Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Big Book of Basketball (Part 2) -- Dan Responds

Editor's Note: As I mentioned earlier, Dan B. and I will be having a conversation on Bill Simmons' "The Big Book of Basketball". Here is his response to my earlier post.


I'm finished -- I actually finished a couple days ago, but I'm responding now. And on the whole, I feel exactly as you do about the book. When people ask me "How was it?", I respond "Good", but before the word is even out of my mouth I'm already qualifying it. It ends up being a stuttered yes and scattered thoughts. It's a mess. Which is appropriate, because the book is kind of a mess.

I'm not going to address your points individually, because I mostly just agree with all of them, and it'd be boring to read that I agreed with all of them. But I do have one over-arching thought that I think might address many of the points at the same time. So I'll make that point, and then briefly mention other things that I noticed/had thoughts about.

My biggest problem with the book is a combination of your points 4,5, and 6 I guess. It seemed like he couldn't decide how he wanted to write and organize the book. The best way for him to do it was not to rank the best players in this stupid pyramid idea. The book should have been written like the allen iverson (page 454), david robinson (right after him), and bill walton sections, along with maybe bernard king. those sections absolutely stood out to me as by far the best sections of the book (along with the michael jordan section actually).

He's not a stat guy like bill james -- he doesn't know anything about stats, he doesn't understand them, and he doesn't really believe in them. Which is fine. But he shouldn't try to be a stat guy, and include that stuff. He would have done much better if he had realized his strengths. What are those? Well, he really is a huge basketball fan, and he has been to a ton of games, and he makes fun analogous comparisons between athletes and other cultural aspects. So that's what he should have stuck with. Don't tell me about trying to compare stats between eras -- you have no idea what you're doing. What I want to read from you is why Bill Walton is like 2pac, how the Celtic crowd reacted when David Robinson walked into the arena, and about the confrontation between Iverson and the referee. These are things that are interesting to hear from YOU, these are the things YOU write well (the last couple paragraphs on Iverson I would argue are the best-written in the entire book). Don't try to be a basketball scholar -- you're not that. And for older players, he should have either totally ignored them if he wasn't going to add anything original, or address them like he did with bernard king. I specifically remember coming away from the Bernard King section thinking that I understood Bernard King a lot better than I had before (Simmons either compared him to Carmelo or made me compare him to Carmelo, which makes sense, and helps me understand. Of course this could be wrong, and I'm just not old enough to know). But he does it with anecdotes, with first-hand or second-hand descriptions, and with arguments that go beyond statistics, and delve into how he was looked at by other players, and what the feeling was in the arena when he was playing.

So what he should have done was organized the book into "why history/statistics won't paint the whole picture on these guys" rather than "the list of 96 best players ever." I think that's probably what he started out doing, but then stopped for some reason.

OK, onto my little notes and thoughts.

Page 205 -- This is Simmons' section on Len Bias. At the bottom of the page, he argues that Bias "resonated with black fans much the same way Hawk, Pearl, and Doc did back in the day." I'm sorry, you're Bill Simmons. You're an extremely pale white guy from Boston whose first car was a Porsche and whose dad owns a yacht. If you don't want to be absolutely laughed at, you need a citation for this. Desperately. Better yet, don't include it. I actually hated almost the entire Len Bias section. It's just whining mostly. Nothing I hadn't heard or read before.

Page 217 -- At the top of the page, Simmons talks about how the NBA leads its journalists to "write black." Needless to say, this section is atrocious and offensive. I almost stopped reading. He also makes the point on this page that the NBA box score never deceives, but then argues throughout the rest of the book that stats don't tell the whole story. I'm not saying these things can't both be true; they could. Or one of them could be true. Or neither of them could be true, which is actually the case. The NBA box score does deceive all the time, and while advanced statistics don't tell the "whole" story, they can tell an awful lot of it. But of course Simmons never addresses these stats other than to say they don't work because one time Marreise Speights was ranked higher than Shane Battier in PER (nevermind that Hollinger admits that PER doesn't cover defense, or that there are TONS of other statistics that should be incorporated into an analysis of two players).

Page 323 -- Simmons talks about noticing that 2-guards make some sort of leap between 23-25 years old in his David Thompson. I found this interesting and original. I enjoyed it (even if others might think it's obvious). I also thought the David Thompson section on the whole was actually relatively well-done.

