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October 13, 2009

FreeDarko Reviews PBP

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:29 pm

Our first true review of Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is in, and naturally it centers on the conflict between the Continental and Analytic schools of philosophy. Friend of BP Bethlehem Shoals uses the philosophical battle lines and ultimate reconciliation as a metaphor for FreeDarko’s unique view of the game and how it and BP’s stats-leaning tendencies can complement each other.

Any well-organized, impeccably-researched guide to every team, every player, and every important theme for the coming season, is fine by me; in this respect, this book is absolutely indispensable, and has very nearly hamstrung me when it comes to writing to writing my own previews. But I don’t just respect PBP 2009-10, or find it a handy reference tool. It’s insistently readable, consistently eye-opening, and, from where I’m sitting, an invaluable ally in the project FD has sought to undertake from day one.

This is ground I briefly covered while reviewing FD’s own book, last fall’s The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats and Stars in Today’s Game. Because I handed it in at a busy time, my book review somehow fell through the cracks and never got posted. This has bothered me for a long time, but now I’ve got an excuse to post it here after the fold.

Review: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

For decades, baseball has enjoyed a well-earned reputation as the major American professional sport with the strongest literary tradition. Whether in the form of legendary newspaper writers like Peter Gammons and Leonard Koppett, books like Ball Four and The Boys of Summer or famous fans like Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen King, baseball is hard to beat. The NBA offers the late David Halberstam, arguably the greatest writer ever to turn his attention to sports, and his classics The Breaks of the Game and Playing for Keeps, but is surely lacking in depth.

For whatever reason, as the Internet in general and blogs in particular have become a force in modern discourse, the NBA has found its niche. Consider this: Of the 50 top-ranked sports blogs on Ballhype.com, a whopping 20–including this humble site–are devoted to the NBA. [Editor’s note: This is not true anymore, but seven isn’t bad considering it’s the middle of the NFL/NCAA Football seasons and the MLB postseason.] By contrast, six baseball blogs rank in the top 50, with just three NFL blogs qualifying. Basketball Prospectus is the only NCAA hoops site in the group. Of these, ESPN’s True Hoop is the most prominent blog on any mainstream site and truly a leader in the field.

Yet no blog may symbolize both the quality of writing about the NBA on the Internet and the rising power of the blogosphere quite like FreeDarko. Not only did FD’s quintent of pseudonymous authors secure a book deal on the strength of their blogging, they got Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas (a blogger himself on NBA.com) to write the forward.

The result is The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats and Stars in Today’s Game–a book surely unlike any other you have ever read. The Macrophenomenal Almanac is at once an encyclopedia, a source of humor, a paean to the modern NBA and its stars and a treatise on the FreeDarko collective’s unique view of the game.

Even those unfamiliar with FreeDarko’s previous work quickly get an idea what they’re in for, as Arenas’ foreword is followed by the so-called “FreeDarko Manifesto,” in which the authors reject the core tenets of traditional fandom–the ultimate importance of wins and losses and the need to support the home team–in favor of a new model founded on the principle of celebrating the individual.

In accordance with that philosophy, the bulk of the book is devoted to profiles of 19 NBA players divided into six categories–Master Builders (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett), Uncanny Peacocks (Gilbert Arenas, Gerald Wallace/Josh Smith and Leandro Barbosa), Lost Souls (Lamar Odom, Tracy McGrady and Joe Johnson), Phenomenal Tumors (Ron Artest, Vince Carter and Stephon Marbury), People’s Champs (Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming and Rasheed Wallace) and Destiny’s Kids (LeBron James, Chris Paul and Amar’e Stoudemire).

Each chapter offers a mythology of sorts, putting the player’s legacy in the context of the league and what he represents. Garnett, then, is not just the world’s greatest power forward. He is the embodiment of “the ideal that a man can become bigger than the battles he fights,” as well as a player aged and wizened before his time. It is part of The Macrophenomenal Almanac‘s success that, though virtually every superstar in the personality-driven NBA could be explored, the book goes beyond this group to look at the interesting careers of lesser players like Barbosa and Odom, compelling figures that they are.

Accompanying each player profile are vivid and creative illustrations by co-author Big Baby Belafonte that serve to make the players larger than life–or smaller, in the case of the eternally anonymous Johnson. The importance of the iconic illustrations should not be underestimated. Nothing conveys the concept of Bryant as “chasing perfection” quite like the drawing of him attempting to complete a ship in a bottle while previous efforts lie shattered on the floor.

Occasionally, FreeDarko might take the player-first philosophy too far. Carter in particular seems to get apologetic treatment that I suspect few Toronto fans who watched him all but quit on the team prior to his trade to New Jersey will find agreeable. Even in these scenarios, give The Macrophenomenal Almanac credit for being thought-provoking.

Interspersed between the profiles are random features that allow the FreeDarko crew to address more of the NBA, including identifying potential future mayors and a guide to what throwback jersey to wear in any social situation. I especially enjoyed the breakdown of the cancer factor in the 2000 NBA Draft, if only because I’m all for anything which brings failed first-round picks Jerome Moiso, Dalibor Bagaric, Mamadou N’Diaye and Erick Barkley back into our collective consciousness.

In theory, there’s a tension between the FreeDarko manifesto and what we at Basketball Prospectus might espouse were we to formalize our own philosophy. While wins and losses are certainly paramount from the perspective of our analysis and players valuable to the extent that they factor into team success, there’s plenty of room for common ground between the two approaches.

In fact, statistical analysis plays a supporting role in The Macrophenomenal Almanac in the effort to quantify the attributes that make each player unique. Sometimes the numbers are for fun, not science–like a comparison between Duncan’s stats and the Fibonacci sequence–but elsewhere the research is as detailed as anything you’ll ever find here or anywhere else. Charts showing the distribution of game-winning shots for various go-to players shed light on why James is so dangerous in these situations, while the comparison of Rasheed Wallace’s performance before and after drawing a technical foul is fascinating.

The Macrophenomenal Almanac isn’t for everyone. Dour, old-fashioned critics of the modern NBA need not apply. For the rest of us who delight in the quirks that make the league interesting, it is a fun, engaging read that packs plenty into 200-odd pages. The Macrophenomenal Almanac, like FreeDarko itself, could only exist in the NBA, a league that has always been built on the legends of its star players both on and off the court. It is also proof, between the intellectual quality of the writing and the variety of academic concepts used to make points (did I mention the Fibonacci sequence?), that the NBA now has a literary tradition all its own.

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