NBA Transactions | Chess or Texas Hold’em?

Updated: July 20, 2021
poker chess

As we sit at the Eve of the heavily anticipated 2021 free agency, front-offices continue to scramble as whiteboards across the league are mapped out, wiped clean, and covered in colors all over again. Trade requests, restricted free-agents, and lottery picks cascade themselves over the canvas in a blend of known and unknown variables.  The future of a franchise and the employment of its General Manager ponder over the possibilities and often hesitate due to the fragile nature of their decisions and the symptoms they may cause. Through the dualistic lens that we tend to operate in, the paradigms attached to the process of NBA transactions are swayed and affected by their outcomes. GMs and Presidents of Operations are viewed as grandmasters at the chessboard putting well-crafted tactics in motion. However, one could argue that the game they are playing is far more like Hold’em. Even when the hand is played correctly, executed with perfect precision, the community cards dealt in the center of the table dictate an outcome that falls in their opponent’s favor despite the overwhelming odds.

Draft prospects are often seen primarily as unknowns. Their projected floor acts as a sort of insurance to the selection, while their ceiling is what dictates their perceived value and allows a 19-year-old to be traded for already established NBA commodities in proven players. In the equation of the draft and first-round capital, we accept the unknowns and our obvious limitations in calculating the outcomes. There is no way to anticipate which skills will or will not develop and if the domination and success they’ve had at lower-level action will transfer to the NBA and its extreme heights of athleticism. Regardless of how sound the scouting reports may be, the selection of one player over another is always a gamble, and the assessment of this decision dances is a gray of subjectivity due to the time needed for development.

Unlike this sphere of unknowns, free-agency and trade transactions are often calculated by their perceived known variables. As we have already seen and witnessed the caliber of players included in an exchange, we are quick to declare a winner and loser of a deal. It has been heavily reported by those who are connected to NBA front offices, that many GMs operate in a space of hesitation, due to the fact that their future employment is dictated by the success or failure of their transactions. Keeping their teams relevant and stable usually is enough to maintain employment, despite the fact their franchises sits in the center of their Conference as a non-contender.

The problem starts from the top and the ideology of ownership. Because GMs are expected to create masterful tactics at the chessboard, upon failure they are often replaced by grandmasters who have proven to have higher rates of success. However, what is too often misunderstood, is that the final outcome of a transaction, its success or failure long term, is based upon so many unknowns that are impossible to calculate. We use words like possible fit or injury-prone to try and map out these unknowns and give them some sort of value in our understanding and projection.

However, as we have seen time and time again, predictions based on known tendencies often manifest quite differently. A player who averages 75 plus games is acquired and then overnight becomes injury prone or a player whose effort level on the defensive end had made him a liability changes dramatically under the guidance of a new coaching staff. Interpersonal issues are often negated in our perception of on-court fit because of our lack of access to player’s and perceptions of their teammates, but the psychology of a team and their chemistry may be the most important element in the equation of success…and yet the usual conversation around fit is if two ball-dominant scorers can coexist.

Every player in the NBA can hit wide-open 3’s in an empty gym. In-game shot-making is psychological. Curry and Klay is the greatest shooting tandem in history because of what is happening from the neck up, and if not for a perfect interpersonal fit, it’s possible neither of them would have ever manifested into the shooters they became. If they were to trade for Damian Lillard, it would be this variable that would dictate on-court fit over all else.

What I would argue for ownership and their future selection of General Managers and Presidents of Operations, is that they choose the best poker player available to make their decisions at the table. This starts though, with the abandonment of outcome-based assessment of transactions which paralyzes GMs decisions out of fear of receiving bad beats on the river. Too often GMs have pocket queens in position and hesitate to pull the trigger in fear of Kings or Aces…or worse, having the dominating cards and being out flopped by an inferior hand.

On the chessboard, the best move leads to victory. It is why tactics have been completely optimized and computer chess engines dominate even the best human grandmasters. Poker on the other hand is a 49% game, by definition, every decision is a gamble based on unknowns. Even when a player makes the right read, fate may still lead him to failure. The greatest poker players in the world are not discouraged by this fact, instead, they exploit their opponents’ fear and indecision. Bad beats are unavoidable in any situation where gambling is involved, and transactions of assets are always a gamble. The goal is not to hire a reckless risk-taker who is thirsty to wager the future of their franchise at every opportunity, it is to find a person with the balls and intuition to know when it’s time to put their chips in the center, regardless of the unavoidable odds of disaster.


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