Bill Simmons and the secret of basketball

03/19/2014 12:05 PM

03/19/2014 12:05 PM

The other day I wrote about the human element that affects baseball players and since yesterday was an off-day—not much happening—today seemed like a good time to post this piece. This winter I was reading "The Book of Basketball" by sports writer and NBA analyst Bill Simmons. It’s 697 pages long (I gave up somewhere around Exodus), but before my will to live completely deserted me I came across a piece Simmons wrote about Isiah Thomas and what the former Detroit Piston had to say about the secret of basketball. Here’s the short version:

"The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball."

Here’s what Isiah Thomas meant: the guys who have the best numbers don’t always make the best team. Now here’s an excerpt from the book where Simmons talks about a trade the Detroit Pistons made:

"Maybe Dantley was a better player than Aguirre, but Aguirre was a better fit for the 1989 Pistons. If they didn’t make that deal, they wouldn’t have won the championship. It was a people trade, not a basketball trade.

And that’s what Isiah learned while following those Lakers and Celtics teams around: it wasn’t about basketball.

Those teams were loaded with talented players, yes, but that’s not the only reason they won. They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else."

Simmons went on to say the following:

"Fans overlook The Secret completely. Nobody writes about The Secret because of a general lack of sophistication about basketball; even the latest ‘revolution’ of basketball statistics centers more around evaluating players against one another over capturing their effect on a team.

Numbers help, but only to a certain degree. You still have to watch the games.

The fans don’t get it. Actually, it goes deeper than that—I’m not sure who gets it. We measure players by numbers, only the playoffs roll around and teams that play together, kill themselves defensively, sacrifice personal success and ignore statistics invariably win the title. We have trouble processing the ‘teamwork over talent’ thing.

But how do you keep stats for ‘best chemistry’ and ‘most unselfish’ or even ‘most tangible and consistent effect on a group of teammates’? It’s impossible. That’s why we struggle to comprehend professional basketball."

And here’s a quote from NBA legend Bill Russell:

"I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I made my teammates play."

Having spent a lot of time talking to baseball players and coaches I think Russell is touching on one of the most underrated factors in of sports: what affect does a player have on his teammates? One guy makes a teammate better because he helps him focus and pay attention to his positioning. Another guy makes a teammate worse because he likes to party with him. We just don’t know a lot about those things and have a hard time measuring them and their effect on a team—and there


an effect. After Bill Russell talked about the drive and sacrifice needed to win a championship, here’s what Simmons wrote:

"I didn’t see the words ‘stats’ or ‘numbers’ in there.

That’s what makes basketball so great. You have to watch the games. You have to pay attention. You cannot get seduced by numbers and stats."

Simmons is talking about basketball, but what he’s saying also applies to baseball: there’s more to the game than numbers. If we refuse to recognize that we’ll always lag behind in our understanding of the game. We won’t understand why some players with underwhelming numbers are valued teammates and some guys with MVP stats are considered clubhouse cancers. The guy with the poorer numbers may actually give his team a better chance of winning. The guy with great stats might drag the rest of his teammates down.

As one former Royal asked me, "How come everyone wants to play with Jeter and nobody wants to play with A-Rod?"

Go back to basketball for a moment; the Miami Heat’s Shane Battier is a perfect example of a role player who buys into the team concept and makes everyone around him better, but we often ignore players like Battier because they don’t put numbers that make an impression. Yet most NBA teams (at least the smart ones) would love to have Battier or a Battier clone on their roster.

But those of us in the media generally don’t like to admit there’s a human element that we don’t understand. It makes our job much easier if all we have to do to evaluate a player is go to a website and look at his numbers. Admitting there’s a lot we don’t know about the human element means we couldn’t be so sure of our own opinions. This doesn’t mean managers and GMs never screw up—they do—but admitting that not everything worth knowing is included in the numbers might make fans and the media a bit more tolerant.

And brings us a little closer to understanding the secret of basketball

and baseball.


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