Constructing bad basketball arguments

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.

EndNote

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.

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13 Responses to “Constructing bad basketball arguments”

  1. Blake Says:

    I’m considering purchasing this book, last time I checked (about a week after it hit the shelves) the 700 page book was $20. It seems interesting and I know Bill Simmons is a funny guy but reading these posts it seems like he’s a guy who thinks he knows everything and anything about basketball and that most of his opinions are going to be right and can’t be proved wrong in any way. I hate those kind of people. But the sheer number of pages and information it has is really intriguing me. So I might pick it up and give it a go.

  2. David Says:

    I’m also in the process of reading it (received it for xmas) and I find it thoroughly enjoyable (despite disagreeing with many conclusions he makes). I spent 8 years doing debate in high school and college and studied math, so I understand how frustrating it can be that he aboslutely refuses to make an actual argument (anytime he talks about Allen Iverson, I am damn near stop reading), but I find myself really enjoying most of his anecdotes about things I’ve already decided myself (ex: that Jordan was better than Drexler). He’s a hyper talented writer, even if he isn’t much of a thinker.

    • tywill33 Says:

      David,

      I have to agree. The tone of my “reviews” are harsh, but sort of in the same way Grateful Dead fans bitch about this bootleg or that one. They still like them. That’s me with this book. If you’re an NBA fan, its like a spider web… it traps you and won’t let you go. His obvious passion and love for the subject matter hooks any fan of the NBA. (I love his bibliography where he actually lists the source material in terms of its usefulness from “Helpful” down to “Completely Useless” LOL)

      But, goddamn it, couldn’t he have organized it a little better? Did you read the “How we got here” chapter? Its an absolutely engrossing chapter, but maddeningly hard to follow. He has a chronological timeline with really no connecting narrative. In other words, there’s no story or driving thesis, just random reporting on events.

      Nevertheless, the reporting is so thorough and the things he finds interesting are things I and a handful of others might find interesting (for instance, his what if regarding the Cincinnati Royals… you have to be a buckets fan to come up with that), and for that reason I like reading the book.

      • David Says:

        I’m almost done with it (just got to Jordan). Even though he has a timeline in some sections, in the explanations for each he is jumping around between the different times a lot and it forced me to keep going forwards and backwards just to keep everything straight.

        The “What Ifs” are really interesting. He’s able to keep track of every trade/injury/etc. and how they all interact with one another over an extended period of time and that makes his “what if this happened” hypotheticals shockingly thought provoking.

        At the end of the day, I think his crazy familiarity with the subject is a large part of what keeps it as disjointed as it is. For him, the jumping around and random notes inserted everywhere make sense because he knows where everything should be and how it all fits into the big picture. And that really limits his ability to construct the big picture in a more effective way for the reader to see.

        How do you feel about the footnotes?

  3. The Great Debate: Russell vs. Chamberlain « The Courtside Analyst Says:

    […] C Wilt Chamberlain?  In the book, Simmons argues that Bill Russell was better.  In a prior post I criticized the nonsensical way Simmons put together his argument, but remained agnostic regarding his conclusion.  Today I am prepared to say that while the […]

  4. Josh Dhani Says:

    Great argument. Simmons book has received a lot of criticism. I am still reading it myself. Let’s just put it this way: He is very biased of Boston in the book

    • tywill33 Says:

      I’m getting a lot of mileage out of it in so far as posts go, but its painful to read. Not because its so terrible, but rather because there are gems hidden all over the place, but you have to wade through aggravating muck to find them.

      Sort of like that episode of NYPD Blue where Sipowicz made Medavoy go through that garbage receptacle to find hair fibers.

      But its probably just me. I mean, for most people who like the NBA it has to be a fun book to read.

      But I can’t take it when he does things like this. In his ranking of all-time NBA players he lists the awesome Jerry Lucas down in the low 90s.

      How does he justify this nonsense? Well he summarily dismisses Lucas’ rebounding numbers — which in any era and at any pace are mind-blowing — by saying that Lucas was “infamous” (and then he emphasizes “infamous” again in caps) for “padding his stats” by grabbing “uncontested free throw rebounds” and rebounds off of desperation heaves.

      Okay, first of all, there is no such thing as an “uncontested free throw rebound”… what the other team just handed him the ball?? What does Simmons expect him to do… NOT go after rebounds that come off free throws? It makes no sense. And i went through several NBA play-by-play transcripts and could not find a single rebound awarded off a last second shot. Not one.

