In the 2007 draft the Houston Rockets were helmed by a rookie general manager with a new method of using data to predict the future performance of NBA draft picks. His model projected a rich future for a doughy Spaniard the Rockets staff had nicknamed “Man Boobs.”
A tepid Daryl Morey unfortunately passed on asking his team to see Marc Gasol’s future the way the analytics did and not through the prism of childish insults. After being drafted with the 48th pick of the draft Marc Gasol was traded to Memphis where he became a two-time All Star, two-time All NBA player and the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
The body-shaming scouts ignorantly had Marc Gasol wrong. The analytics and data had it right. After that draft Daryl Morey banned Rockets staff from using any nicknames in the future, including “Man Boobs.”
Moneyball’s author Michael Lewis tucked this gem of a story in his new book “The Undoing Project” which explores the early research into the human decision making process and how to combat poor decision which fails due to a reliance on human error, association or bias.
In the “Undoing Project” Lewis uses Morey’s modern foray into decision making as an example that proves the importance of behavioral economics and unveils some interesting facts about how the Rockets make decisions:
The Rockets assign a draft value for each Rockets player before every NBA draft.
The decision to trade Kyle Lowry to the Toronto Raptors in 2012 was based on one acknowledgment. If the Rockets were in the Raptors shoes, they wouldn't give up a first round draft pick for Lowry. Despite seeing a promising future for Lowry they pulled the trigger.
The Rockets initially recoiled at the offer before putting themselves in Toronto's shoes. Morey recognized from this trade that the Rockets were overvaluing their own players due to bias and sentiment. They termed this bias the "endowment effect."
To combat the endowment effect, he forced his scouts and his model to establish, going into the draft, the draft pick value of each of their own players. - The Undoing Project
This means for each draft the Rockets value all of their players for what they would swap them for if an offer came in the door. Would you swap Trevor Ariza for the 22nd pick in the draft? The Rockets have made this decision before the draft even begins.
Morey requires Rockets staff to make interracial comparisons
To avoid the classic NBA trope of comparing Kevin Love to Steve Novak, every European to Dirk Nowitzki or Zhou Qi to Yao Ming, Morey requires Rockets staff to make interracial comparisons to break stereotypes and make sure the data and basketball talent are the key points of analysis.
Morey’s solution was to forbid all intraracial comparison. “We’ve said, ‘If you want to compare this player to another player, you can only do it if they are a different race.’” If the player in question was African American, for instance, the talent evaluator was only allowed to argue that “he is like so-and-so” if so-and-so was white or Asian or Hispanic or Inuit or anything other than black. A funny thing happened when you forced people to cross racial lines in their minds: They ceased to see analogies. - The Undoing Project
Doing this creates a more pure thought exercise in how a player plays the game. Trying it with a few friends will immediately make you aware of the bias Morey is trying to correct and the value of understanding behavioral economics.
Morey interviews every draft pick
Lewis writes extensively about how Morey doesn’t value interviews. A player’s ability to charm isn’t indicative of his work ethic, play style or future value as a player. Morey does catalog all the responses and use personal attributes as a metric to help predict future success.
The interview process is the same questions to every player to pile into a data set which can be used to make predictions. Morey doesn’t sit in on the interviews to listen to the answers though. He does it out of a sense of obligation to Rockets owner Les Alexander.
“Here’s the biggest reason I want to be in every interview,” said Morey. “If we pick him, and he has some horrible problem and the owner asks, ‘What did he say in the interview when you asked him that question?’ and I go, ‘I never actually spoke to him before we gave him 1.5 million dollars,’ I get fired.” - The Undoing Project
Morey first ever draft pick was Brandon Hunter
Never heard of the Power Forward from Ohio who played a season for the Boston Celtics and has a bit of a resemblance to Antoine Walker? Perhaps you know him better from his three page resume with over a dozen international teams? No
Well he’s officially a trivia answer. The first NBA player ever selected by data. The pick came in 2003 when Morey was with the Celtics, who wanted to give their young dork a chance to prove himself.
In 2003 the Celtics had encouraged him to use it to pick a player at the tail end of the draft—the 56th pick, when the players seldom amount to anything. And thus Brandon Hunter, an obscure power forward out of Ohio University, became the first player picked by an equation. (Hunter actually started for the Celtics for a season and went on to a successful career in Europe.) - The Undoing Project
Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry gave Daryl Morey a false sense of certainty
The same year the Rockets passed on Marc Gasol they cashed in on two quality selections of Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry. Each played a pivotal role for a Rockets playoff team and have gone on to long NBA careers.
Their selections were based on Daryl Morey’s player projection model. The analytics and data seemed to come through in a big way for Morey with these picks. But the fun stopped and Morey started questioning his metrics the following year.
In 2008 the Rockets used the 25th pick to select big man Joey Dorsey.
(In 2007) The chance of getting a starter was roughly one in a hundred. They selected Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry, both of whom became NBA starters. It was an incredibly rich haul. “That lulled us to sleep,” said Morey.
That year the Rockets had the 25th pick in the draft and used it to pick a big guy from the University of Memphis named Joey Dorsey. In his job interview, Dorsey had been funny and likable and charming—he’d said when he was done playing basketball he intended to explore a second career as a porn star. After he was drafted, Dorsey was sent to Santa Cruz to play in an exhibition game against other newly drafted players. Morey went to go see him. “The first game I watch he looks terrible,” said Morey. “And I’m like, ‘Fuck!!!!’” Joey Dorsey was so bad that Daryl Morey could not believe he was watching the guy he’d drafted... The problem was his model. “Joey Dorsey was a model superstar. The model said that he was like a can’t-miss. His signal was super, super high.” - The Undoing Project
Dorsey’s shortcomings led Morey to dramatically alter his model, a process that likely continues today.
Michael Lewis’ new book is called The Undoing Project. You can buy it here.