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Oct 31 2013

Royce White and the Calculus of Second Chances

For the past six years, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey partnered with his Vice President, Sam Hinkie, in a hoops version of Moneyball; utilizing analytics as a critical driver of personnel decisions and on-court tactics. Somehow, this chillingly impersonal approach based on reams of data and probabilities led to a case study in the NBA’s ability to accommodate mental health issues. Where one would expect a humane-based nurturing culture to usher the delicate issues of mental health into the league, instead we’ve seen an unbiased, cut-throat methodology of Morey and Hinkie.

524ba67938c06.preview-300The more I read about these guys, they become less stereotypically nerdy and more a pair of ruthlessly shrewd gamblers willing to roll the dice on a transaction if it meets a certain risk/reward ratio. One of those risk/reward plays was the 16th pick of the 2012 draft, Royce White. By now, White’s unsuccessful efforts at navigating the previously uncharted (to this scale) world of pro basketball and mental illness are well-known. Based on some of the comments on White-related stories, his efforts have been met by a vocal minority with savagely scathing commentary.

Instead of focusing this piece on White’s thoroughly-covered mental illnesses, I’m more interested in how the relationship and joint philosophies of Morey and Hinkie created an opportunity, which was unrealized, to continue addressing mental illness in pro sports.

The joint approach to managing the Rockets seems to be an approach Hinkie’s carrying over to Philadelphia. After cleaning out the Sixers’ front office, he quickly shocked fans by trading his best player and only All-Star, Jrue Holiday, to New Orleans for a 19-year-old Nerlens Noel who’s presently recovering from a torn ACL. On the surface, this appears to be an overly risky play for a guy like Hinkie who’s been quoted as saying, “I’m all about expected values … I just want us to play the odds all the time.” A proven commodity exchanged for an injured kid who’s never stepped foot on an NBA court feels like long odds, but if viewed from the Hinkie/Morey school of rebuilding, the deal makes sense in its emphasis on cutting long-term salary, acquiring cheap, low-risk/high-reward assets and stockpiling first round picks. All these tactics break smoothly from the conventions of most NBA front offices.

The deal for Royce White is another low-risk no-brainer for both GMs and was possible for a couple reasons:

  1. The existing relationship between Morey and Hinkie. It helped Morey clear cap space necessary to add Dwight Howard and gave Hinkie a low-risk (from financial perspective)/high-reward (on-court) player without giving up much of anything.
  2. The tension between White and the Rockets was unsustainable. As active as Morey is in his willingness to make roster moves, one would assume he made multiple attempts to move the troubled White. In Hinkie, he found the perfect trade partner: A man familiar with White’s mental challenges and a kindred spirit willing to break from convention – if the risk/reward was satisfactory.

On October 24, White was cut by the Sixers who, already with copious amounts of cap room, ended up owing him just $1.71-million. Hinkie’s personnel changes and comments have clearly articulated a long-term process in place, part of which includes a drastic shift in culture. While White made a couple appearances in the preseason, he showed an expected rust that revealed itself in turnovers and fouls mixed with occasional deft passing and rebounding. He was even willing to take a plane ride for the team, but Hinkie and Company made the decision to cut ties with the talented, but tortured forward.

It’s difficult to envision another scenario where White finds success in the NBA. The relationship and unique GM philosophies of Morey and Hinkie combined with the personnel situation in Philadelphia created a perfect, low-pressure environment in which White could succeed, and yet he didn’t survive training camp. This doesn’t bode well for either White or future players in his position. It’s reasonable to question how White has conducted himself within these relationships, but it’s clear that NBA teams aren’t presently equipped to address mental health issues to the degree of White’s. Given the anxiety and panic attacks surrounding his fear of flying and the crippling power of his obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s fair to wonder if White’s afflictions are too powerful to fit within the confines of today’s NBA. It’s also fair to question whether White were someone else, a better player with more to contribute, a player who tilted the scales more favorably in the direction of reward instead of unknown risk, if Houston or Philadelphia maybe would have been willing to extend the line a bit further, grant greater patience, explore further alternatives and solutions to make it work … if there’s a little doubt in those alternative scenarios, then there’s cause for concern even with the progressive, wide berth Hinkie and Morey have given White.