NBA Psychology: The Bromance of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol


In 2010 it would have been safe to call Zach Randolph a head case and that any intelligent team should have avoided him. And yet, something crazy happened. Randolph managed to turn him game around in a manner we don’t typically see. And thus, Randolph enters an area that us quants don’t like. You see, it’s not that we don’t accept psychological factors in basketball. Quite the contrary! We know that players are human beings, subject to the same irrationalities that infect us all. However, unlike box-score data (and fascinating new spatial data), psychological data is hard to quantify. It’s also hard to find information that is tangible and useful.

However, that’s a problem domain that Eric Weiss (@EricWeiss_SA) wants to attack head on. (In case you’ve forgotten, Eric is the co-author of the heavily praised “Dwight Effect” paper that everyone at Sloan, including us, has been gushing over) Eric had a fascinating point on players. Not all players respond to the same pressures. Some players will respond to authority. Others will respond to “social shaming” by team mates. And Eric had a theory on Randolph’s turnaround — his bromance with Marc Gasol.

via ESPN

via ESPN

As Eric put it “Here’s this guy, that most of his career wanted to be thought of as gangster. He comes to Memphis and suddenly he’s best friend with Gasol and is spending time in Europe!” And Eric explained something else crazy too. This situation was not really intentional. It’s not like anyone realized that placing Randolph on a team with Gasol would have a good influence. It was luck. But it turned out well. But, what if teams could get inside players heads and make things like that happen on purpose?

That’s what Eric wants to find out. Eric is looking to try and comb over both player psychological profiles, as well as use visual data to see if we can glean insights into players’ psyche. Are their motivating factors that work well on them? Are they environments they won’t thrive in? Do they play harder against good teams? Are their certain teams that add an extra gear (Andray Blatche in Washington?)

It’s not an easy problem. However, we’ve long known that the actors in sports aren’t rational. General managers sign the wrong guys. Coaches play the wrong strategies. We know players don’t always play correctly either. Gaining more insight into how players tick, and how to place them in situations that improve them could be huge. It’s not an easy problem to crack but I’m glad people like Eric are on it.


p.s. Eric Weiss was more than happy to let me question him about this subject for quite a while at Sloan. He was then even more gracious and agreed to be on the Wages of Wins podcast. We’ll let you know when that’s scheduled!

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