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The Problem With Player Comparisons

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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.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.

About Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

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.