As you know, I am currently reading Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball. I’ve never had a literary experience quite like it.
Half of the book is so aggravating I want to tear the pages out. The other half is so engrossing I can’t put it down. And the other half (as Mickey Rivers would say) is just annoying (parts where he bullshits like a frat boy about this experience with some unbelievably well-endowed skank, or that night when he drank four gallons of beer upside down, or this trip to Vegas… yadayadayada).
How NOT to put together an argument
In general the book aggravates me everywhere Simmons attempts to make an objective argument. And its never because I believe the argument is wrong. Its because of the sloppy manner he uses to construct the argument.
Nearly every objective argument made in the book employs either irrelevant, misleading, or completely inadmissible evidence as its foundation. I’ll give you a “for instance”.
One of the chapters is devoted to the argument that Bill Russell is a better player than Wilt Chamberlain. That is an argument I am inclined to slightly believe (each outproduced his contemporary counterparts more dramatically than nearly any other player (excluding the other) I have yet been able to find in basketball history).
So why do I get so aggravated? Here’s an example of the “evidence” he puts forth in support of his argument.
In this particular part of the argument he’s trying to establish the point that Wilt Chamberlain blocked shots for “dramatic effect” whereas Bill Russell blocked shots for a “purpose”, from which he concludes, somehow, that Russell’s shotblocking was more “effective” than Chamberlain’s.
“Opponents eventually gave up challenging Russell and settled for outside shots (my comment: where is the evidence for this contention?)… So Russell affected every possession without even swatting shots (my comment: Does this even need a comment? Its a completely unsupported opinion dressed up as a conclusion).”
–The Book of Basketball, page 70
There is page after page of this kind of bullshit.
Oh, another favorite devise is to base whole arguments on single opinion-based quotes from contemporary players, normally named John Havlicek. For instance, the contention that “Russell was a better passer than you think” is based almost wholey on a quote by John Havlicek saying, essentially, “Russell was a better passer than people think”.
Oh, and his contention that Wilt Chamberlain “cared more about statistics than winning” is similarly based on various contemporary player opinions — with none of the opinions being either supported by hard evidence or critically examined for potential bias.
If those examples of sloppy argument construction aren’t enough, here is my absolute favorite. According to Simmons, the information contained in the following quote functions in his Russell vs. Chamberlain chapter as the bloody glove functioned in the OJ Simpson case:
If you’re wondering how Wilt was regarded around the league, here’s the ultimate story: When San Fran shopped him in ’65, the Lakers were intrigued enough that owner Bob Short asked his players to vote on whether or not he should purchase Chamberlain’s contract. The results of the vote? Nine to two against!!
Nine to two against!!
How could anyone still think this was the greatest basketball player ever? In the absolute prime of his career, a playoff contender that had lost consecutive Finals and didn’t have an answer for Russell had the chance to acquire Wilt for nothing … and the players voted against it!… Seriously, would they have voted against a Russell trade in a million years?
–The Book of Basketball, page 76
Okay, first of all, how is a player vote even remotely relevant to who the better player was? All we can conclude from that, if we can justifiably conclude anything at all, is that Chamberlain probably was unpopular.
But lets say Simmons is right, and the vote was indeed conducted by the players purely on the merits of whether it would be beneficial to each one of them to have Chamberlain join the Lakers. Even then, such a vote result is easily explained if you look at each player’s probable self-interest.
Its been shown by Professor David Berri and others that in the NBA player salaries are tied to points scored, not to wins produced. That fact was just as much in play in 1965 as it is today, and the players of that era knew it. (evidence: Listen to how players from every era talk nonsensically about “sacrificing statistics” for “winning”. Even the Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley mentions this concept in his best-selling book. But think about the comment’s facial illogic. Why would giving up any statistic at all be considered a “sacrifice” if giving up that statistic resulted in wins? Isn’t winning every player’s goal? Answer: Because a certain statistic that DOES NOT correlate with wins, namely volume scoring, DOES in fact correlate with each player’s expected income. Thus, from an individual player’s perspective, giving up “his numbers”, meaning his opportunity to score more points, in favor of things that actually produce wins, would indeed be a “sacrifice”).
Understanding this warped economic incentive, it makes sense that a team would vote against Chamberlain, but would be unlikely to cast a similar vote against Russell. WhatifSports.com estimates Wilt Chamberlain’s 1964-65 usage rate (roughly the number of shots and free throw attempts per the available total while he’s on the court) at 34%. That’s beyond the number of plays Brandon Jennings was using a month ago. Taking on that kind of player — unless he guaranteed you a championship, and Wilt was not seen as such a guarantee — inevitably meant huge “sacrifices” for the existing players.
Compare that with adding Russell. Russell had not only won several championships in a row at the time (and people have a tendency to believe the most likely “next winner” is someone they’ve already seen win in the past) his estimated usage rate in 1964-65 was a meager 14%! That’s less than Luc Moute!
Placed in this light, the Laker player vote makes sense, without in any way buttressing — let alone clinching — Simmons’ “Russell vs. Chamberlain” argument.
I’m running on and on with this post, so I have to end it here. The point is, I can always be convinced to change my mind, but only by well-constructed arguments based on well constructed logic (premise-premise-conclusion) backed up by credible, relevant evidence. I have no time or patience for bullshit circular arguments based on nothing, especially when said arguer is constantly patting himself on the back and observing how strong his arguments are. (that kind of shit gets me so frustrated I start complaining to no one in particular, like a crazy man).
I’ll get into the thoroughly enjoyable parts of the book — and there are many — in a subsequent post.