For any basketball fan, Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy is a must read. It is the most thorough, informative, and entertaining book about the history of the NBA. Simmons is a well-known sports personality who is best known for being ESPN’s “Sports Guy” and the editor in chief of the now defunct Grantland before leaving ESPN. In a much publicized fight, ESPN decided to not renew his contract and closed his website after he challenged ESPN’s strategic television partner, the NFL, and its commissioner Roger Goodell about the mishandling and alleged cover up of the Ray Rice domestic violence case. Even when his employment was threatened, he did not pull any punches and defied his bosses. Of course, he has created a personal brand that transcends ESPN and could afford to be arrogant and get fired. He has quickly landed on his feet with HBO. In my opinion, much of his success is that he is relatable to the average sports fan and provides a voice for the common man. His passion and knowledge of sports is obvious. His devotion and fanaticism to Boston sports is unquestioned. Naturally, it can be a little too much at times but I do appreciate that he usually keeps it witty and fun. His favorite sport is basketball. In this book, he shares the genesis of his love of the sport. When Bill was a child, his mother would not allow his father to buy a motorcycle. Accordingly, his father spent the money on season tickets to the Boston Celtics instead. Although his parents separated 5 years later, Bill and his father’s marriage to the Celtics has withstood the test of time. As a young fan in Boston Garden, Bill was known as the “miniature sports encyclopedia”. In addition, he won the affection of the ushers who allowed him to stand behind the home basket and throw any air balls back to his Celtic heroes. He and his father had amazing seats to witness legendary Celtic teams. They saw their team win their first championship after the Bill Russell era, led by center Dave Cowens, and then the greatness of Larry Bird and his 1980s Celtics. It is a touching story about father and son bonding over sports and how a young boy became a lifelong Celtics fan. Simmons does not put down his pom poms for this book. However, he is aware of it and even points it out. Regardless, all his arguments are well thought out and supported by empirical fact. More importantly, he delivers it in an entertaining format. In this book, Simmons does an incredible job telling us the “Secret” of basketball, settles the debate about whether Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain was the better player, detailing the evolution and history of the game, providing compelling perspective on the biggest “What If”s in NBA history, detailing an interesting take on better criteria for MVP, creating a new and epic Hall of Fame, and ranking the best players and teams in NBA history.
I like Simmons starting the book speaking about the “Secret” of basketball. Moreover, he shares a great story about how he learned it. At the time, he was in Las Vegas and ran into then New York Knicks public relations guy, Gus Johnson, who introduced him to then Knicks GM Isiah Thomas. Simmons hysterically describes the meeting as one of the most awkward moments in his life. As we know, Thomas did a terrible job as the GM of the Knicks. For this reason, he was an easy target for Simmons in his columns. In response, Thomas had previously promised to hurt Simmons if he ever saw him. For these reasons, it would have seemed unlikely that the two adversaries could have a civil conversation. Ironically, Simmons had one of his best basketball conversations with Thomas. Of course, Thomas is an All-Time great and one of the best pure point guards ever. Despite his failings as a GM, he has a brilliant basketball mind. According to Thomas, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball”. It is a counterintuitive statement but it is completely accurate. It is a lesson I learned as I got older and wiser. When you are young, you believe you can win a game by taking on an entire team by yourself. It is why I have seen guys in their 40s and 50s beat a teenage basketball team at the playgrounds. The older players know how to play as a team while the younger guys take turns trying to score on 3-4 guys and do not pass. Of course, there can be a gap in talent where isolation basketball works. For NBA caliber players, they are vastly superior to the competition when they are growing up. As such, they really can win games by themselves. However, it changes once they reach the NBA. The competition is just as athletic and talented. At that point, the teams that win championships, especially dynasties, understand the “Secret”. Simmons has the perfect description of the “Secret”: “They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page. By that same token, they lost if any of those three factors weren’t in place.” Simmons also makes a great reference to Pat Riley’s Show Time that provides great insight about how difficult it is to maintain that championship chemistry. Once a team wins, “every player wants more minutes, more money, more shots.”
