Hedgehogs are undeniably cute animals.
Just look at this creature!
(Live specimen not pictured.)
Hedgehogs also tell us something useful about how we discuss basketball and evaluate decisions.
I’m not talking about real hedgehogs, in this case.
I’m referring to basketball hedgehogs, a special breed of person with a taste for the flesh of fallen basketball executives and an allergy to nuance.
Why am I talking about cute hedgehogs and man-eating basketball hedgehogs?
Former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie left the organization recently.
While I don’t intend to mount a defense or critique of the Hinkie era, I do want to look at what we can learn from Hinkie’s time in Philadelphia and how people are reacting to it.
To do so, we must begin with cute animals.
(I own five cats. I can’t resist talking about cute animals.)
Introducing basketball hedgehogs and basketball foxes
Psychology and political science professor Philip Tetlock conducted important research on the subject of expert predictions. He was looking to find out what led some people to have good judgment about the future, while others struggled mightily to make accurate predictions.
He presented this research in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment.
While Tetlock initially expected to discover that a person’s beliefs were the main contributor to forecasting success, his research instead suggested that making accurate predictions is largely a question of mindset.
His findings resulted in him classifying experts into two categories based on their mindset.
What does this all mean?
- Hedgehogs are people with strong ideas about how the world works. They believe the world is a certain way and they expect it to behave accordingly. They tend to see things in a black and white way and express it as such, extending their strong ideas to everything they encounter.
- Foxes are people with little ideas about the world and a large tolerance for nuance. They look all over for new ideas to bring into their worldview. They tend to look at the future as filled with uncertainty and express predictions in a probabilistic manner.
Tetlock found that foxes vastly outperform hedgehogs when it comes to making predictions about the future.
Tetlock conducted his research with an eye toward politics, but it applies everywhere.
He also noted:
Hedgehog opinion was in greater demand from the media, and this was probably [because] … simple, decisive statements are easier to package in soundbites.
Remind you of anyone in sports media?
These basketball hedgehogs often develop a taste for the flesh of departing NBA executives in order to fuel their “analysis.”
Here’s how they get it wrong.
Why nuance and thinking about probability matter
The present and future contain much uncertainty. We can’t hope to fully understand everything happening now, let alone in the future.
You can make plans about the future. We do it everyday.
We plan to meet for drinks after work on Thursday — at a sports bar, obviously, because the Warriors and Spurs are playing!
Any plan or situation, however, has a range of possible future outcomes.
While hedgehogs see the world in black and white — This thing I believe is going to happen! — foxes recognize there’s much more nuance involved.
In the Sam Hinkie Postmortem Festival unfolding on social media and elsewhere over the past 18 hours, there was one talking point that a lot of folks were harping on: Philly’s selection of Joel Embiid at No. 3 overall in the 2014 draft. The dissection of that decision, using plenty of results-oriented “analysis” because it “didn’t work out” is not only baffling, but likely wrong.
There was a consensus at the time of the draft that Embiid, if healthy, had the highest upside of any player in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Everyone also agreed that Embiid’s health was, at best, concerning, and at worst, enormously damaged.
In June 2014, many basketball hedgehogs (and basketball foxes, too) were commenting about how hard it would be for teams to pass on a player with Embiid’s upside.
Two years have passed in which an injured Embiid hasn’t taken to the court during an NBA game.
Many of those same basketball hedgehogs, exhibiting a form of amnesia perhaps, have conveniently forgotten their statements at the time. They’ve instead spent the last week skewering former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie for the draft pick (and others).
It’s classic hindsight bias, of which Tetlock writes:
Talk about the inevitability of [the result] … tells us less about the probability distribution of possible worlds than it does about the self-deceptive tricks that hindsight plays on the mind. We too easily convince ourselves that we knew all along what was going to happen when, in fact, we were clueless.
The range of possible outcomes isn’t like an on/off switch.
Despite what basketball hedgehogs might say — either this guy can play or he can’t play! — there aren’t only two possible outcomes.
To start with, the can Embiid play? question is actually two questions.
- “Can he play?” AKA Is he any good?
- “Can he play?” AKA Can he play? Will he be sufficiently healthy to be a uniform-wearing tall person on the court during NBA basketball affairs?
Consolidating these two questions into a single probability distribution, the range of possible outcomes might have looked something like this:
2014 Prediction for Joel Embiid in 2016
Healthy, superstar: 5%
Healthy, All-Star: 10%
Healthy, very good player: 15%
Healthy, decent player: 10%
Healthy, not a useful NBA player: 5%
Oft-injured, superstar: 5%
Oft-injured, All-Star-level: 10%
Oft-injured, very good player: 25%
Oft-injured, decent player: 10%
Oft-injured, not a useful NBA player: 5%
We don’t know. He hasn’t played in a game in two years: ???%
There might be a few takeaways here:
- This prediction is a lot more complex than the either he can play or he can’t play! model.
- The odds of you getting a result you’re thrilled with here might be good enough to be worth the risk.
- The notion that Embiid wouldn’t have played in his first two years in the NBA would have seemed quite unlikely, given word at the time of the draft was that he would miss between four and six months of basketball activities. No person (publicly) thought this result likely.
As Andy Glockner pointed out in his article:
What I do know is the “success percentage” needed to pull the trigger on Embiid was quite low. This was a risk/reward scenario where there was enormous risk of “missing” or a “bust” or whatever language is used to assign absolutism to a relative probability play, but the potential reward was absolutely massive. There are a lot of instances in gambling where you can be a 4-1 or 6–1 underdog, and it’s still extremely positive for you to “get your money in.” It all depends on your range of assessments of the situation, and adding up the potential value. If you don’t hit the long shot, it doesn’t mean your assessment of the situation was wrong. It’s often quite the contrary.
At that draft, Embiid very well may have been only a 20 percent chance to be healthy enough to play NBA basketball for any extended stretch. And that 20 percent may have been more than enough for the Sixers to take him, and take on that gamble.
Wrapping it up
To reiterate what I said at the beginning, I don’t point all this out in a calculated effort to defend the reputation of Sam Hinkie.
I don’t know what exactly they were thinking internally.
I don’t know if the Embiid selection was the right pick or not. I lean toward thinking it was a good pick, but there are reasonable arguments to the contrary.
The mistake I am seeing — over and over again — is the sports media’s hindsight bias and basketball hedgehog thinking in hammering home the idea that the Embiid selection was obviously the wrong pick and clearly a monumental mistake.
Many of those same people are on record two years ago as saying you can’t pass on someone like Joel Embiid with the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
If you can’t admit that your initial prediction didn’t work out the way you thought it would, it’s hard to get better.
Someone stuck in that mode of thinking could be a basketball hedgehog who will struggle to learn from this type of information in order to make good predictions in the future.
Don’t be one of those basketball hedgehogs.
Be more a basketball fox.
Think probabilistically. Look for the nuance.
And be willing to admit when your prediction might have been inaccurate so you can learn from it.
What’s your takeaway? Answer in the comments below!
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Disclaimer: No hedgehogs were harmed in the writing of this article.