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November 12, 2009
Book Review
The Book of Basketball

by Kevin Pelton

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Last night, I met up with a handful of friends at Seattle's Sport Restaurant to watch the Orlando-Cleveland opener of ESPN's double-header. In a city that no longer has an NBA team, we spent nearly four hours debating the league from all angles, touching on how to evaluate coaches, the best up-and-coming point guards, Vince Carter's legacy and more. Naturally, this made me think of The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy.

Bill Simmons likes to joke about being one of the last NBA fans remaining. On its face, the line is silly. With basketball's popularity exploding overseas, there have never been more fans of the league. Yet there's a kernel of truth to Simmons' hyperbole, and it's revealed whenever I get together with people like the Sport crew. Our conversations are inevitably more enjoyable than conversing with casual fans because of the depth of our passion for and obsession about the NBA. Sometimes it's nice to be able to throw out Lonny Baxter references and know immediately you'll be understood.

For those of us who truly are die-hards, there's a sense of ownership about the league and defensiveness about (all-too-frequent) attacks on the NBA from fans of other sports. That helps explain why Simmons, even though he loves the NFL and used the Red Sox championship as the basis for his first book, could only have written his 700-page opus on professional basketball. There's something unique about NBA fandom.

The paradox, of course, is the wild success The Book of Basketball is already enjoying. It reached No. 1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, and its popularity has clearly cut across a wide swath of the American public. That makes it hard to imagine The Book of Basketball as a niche product. Certainly, more casual fans are getting something out of it, but its true depth can only be understood by someone who loves the NBA. Simmons indicated that was his goal in an interview with NBA.com, saying, "I want the basketball junkies to like it. It's not that big of a group, but it's really important that they care about it."

Mission accomplished. For people like us, The Book of Basketball is like extending those discussions we have while watching the game over 700 pages. That might be the highest praise I have to offer.

The first thing you notice about The Book of Basketball is its size. Hearing Simmons describe his 700-page book simply did not register entirely until I actually purchased a copy and realized it was immediately the thickest book I own. (The Book of Basketball is also the rare book that can potentially save your life if used as a bulletproof shield.) Anything shorter would in all likelihood have been a disservice to the research Simmons did--using his connections at NBA Entertainment to dig up game film and pouring over more than 75 relevant books from the past five decades. Even though The Book of Basketball inevitably takes a long time to read--I finished it in two weeks, mostly as before-bedtime reading--it never felt long or dragged.

The most obvious comparison in terms of how the book is organized is The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Like the Historical Baseball Abstract, a ranking of the top players of all time serves as the heart of the book, but is preceded by an extended section setting the scene by describing the league's history. While The Book of Basketball is more free-flowing than James' list-based decade-by-decade look at Major League Baseball, it hits similar highpoints in explaining the trends that defined the NBA. A chapter devoted to the classic argument of Wilt Chamberlain versus Bill Russell stands in both sections of the book--it explains in excruciating detail why Russell ultimately ranks higher while also discussing how both players shaped the league in its formative years.

After a fun detour exploring the most important NBA "what if" questions, Simmons gets down to business--ranking the 96 greatest players in league history and placing them in the five tiers that make up the Hall of Fame pyramid he pioneered, culminating in "the pantheon"--reserved for the 12 greatest players the league has ever seen.

The beauty of the pyramid idea is twofold. First, it emphasizes that being a Hall of Famer is too broad a distinction. As James has ranted (often in the Historical Baseball Abstract), it's easy to romanticize the Hall of Fame as being about the all-time greats and marginalize deserving Hall of Famers who are not at their level. Using tiers allows the best of the best to be separated while still remembering the less great. Second, it allows a second level of conversation on top of whether a player is a Hall of Famer or not. For the purpose of The Book of Basketball, the pyramid serves to focus potential debates. Whether Gary Payton (No. 40) deserved to rank ahead of Patrick Ewing (No. 39) is ultimately of minor importance, since both are in the same part of the pyramid. Whether David Robinson belongs on Level 3 or Level 4, on the other hand, is a discussion that says much more about Robinson's place in NBA history.

As if ranking NBA players failed to provide enough fodder for discussion, Simmons then puts together a list of the 10 best teams in league history and wraps everything up by selecting all-time teams (pre- and post-merger) by putting together players that would fit into complementary roles as opposed to simply selecting the 12 best players. (Another wrinkle: choosing specific years of players' careers most appropriate for the team, as opposed to the nebulous entirety of their career.)

Two things hold The Book of Basketball back from reaching its full potential. The first, alas, is the same writing style that has made Simmons the most popular sports columnist in the world. His columns would not be the same without the pop-culture references that pepper them, but frankly at times they make it hard to take The Book of Basketball completely seriously as an encyclopedia. That's unfortunate, given the work Simmons put into researching his arguments.

Second, at times Simmons appears to go back and forth on what he's arguing depending on what's convenient at the time. This is certainly evident when it comes to statistical analysis. While Simmons has shown more interest in advanced numbers in the past year, under the guidance of his friend Daryl Morey, he generally rejects them in The Book of Basketball. It's certainly true, as Simmons argues, that the numbers are insufficient to capture player value--especially before the merger, when few individual stats were tracked. He also does a good job of taking the air out of the inflated per-game performances from the run-and-gun 1960s, putting the video-game numbers posted by Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson in context. However, that does make it odd when at other times Simmons relies upon simple measures--like a player's combined scoring, rebounding and assist averages in the playoffs, with the "42 Club" measuring players who totaled 42 or more--to support his points.

Don't expect to agree with everything Simmons writes. The book is 700 pages, after all. Of course, disagreeing with Simmons is at least half the fun of reading The Book of Basketball. With all the lists and rankings, as well as Simmons' engaging style, the book is practically set up to provoke debates. A lot of the rest of the fun is remembering--or learning anew--about the personalities and stories that make up NBA history. Even for die-hard fans, there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes--many of them from Simmons' own experience as a fan at the Garden. He did his homework, and it shows.

The history of the NBA has never quite captured the interest of fans the way it has in baseball, always the sport most grounded in the past, or even in the NFL. Whether it is cause or effect, no modern book has managed to capture the NBA's history in its entirety. The Book of Basketball fills the void, and capably so. That's enough to make it a key part of any serious NBA fan's library.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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How Does Butler Do It? (11/12)
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