Upon finishing Infinite Jest in early December, I went a little nuts. I polished off five books in three weeks. A couple demand lengthy essays, so I’ll be dividing up my December entries into three posts. This is the first.
The Book of Basketball – Bill Simmons.*
(Note: I am writing this before reading of the New Yorker reviews of the book I linked to earlier in December.)
Bill Simmons, the writer who helped redefine sportswriting in the 2000s, on his single favorite subject: the NBA. Seems like a can’t miss hit. But this isn’t just any look at the NBA. Rather, Simmons offers a definition for success, both as an individual and as a team, in the NBA and uses that definition to rank the greatest players and teams of all-time.
Some have suggested that what Simmons has done is the modern, basketball version of what Bill James did for baseball analysis and writing in the late 70s and early 80s. I think that’s a stretch. James wasn’t just writing about baseball as no one had done before. He was fundamentally changing the way people looked at the game, creating a whole new subset of analysts who took the reams of data each baseball game offers and constructing new measures to truly gauge a player’s worth. James’ work was so revolutionary that despite gaining mainstream acceptance this decade, it remains an area of intense debate within the game, with the statheads and the scouts fighting for control of the game.
Where James’ analysis was a mathematical approach, Simmons argues that basketball can not be deconstructed in the same statistical manner. As each player’s performance is directly tied to his interactions with teammates, things like Win Shares, +/-, Value Over Replacement Player, etc. are less useful when comparing players.
He settles on The Secret, as he calls it, as his fundamental unit of differentiation. The Secret is a player’s willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, in a nut shell. That’s why Bill Russell wasn’t just better than Wilt Chamberlain, but grossly better than the Dipper in Simmons’ eyes.
While I don’t necessarily understand the new baseball stats as much as I would like, I do tend to fall into the camp that believes their development is a good thing. Thus, ranking the best basketball players based on an undefinable measure seems a little hinky to me.
But bless Simmons for taking a shot at it.
The 700 pages offer all that is good and bad about Simmons. Some of his devices get old after repeated use. There are times when it feels like he went to all this effort just to confirm that the Boston Celtics are the greatest franchise in NBA history.
But there are enough inside stories, fun pop-culture references, anecdotes from Simmons’ life as a fan, and most of all passion to get you through those rough patches.
It’s even got me watching the Pacers a little again. Which should say something.