Back to the conversation between Simmons and Thomas, Thomas provides an excellent example from when his Detroit Pistons back-to-back champions that demonstrate the principles of the “Secret”. A key catalyst to transforming the Pistons from a contender to a champion was the trade of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre. Both players had a similar style. Dantley was a 6-Time All-Star and Hall of Famer. As such, he was clearly the better player at the time. However, the Pistons needed to give their defensive and rebounding monster, Dennis Rodman, more minutes and Dantley was clearly getting jealous of Rodman. Accordingly, trading him away for Aguirre worked better for team chemistry and applied the “Secret” to complete the championship puzzle. A more modern example that I witnessed was the three-peat champion, Shaq and Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, of the early 2000s. Before the team won titles, they had a star studded roster that included All-Stars Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. It was an example of too much talent. The Lakers did not become champions until they traded away both those All-Stars and built the team around Shaq and Kobe. Simmons also presents a solid outline for building a championship team. First, you need “one great player” who “leads by example, kills himself on a daily basis, raises the competitive nature of his teammates, and lifts them to a better place”. Next, you need to “surround that superstar with one or two elite sidekicks who understand their place in the team’s hierarchy, don’t obsess over stats”, “complete a nucleus with top-notch role players and/or character guys”, and “stay healthy in the playoffs and maybe catch one or two breaks”. Of course, Simmons is still not shy at pointing out the irony of Thomas’s understanding of the “Secret” yet completely ignoring it when he assembled as much talent as possible on the Knicks with no regard for it. Explaining the “Secret” is a great way to start the book because it is critical in Simmons’s ranking and explaining the best basketball players later on.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is when Simmons definitively ends the argument about whether Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell was the better player. In a book that covers the entire history of the NBA, it is a must. Both players are mythical figures from a long time ago. Wilt’s statistics and records are incomprehensible. Russell is the greatest winner in the history of American sports. His 11 NBA Championships and 2 NCAA Championships are equally unthinkable. Based on Wilt’s ridiculous individual numbers, I always assumed that the main reason in the championship count disparity was the difference in the quality of their supporting casts. However, Simmons totally debunks that argument and the myths that “Russell wasn’t a very good offensive player”, “Statistically, Wilt crushed Russell”, “Wilt was a great guy”, “A couple of plays here and there and Wilt could have won just as many titles as Russell”, and “Players and coaches from the era are split over who was a greater player”. Simmons leaves no doubt in my mind that Russell was the better player. One of the most compelling arguments is that Wilt did not come through in crunch time. More importantly, Simmons provides empirical data that proves Russell’s numbers spiked while Wilt’s production dramatically decreased in big moments and big games. In addition, Simmons states the fact that Wilt was terrified to have the ball down the stretch because of the pressure and his inability to shoot free throws adequately if fouled. It is fair for Simmons to say Wilt is the greatest regular season player ever while Russell is the greatest defensive player ever. In regards to Russell, his team did not need him to score. They needed him to defend the rim and he was also great at blocking balls to teammates to trigger fast breaks. Since blocks were not counted as an official stat until 1973 and after Russell’s playing career, his full defensive impact cannot be quantified statistically. Another interesting fact about Wilt is that he never fouled out. He changed his game to the detriment of his team when he got to four personal fouls so he would not foul out. It is an example of how he was completely obsessed with numbers when his primary objective should have been to win the game. Another great example is when he became obsessed with assists and led the league in the category for a season. He gave up easy shots, yelled at teammates for botching passes, and complained to official scorers for not crediting him for assists. In my opinion, it is the most damning fact because it showed how Wilt could still be completely selfish trying to masquerade as unselfish. A quick summary of the two behemoths is that “Wilt’s teams revolved around his offense and Russell’s revolved around his defense. Wilt coexisted with his teammates and Russell made his team better”. Simmons also quotes an overwhelming number of their peers who attest that Russell is better. The one I trust in most is Jerry West, who is a top ten player and the best talent evaluator ever: “I don’t want to rap Wilt because I believe only Russell was better, and I really respect what Wilt did. But I have to say he wouldn’t adjust to you, you had to adjust to him.” I also thought it was telling that the Lakers had a chance to trade for Wilt after the 1965 season but their players voted 9-2 against it. A simple fan would just say Russell was better because he had an 11-2 edge in championships. In short, that statement really is the answer. Nevertheless, Simmons does an excellent job laying out a logical, factual, and conclusive argument that proves why it is 11-2.
