Interview with Caliper CEO Dr. Herb Greenberg

Caliper is the psychological assessment firm that tests the compatibility of job applicants to a variety of careers, including the NBA. Dr. Herb Greenberg, founder, president and CEO of Caliper, graciously agreed to a telephone interview on the morning after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ conquest of the Detroit Pistons.

Dr. Greenberg talked with me about:

  • Cleveland reaching the NBA Finals
  • physical talent versus psychology
  • the role-player
  • the importance of player-coach compatibility
  • a player’s proper position
  • his favorite player not in the NBA
  • Chris Bosh’s test results
  • Tony Parker as a “great player”
  • the Raptors drafting Andrea Bargnani.

HoopsAddict.com: First of all, thank you, Dr. Greenberg, for giving me time on a Sunday morning to talk basketball. Have you been following the NBA playoffs at all?

Dr. Greenberg: Oh yes. I mean, not totally close, but yes, several of our clients are involved, including Detroit. So sure, I’ve been following it.

HoopsAddict.com: What was your take on last night’s events?

Dr. Greenberg: I don’t know … what happened last night?

HoopsAddict.com: Cleveland moved on to the Finals.

Dr. Greenberg: Wow. I thought Detroit would come back. I’m amazed, I really am. You know, I like Cleveland. We’ve done a lot of work with Cleveland over the years, but I’m really amazed. Detroit is just a classically good team. I have no real comment on it except I’m surprised.

It will be interesting. I’m not sure how Cleveland will do against San Antonio. That they got this far is a tremendous achievement.

HoopsAddict.com: Looking ahead to the draft, can you comment on Caliper’s tests on NBA prospects?

Dr. Greenberg: The study we did on basketball … have you seen the data? These are kids who are all drafted in the same round: kids that we like, who we felt were job-matched, compared with kids, obviously with similar talent, who were not job-matched. And the kids who were job-matched, who have the psychological “stuff”, outperformed the others 2- or 3-1 in almost every statistical category.

Now, that does not mean that they were more talented, because they weren’t. Unless the scouts were completely nuts, the kids drafted in the first round, the 30 players, are all pretty damn talented. Is there a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan among them, two or three that were that good? Usually yes. Although in some cases even these “can’t misses” have missed pretty grossly. But, fundamentally – and this is very important to note – these are 30 of the top scouts/GMs in the country who decided on the 30 top basketball players among some 20,000. Thirty out of 20,000. I don’t think people really understand that. So, to be picked in the first, or even second, round – so now it’s 60 out of thousands – these are the best according to the top brains in the country.

I wonder if you can tell me – I’ve challenged general managers to do this – the names of even half the kids drafted in the second round last year. I can’t do it. Even some first-rounders, they’ve had minimalistic careers, two or three years, in some cases with a lot of money, and that’s it.

In other words, like in baseball, a high school pitcher can throw the ball 93-94 mph. Guess what? None of those high-schoolers can hit against him. They’re all gonna miss. But if that ball is straight, if he can’t throw a curve, or if he doesn’t have that extra something, even in Class-A ball they’re gonna kill him. So it’s the same sort of thing: It’s gotta start with talent.

(Remember the International Basketball League? We owned the Trenton Shooting Stars franchise. We played for two years. I proved to myself that I can draft a pretty good team using our technique. Two years in a row we missed the championship by one shot.)

The talent’s gotta be there. But there are many pro teams and several college teams where the line has been: “You’re five great players, but there aren’t enough basketballs for all five.” They’re great individuals, but not the team, not the heart, not the winning fire. So, going back to that first round, they all have the talent, but not many of them can make the NBA. Talent alone can’t carry it. There’s got to be that heart and that head.

I wrestled in college and I did okay – in my senior year I was 18-4. I was great against the city schools and the Ivy League schools, but when the big boys from Iowa came in, I was dead meat. When I wrestle with my eleven-year-old I’m a champion; even at my ripe old age, I’m unbeatable. The point is, at some point the talent alone is enough, but when you get to the NBA level – you’re trying to shoot against a guy who was on the All-Defensive Team last year, someone equal to you in talent – that’s where the psychology, the competitiveness, the leadership, the decision-making ability, the self-discipline, the self-esteem (the ability to fail and bounce back) becomes all-encompassing.

HoopsAddict.com: Speaking of those traits that you just mentioned: can these be interpreted as, say, “Can this player be a role-player rather than a star”?