Page 344 -- Reggie Miller chapter. I actually mostly liked this chapter, but there was a paragraph on this page that was laughable. Simmons argues that (i'm paraphrasing) 21 superstars crossed paths with reggie during his career, who were all mortal locks for the all-star team, including jordan, bird, isiah, iverson, pippen, and dominique wilkens. He then, in the VERY NEXT SENTENCE, argues that if reggie was really all that good, his career should have been as successful and substantial as all those guys. since he has fewer all-star game appearances than all those guys, and since he's the only one who never appeared on an all-NBA first or second team, his career couldn't have been so great. Simmons, amazingly enough, is ignoring the obvious point that is basically jumping off the page: maybe miller didn't make the all-star teams or all-NBA teams BECAUSE ALL THOSE GUYS ARE FUCKING LEGENDS WHO WERE BETTER THAN HE WAS. that doesn't mean that reggie wasn't great -- all it means is that he wasn't as good as those guards. And those guards are some of the best of all time. Next paragraph, bill says "nine of his contemporaries at shooting guard made all-NBA (first or second)....reggie only made third-team all-NBA three times." WELL MAYBE THAT'S BECAUSE THE OTHER TWO TEAMS WERE TAKEN UP BY THE GUYS YOU JUST FUCKING MENTIONED. needless to say, this was abominable. i have to move on.

Page 356 -- I really liked the Bernard King section. Why? Let's see. Bill makes bullet points, and each goes to a strength of his. Bullet Point 1) Bill compares King to a corned beef sandwich. BP 2) talks about watching the 1984 playoff game against the celtics, and how unstoppable King was. BP 3) talks about how he rooted against Kobe breaking King's record because of how that record spoke to NY basketball fans. The rest of the bullet points I didn't much care about, but these three were good enough. I can honestly say that I came away from this book with a much better understanding of bernard king than i went into it with, which is rare for me and bill.

Page 360 -- Simmons just recites facts he learned about Paul Arizin in the last two years. Totally unnecessary. I don't care. Boring. Stop it.

Page 401 -- We get it with the cocaine jokes already. Simmons has an infatuation with cocaine and basketball. It's incredibly annoying. He talks about it all the time, and makes horrible jokes about it. I hate it. Stop it. There's a horrible Michael Ray Richardson coke joke here, and I had just reached my limit. Couldn't stand it anymore. I put the book down and didn't come back to it until the next day.

Page 402 -- Bill decides to talk here about how basic NBA statistics have failed us. Which is interesting, because it goes against his earlier thesis. It's also interesting because Bill then starts talking about all the statistics that we "should" invent, totally ignoring that for all of his made-up statistics that are relevant (about 60%), we ALREADY HAVE STATISTICS THAT MEASURE THEM, YOU JUST DON'T KNOW WHERE TO LOOK. Anyways, this comes out of a section on Wes Unseld where Bill wonders about how Wes was so good when he had atypical size and weight for a center. He ignores the existence of chuck hayes, who, if you know anything about basketball, seems to me like an offensively-limited version of what wes unseld used to be. It just shows a basic lack of understanding about how NBA statistics work now, and how they've been adjusted in the past couple years to account for things like this.

Page 408 -- Gary Payton named his kids Gary Payton Jr and Gary Payton II. I didn't know this. It's glorious. Thank you Bill.

Page 442 -- I loved the Walt Frazier section here. Really enjoyed it. Like I (think I) understand King better, I think I understand Frazier better too. Well done. He describes Walt's go-to move in detail, talks about how demoralizing it was for opposing crowds in detail, and it's great. Then he speculates about a coke problem, and I lose interest. But the first part of it is great.

Page 454 -- Great Iverson section. Best writing in the book I think. Bill does best when he says "screw the stats." Even if it's not technically correct, it's interesting, and it's an argument. It's your book Bill, make it your book. Also loved the following David Robinson and Bill Walton sections. If you only read 15 pages of the book, read from the beginning of the Iverson section to the end of the Walton section.

Page 510 -- (Describing Barkley) "Who would have been a more fun teammate than Charles Barkley? He loved gambling, drinking, eating, and busting on everyone's balls. (Wait, that sounds like me!).

I threw up here.

Page 680 -- I love the wine cellar section, except snubbing Kobe for Wade is actually indefensible. I can explain why if you're interested, but this is long enough as is.

So yeah, I enjoyed the book, I guess, kind of, but there's lots of things wrong with it, but it's mostly entertaining, but incredibly frustrating, and he's annoying with style, and makes a lot of wrong choices, and it's horrendously organized....

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