December 11, 2009

More Reviews of Books I Haven't Read: The Book of Basketball

Here's another book I skimmed at the book store:

The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons (with a Foreword by Malcolm Gladwell)

Simmons' huge book is highly informative, entertaining, and impressive. It would make an excellent Christmas gift for any intelligent pro basketball fan on your list over the age of 16 or so.

The problem with giving books as gifts is that they come with an unwritten inscription: Read the Whole Thing. This book, on the other hand, is so long that nobody could possibly feel expected to read the whole thing, and your recipient can open the book anywhere and be amused and intrigued immediately.

I only skimmed through the central section on ranking the top 96 players in pro history. Simmons is notoriously biased in favor of his Boston Celtics, so they do very well in his rankings, as do their historic archrivals, the Los Angeles Lakers (e.g., Simmons ranks Jerry West ahead of his coeval Oscar Robertson, who had more spectacular statistics in his prime). He rationalizes his Celtics bias by putting a heavy emphasis on winning playoff series (or losing playoffs to the Celtics, which is excusable because they are the Celtics). That's reasonably justified in basketball, where one player makes up 20% of his team on the floor at any point, more so than in baseball or football.

Simmons' book appear to be modeled on Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstracts, where there are various organizing devices, but plenty of room for digressions. For example, his list of top players pauses to include a list of the most genetically unique players in NBA history, including the Avatar-like Manute Bol, the 7'6" Dinka herdsman:
... of all the players I watched walk by me in the Boston Garden tunnel, only four stood out: Michael Jordan (because he was so overwhelmingly famous), David Robinson (we'll get to why later), Larry Bird (ditto) and Manute. He was breathtaking in person, and not just because of his surreal height and skin so dark that it made him seem purple. * When Manute emerged from the tunnel, we'd stop talking and gawk with our mouths agape, like everyone watching the aliens emerge from the Close Encounters UFO. It was incredible. I would have bought a ticket just to watch Manute Bol stroll by me.

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* Our country is so uptight that this point might be considered racist. Here's my defense: Manute Bol was f****** purple. I don't know what else to tell you.

Unlike James, however, Simmons isn't a statistical innovator. He mostly just uses the traditional box score statistics, but he knows them all and deploys them in a very context-sensitive fashion. For example, he includes my single favorite utterly obscure statistic, the number of steals a 35-year-old Jerry West had in 1973-1974: 81. And Simmons explains exactly why it's an important number.
What bugs me about [how West is underrated] is that -- the same way Oscar was helped by a triple-double infatuation historically -- West's legacy was wounded by the lack of a three-point line, the lack of All-Defense teams (didn't start until 1969) and that they didn't keep track of steals until 1973-1974. *

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* West only played two months of the '74 season before blowing out his knee (ending his career), but in those 31 games, he had 81 steals. And that was at the tail end of his basketball life! Imagine West's resume if he was averaging 3 steals a game, made 3 three's a game, shot 40-plus from three and made 13 first-team All Defenses.

Now that Youtube has come along, Simmons can watch highlight reels of all the players before his time. In baseball, that's not all that helpful because it's hard to see much difference over time. From ancient newsreels of the 1924 World Series, you can't really tell whether Walter Johnson's fastball was 95 mph or 85 mph. (I'd guess the latter, but who knows?) So, Bill James' default in looking at historic baseball statistics analysis is to measure players against the league average, and assume only a modest increase in the quality of the league average over the decades.

But, with basketball, you can easily see on Youtube how much the game improved in a fairly short period of time.

For example, here's a two-minute video about a 1962 Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals game in which Elgin Baylor scored 61 points. Now I had always grown up hearing about how Elgin Baylor had invented the modern aerial game of basketball but he doesn't seem to be getting terribly far off the ground in these clips. At least Baylor is getting farther off the ground than the Celtics who are, theoretically, supposed to be playing defense against him, none of whom seem to have heard of the concepts of double-teaming or denying the ball to the guy who is on his way to scoring 61 on you in the Finals. And the Celtics were, by far, the greatest team of that era, so I don't want to even think about what a Pistons-Royals game in November would have been like back then.

Similarly, video explains the discrepancy between Earl the Pearl Monroe's legend and his merely pretty good statistics. Monroe had a unique spinning style that was exhilarating to watch, but wasn't all that effective because pirouetting around on the ground didn't get him that much closer to the basket. In contrast, the young Michael Jordan's style of going up and at the basket was brutally direct and effective.