Dr. Greenberg: Absolutely. One interesting story: A player was about to be cut from a team a few years ago. We liked him a lot. We interviewed the coach, talked to him about what was the matter. We said, “Try not to cut him. Why don’t you trade him to this other team, see what you can get for him. We think he can succeed. There’s a problem between you and this kid.” They did trade him, and he became Sixth Man of the Year a couple years in a row. We knew he had that in him.

There were two problems:

1) He and the coach were incompatible. The coach’s style was totally alien; this kid wouldn’t respond to it.

2) This kid was intensely competitive. You bring this kid in there, where the team needs a lift, a shot in the arm, that’s exactly what this kid is. But he also wouldn’t be consistent over four quarters. He could be brilliant in one quarter and go totally cold the next.

And that’s the sixth man: bring him in, light his fire, use him as long as the fire is going, and then pull him. Like a good closer in baseball.

Similar to that, talking about player-coach compatibility: This player is still in the league, I believe. He was a lock for a lottery pick, and we liked him. Only one thing: we said, “Draft him, but you can’t beat him up. You gotta tell him you love him. He needs support. He doesn’t have the self-esteem. He couldn’t take a beating, but he’s got the competitive fire.”

Okay. They drafted him. He did very well in training camp. Now, opening night, national TV. He’s playing quite well. Things are going great. Suddenly, a teammate intercepts a pass, passes to him, and he flings the ball halfway down the court. The other team re-intercepts it, comes down the court and scores. Four-point turnaround. Coach calls timeout, charges out onto the court, grabs him literally by the ear, drags him to the sidelines, and on national TV, chews his tail out like you wouldn’t believe, calls him every name under the sun. Ended his career. That was it. He couldn’t play the rest of the game. He was talented enough that he hung onto the league for a few more years, but as a ninth, tenth man. It destroyed him. He could’ve been a total superstar with the right coach.

A player also needs the right position. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve said to a coach, “Does he have to play the point? Can he play the two? Because he’s not a leader, he’s not a point guard. He has all the stuff, but just don’t make him a point guard. He’s gonna shoot too much. He’s gonna want his shots and not worry about the team’s shots.” And vice versa: we’ve said about some shooting guards and three’s, “Can he play the point?”

We had a kid on our team [the Trenton Shooting Stars]. He’s still around, still lighting it up in Italy. You may know the name: Alvin Young. He was the leading scorer in college basketball a number of years ago for Niagara. Just lit it up. We tested him for a team and loved this kid. “Please, please draft him.” No one drafted him. And he went to Italy and led an A-league in scoring. I’m pretty close friends with some of the GMs, and I had several long chats with them, pleading for them to give Alvin a shot. The answer was, “He’s six-foot-one, does not handle the ball brilliantly as a point guard, and he’s too small to be a two in the NBA.” So I said, “I don’t care what you do, let him guard the point and offensively play the two. All this kid can do is play incredible basketball, including defence.” He never got drafted. I did everything I could. The sweetest human being you’d ever want to meet in your life. I had him over for Thanksgiving dinner.

Anyway, when we got the team, one of the other teams drafted him and we made a deal for him. First of all, he was the best defensive player we had. Whenever there was a top three-point shooter on the other team, Alvin would guard him. He guarded the point and played the two. He was our best player.

When I talk to GMs, I tell them the story of Chris Mullin, who we also tested. We tested him for the Nets, but Golden State drafted him. And I heard the same [excuses]: “He’s too slow, his lateral movement isn’t good enough, he’s not quick enough for a two, he’s not big enough for a three.” I said, “I don’t care. If he’s not big enough to rebound he’ll get to the ball. He’s got a nose for the ball. All he’ll be is a great player.” And of course, he was an All-Star and Olympic player.

So both ways work: They can have the talent and blow it completely, or coached out of it. Or, on the other hand, they don’t seem to have all the physical attributes and yet do well. I can name player after player after player in baseball and basketball – in baseball, Eddie Stanky, Tim Bogar, I can go on and on – who don’t have the physical talent, the speed, but somehow or other they get there.

You know who’s got a great sense of that, by the way? I just finished reading Billy Beane’s book, Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. He gets it. (I’m gonna try to work with him. He doesn’t know it yet, but I’m going to try to work with him, do a study.) You can have all the training in the world, but it has to start with the psychology, to take a pitch instead of swinging at a bad ball, to value a walk as much as a base hit. It’s gotta be there.

HoopsAddict.com: In Toronto, we were told by media that Chris Bosh’s test results raised a red flag, but the Raptors drafted him anyway. Can you comment on that?