As a person who is fascinated by history and how certain things got the way they are, I also enjoy the chapter about the history and evolution of the NBA game. Simmons covers wide range of significant events from rule changes, equality, announcers, the legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach, historical rivalries, and big trades that gave the league much needed hype. There are a lot of interesting points I found interesting. First, the league faced significant issues in regards to be boring in the early years. Teams held the ball to milk the clock and fouled excessively to prevent scoring. In order to prevent stagnation in the flow of the game, Syracuse owner Danny Biascone proposed a 24 second shot clock. The theory behind the 24 second shot clock is clever. In a 48 minute game, Biascone believed a minimum of 60 shots for each team is essential for a watchable game. If you divide the 2,880 seconds in a 48 minute game by the 120 total shots, you arrive at the 24 second shot clock. In order to discourage excessive fouling, the 6 personal fouls before disqualification and team fouls that resulted in automatic free throws after exceeding a limit were put in place. As one could conclude, the NBA could not have survived without these rules. Next, Simmons does a thorough job educating the reader on the pivotal moments in NBA history. Bill Russell revolutionized basketball by transforming it into a game played above the rim. Along with Elgin Baylor and Wilt who followed him shortly, they made jumping, dunking, and blocking shots mainstream. Until reading this book, I also did not realize how much of a legitimate threat the ABA presented to the NBA before the merger. In the 1970s, the ABA had the most exciting basketball player in the world in Julius Erving (“Dr. J”). In addition, the ABA’s Utah franchise was able to draft and sign another future All-Time great, Moses Malone, out of high school. In 1975-1976, the ABA Dunk Contest captured the imagination of basketball fans and turned Dr. J into a basketball God. The contrast in the leagues is interesting too. The NBA was perceived as the league where the players were fundamentally sound while the ABA embraced streetball play and its players were criticized for just going for individual stats and not playing defense. Eventually, the leagues merge. A couple of key takeaways from the merger are the Nets being forced to sell Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers to pay for the fee to enter the NBA and the territorial fee to the New York Knicks as well as the elimination of the reserve clause which allowed any player with an expiring contract to become a free agent.
As a fan of the NBA, I always heard that the league was in trouble at the end of the 1970s. Simmons paints the bleak picture at the time very well. The games were played on tape delay, the attendance declined, Dr. J’s performance was disappointing, and the league was facing a significant cocaine problem with its players. Moreover, the NBA became blacker with a 75:25 black-to-white ratio. As such, the racial issues of the time in the country played a factor too. As any real NBA fan knows, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered and saved the league. They are two top ten players of All-Time who revitalized the leagues two most iconic franchises, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and led their teams to multiple championships in the 1980s. They brought excitement and a must see feel back to the league. Of course, the fact that one superstar was white helped to bring the white demographic back into the fold. While those two players get most of the credit, Simmons also points out the importance of television. A critical cable deal was struck with the USA network to air live doubleheaders and early playoff games. Moreover, ESPN launched and made it fun to watch highlights. As we also know now, the game continues to be played farther and farther away from the rim. Younger fans may be shocked to learn that the three point line was not implemented in the NBA until the 1979-1980 season. In addition, it was seen as a gimmick more than a legit strategy. Accordingly, it took time for the idea of utilizing the three pointer as a weapon to marinate. Simmons points to 1986 as the turning point. Bird won the first ever three point contest after guaranteeing victory beforehand. Simmons also credits Bird as the first player to use it as a psychological weapon by hitting multiple threes in the fourth quarter or taking a deep, heat check three just to demoralize a team. Another significant year in the NBA that Simmons points to is 1984. In that year, the All-Star game was transformed into an entire weekend. That year is also the genesis of tanking as teams purposely lost games to increase their chances to draft Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. Of course, that draft is considered the greatest ever as it also featured Charles Barkley and John Stockton. Another great section of this chapter are the NBA records Simmons considers unbreakable: “Wilt’s 50 per game [point average for the season], Wilt’s 55-rebound game, Russell’s eleven rings, L.A.’s 33-game win streak, George McGinnis’ 422 turnovers, Wilt’s 100-point game, Chicago’s 72-win season, Scott Skile’s 30-assist game”. Interestingly enough, the Bull’s 72-win season has been surpassed by the Golden State Warriors who won 73 games this season. However, I would have absolutely agreed with Simmons before this season. Of all the remaining unbreakable records, I would say that Russell’s eleven NBA championships as a player is the safest. Since the single game records would only require one fluky game, I would say they are the most at risk but still highly unlikely. Again, Simmons does an amazing, comprehensive job covering the history of the league. I only cherry pick the ones I found most interesting or informative.