      I suspect the reason Simmons downgrades Lucas so badly is because Lucas was/is a bit eccentric and a bit of a “know-it-all” asshole. That came through loud and clear in his ESPN documentary. (I mean, who the fuck memorizes a phone book? The guy was just plain weird).

      Therefore I assume most of the sources Simmons relied on for his research — namely autobiographies written by contemporary players — went out of there way to downgrade Lucas.

      That’s the danger of relying on player assessments like Simmons does — they are inherently biased. If players of the day liked a guy then they will say “he was better than you thought” if they hated him they say “his stats were meaningless”.

  5. Josh Dhani Says:

    Yeah good point. I mean, some of the parts in the book are really good and fun to read; page turning. But some of his Boston homerism shit bothered me in there. It was aggravating like you said. But I gotta admit, was a pretty god read. But a stupid thing in the book is that he compares rapper Tupac Shakur to freaking Bill Walton. Bill Walton!!!!! Oh well, I hope Simmons realizes that some of the stuff he wrote in the book were mistakes. He did say he is coming out with The Second Book of Basketball. Let’s hope it’s better than the first….,,,

    • tywill33 Says:

      He’s coming out with a second book?? What the hell didn’t he cover in the first??

      Sorry it took so long to do the stupid moderation and get your comment up.

      I just gave up on the book. 65% of it consists of a completely arbitrary all-time “ranking” of NBA players. I’m not at all interested in something like that. If he has an original argument as to “why” this player ranks in front of that one, I’ll listen. But if its all just “He’s supertalented” or “he padded his stats and everyone knew it!!”… I have no time for that garbage.

  6. izremler Says:

    The book is amazing not because everything he says is right or even well argued. The joy of the book is the degree to which he understands the difficulty and complexity of having opinions about basketball but loves the game and its history so much he can not stop himself.

    • tywill33 Says:

      I agree with you, but its definitely an acquired taste.

      When he either gets into interesting trivial information (like the footnote about the 1970s Bucks player whom they alleged was on drugs) or when he comments on things that are inherently subjective, he’s either funny or very interesting and he constantly has me nodding in agreement.

      But when he gets into things that aren’t, and then he makes poor arguments and then has the chutzpah to congratulate himself for such a strong argument (“Game, Set, Match!”) I can’t tell you why, but it makes me Hulk angry. That’s probably my hangup, not his.

  7. Book Review: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons « Movies, Books, Hip Hop, Reviews Says:

    […] Parts I am a frequent reader of The Courtside Analyst, and TyWill33 (author of the site) made an article of the book. It was all true. Some of the basketball arguments, especially about Bill Russell and Wilt […]

  8. Jake B Says:

    I enjoyed TBOB more than any other basketball book I’ve ever read (although Auerbach/Feinstein’s “Let Me Tell You a Story” and Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules” are definitely close), and I understand the point you’re taking.

    However, when reading Russell vs Chamberlain, Simmons is writing about more than statistics, and arguing more than statistics. When you read what he’s writing, about blocking shots or statistics, you have to take into account that Simmons watched hours and hours of available game film to go off of. He had access to the NBA’s video library, and while there’s really no statistical evidence he has to prove, it’s his word and credibility that you have to believe, right? Personally, I believe it. Why? Because it’s his book, and I believe it’s more than a “Boston homer” thing (he even ranks Magic higher than Bird and ranks Kareem number three after bashing him the entire book. Personal opinions aside, he does his job fairly.)

    Also in his argument are contemporaries thoughts on the matter. I’m not sure why these aren’t okay to use in his arguments, but I do think how player’s feel about others plays a HUGE part in deciding who was the “better” player.

    As for the player voting argument: you’re not mentioning that players received bonuses for winning titles and playoff money. That’s how Red Auerbach sold veterans to take less money for the Celtics. “Make less during the regular season, make it up in the playoffs.” The Lakers players KNEW with Chamberlain, they could go to the Finals, win the Finals, and get paid more than they would’ve that season. So them being selfish for monetary reasons is, in my opinion, an invalid argument.

    I know I’m a little late to the posting for this, and it may not be read. I happened to stumble upon it earlier today. I probably won’t check back on here, so my e-mail is jakebangert@ymail.com. I’d love to continue talking about this or any NBA talk if anyone wants.

    Jake

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