Anyway, Simmons knows infinitely more about basketball than I do, so read his book.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

29 comments:

Jeff said...

I highly recommend the book.

I found that Simmons' refusal to deploy new, complex bball stats makes the book a lot more interesting and complex.

Anonymous said...

Worlds colliding!! Worlds colliding!!

Put me down as someone who thinks Simmons is far more astute than funny. He is pretty funny though and usually an enjoyable read.

Of course, he's also a liberal fairy just like every other mainstream writer but you take the good with the bad.


Dan in DC

Anonymous said...

What's funny to me is that most pro basketball players would probably be incapable of reading this book, if they even happened to think of reading as a worthwhile activity. Which they don't.

jody said...

you can watch many of the lakers-celtics championship games from 25 years ago and go 12 minutes of game time without seeing a single dunk. not that dunking defines the quality of play, but, entire quarters with no dunks? some old timers would have you believe the NBA players in the 1980s were superhumans that would easily dominate the modern game, but it's so obvious that they would not. the 2001 lakers would crush the 1985 lakers. sweep them 4-0 in a series. o'neal would foul out every front court starter, every game. bryant would get anything he wants, any time he wants.

you can youtube any sports from 20 or 30 years ago and see how not impressive most of it was. i think track & field holds up the best. some of the top non-drug performances in the 1980s were really pretty good. the 1:41 800 that sebastian coe ripped off is still the second or third fastest ever.

burger flipper said...

I wonder if Simmons reads your blog, or was pointed to this review. I believe he discussed the misconception of Baylor playing above the hoop in his 30 for 30 podcast today (it is ostensibly about football but gets into hoops).

jody said...

by the way, kevin love came back from his injury, had 7 points and 19 rebounds against the lakers tonight. not a good shooting night, but he's averaging 14 points a game this year.

hardly the inferior athlete that steve made him out to be. steve tried to write some gar-bage about love running into "NBA ready" players in NCAA baseketball on the 2008 memphis team. like who? chris douglas-roberts, the monster who is averaging 4 points a game for the nets? joey dorsey, not even in the NBA? there was one NBA ready player on that team, derrick rose, and he's a guard.

even steve falls for the double standards used to measure white athletes. 1 bad game = proof that they can't possibly play, and need to find their way out of the sport.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Chris Douglas Roberts averages a lot more than 4 pts a game considering he is one of the best players on a terrible team.....nice try though Jody.


Dan in DC

Anonymous said...

How much different is it than Bryant getting 81 against the Raptors or 62 against Denver, or whatever? Bird didn't play above the rim. He didn't have to. The Dipper was the only man to dunk from the foul line without a running start. He gets a 100 in a game in Philly when he was young and latter, in his career, he totally dominated Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., defensively, by constantly denying him the sky hook and forcing the jumper. Something no one else was able to do.

Oscar definitely was a great player and could play today, no problem.

Anonymous said...

you can watch many of the lakers-celtics championship games from 25 years ago and go 12 minutes of game time without seeing a single dunk. not that dunking defines the quality of play, but, entire quarters with no dunks?



A dunk only counts for two points, same as a jump shot.

We were discussing football here a while back and the point was made that NFL players don't know how to tackle, they're only taught how to give a "shot" to somebody. It looks good when it comes off.

Same in bb, there's a lot more razzmatazz than their used to be, but the basic skills of shooting, dribbling, and playing defence have not changed one bit.

The Celtics team that won the title a couple of years back? They would not have taken the 86 Celts.

Anonymous said...

the 2001 lakers would crush the 1985 lakers. sweep them 4-0 in a series. o'neal would foul out every front court starter, every game. bryant would get anything he wants, any time he wants.



I don't know about a Kareem/O'Neal matchup, but Kobe would lose out to Magic.

Anonymous said...

Today's American B-Ball teams are much better. That's why our pros consistently win in the Olympics bringing home the gold.

Oh wait, they don't. Team play matters. I wouldn't be surprised to see an old school team beat our modern superstars.

OneSTDV said...

Simmons is one of my favorite writers, absolutely hilarious. I read him religiously for a number of years. He knows his basketball.

Only fallback: He had a few discussions with Gladwell a couple months ago where he seemed accepting of his garbage.

OneSTDV said...

On playing above the rim:

I wrote this post last summer on how European players thrive in the NBA:

European Players in NBA

DAJ said...

chris douglas-roberts, the monster who is averaging 4 points a game for the nets?

As of today, Douglas-Roberts averages 16 points and 4.5 rebounds a game.

http://www.nba.com/playerfile/chris_douglas-roberts/index.html

Anonymous said...