As fans, we also love to play the “What If” game. For this reason, I love that Simmons includes an entire chapter about “What Ifs”. For example, what if Detroit decided to draft Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic? What if Steve Nash re-signed with the Dallas Mavericks instead of signing with the Phoenix Suns? In a book that is mostly all about facts, Simmons creates an opportunity to utilize fan fiction to create alternate timelines (i.e. completely make up stuff) that really adds to the entertainment of the book. I am going to note some of my favorites. First, Grant Hill should have never signed with Fila. The company had just only started as a sneaker company. An inferior design for Hill’s sneakers could have contributed to Hill fracturing his ankle. Moreover, he decided to play on that bum ankle in the playoffs and was never the same player afterwards. Simmons also points out that Hill switched to Nike sneakers by the end of his career. Hill was pretty much Lebron James before Lebron James. Obviously, he was not as physically imposing as James. Nevertheless, he was a complete player who filled up the box score with once in a generation type athleticism. He was also a better jump shooter than James with a sweet mid-range jumper. It is a shame that basketball fans never got to see him play to his full potential for more of his career because of injury. Next, I had no idea that the Knicks turned down an offer of Dr. J in exchange for waiving the territorial fee owed to them by the Nets. It is a compelling “What If” to imagine what he would have done with the Knicks and how much bigger he might have gotten playing all his home games at Madison Square Garden. Of the modern “What Ifs”, the Portland Trailblazers passing on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden is well documented. From Simmons’s perspective, Portland would have been a viable destination for Lebron James as a free agent if it had Durant. Accordingly, the two would have formed a juggernaut dynasty that would have defined the 2010s. Another “What If” I enjoyed reading about is the Suns screwing up a potential dynasty by inexplicably going cheap and making curious personnel decisions. Simmons goes over a list of puzzling moves that include trading the 7th pick in 2004 that could have been used to draft Luol Deng or Andre Iguodala instead of signing Quentin Richardson to a big contract, lowballing All-Star Joe Johnson, and passing on drafting Rajon Rondo to give Marcus Banks to a multi-year contract instead. Ouch.
Another interesting footnote in history is Anthony Carter’s agent forgetting to fax a letter to exercise his player option. The oversight allowed the Miami Heat to save money and sign Lamar Odom. In the following season, they traded Odom in a package that netted Shaq who helped Dwyane Wade lead the Heat to the 2006 NBA Championship. Of course, the 1980s are Simmons’s most favorite decade because of the Larry Bird Celtics. As such, he covers some key “What Ifs” in that decade. First, the 1986 Houston Rockets are a forgotten great team. They were anchored by Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. They defeated the 3 time NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Conference Finals before losing in 6 games to arguably the greatest team ever, the 1986 Boston Celtics, in the NBA Finals. Pat Riley once dubbed the Rockets the “Team of the Future”. Of course, they fell apart and is forgotten by history. Another significant blip in history is the death of Len Bias, who died from a cocaine overdose two days after the Celtics drafted him as the second overall pick in the 1986 draft. As Simmons describes Bias, he attacked the basket like a Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins. Moreover, he was an elite athlete, “overcompetitive with a mean streak”, scorer, and rebounder. He was the perfect fit for the Celtics. He would have extended the dynasty by giving them someone to go up against Jordan and taking the load off Bird and Kevin McHale to extend their careers. Naturally, this “What If” is the one that Simmons laments the most as a Bird and Celtics fan. Of course, no “What If” list is complete without mentioning the Trailblazers drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. Although Simmons obviously needs to cover that one, that mulligan has been more than dissected over the years. Regardless, this chapter is filled with many more juicy, butterfly effect scenarios. Definitely do not skip over it.
