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Shorting the Special Snowflakes

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One of my nerdiest-ever hobbies was my early 2000s obsession with an online game called Hollywood Stock Exchange. HSX, as it is commonly called, imagines that one can buy and sell stock in actors and new release movies.  The prices of these movie and actor stocks float up or down based on whether players of the game were buying or selling. The values would automatically adjust upon the announcement of each film’s opening weekend box-office take every Sunday.

One viable strategy for “playing the openers” in HSX was fairly simple: short ‘em all. The aggregate expectations of the market of players in terms of “how big” each film would open usually summed to a larger amount than the movie going public as a whole was likely to spend. Thus the combined values of the movies’ “stocks” would fall, and if you bet against every film, you were nearly guaranteed to profit overall even if some movies exceeded expectations.

I tend to feel the same way about the NBA draft, and if I could short every incoming draft class, I probably would. Of course, no team thinks their pick is going to be a bust, but the sad fact is more players wash out than make it, fewer lottery picks become stars than don’t, almost as half of first round picks never crack a rotation in any sustained way, and those second round “steals” are most likely never to be heard from again:

Draft Outcome 95-10

Now, much like the disclaimer actual financial advisers are required to provide that past performance is no indication of future returns, any individual draft might be stronger or weaker than this historical trend. This does not invalidate the “short ‘em all” strategy though, as a touted draft class, such as this year’s, already has those higher expectations built in.

Still, a one-size fits all approach only gets us so far.  Some lauded prospects live up to and even surpass these high expectations. In recent years, Anthony Davis has not only justified the early hype, but has tantalized with how lofty his eventual ceiling might be. John Wall appears ready to join the elite, alongside such rightly-praised phenoms as LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Others have exceeded any rationale expectations for their progress. Certainly very few thought Kevin Love or Russell Westbrook would be the perennial All-Stars they have turned into.

Casual analysis doesn’t lead to any easy conclusions as to who those breakout players might be, though teams are spending millions of dollars and amateur analysts thousands of hours to look into just that. However, there might be some simple heuristics that help identify who they won’t be.  One of these I’ll call the danger of the “Special Snowflake Player Comp.”

In this sort of comparison, a prospect’s weaknesses are mitigated by looking at an NBA player who has succeeded despite those limitations. Got a slightly heavy, slightly unathletic big man who can score and rebound? The next Zach Randolph.  A wing shooter with questionable defensive or ball-handling skills? Why that’s Kyle Korver reincarnate. A great athlete who plays hard but lacks touch or finesse might be a Tony Allen-level defender. And of course, the athletic guard who can’t actually shoot could always be the next Dwyane Wade.  The reasons these comps should be red flags is that those players are sui generis. Most players of these general ‘types’ fail to make any impact whatsoever.

Take Wade for example. Since 2000, there have been 20 individual player-seasons (min 1500 minutes) where a guard has posted a PER of 20 or higher, while taking under 100 three-point attempts. SEVEN of those seasons have been turned in by Wade. One was Michael Jordan‘s last hurrah at 38, and the other 12 are from all point guards, who can make up in play-making for others what they lack in shooting (6 from Tony Parker, two each from John Stockton and Andre Miller, with Sam Cassell and John Wall rounding out the list). It is shockingly rare to make it as a star wing in the modern NBA without a reliable perimeter shot. Even if we expand the list to include those who will take three-pointers, but not make them efficiently, the non-point guard names appearing multiple times are early model LeBron, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson.  Safe to say that for the vast majority of prospects Wade, LeBron, AI and Kobe is not a reasonable comparison group.

The comparisons to Korver are equally inapt. This is more due to the fact that Korver, the player-archetype, is a much different (and lesser) creature than Kyle Korver the actual player. Kyle’s usefulness isn’t merely his deadeye shooting, but rather that he does everything else decently well too, allowing him to be on the court much more than your Steve Novak/James Jones model of spot-up specialists.  Thus, while Doug McDermott is often compared to Korver because it’s quick and easy due to shooting ability, complexion and alma mater, the knocks against McDermott (defense, passing, rebounding) are all things Korver has learned to do more than adequately over his career, rather than his defining characteristics as a player.

Randolph benefits not only for unusual nimbleness and instincts around the ball for a player of his size and build, but also has an exceptional wingspan, measuring 4-5 inches wider than this year’s model, Julius Randle’s. That’s not to say  Randle can’t become a solid player, but to expect it to do it without showing a wider range of skills than “the next Z-Bo” is courting extreme disappointment.

Finally, if the comparison is Tony Allen, the subtext is that if the player doesn’t turn into one of the very best on-ball defenders in the league, he’ll be borderline unplayable.  Almost needless to say, this is not a great margin for error.

While eventually, one of these players will turn into “the next Wade” or a reasonable facsimile thereof, if a more realistically attainable comparison isn’t readily apparent, I’m probably selling.

  • Tim Adems

    Writer makes an interesting point. It’s a difficult thing to compare players to the exception that proves the rule (Wade, Randolph, etc.), HOWEVER, I think when people make these comps it’s usually a type of short hand. It’s hard to describe the totality of what a player like Mcdermott does to a casual fan who didn’t watch him in college. As such, one must grasp for straws and the easiest comp is Korver. Don’t get me wrong Mcdermott and Korver aren’t very similar. Korver was a SG/SF while Mcdermott was a SF/PF and Korver was able to get into passing lanes and even use his length to get some blocks. Mcdermott has not demonstrated that ability. Still, I think it’s unfair to say Doug can’t guard. The film shows that he actually has good defensive fundamentals, he just struggles to guard superior athleticism and quickness. This is an NBA problem that may limit him to the role player designation, however, he still has one of the more bankable skills in the NBA- being able to hit jumpers consistently.

    I think the fun of the draft is projecting your hopes and dreams onto the players your team drafts. That’s what makes it interesting. Coming into a draft with an attitude of selling all players short is sort of a depressing way to view it. The NFL is great at hope trafficking on draft day and I enjoy it in the NBA as well. Long live Randle as Z-bo, Exum as Hardaway, Parker as Carmelo, and Kyle Anderson as Diaw. Or at least long live these projections until we recognize that those players are simply themselves.

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