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Shaping The Sixers: How Uncertainty Impacts the Sixers' Decisionmaking

The thing we're most sure of is how uncertain most things are. But no one's impressed by certainty about uncertainty. - Cade Massey

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

How do you sell the importance of uncertainty? It's a question that Sam Hinkie has likely wrestled with every day of his tenure as GM. Hinkie has commented on how different degrees of uncertainty inform and permeate his moves before, but as a fan kept at a distance from the team, it can be easy to forget.

Over the holidays, I stumbled upon a video deep in the annals of Basketball Twitter which involved several notable analytics pioneers talking about how they convey analytical information to their more traditionally-minded staff. It's been sticking with me ever since, particularly a discussion of certainty, and how little of it there is even after taking multiple approaches at dissecting data.

The relevant discourse occurs between 23:00 and 31:00.

What is most remarkable to me is the agreement among these professional leaders in just how much uncertainty they experience on a day-to-day basis. Hinkie compared many of his decisions to those of President Obama, paraphrasing a Vanity Fair article thus:

[Obama said,] "All of the decisions I make are 30-40% odds, but the American people don't want to hear, 'We thought this had a 32% chance of working and it didn't work, but it was the best option I had on the table.'"

Similarly, almost every decision that Hinkie has had to make in his tenure is based around the same sort of prospects. The highest leverage decisions-- the selections at the top of the draft-- have almost entirely been made under similar probability to Obama's scenario. Hinkie said of briefing his owner on a draft selection:

We'll talk in generalities that would embarrass this conference: "This guy's a 1 in 2 chance with huge risk. This guy's a 1 in 3 chance with enormous upside. This guy's like a 1 in 10 chance and we're going to stay away from him."

There's an incredible amount of uncertainty in all of these scenarios. Even the most attractive hypothetical was equally likely to bust as to become a star. This is the sort of lens through which management decisions should be appraised -- with a full understanding of the enormous risk and uncertainty inherent in each choice the manager makes.

The reverse is also true. When a manager makes a correct move, they are awarded perhaps more credit than they deserve. When accounting for the number of variables involved in a successful decision, these panelists would likely agree that while the decision was sound, good fortune was likely to have had as large a role in its success as the decision-maker himself.

For me, it has been helpful to step away from the Sixers' rebuild and remember candid quotes like these from Hinkie. It's a refreshing reminder about what "The Process" actually means. As the phrase has pervaded more of the public consciousness, it's become a derogatory means of mocking the arduous process through which Hinkie has chosen to build this team. But the Process's essence was never about waiting for the payoff that comes only after years of evolution. That is certainly a component the organization finds important, but the core meaning of the the Process was that moves should be judged on their thought process, and not on the results that occur after the decisions are made.

And in judging thought processes, the levels of risk and uncertainty need to be accounted for.

The Astros' Sig Mejdal explained that uncertainty and doubt are important elements of healthy analytical organizations.

[Absolute confidence] comes with a naivety of the variability that's still to come." he said. "And although we feel relatively certain at this time, there's a lot of time and a lot of things that can still take place to create this divergence that is hard to appreciate.

The divergence he's referring to is all of the chance that remains out of an organization's control. It's Embiid re-breaking his foot despite having had a 65% chance (my fake number) of being game fit by 2015's opening day. It's the Lakers selecting D'Angelo Russell at the last minute despite having claimed with 90% certainty that they were taking Okafor the day before. It's Noel's reliance on having a penetrating point guard to get the best out of his game, or Kendall Marshall's return taking longer than the team's doctors anticipated. It's a horrific winning percentage in close games that provided the team with a 1-30 record to start the season rather than 5-26.

In other words, while Hinkie was busy making plans, life got in the way.

But what has always instilled confidence in this rebuild for me is Hinkie's awareness that life will get in the way. Whenever he has taken the time to speak to the media, he has been incredibly self-aware and self-critical in a productive manner. "I do [say, 'I don't know,'] a lot," he maintained at Sloan. "I do enough that it makes people uncomfortable sometimes ... And if you say it as much as I say it, when you don't say it, the difference is palpable."

It's this questioning and constant re-evaluation that gives me the most confidence in the Sixers' rebuild, and also in the Sixers' hirings of Jerry Colangelo and Mike D'Antoni. At no point has Hinkie shown an unwillingness to collaborate with or listen to contrarian viewpoints. Taking this into account, it makes it much easier to accept the Sixers' claims about Colangelo's role at face value. Whether or not they are true remains to be seen, but having a new, respected voice who can add significantly more experience and nous to Sixers' discussions can only help to make the correct decision, and to reduce some amount of uncertainty.

"The more you [analyze past decisions], the more you're humbled and less confident in saying something with certainty," Mejdal affirmed on that Sloan panel.

It seems that it's a lesson the Sixers take to heart.

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