One chapter I did not care for is when Simmons goes through each MVP winner and picks who it should have been. In terms of the questionable winners, he classifies them as “fishy but ultimately ok, fishy and ultimately not ok, or outright travesties”. It is a subjective and individual choice with vague guidelines that are interpreted by each writer. However, the controversy of the votes is what creates the interest. Accordingly, it does not make sense for entertainment purposes to establish specific rules for voting. I enjoy reading about MVP selections right after the season as they occur. Afterwards, it is just one season and I am more interested in the full body of work for a player’s career. On the other hand, I did like and agree with Simmons’s MVP criteria. His ideal MVP is a player “who can’t be replaced”, an “alpha dog”, “someone who owned the season to some degree”, and a “pick who doesn’t need to be overdefended to a prejudiced party”. While I am not a big fan of rewriting MVP history, I absolutely love Simmons’s idea to create a new Hall of Fame with a Field of Dream feel in the middle of nowhere in French Lick, which is the home of Larry Bird and in the basketball crazed state of Indiana. Moreover, I completely agree with his assertion that the Hall of Fame has become a popularity contest and diluted. He has the perfect solution by splitting up the Hall of Fame into various classifications: “Pioneers, Harlem Globetrotters and other African American, great role players, record holders, and the comets/ potential Hall of Famers who suffered injury or personal problems (e.g. Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Michael Ray Richardson, etc.)”. In addition, he wants to create a pyramid for his Hall of Famers with Levels 1-4 that leads to and culminates with his “Pantheon”. As visitors ascend up the levels, they will see better players. The feeling of the caliber of Hall of Famer increasing as you move higher up a building is epic. As much as it is a genius idea, it will never happen.
Of course, the Simmons’s Pyramid is just really a unique, fun format for him to give us his rankings of the best players in the history of the NBA. As far as a list goes, it is definitely the best one I have read through. I have no significant disagreements with it. When I do object to rankings, I am usually opposing recency biases that dramatically discounts the great players of the past. My belief is that an All-Time great will be superior in any era. A physical freak, like Wilt, would have similar advantages in any decade. I will concede that if you used a time machine and took him straight out of the 1960s and placed him in the modern NBA, modern training techniques would help the modern athlete take away a material amount of Wilt’s advantages. However, if Wilt grew up in the same era and utilized the same training techniques, he would mostly maintain his physical advantages over the competition: gigantic hands, ridiculous length, and immense strength. In terms of big men, I also believe that current players have been marginalized in basketball. The NBA only wants them to play defense and rebound. NBA teams do not spend the time to develop other areas of their game and big men will not stay in college to develop either. Accordingly, the big men of the past are simply more fundamentally sound especially in regards to post play. While their statistics would probably not be identical, I truly believe an All-Time great would be an elite player in any era. Despite my advocating for the stars of the past, I understand it is a nearly impossible task to balance the achievements of all players from every era. As such, I appreciate the outstanding job Simmons does to be fair to players from all eras.
