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Monday, December 26, 2016

Daryl Morey and The Undoing Project

I bought Michael Lewis' The Undoing Project on a whim. I'd read some of Lewis' previous books (The Blind Side, Moneyball, The Big Short) and appreciate his ability to see the world differently. I was not expecting the second chapter to be entirely about Daryl Morey, the Rockets' GM. Morey is also the co-chairperson for the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. 

Daryl Morey is a nerd. He might say that a nerd has the will to see the world differently. He chose to use a different data set to identify and select talent for his franchise. He limited the value of interviews and put a premium on data. Morey added his definition of a nerd, "a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it." 


Houston representative: "How did you not see 'eye to eye' with the coach?"

Player: "He was short." 

But while developing his model, he realized the limitations, in an almost Shakespearean line, 

"It is impossible to know for sure." 

Lewis discusses the tragically flawed approach to evaluating young players and how Morey sought to improve his data, with adjustments for age, minutes played, pace of games played (e.g. tempo affects shots, affecting points), and competition. 

He shares that early data sets suggested that rebounds per minute (bigs) and steals per minute (guards) had predictive value. 

He presents Charles Barkley's opinion of 'basketball nerds' and Morey in particular:

"He's one of those idiots who believe in analytics...I've always believed analytics was crap...Listen, I wouldn't know Daryl Morey if he walked in this room right now...The NBA is about talent. All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: They're a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school and they just want to get in the game." 

He also discusses flaws in our human perception, related to cognitive biases:

Confirmation bias: scouts tend to see what they want to see

Endowment bias: we overvalue our own players (relative to trades)

Recency bias: does one workout establish player value? 

Anchoring: we decide a player is a good "comp" for another player, whether he is or not. He discusses the Jeremy Lin analysis, an "unathletic" Asian guy. He adds that when they analyzed the "two step" quickness of NBA players, Lin ranked...first. What you think you see and what is are not always congruous. 

And he notes that other 'invisible' factors are in play. DeAndre Jordan had a relatively unproductive college (one year) career...because he hated the coach. That data overshadowed previous production. 

If I recall, the last time I checked, only two major sports franchises did not send representatives to the Sloan Analytics Conference. During Morey's tenure as the Houston GM...the Rockets have the third best record in the NBA. As my son Conor reminded me when he was sixteen, "I may not be the most popular kid in school, but I know nerds run the world." 

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