Posts Tagged ‘The Book of Basketball’

The Strange Popularity of Rick Barry’s Wig

June 20, 2010

I like to occasionally review the Google searches that land on this blog, because it tells me a little bit about what people are thinking.

For instance, yesterday I got many hits that were derived from variations of the search “Pau Gasol true MVP”.  So there’s a faction that agrees with me on that.  There were also searches that were looking for “Magic better than Kobe”.

In the all-time search rankings, “Courtside Analyst” is first, followed closely by the misspelled “Courtside Anaylst”.  The third most popular search is “Bucks Diary”, the old blog.  All makes sense.

Fourth is “Fear the Deer t-shirt”, so it looks like I’m pimping that hard.  Its the fifth most popular search that comes out of left field.

The fifth most popular search is a simple three word query “Rick Barry’s Wig”.  It is an unbelievably popular topic.  The problem is, I have zero information to share.  Zero.

I think I mentioned it once when I was reviewing Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, but I have nothing to add beyond what Simmons wrote.  Simmons contention in BoB was that it was butt obvious from a simple comparison of team photos that Barry wore a wig in 1976.  Big deal.

While I’m on the topic, though, Simmons in his book claims Barry was a substandard color commentator back in the 70s.  I couldn’t disagree more.  He may have been an arrogant jerk, and he may have innocently insulted Bill Russell with his “watermelon smile” comment, but listening to his work on Youtube, his sharp commentary was light years ahead of its time.   He’s one of the better professional commentators I’ve ever heard.

Whether or not he wore a “wig”.


Did Bill Walton deserve the 1978 MVP?

January 3, 2010

In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, he includes a chapter entitled “Most Valuable Chapter”.  In it he speculates about who the most dominant players were in every era in NBA history (what he calls “Alpha Dogs”).  Part of this analysis includes an evaluation of whether or not particular NBA MVP awards were justified.

One of the awards Simmons calls into question is Bill Walton’s 1978 MVP award.  Walton’s 1978 MVP award falls into the subset of awards Simmons labels “Fishy But Ultimately Okay”.

The Brief Age of the Mountain Man

Simmons does not question Walton’s dominance in 1978 nor his dominance over a small window of time surrounding 1978, but rather Simmons calls Walton’s award into question because Walton only played 1929 minutes.  Simmons writes that “its hard to imagine anyone qualifying for MVP after missing 24 games”.  (see, The Book of Basketball, page 234)

Simmons then argues the case for and against Walton, and compares Walton’s 1978 credentials to the credentials of the MVP runner-up candidates from that season. Ultimately Simmons concludes that while he would be cautious about granting an award to a part-time player, none of the runners-up presented strong enough claims to call Walton’s choice into question.

The 1977-78 NBA MVP Race using Win Contribution Index

It so happens that last summer I did Win Charts for every 1977-78 NBA team.  As part of every Win Chart I do, I always calculate every players “Win Contribution Index”.  (Please refer to the “Win Charts” page for explanation).

WCI is tailor made for “player value” issues like the one that arose in the 1977-78 MVP Race.  That’s because WCI melds each player’s performance level, wins produced, and minutes played into one single numerical expression of the player’s overall value to his team.

The Index comes in handy in 1977-78 because in that season the NBA’s two best “performers” (by Player Win Average) were centers Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Yet neither led the NBA in “Win Credits” because each was limited by injury. (as you will see, the Win Credit champions were Bucks rookie Marques Johnson and George Gervin of the Spurs).

Yet each of the two big men still played pretty substantial minutes and played those minutes at a high level, so each must be considered for MVP.

But how to weigh each player’s relative value?  Enter WCI.

CLICK HERE to see the 1977-78 MVP race according to WCI

Kareem a bit more valuable than Walton

If you look at the chart you will see that Kareem barely edges out Bill Walton for overall WCI value.  While Walton was the more productive statistically, Kareem’s extra 300 plus minutes of action allowed him to make a higher positive impact on the Lakers than Walton made on the Blazers.

Does that mean Walton did not deserve the MVP?  No. The value margin is so close either player is a worthy choice.

And from a practical standpoint, Kareem never really had a chance.  First, his team won only 45 games.  Voters hate that.  Second, there’s an unwritten rule that a player who wins the award must have had a better season than his last season.  Kareem’s numbers were down from the season previous.  Finally, Kareem won no friends when he sucker punched the rookie Kent Benson early in the season.

The ROY scandal of 1977-78

The true scandal of 1977-78 was the Rookie of the Year award.  The winner, SG Walter Davis of the Phoenix Suns, had a very nice season.  But according to me Milwaukee Bucks PF/SF Marques Johnson had a tremendous season, maybe one of the best rookie campaigns ever.  I have him as the third most valuable player in the entire NBA in 1977-78.  There is no way he should have been denied the Rookie of the Year.

