
Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.
Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.
“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”
Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.
All-Star Weekend proved it.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division
In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.
The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.
As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.
The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.
Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.
At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.
The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.
Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.
The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.
With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.
The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.
Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.
Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.
The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.
A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.
Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.
The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.
The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.
Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.
Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form
After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?
The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.
Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.
But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.
Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.
Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.
It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.
Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.
Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.
The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.
With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.
A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.
But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.
Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.
Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?
The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.