I'm digging your "Review of Books I Haven't Read" schtick as it is inherently anti-Marxist: yes you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover, and unnecessarily verbose subtitle, and the dust jacket blurbs, and by flipping through a few pages, notwithstanding this 20th century tripe about judgment being a bad thing. I do it all the time at my local library's new arrival section.

alonzo portfolio said...

Wilt scored 100 in Hershey, not Philly. By the way, in an interview a few years ago Nate Thurmond, who Jabbar called his toughest defender, was asked how well he thought he'd do against Shaq. He answered, "you have to remember, my heaviest playing weight was 233 pounds."

Truth said...

A couple of misc. points:

Chamberlin too, said that West was a better player than Robertson.

Jody, I agree with you about NBA ballplayers of the 70's being obviously "inferior". The level of height, reach, and athleticism was not even a contest compared to what it is today. However, In my personal opinion, the level of "basketball", from an entertainment standpoint, peaked in the late 1980's. The defense-oriented game of today, while highly effective, chokes the life out of the game.

Chris Douglas-Roberts averages 17 points a game. Love is an excellent rebounder who happens to be a 6'8 power forward, and gets a ton of shots smacked back into his face.

Oscar Robertson could play today, but he'd be an awful lot like OJ Mayo. He's about the same size, and much of his success came in backing down 5'9 160 lb. guys, like Cousy.

Magic may have been a better "player" than Kobe in some respect, but if you put them on the court against each other, Phil Jackson would put Kobe on Magic, but Pat Riley would put Michael Cooper on Kobe.

Anonymous said...

I watched the NBA on TV during the 1960's. Elgin Baylor would "hang in the air," even if he didn't do so in the 2 minute clip of the 1962playoff game. Baylor also had a head twitch, a built in head fake it was said.

From around 1964 until the end of his career, Baylor had knee trouble that slowed him down. I remember a game in 1969, I believe, on the ABC Game of the Week. Baylor went up in the air, spun around completely, and got the shot off while still in the air. I couldn't believe what I had seen. Baylor at the time was 35, with bad knees. The crowd (in Boston) gave him an ovation. This memory has stayed with me for 40 years.

Anonymous said...

The idea that the weakness of the early 00s USA international teams is rooted in a lack of "teamwork" is a farce. Those teams lost because we didn't field the top-tier talent, while the other international teams were improving dramatically. Period. Once we got the truly elite players back the team went back to dominating.

Moreover, to the extent that teamwork matters, their weakness was that these teams were put together haphazardly too often. You can't learn to work as a team unless you actually have one.

Mike said...

There was an interesting post on Jordan's 'flat' shot at Marginal Revolution a while back.

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/04/why-was-michael-jordans-shot-so-flat.html

Kevin K said...

Hakeem Olajuwon's Dreamshake move was also a pirouette away from the basket, but he used to create space away from slower centers.

Richard Hoste said...

I wonder if Simmons reads your blog, or was pointed to this review. I believe he discussed the misconception of Baylor playing above the hoop in his 30 for 30 podcast today (it is ostensibly about football but gets into hoops).

Funny you say that. In this column Simmons writes

I'm calling it the "Tiger Zoo" instead of "TigerGate," only because we have to break the habit of slapping "gate" at the end of everything.

Didn't someone make this exact same point in the comments here within the last week?

MQ said...

What's funny to me is that most pro basketball players would probably be incapable of reading this book, if they even happened to think of reading as a worthwhile activity. Which they don't.

most Americans in their 20s are not readers, pro ballplayers would be no exception, but there are plenty of smart, articulate NBA stars. You can't really attain and remain at the top of the game without mental discipline and a good mind for the game.

How many of us could have managed career, success, celebrity, expectations at 18-21 as well as Lebron James has?

DCThrowback said...

I agree with Dan in DC - totally worlds colliding here. I've been reading him on ESPN Page 2 now for about 7 years. It seems so simple now, but he was one for the first to match pop culture and sports together in one hodge-podge. As it turns out, sports fans like to watch movies and tv - but no one (besides Norman Chad, whom he gave thanks to in a podcast a few months ago) put it together with the humor and understanding of his audience like Simmons did. I want to say he has over 500k followers on twitter...if 20% buy books, you're doing okay. But Simmons deserves credit for sticking to his method of writing when newspapers throughout Boston wouldn't give him the time of day during the mid-90s. Who's laughing now?

