More Reviews of Books I Haven`t Read: The Book of Basketball
December 12, 2009, 05:21 PM
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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.

—————— * 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. *

————— * 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.