The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy
Author: Bill Simmons
Release Date: October 2009
Bill Simmons is an NBA super fan, and he set out to write the definitive Book of Basketball, settling arguments and ranking the top 96 players of all time. How did he do? First, Bill’s credentials: He’s a lifetime NBA season ticket holder, a long time opinion columnist for ESPN, Grantland, and the Ringer, and sometimes host of Any Given Wednesday and The Bill Simmons Podcast. My own credentials? I’m a lifetime Utah Jazz fan, long time NBA League Pass subscriber, and religious reader of any articles by Zach Lowe, Kevin Pelton or John Hollinger. I’m also a big fan of Bill Simmons, so I think I can be fair in evaluating his polarizing styles.
What Simmons got right: this book is written like a 700+ page version of his annual Trade Value column, so if you like his writing you’ll be pleased at the style of his prose. He also wrote some interesting sections on the History of the NBA through 1984 and some of the most honest writing about race in the NBA I’ve ever read. He obviously read a ton of older books about basketball, and has some great anecdotes and opinions from each players contemporaries. More than any other source he uses, the old magazine articles and books provide additional knowledge about NBA greats that I didn’t have prior to reading.
What Simmons got wrong: As much as it pains me to say, after reading 700 page of Simmons thoughts on the NBA, it’s questionable how much Simmons understands the game of basketball. Simmons does a great job of understanding players histories and personalities, but for the actual game of basketball you’d get a much more informed opinion from somebody like Zach Lowe on what makes a player great. Simmons routinely emphasizes one moments from a player’s career to justify calling them clutch or a choker, completely ignores longevity or distance between record holders and the next closest guy, and routinely forgets that the NBA is a team sport and players are stuck on bad teams sometimes. Simmons kind of acknowledges this with Kevin Garnett, but seems to grasp that Garnett was still the same player regardless of whether he ever came to Boston or not.
Simmons ranks Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time. That’s fine with me. He also talks about how two of the Bulls teams were two of the best six teams ever. Also, how nobody was beating MJ those six years. Logically then, the second best player of all time could be playing those six years, and not win a ring. Bill Simmons also puts Bill Walton on a pedestal for his career; Walton only played about 6 fulls seasons. Are you seeing the problems with his logic yet? Basketball is a team sport, and I’m sorry but Robert Horry should not be mentioned in the same sentence with Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. Also, by the same logic, no way Bob Cousy should be ranked so high if Bill Russell was as amazing as Simmons is saying.
So yeah, I got frustrated at times with the double standards for Bill’s guys versus everybody else. The writing was still fun, with plenty of great footnotes tying the situations in the game to popular tv shows, movies and other pop culture (even Ric Flair made two appearances), and I laughed a few times out loud. But as an expert opinion settling debates? Sorry, nothing here I trust to pull out during an argument with another NBA fan.
A particular pet peeve was Simmons basing his opinion on players from the times they’d come to Boston.
In the Nowitzki chapter (written before Mavs won title) he stoops for Dirk because he crosses a ’42 threshhold (points plus assists plus rebounds average for playoffs) and explains how that puts him on elite list that overruns his prior playoff chokes. On the list twice? Karl Malone, who gets dinged for the memorable play with Jordan in 98 finals. Nowitski also gets dinged for never having won a title, which of course he did shortly after the book came out. Again, he was the same player before and after.
Celtics like Dave Cowens, Sam Jones and Bob Cousy were ranked way too high for team accomplishments.
This book had some of the best discussions of race in the sport that I’ve ever read.
Note **I wrote a much longer review for this one, but then my Firefox window closed through some keyboard shortcut I wasn’t aware of and I can’t find a way to recover what I had written.**