BARTON: Outcome Bias Undermines The Process
More Than A Game

Less than two weeks ago, Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie officially resigned from his position. The news followed reports that Bryan Colangelo — the son of Jerry Colangelo, an advisor to the 76ers — would be hired for a position high up in the front office. The idea of a triumvirate in basketball operations for the Sixers did not appeal to Hinkie, so he decided to step aside.

Over the past few years Hinkie has become a polarizing figure, avoiding the media while constructing a roster that only won 47 games over the course of three years. When Hinkie did speak to the public, he often addressed how his decisions were based off the team’s long-term goals. The media — as well as many NBA personnel — often deemed Hinkie an “analytics” guy, like his former boss Daryl Morey. With Hinkie’s resignation linked to the second worst record during a three-year frame, people in the media began to assert that analytics were bad for the sport of basketball. However, what exactly are “analytics,” and what does the word mean in the context of this sport?

Hinkie began working for the Sixers a few months before the 2013 NBA draft. Hinkie and the Sixers had little to work with in terms of talent, with their star player, Andrew Bynum, contemplating retirement. Other notable players included the young and talented Jrue Holiday as well as some role players such as Evan Turner. Hinkie saw the need to rebuild the team from the ground up. He envisioned acquiring as many assets as possible, whether they be draft picks or players, while also trying to strike gold by selecting potential superstars early in the draft.

Now, is that really analytics? From Hinkie and most people’s perspectives, probably not. That strategy was more closely geared toward what Hinkie thought was the best way to win a championship. Even after declaring that this was the process that the Sixers would go through, he made decisions that actually contradicted statistical analysis. A report on all the 1995 first-round draft picks conducted by statistician Nate Silver found that on average, freshmen and sophomores outperformed juniors, seniors and international players both in the short run and the long term.

However, Hinkie took action that specifically contradicted this finding. With the 10th pick of the 2014 draft, the Sixers selected Dario Saric from Croatia. Hinkie made this decision to stash Saric away for a couple years, and as he wrote in his resignation letter, international players have additional value since they do not count towards the 15-player roster maximum limit.

While Hinkie created this long-term plan, many in Philadelphia grew restless with Hinkie’s seemingly ineffective plans for the franchise. Over the past two years, the Sixers finished with the league’s worst record while trading away former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. This past season, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recommended that the Sixers hire Jerry Colangelo, the long-time sports executive who felt he could help the Sixers.

In one of the first decisions Colangelo made, he signed Elton Brand to provide a veteran presence in the locker room. This move is one that Hinkie overlooked during his tenure with the Sixers. Many of the most successful younger teams have some type of locker room culture, while the Sixers had none. Internally, the Sixers have experienced significant issues with personnel. In the past year alone, rookie center Jahlil Okafor had a few altercations off the court and, according to TMZ, rookie power forward Nerlens Noel caused thousands of dollars in damages in the last home he rented. Having a mentor like Brand for newcomers Noel and Okafor would have been integral in helping them adjust to life in the NBA.

While Hinkie used numbers to inform his decisions, his concept of “analytics” is not that different from Colangelo’s analytics. When Mike Zarren, the assistant general manager of the Boston Celtics, spoke at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last month, he pointed out that everyone uses the term analytics, but no one really holds a concrete definition as to what it means. When defining analytics, people often say that it is the analysis of data.

While this is true, data does not necessarily have to be quantified. For Hinkie, most of his decisions came off the basis of quantitative data, while Colangelo applied more qualitative data that he gathered over his years of being a general manager. Neither method of analysis is inherently wrong. Unfortunately, many people will judge Hinkie’s decisions over the past three years based on the Sixers dismal performance, but that is not how we should look at Hinkie’s time in Philadelphia. Hinkie made all his decisions based on their perceived long-term value. Too often, we let outcome bias influence how we view the decisions coaches make. Members of the media should not criticize Hinkie for the decisions he made, but instead for his end goal of sacrificing the present seasons to incrementally increase the Sixers’ odds of winning a title four years down the road.

NickNickBarton Barton is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. More than a Game appears every other Tuesday.

 

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