A few notes about Bill:
1.) Scored 1330 on his SATs
2.) Went to Holy Cross
3.) Is a degenerate gambler and talks about it incessantly, which is awesome.
4.) Has 2 kids, lives in LA (he worked for the Jimmy Kimmel show for a couple of years in the early 00s)
5.) He disclosed that writing for ESPN a few years ago nets him about $400k/year. That may have increased.

I am about 600 pages into the book and love it. I don't even much like the NBA, but I respect Simmons because he's just so passionate about it. And he knows his stuff on it (unlike the NFL and MLB, which he is good but not great).

As another commenter mentioned, he and Malcolm Gladwell (and Chuck Klosterman, whom I actually like) are close. Gladwell wrote the forgettable introduction to the current book.

His politics (when mentioned) are typically left wing, but once and a while he can exhibit some common sense. To his credit, he makes fun of the "middle-aged white sports media" when possible and we all know they some of the worst lefties out there.

On the topic of today's teams v. the teams of the 80s and those of the 60s, quite simply the average player has gotten better in the last 40 years, so it takes even more excellence to achieve like Kobe, LeBron and the like. But don't discount the affect of the salary cap, which attempts to discourage the dominance of dynasties...of course, you wouldn't know by looking at the Lakers of '99-'01 and the Spurs of '02-'07...which shows the need for a talented "alpha-dog" and an excellent supporting cast with a couple more reliable scoring options.

Anonymous said...

Simmons' is pals with Adam Carolla. Carolla has a popular non-PC (he notices that blacks are more athletic than whites and that Jews dominate Hollywood) podcast. Back in September, ESPN may have banned Simmons from doing the Carolla podcast. Word was that there were too many "blue" discussions on the show. I think it had more to do with Carolla being too honest about HBD. Carolla went on a rant re: ESPN execs being a bunch of pussies, etc. for not letting their "talent" do his show.

Simmons responded on Twitter.

I posted the following on Carolla's site.

"Please don’t think I condoned my friend Carolla’s juvenile/misguided rant yesterday. He poured gasoline on a four-inch bonfire. Just stupid." - Bill Simmons on Twitter

Let’s be honest, Sports journalism/broadcasting is one of the most politically correct careers a person could enter.

It’s fitting that Chris Collinsworth was on the juvenile/misguided podcast [today].

“I always tell my wife, I’m like, how many broadcasters have you ever seen that they utter one phrase, usually they’re joking about something, and they’re, they’re fired. You know…Jimmy The Greek…Rush Limbaugh went through the thing on ESPN and we’re all fully capable of being that guy and given day…I could do anything tomorrow and be out of this business.”

“Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, has said that the United States is “a nation of cowards” on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid discussions of racial issues.”

I would agree. Although, Holder merely wants to continue to brow beat white folks into PC submission. We live in such a politically correct society, that we are not allowed to discuss matter of race and ethnicity openly and honestly.

I’m guessing ESPN doesn’t want their talent on Adam’s podcast because he does discuss issues of race and ethnicity candidly. I hardly think it’s the jizz and porn talk. He breaks PC codes.

We’re not allowed to discuss things that are obvious to a child. A few weeks ago, I was at my ultra PC brother’s house while a track event was on the TV. My sister-in-law was explaining that they were going to race to see who the fastest man in the world was. Her six-year-old son asked, “Why are there only brown people running.” She laughed uncomfortably and changed the subject.

To see discussion on why there were only brown people running read Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It

http://www.amazon.com/Taboo-Athletes-Dominate-Sports-Afraid/dp/189162039

Anonymous said...

“I always tell my wife, I’m like, how many broadcasters have you ever seen that they utter one phrase, usually they’re joking about something, and they’re, they’re fired. You know…Jimmy The Greek…Rush Limbaugh went through the thing on ESPN and we’re all fully capable of being that guy and given day…I could do anything tomorrow and be out of this business.” - Cris Collinsworth

Sorry about the confusion. Shouldn't drink Pinot Noir while typing...

Anonymous said...

Interesting phenomenon here, all the white Walter Mitty types come out to express their adulation for the professional black athletes of the NBA. Blacks play, whites pay the inflated ticket prices in order to watch. How many of you have a pin up of a black athlete in your bedroom,hmmmm?

trey said...

I'd be interested in hearing why Simmons found Larry Bird and David Robinson so interesting when they walked by him in the Boston Garden tunnel if anyone knows. The quoted paragraph doesn't say and I couldn't find it on the internet.

Truth said...

Buy the book you cheap fucking bastard!