By Ren Hsieh
Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, released his latest book, The Undoing Project, in hardcover on December 6, 2016. In it, there is a fascinating, and perhaps not so surprisingly candid, section with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Part of it was excerpted on Slate.com on the book’s release date.
This went generally unnoticed until recently a Redditor by the handle Lorenzomax7 posted the following excerpt of Morey on Jeremy Lin in Reddit.com’s /r/nba subreddit:
“He lit up our model,” said Morey. “Our model said take him with, like, the 15th pick in the draft.” The objective measurement of Jeremy Lin didn’t square with what the experts saw when they watched him play; a not terribly athletic Asian kid. Morey hadn’t completely trusted his model – and so had chickened out and not drafted Lin. A year after the Houston Rockets failed to draft Jeremy Lin, they began to measure the speed of a player’s first two steps: Jeremy Lin had the quickest first move of any player measured. He was explosive and was able to change direction far more quickly than most NBA players. “He’s incredibly athletic,” said Morey. “But the reality is that every **** person, including me, thought he was unathletic. And I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.”
This disconnect here is based on what some of us might call the “eye test.” It also played a part in Morey not drafting two-time NBA All-Star Marc Gasol in 2007 despite favorable data. Gasol simply looked fat and out-of-shape. Morey’s mistakes–which to his credit, he fully owns–are actually a significant point in the book. There are systematic errors in analytics rooted in our biases.
Jeremy Lin was eligible for the 2010 NBA Draft, not one that is considered particularly talented or deep. The no. 15 pick went to the Milwaukee Bucks. They chose Larry Sanders who had been out of the league since February 21, 2015 until earlier this week when he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He played his first NBA ball in two years on March 13.
The no. 16 pick was Luke Babbitt, no. 17 was Kevin Seraphin. The Houston Rockets took Patrick Patterson with the 14th pick. You can make the argument Patterson is the more valuable player in the NBA today, but looking back at it now, Lin certainly doesn’t sound out of place at 15 or lower.
Houston’s eventual metric to measure a player’s first two steps a year after they passed on Lin–which essentially confirmed his NBA-caliber athleticism–explains why Morey was so quick to throw money at him after his bout of Linsanity with the Knicks.
The move was a bit of a reach. And when the Rockets had James Harden dropped in their laps, essentially a more talented and more durable version of Lin, Lin became redundant at the position. With Harden arguably still the front-runner for NBA Most Valuable Player this season, any thoughts of what could have been with Lin in Houston are probably long forgotten.
Which may be why Morey was so honest about his initial bias towards Lin. It was refreshing to hear him own up to that, but for many Asian American athletes and fans, it was hardly a bombshell. Morey’s admission, however, if more widely known, might just mean the next Jeremy Lin who comes along won’t get the write-off so easily.