Dr. Greenberg: Chris Bosh was a guy who we grossly underestimated. We never said that he couldn’t do it; we didn’t see how good he could be through the test. He’s one of the very few who I would say we underestimated. In basketball, we underestimated Karl Malone. We didn’t say “don’t draft him,” but we didn’t say he was a “can’t miss.” We just sort of said, “If he’s got the talent, go ahead.” He and Mitch Richmond are the two that I can name that we didn’t see the superstar in them. We saw positive things, but on balance, we said, “It’s neutral. If you love him, go ahead.” It wasn’t like, “Stay away from him.”

On the other hand, there’s Tony Parker for example: we worked with the Spurs, who had the 28th pick in the draft, and they were going to trade it. They tested a few kids. And we asked – I guess it was Gregg Popovich at the time – “Who is Tony Parker?” “He’s some French kid playing B-level basketball.” “Are you sure? Take a look at him, if he’s there.” They picked him. They were sure that he wouldn’t make the team, but he made the team. Then they were sure that he wouldn’t start. He didn’t start for five games … and the rest is history. We didn’t know his talent, but he screamed not only “great player,” but “point guard”: leadership ability, the smarts, willingness to make quick, instant decisions, the self-esteem to screw up and bounce right back (which is so critical), the coachability, the intense competitiveness, the hunger to win, the team orientation – all the things that you look for in a point guard. He’s going to exceed that talent level.

There are many, many stories like that. There’s Jason Isringhausen in baseball. Who’s this kid from a little high school in Oklahoma, a third baseman/pitcher? “Please, please draft him” – he gets picked in the 44th round. And you see what he is now.

And to the Knicks, we screamed, “David Lee! David Lee!” and “Channing Frye!” Thank goodness they drafted them. I wish the rest of the team performed as well.

HoopsAddict.com: How many clients do you have in the NBA?

Dr. Greenberg: [Counting out loud] Detroit, Denver, Sacramento, Phoenix, the Knicks, Cleveland, the Lakers, Milwaukee … about 15. Oh, almost forgot Washington – Tommy Sheppard would not like that – and Orlando … about 15.

HoopsAddict.com: Right, Orlando. I read that article about how you helped John Gabriel.

Dr. Greenberg: John Gabriel’s a very good friend. There’s a great story I’m very proud of with Orlando: The last year that Doc Rivers played in San Antonio, we tested the whole team. We tested Doc and talked to him. We said, “You have two choices for careers, and there are no other options in your life,” and he laughed, as if I held a gun to his head. “You’re either a broadcaster or a head coach.” And so he became a broadcaster, and he was Coach of the Year for the Orlando Magic. So that worked out well.

HoopsAddict.com: To whom are player profiles available?

Dr. Greenberg: Whoever they tell us to. Always, of course, to the general managers. For example with Denver, Jeff Weltman always got the feedback, and Kiki Vandeweghe was very involved. Of course Harry Weltman, the Dad, was the first GM who we worked with in the NBA, back in ’83. (In fact, Gordon Gund, who owned the then-Minnesota North Stars hockey team and the Cavs, was the first owner to bring us in to work with the Stars. He went over to the Nets and brought us with him.) I got to know Jeff when he first worked with the Clippers, and when he went over to the Nuggets we worked with them. We were involved in the trade of McDyess going to the Knicks for draft picks, which got them Nene, who we liked enormously. The general managers almost always approve it, and then they may say work with so-and-so in the day-to-day feedback prior to the draft.

HoopsAddict.com: At what point before the draft do teams call you in to assess potential picks?

Dr. Greenberg: It’s sort of routine. A couple weeks or a month prior to the draft they’ll start sending in players. There was a lot of effort, there was a trial, it didn’t work real well, but we hope it still will – we’d actually go to the Chicago combine and test all the kids there so that everybody who wants it will have access to it. But that hasn’t happened yet. We started it one year but there was a big union/league struggle going on. We still hope it will happen. It makes a lot of sense: instead of making these kids take the tests over and over again, do it in one place.

Almost as a balance to the Chris Bosh thing: did you read the article about Bargnani? That’s the kind of thing we’re very, very proud of. We did some … I wouldn’t say “arm twisting,” because they liked him, but they knew they’d get a lot of criticism for drafting him. I can tell you right now: He will be one of the top eight or ten centers in NBA history. They’re happy with it, we’re happy with it. In fact, a lot of that Raptors team: Mo Peterson was one of our picks, about six or seven kids on that team were our picks.

