Sixers: Dario Saric and the dangers of human biases

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28: General Manager, Sam Hinkie introduces K.J. McDaniels
PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28: General Manager, Sam Hinkie introduces K.J. McDaniels /

Sam Hinkie was an expert at valuing his assets properly as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, displaying great awareness of unconscious biases. Have we fallen victim to those biases with Dario Saric?

In his recent novel “The Undoing Project,” Michael Lewis (of Moneyball fame) offers a brief glance into the mind of Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. In the process of developing statistical models to identify the best college prospects, Morey learned that the way basketball operatives made decisions prevented them from evaluating players’ true talent levels clearly. Front offices dismissed Jeremy Lin as un-athletic primarily on the basis of his race, when his first step and overall quickness were in fact elite for an NBA prospect. Marc Gasol looked chubby in photographs — Rockets scouts nicknamed him “Man Boobs” — and slipped to the 48th overall pick in the draft.

Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia 76ers /

Philadelphia 76ers

Thinking about these kinds of misses revealed to Morey the many biases that plagued unaware GMs. Two of these were confirmation bias and the endowment effect. You’ve likely heard of the former- how a person exclusively seeks out data that confirm his preexisting opinion. Meanwhile, the endowment effect is the tendency to overvalue what you already have, like the players on your roster.

Hinkie, the student

Sam Hinkie was one of Morey’s disciples, and it’s not hard to see how he applied the insights he’d gained during his tenure as the Sixers’ general manager. His first major deal with the Philadelphia 76ers was to deal Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a future first round pick that would become Dario Saric. Ignoring what we know now about those players (allowing us to avoid what’s known as hindsight bias), the trade was clearly the right move at the time. The Sixers had zero quality assets, stumbling about in the wading pool of mediocrity. But it was a trade that many GMs would not have made, and Hinkie received a fair amount of criticism accordingly.

Hinkie was cognizant of the biases that threatened to cloud his decision making. It would have been easy to succumb to the endowment effect with Holiday, who had been selected as an All-Star that past season. Yet Hinkie was able to correctly assess Jrue for what he was worth- a good-not-great point guard at the peak of his value- and deal him for multiple chances at a star player. Later, the Michael Carter-Williams trade further affirmed Hinkie’s ability to honestly gauge his players’ values, and make unpopular moves that improved the team’s chances of winning a championship in the long run.

Related Story: Should Dario Saric come off the bench?

How to value Dario Saric

Which brings us to Dario Saric

if he ever comes over.

The Homie grabbed the attention of local and national media alike with a highly productive final few months of the season. After becoming a full-time starter in late February, Saric averaged 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game the rest of the way. He showed off his ball-handling and passing skills on a nightly basis, all the while winning fans’ hearts with his gritty, blue-collar style of play. Saric rightfully received accolades for his performance, finishing 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting.

However, Saric’s advanced statistics tell a different story. They portray Saric as a highly inefficient offensive player (50.8 True Shooting percentage) who benefitted from big minutes and a strong usage rate. Dario’s offensive rating of 96 was the worst on the Sixers out of any player who received significant playing time. He also posted -1.2 Offensive Win Shares, which is to say that Dario’s offensive play made the Sixers one win worse. Win Shares is far from a perfect stat, but it’s not the only one that argues Saric had a terrible offensive season.

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Jahlil Okafor was another player who posted gaudy counting stats in his rookie year, scoring 17.5 PPG and making the 2015-16 All Rookie team. It is obvious now that Okafor’s production resulted from high usage and poor efficiency, but many fans and media members ignored the signs. Confirmation bias ran rampant. The flashy post moves and scoring touch that made him a third overall pick were still there, causing people to overlook the inefficiency and dreadful defense.

To be clear, Saric remains a more promising prospect than Okafor. Saric has clear playmaking ability, and has proven he can be at least an adequate defender and rebounder. If Saric can learn to pick his spots better and improve his 3-point shooting, there’s no reason he can’t be a reliable cog on a winning team.

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We fans are allowed to love Dario for his hard-nosed play and bromance with T.J. McConnell, but Bryan Colangelo and the Sixers’ front office must be able to separate Dario the Philly Cult Hero from Dario the Asset. The Sixers don’t have to actively shop Saric, but they have to understand that Dario’s value will likely never be higher without substantial development. If an attractive deal involving Saric arises, it’s up to Colangelo to channel his predecessor’s pragmatic, impartial view towards his players.

(All stats via Basketball Reference)