Bias in Evaluation: Can We View Our Own Players Fairly?

July 7th, 2014 | by Denim Millward
Sometimes fans, just like Devin Harris here, can love a team's own players too much. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sometimes fans, just like Devin Harris here, can love a team’s own players too much. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Bias: a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced  consideration of a question; prejudice.


Show me a person who claims the ability to evaluate NBA talent with pure objectivity, and I’ll show you a liar.  The fact that bias comes into play in nearly every facet of judging an NBA player makes it downright impossible to wring every ounce of subjectivity out of your analysis.  This is especially true when discussing members of your favorite team; for most of you, that’s obviously the Utah Jazz, and boy do we know how to morph, twist and spin statistics to fit our subjective opinions.

As Jazz fans, it’s harder for us to give an objective opinion on our own players primarily due to our familiarity with the players.  As we watch hour after hour of interviews and game footage and read several Jazz-related articles each week, we began to cobble together a concept of who our players are as human beings as opposed to statistic generators or tradeable commodities.  Attachment to or disdain for said player will follow, and our liking or disliking of a player drastically shapes the aspects of their game we notice and retain.  It’s not exactly groundbreaking science to assert that the portions of a player’s game we’ll more easily remember directly correlate to how we feel about him. It’s easy to ignore Richard Jefferson’s solid outside shooting if you found his comments about wanting to chase a ring next year off-putting.  Conversely, if you like Alec Burks’ cool-and-confident attitude, it’s easy to fixate on his elite ability to get to and finish at the rim while turning a blind eye to aspects of his game that aren’t developed yet.

Nowhere is this familiarity bias currently more evident than with the subject of matching offer sheets for Gordon Hayward.  The former Butler Bulldog and current video game enthusiast is a restricted free agent and is receiving more interest than a pay day loan joint.  With numerous teams showing anywhere from cursory interest to flying him in for interviews, Hayward getting an offer sheet above his projected value, even up to a full max offer, is firmly within the realm of possibility.  Interestingly enough, the effects of the familiarity bias in regards to Hayward can be seen in arguments for and against retaining Hayward.  On one end of the spectrum, some argue that Hayward is fully worth max money, and that there should be zero pause or consideration when it comes to matching a max offer. Conversely, I’ve seen one Jazz fan argue that Hayward should be allowed to walk and could be replaced by signing Evan Turner.  (These were both opinions issued by just a few people, so each opinion should be taken with an entire shaker of salt.)

So how can we ensure we’re fairly evaluating Jazz players?  While there’s no black-and-white mathematical formula that can be followed to calculate the exact value of a player, a few steps can be taken to ensure we are fairly assessing players.  First, notice I said “fairly evaluating” and not “accurately evaluating.”  Yes, we can say player X is better than player Y in some very obvious cases, but if players X and Y are anywhere remotely close, or if it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison,  who is “better” is an exercise in subjectivity.  Again, while very good ratings systems such as the ones developed by John Hollinger, David Locke and Kevin Pelton exist, even those differ in the weight given to each aspect of a player’s game.  That being said, here are a few tips to minimize bias and ensure a fair rating of players on your favorite team.


1.  Compare Stats

Statistics are the most effective tool to use when comparing and evaluating players.  While statistics don’t always tell the whole story, comparing the stats of similar players in similar situations will usually give the best indication of a player’s performance relative to his comparable peers.  When evaluating statistics, look at the largest sample size possible, and avoid picking and choosing partial chunks of statistics that aren’t representative of the larger sample size.

2.  Take all variables into account

Is Thaddeus Young racking up 18 points and 6 rebounds in a whole lot of garbage time definitively better than Boris Diaw scoring 13 points and grabbing 6 boards for the world champion Spurs?  Certainly, valid arguments could be made in favor of either player; the point is, the higher number doesn’t automatically equal a superior performance.  While comparing statistics is a great starting point, it’s also important to look beyond box scores.  What is the player’s role on a team?  Is the player’s offense up-tempo, or do they predominantly play in half-court sets?  How do the player’s overall statistics compare to his statistics per-36-minutes? In what ways does the player contribute positively or negatively to the game that aren’t reflected in a box score? The more variables that can be considered and taken into account, the more complete a picture of the player’s strengths and weaknesses you will have.

3.  Give appropriate weight to all aspects of a player’s game

It’s okay to be excited about the addition of sharpshooter Steve Novak to Utah’s offensively-challenged second unit.  That being said, don’t forget about his defensive deficiencies.  Focusing solely on a player’s strengths and conveniently ignoring weaknesses, or vice-versa, will always result in an incomplete and unfair evaluation.  Again, there is widespread differing in the basketball community over the importance of certain statistics and skills, a factor that makes properly weighting skills tricky.

Bias and subjectivity are inescapable in player evaluation.  However, following these rules will go a long way towards compiling an accurate idea of how valuable a given player is.

Denim Millward

Denim Millward

Denim Millward, before SCH, wrote for Bleacher Report about the Jazz and the NBA. Despite this, he is actually a good writer, and we promise we will eschew the slideshow format on this site. He also contributes to The Color Commentator Magazine, and strangely, likes wrestling.
Denim Millward

One Comment

  1. Rosscoach says:

    I like how one critic put it, “You match any offer for Gordon Hayward because players of his caliber are not clawing their way to get to Salt Lake.
    When you are a small market team you cannot easily let go of talent and definitely not for nothing. Match Hayward and extend Alec Burks.
    Maybe if they are resolved to save money do a sign-and-trade for with Cleveland for Anthony Bennett who showed flashes at the end of the season,
    and a future first rounder and bring in Jarrett Jack whom they’re looking to dump anyhow. Just whatever you do, don’t come up empty.

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