According to Marginal Win Score, Walter Davis had an MWS48 of +1.73, and he produced 8.5 wins and 1.3 losses for the Suns, with a WCI of +0.227.  Those are all outstanding numbers, especially for a rookie.

But they don’t match up to Marques Johnson’s numbers.  As the chart shows, Johnson had an MWS48 of +3.36, he produced 12.3 wins and (-1.4) losses, and had a WCI of +0.469.  In short, all of his production numbers were superior to Davis.

Even Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares system, a system that tends to undervalue possession creation (which was Marques Johnson’s strong suit in 1978), has Johnson as the more productive player.  By Win Shares, Johnson produced 10.6 wins in 1977-78 while Walter Davis produced 10.1 wins.

Of course, none of that really matters.  Its long been known that one statistic overwhelmingly determines who wins Rookie of the Year:  points per game.  And in that area Davis was clearly superior.  Marques Johnson averaged 19.1 ppg that season while Davis finished with a 24.2 ppg average.  (The players think that way as well.  According to this famous Sports Illustrated story, Walter Davis won the ROY vote among players in a landslide.  Johnson and  the Bucks got revenge in the playoffs, making the Suns a first round “See Ya” victim).

Interestingly, neither player ever really fulfilled their rookie promise.  Both had nice careers, but when you make the kind of splash that the two of them made in your first season, “nice careers” are a bit of a disappointment.  One could argue that both Davis and Johnson never again matched their rookie seasons.

ABA Superstar Infusion

If you notice, the MVP chart provides strong evidence to support Bill Simmons contention that the 1975-76 NBA season, the last season before the ABA merger, was the most watered down season in NBA history.

Of the 10 most valuable players in 1977-78, only 3 were even active NBA members two seasons earlier in 1975-76, and one of them (Bill Walton) spent most of that season on injured reserve.

Meanwhile, 6 of the 10 most valuable players were active ABA members in 1975-76.   Does that mean the ABA had more talent than the NBA?  No, I don’t think so.  I think the ABA talent pool was extremely top heavy.  If you look at the production numbers for ABA players in the season after the merger, you will notice that those numbers almost uniformly shrank by right around 20%.  (If you look at the pythagorean wins for the Spurs and Pacers, you find the exact same thing.  Denver actually did better in their first NBA season, but I would argue that was because they enjoyed the greatest home court advantage in history.   The Nuggets won 36 of 41 at home that season, but were well below .500% on the road.  If you normalize their home numbers, you get the same 20% reduction in wins you get with the Spurs and  Pacers).

Constructing bad basketball arguments

December 29, 2009

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. 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.

Unusual Prologue to “The Book of Basketball”

December 27, 2009

NOTE: I received Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball and Jackie MacMullen’s When the Game was Ours for Christmas, and since there is no possible way to write a cogent review of Simmons book in one post, and since it will probably take me about 5,000 trips to the “Library” to finish both, I will be posting running reviews of each book, Chapter by Chapter, on this blog.

SIDEBAR: I’ve been leafing through some of the chapters in Simmons book in advance, and I notice the book is filled with unsubstantiated claims (for instance, he claims the NBA was “diluted” when the Bucks won their World Championship, yet offers no proof for said claim other than the existence of the ABA).  To the extent possible, I plan to test his claims.  Some may be right, some wrong; I want to find out.

The Book of Basketball

The Prologue

Reading The Book of Basketball is like watching a season of The Wire on DVD.  You know in advance it could be enjoyable, but you also know in advance that it will require a huge investment of your time.  The book’s unusual prologue did ABSOLUTELY nothing to dissuade me from that notion.

I’ve read many books in my lifetime.  Most all of them have contained a prologue.  Almost every one of those prologues has, in one form or another, been an overview of the material covered in the particular book or the argument made by the author of the particular book.  Until The Book of Basketball.

Simmons’ prologue is not a prologue at all.  It is an extra chapter he snuck by his editor.  Proof of this are the multiple footnotes contained on nearly every single page.  I have never once seen a single footnote in a prologue.

OVERVIEW:   Simmons became a hardcore Boston Celtic fan at an early age mostly because of his father’s decision to spend one of the family’s tax returns on mid-level season tickets at the Boston Garden.  Simmons father purchased  the seats just prior to the Celtics 1974 championship season and maintained the seats throughout the glory days of the 1980s (and I assume to this day).  Thus Simmons was able to be on hand for some of the more memorable games of the 1980s, games he believes endowed him with a “PhD in basketball”.

