Rethinking the Point, Part 1: Bayless through the lens of "confirmation bias."

In the three years I have been hanging around BE, no subject has stirred more controversy than the PG position.  "PG Wars" have flared frequently and ferociously.  Every single PG on the roster has been the subject of controversy.  Each has had his supporters, each has had his detractors.

I have been no stranger to these debates.  More than anything else on this site, I have probably become known as a tireless, and frequently tiring to those who disagree with me, advocate for the potential of Jerryd Bayless. I post opinions about many other players and many other topics, but I always seem to return to Bayless.  The truth is, I can't help it.  My fellow fans here at BE, and the local media provoke me on a regular basis.

Bayless' Repetitive Critics and My Repetitive Responses

I read and hear the same criticisms over and over:  "he isn't a PG;"  "he just puts his head down and drives to the basket;"  "he can't shoot;"  "he is an out of control TO machine;" etc., etc.  I respond to each of these statements by pointing out the stats that strongly suggest that while these statements may have been true when Bayless first arrived, they are a less and less accurate description of his play.  You know the drill:  I point out his improved AST%, his decreased TO%, his best on the team improvement in his PER.  I point out that he shot 38% from 3 after the All-Star break and that he had a better TS% than Miller, or than Roy had in his second year.  Yada, yada, yada.

What I have noticed over time, is that my arguments seem to bounce off those who disagree with me.  It simply doesn't matter how much he has improved, it doesn't matter what the stats say, it doesn't matter how favorably he compares to other young PGs.  Most fans have simply made up their minds and don't want to be confused by arguments or facts that don't fit with their opinions.  After thinking about it for some time, I think what we have going on here is a case of confirmation bias.  What is confirmation bias?  Here, in part, is what Wikipedia has to say:

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and/or recall have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a stronger weighting for data encountered early in an arbitrary series) and illusory correlation (in which people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

In other words, once people form strong opinions about a subject, in this case a basketball player, they tend to only take in information that confirms their existing opinion.  You don't have to be a rocket scientist or to have studied sociology (like I did) to see how this would effect basketball fans in terms of their ability to evaluate young players.  If a young guy comes in and struggles, fans tend to develop a negative first impression that is very hard to shake.  If the player shows improvement, fans will tend to ignore the improved play and remember only those plays where the player repeated their earlier mistakes. 

Of course, confirmation bias cuts both ways.  I may be the one blinded by my early optimism about Bayless. Perhaps I only notice the good plays and conveniently forget the ugly turnovers.  It is partly because of my fear of my own bias that I started turning to the stats to try to "check" my own perceptions.  The more I looked at the stats, the more I compared Bayless to other young PGs, the more I became convinced that his potential was real.

Seeing What We Want to See

In the case of Bayless, we seem to have a classic case of attitude polarization.  We have all watched the same games and read the same reports, but we have come to very different conclusions.  Those, like me, who are optimistic about Bayless look at his excellent athleticism, exceptional work ethic, and outstanding ability to get to the line (6.7 times per 36) and we hope he will improve as a defender, shooter, and decision maker.  Those who are pessimists focus on his weaknesses and tend to underestimate the value of the things he does well and tend to minimize the fact that he has come so far in such a short period.

I think the perceptions of the local media guys is particularly interesting.  The newspaper guys:  Quick, Smith, and Eggers all seem to see some potential.  The radio and broadcast guys have been highly critical of Bayless from early on.  Jaynes and Vance have been unrelentingly negative. To me, this is a case of "old school guys" who do not like new style PGs.  Both Jaynes and Vance cut their teeth in the days of classic "pass first" PGs.  The recent rule changes eliminating hand checking above the foul line have changed the game.  It has put a premium on PGs who can penetrate.  Few can penetrate better than Bayless.  Mike Barrett became a close personal friends with Steve Blake and his family.  Blake's sister is a producer at 95.5.  I think all of these factors have tended to create a bit of negative group think at 95.5 regarding Bayless.

Of course, it doesn't really matter what the fans think, it probably doesn't even matter what the local media guys think.  There are only three opinions that really matter:  Nate, Rich, and PA.  My guess is that Bayless' fate as a Blazer will likely be determined in the next 30 days.  

If he gets the chance to stay, I fully expect him to continue marching along the development path he was on last year.  Imagine, if you will, a Jerryd Bayless who picks up where he left off in the Phoenix series:  shooting 40% from 3 pt range; posting a AST% of 28%, a TO% under 10, an AST/TO of 3:1.  Imagine him being able to spread the floor for Roy in the way that Blake did, while at the same time being a constant threat to take it to the rim and a powerful one man break in the open floor.  He doesn't need to be Steve Nash as a distributor, he just needs to be Steve Blake +; a guy who rings up 5-6 assists per 36 while sharing distribution responsibilities with one of the best playmaking SGs in the league.  Stop thinking about PG as a position, and start thinking about it as a set of functions that can be divided up among the perimeter players in any way that works.

Part 2 of my little PG series will be a discussion of how I visualize these functions being divided up between our perimeter players, assuming that we stick to the current roster minus Rudy.

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