HoopsAddict.com: Thank you very much, Dr. Greenberg. You gave me far more of your time than I expected.

Dr. Greenberg: You’re welcome. Take care.

For more information on Caliper and its work with sports franchises, click here.

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18 thoughts on “Interview with Caliper CEO Dr. Herb Greenberg

  1. Hmm… Interesting interview. I wish there was a little more on how the Caliper test really determines an athlete’s ability; if it’s a test that measures all psychological aspects, or just for certain situations. I guess that would be giving away the trade secrets, but in the end, I’m still not quite sure what it measures specifically. I mean, it seems to measure drive and perseverence, but then again, Chris Bosh should have tested much higher in those aspects then. If it measures coolness and judgement ability under pressure, then that might explain a few of the characteristics that Bargnani scored incredibly high on.

    I wonder what VC’s Caliper was then? Hmmm.

  2. Kinnon, Check the link at the bottom of the article. There’s some information on tests there.

    From what I gather, the three key traits (possibly along with others) are:
    Self-esteem
    Self-discipline
    Competitiveness.

  3. Exactly Jeff, those three points supercede a one sided ego guy who is afraid to succeed.

    I tell the kids I coach all the time that if they do something well, train harder and establish a well rounded game that coaches on higher levels would notice.

    I wish he would help my Sixers. The front office is just not getting it done and need all the help they can get.

    Nice interview. Good get. I always wondered why some guys are ahead of others with similar talent.

  4. I would have liked to ask Greenberg, “can anything be done to change players? How do they grow?” So if you find a player who is just lacking in this one thing, can you cultivate that in him, or do you live with the good you have and try to find that one thing in someone else? For example, he’s a fantastic player, but is just missing some leadership qualities. (Maybe Kobe Bryant?) In the NBA, the best player is usually the leader, so if he’s missing the leadership, it’s a problem. What do you do?

  5. Interesting and relevant interview. What is noteworthy is the huge “disconnect” NBA management have with the product known as players. Therefore since the league is a billion dollar business they have psychoanalysts making determinations on a players psyche and potential. This is predicated on fear. Danny Ainge the Celt’s GM has made plenty of draft choices by using a NBA version of the NFL’s wunderlick test which measures mental tendencies and has failed in the win column. The interview exposes the “crap-shoot” of this analysis and the lack of comuunication with NBA management and there players. This creates an opinionated view that some careers rely on. Interesting. Good work Jeff.

  6. I would like to know who he has tested in this years draft and who they see as a sleeper superstar (i.e. potential second round/undrafted)

  7. Eric – Thanks for the comment. Appreciate that especially from our resident interviewer extraordinaire. 🙂

    Jaz – Good question. I did have more questions for Dr. Greenberg, but by the end of the interview I had been on the phone with him for over half an hour, so I didn’t want to push my luck.

    Jose – Another good Q. I would guess that individual teams will be testing some players right about now, along with their private workouts. I don’t know how much of the testing Dr. Greenberg is personally involved with, though.

  8. Great interview. I’m really curious to know what player he was talking about The “draft him but you can’t beat him up guy”… ?

  9. Hey Jeff, awesome post. Love the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on in the NBA. So, I’m trying to figure this out…

    The “kid” “a few years ago” who won Sixth Man two years in a row — had to be Detlef Schrempf, right (16 years ago!), under Mavs Coach Dick Motta? See http://www.nba.com/history/awards_sixthman.html

    But the lottery pick Greenberg mentions, who the heck is that? Only clue besides “still in the league, I believe” is that he played on national TV opening night. So he had to be on a good team worthy of TV exposure at the time (e.g., not any lottery pick by the Warriors, which eliminates a whole bunch!).

  10. Mo and PMC – Thanks for the kind words. I’m guessing the same about the Sixth Man. As for the “coulda been a superstar,” I have no idea. Over at True Hoop, the readers are guessing Dunleavy Jr., Matt Barnes, etc.

  11. A couple of educated guesses:

    The Potential Superstar: KWAME BROWN
    Remember, his first game was also Jordan’s first as a Wizard, and TNT broadcast their opening night game against the Knicks. DOUG COLLINS was Kwame’s life-ruiner.

    The Sixth Man: Aaron McKie
    In 1997, McKie was traded from Detroit (a long-time Caliper client) to Philly, where he would win one 6th Man award (only McHale and Schrempf won two, and neither of those fit the bill). And who was the Detroit coach that wanted to kick McKie to the curb?

    DOUG COLLINS.

    Freaky.

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