REVIEW STYLE: Since the book is rather disjointed, instead of commenting on it in a linear fashion, I will simply pick out the most provocative issues/stories contained in each chapter and comment on them.  Here is what I picked out of the book’s prologue:

The Funny Factoids

Simmons is at his worst when he presents his various untested theories on objective sports issues as though they are rock solid and then offers no evidence or misleading evidence to support them.  (For instance, he claims the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers winning a championship after the loss of Elgin Baylor supports his “Ewing Theory” that teams often get better after they lose their best player.  He fails to mention that by 1972 Elgin Baylor was rendered ineffective by knee injuries and was probably the Lakers 10th best player when he retired in the middle of the season).

Simmons is at his best when he offers up little factoids that no one  else would mention and that you probably couldn’t find anywhere else.  For instance, I just started reading his book and I’ve already learned: (1) Dave Cowens quit the Celtics in 1977 and drove cab, only to return to the team just after the New Year; (2) Rick Barry wore a wig during the 1976 season; (3) the NBA originally agreed to a nearly full merger with the ABA in 1973 which would have expanded the association to 28 teams.  If it hadn’t been blocked by the NBA Player’s Association’s lawsuit, the merger would have made NBA franchises out of the likes of the “Memphis Tams” and the “Kentucky Colonels”; (4) Red Auerbach was so disgusted with some of the meddling of Celtic owner John Y. Brown he almost left for the Knicks… how history might have changed.

Simmons Interesting Father

The person in the prologue that stood out to me as someone I’d like to know was Bill Simmons’ father.  Simmons doesn’t talk about him much, except to mention some of his early struggles and that he and Simmons mother split up five years after his father decided to purchase Celtics tickets.  From what I gather, he is a smart guy who has gone through some hard times and through it all has maintained a hardcore interest in the NBA.  My kind of guy.

Simmons Kareem crisis

There’s something weird going on in the prologue.  In one of the footnotes, Simmons warns that he will be bashing Kareem throughout the book because “he is a ninny” whatever that is.  All right.  But then he writes about how in the first grade he went through a “racial crisis” due to his love of the black sport of basketball and insisted he be referred to by his Muslim name of “Jabbal Abdul-Simmons”.  Um, that’s basically the name “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” in different form.  Moreover, changing to a Muslim name was not a general “black basketball player” thing, it was specifically a Lew Alcindor thing.  So clearly at some point in his life Simmons deeply admired Kareem, enough to want to go through the same life transformation Kareem went through.  Why the hatred now?  I hope he explains.

You Remember All That?

I went to a lot of significant Bucks games in the 1980s.  Here’s what I can tell you about them.  Most of the best were playoff games against the Larry Bird Celtics.  My last Milwaukee Arena game was against the Detroit Pistons when the Pistons were just getting good in the late 80s.  And my first Bradley Center playoff game was against the rising Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls.  I know the Bucks lost that Bulls game badly, and I remember they lost at least one of those Celtics games on a last second miss by John Lucas.  But even that one predominant memory, of Lucas attempting a twisting shot at the buzzer, turned out to be false. (Lucas never took the kind of twisting shot my memory told me he took).  Also, after one Bucks game I was able to go down to the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room to meet their coach Tom Nissalke.  I don’t remember anything about the conversation.  All I remember is Nissalke had  a moustache and he gave me some paraphernalia that had the cool 80s Cavs logo on it.

I bring all that up because, unlike me, Bill Simmons seems to maintain unusually vivid and detailed memories of events that happened 20 to 30 years ago.   He remembers that Dave Cowens wore dangerously tight shorts.  He remembers exactly who Collins shouldered blocked in some random 1970s game and exactly what he said afterward.  He remembers a conversation he had with Marvin Bad News Barnes.  He remembers exactly what he was thinking during the famous Game Six of the 1976 Finals (which he of course was at).  And he remembers that he and his father watched Charlie’s Angels afterward.

The point is, he almost certainly either refreshed or embellished his memories.  Which is cool, I do it all the time, but I wish he would explain that before he bears witness.

The $4.00 ticket

That is the name of the prologue and it raises a profound issue about the future of the NBA I wish Simmons would have dealt with directly.

In 1974 Bill Simmons father was able to buy a near court side Celtic season ticket for $4.00.  In real 2008 dollars, that ticket cost $17.28.  The NBA  once priced itself for the middle class market.  It sure doesn’t anymore.

And while the 1974 NBA didn’t bring in nearly as much revenue from that seat as it brings in from a comparable seat under its 21st century corporate pricing structure, one must ask “what has it lost?’.  As a direct consequence of the 1974 pricing structure, the NBA not only sold a seat, it bought a lifelong hardcore fan who would go on to write a popular book celebrating his fandom and essentially promoting the NBA to a wide audience.

The NBA has made a TON of revenue in the last decade, but I believe it has done so at the cost of an entire generation of Bill Simmonses.  When will that bill come due?