How emotions and first impressions have impacted free agency

I love the offseason, at least the start of it when there’s tons of player movement and speculation on where big stars will land. One of the most interesting parts of this offseason is the effectiveness of the “poison pill” contract. The basic trick is to go to a team that will likely hit the luxury tax range and look for a 2nd round (or undrafted) player at the end of their first two seasons and offer them a 3 year deal. The contract works out such that year one and year two the player makes less than the league average and in year three they get a huge raise. The impact of this raise is that it is compiled with the luxury rules to be hugely expensive for the team. This tactic has moved Lin from the Knicks to the Rockets, Fields from the Knicks to the Raptors and now Asik from the Bulls to the Rockets.

On the one hand, the economics of these moves do well in explaining why the teams won’t match. However, are there other things at play? James Dolan apparently felt “betrayed” by Lin’s raise. Betrayed? This is coming from a man that apparently just loves throwing money at any player that is capable of throwing up 10+ shots a game. There’s a fun question here though, why would he feel betrayed?

The scary part is that first impressions have a massive impact on us. Perhaps one of the most terrifying stories I’ve heard is from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece “Connecting the Dots”. Psychology students enrolled themselves into mental institutes claiming to have heard voices. However, after being enrolled they were told to act naturally. In spite of this, the staff kept treating them as having mental problems. For instance, pacing the halls, which a subject admitted was out of boredom, was diagnosed as “nervous” by the nurses. In another crazy example from Gladwell’s piece “The New-Boy Network” the research done by Frank Bernieri and Tricia Prickett showed some frightening news. A six week course on coaching people for interviews had seemingly no impact. However, the 15 seconds to start the interview, when the candidate shakes hands, has tremendously powerful information in how the feedback of the interview will come out.

First impressions matter a great deal and in the NBA they can influence your whole career! Being picked in the draft lottery will mean you’re perceived as a good player that is worth playing time and money. Being picked in the second round or going undrafted means you’re not! When New York and Chicago decided that Lin, Fields and Asik weren’t worth the money, the easy answer is that they were making a sound financial decision. This doesn’t really go in the direction we see though. NBA teams seem more than content to throw money around. We just had a lockout over that very fact! The Bulls and Knicks are not light spenders either. Is it that the teams looked and decided “We can’t spend that kind of money.” or is it that they looked and said “We can’t spend that kind of money on second round picks!”?

While by no means definitive there is a fun comparison. After the 2004 season when the Detroit Pistons won the NBA title they re-signed Rasheed Wallace to a five year $55 million dollar contract. The next year, when Ben Wallace‘s contract was up he ended up signing with the Bulls for a four year $60 million dollar contract. We can obviously fall back on Yay Points! to describe the difference in opinion of Rasheed vs Big Ben. However, there was even  more. Rasheed Wallace was drafted top five, was involved in “blockbuster trade” and was coming off a massive contract. Ben Wallace, on the other hand, went undrafted, had come to the Pistons to facilitate a sign and trade for marquee free agent Grant Hill, and had never earned more than $7.5 million dollars in a single season.

It’s hard to buy reasons such as age or declining productivity for why the Pistons didn’t resign Big-Ben. After all, he was the same age as Rasheed Wallace and his contract would end the same year. He was also coming off a Defensive Player of the Year season.  It’s possible that the simple fact that the first impression of Ben Wallace was that he was a “role player” because of his draft stock and contract may have made the Pistons think twice.

Summing up

We love analyzing the NBA around here. When you do that for a while, what quickly becomes obvious is that rationality is not the primary driver for most people involved with the NBA: players will give up money; coaches will irrationally like players; GMs will sign questionable players. It’s also obvious that the people in the NBA are well…people! They’re subject to the same quirks that impact all of us. One of these is the impact of first impressions. And when we look at why Dolan may be feeling hurt by Lin, it may not be a logical reason. It’s simply that his first impression told him that Lin was a low paid role player and during the events of free agency he ended up feeling shocked, upset and yes, maybe even betrayed that Jeremy Lin wasn’t living up to that first impression.


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