While I usually just defend the accolades of the best of the best players from the past (e.g. Wilt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, etc.), Simmons does the past even more justice by including the secondary stars of the past. For example, number 87 on his list is Gail Goodrich. To be honest, I have heard of the name but did not know much about him as a player. As such, I learned a lot about him in this book. First, it is interesting that he was the star of the first UCLA NCAA championships, including the first UCLA undefeated season at 30-0, which started John Wooden’s long run of titles. While Kareem and Bill Walton are the faces of the UCLA dynasties, Goodrich is the face that started it all. In his NBA career, he was the third best player, behind Wilt and Jerry West, on the historic 69 win 1972 Lakers. Moreover, he was critical to the Lakers winning the NBA Finals against the Knicks when he outplayed Earl Monroe. Simmons does a marvelous job comparing Goodrich’s game to Manu Ginobili. Goodrich featured unorthodox post up moves and got to the free throw line over 550 times four times. As an interesting footnote, the Lakers traded Goodrich for 2 first round picks from New Orleans. One of those picks was used to draft Magic Johnson. As a result, Goodrich’s direct and indirect contributions to the Lakers franchise has been criminally buried by time. Another good example is Pete Maravich’s ranking at number 68. “Pistol Pete” is legendary for his great handle and shooting long distance shots. In the words of Simmons’s father, “He made impossible shots look easy. He saw passing angles his teammates couldn’t even imagine.” I have heard other sports media pundits call Maravich the player from the past who is most comparable to Steph Curry. Of course, Maravich’s ability to hit recklessly deep jump shots would made him even more deadlier had there been a three point line in his time. On the other hand, Curry is definitely better. Curry is able to accomplish his feats in the context of playing within a team concept. Maravich is negatively known for having the most gluttonous career. At LSU during his college career, he played for his father and he was allowed to take as many shots as he wanted. As such, he averaged over 44 points per game in college. In the NBA, he did more of the same. While he was one of the most entertaining players in his time, he never understood the “Secret”. His teams never came close to winning anything at any level. For these reasons, it is very difficult to balance excitement and effectiveness of his game to properly rank him. Another challenging ranking for Simmons is George Mikan. He was the NBA’s first superstar in the 1950s and led the first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers. However, he dominated a game played below the rim. Moreover, he was not able to adjust to the evolving game once the 24 second shot clock was implemented. I do not believe he could even play in today’s NBA. However, his accomplishments and importance to the league in its early years cannot be ignored. For all these reasons, I like Simmons’s ranking of 38. He needs to be in the top 50 for historic reasons but he should not be near the top of the list because his skills would not be enough to be effective in the current NBA. Goodrich, Maravich, and Mikan are three excellent examples of how Simmons educates and informs younger fans about past players they do not know much or anything about and helps them understand those players in the appropriate historical context.
Another part of Simmons’s rankings I find interesting is how he handles who I will call “specialists”. In other words, they are players who were definitely not great all around players but there is a unique quality about them that transcends history. One of the players is number 84 Robert Horry, “Big Shot Bob”. He has the statistics of an average NBA player and was a bench player for most of his career. Nevertheless, he was a key cog in 7 NBA champions. Moreover, he has a number of signature clutch shots that changed the direction of playoff series. The most memorable for me is Game 4 of the 2002 NBA Western Finals against the Sacramento Kings. Down 2 games to 1 and 2 points in the final possession of the game, Shaq and Kobe missed layups. Kings center Vlade Divac knocked the ball outside, it landed in Horry’s hands, and Big Shot Bob nailed the game winning three with no time left. The Lakers would go on to win the series in 7. Simmons’s favorite moment is when Horry played for the San Antonio Spurs. In Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, Horry scored 21 of the last 35 points in the 4th quarter and overtime. With 9 seconds left in overtime, Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace inexplicably doubled Manu Ginobili and left Horry wide open. Of course, Horry hit the go ahead and eventually game winning shot. For all these reasons, Horry is one of the greatest role players and clutch shooters in NBA history. As such, I like that he is in Simmons’s rankings. He is also an interesting Hall of Fame question. In my opinion, I would say no to Horry because his full body of work is not even close. However, I would also not call it a travesty if he made it. Another “specialist” is number 63 Reggie Miller. Simmons’s presents most of the same thoughts I have about Reggie as the most overrated superstar of the past thirty years. He was a one dimensional player [not one way (e.g. offensive], scoring, and he was not even close to being one of the best ever at it. Simmons does a thorough job explaining Reggie’s deficiencies. He could not create his own shot and relied on his teammates setting him screens. He never made a first or second All-NBA team. While Reggie is lauded for his clutch play in the postseason, Simmons references plenty of times he came up incredibly short in playoff games. Regardless, Reggie had some of the most iconic clutch moments in NBA history. He scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA playoffs when he was jabbing with Spike Lee and gave him the choke sign [although Simmons notes that Reggie was also 2-10 in the second half of Game 7 and air-baled the game-winning 20-footer with 5 seconds left]. Another epic moment against the Knicks was when he scored 8 points in 8.9 seconds in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA playoffs. One moment I remember vividly was when he hit a game winning 3 pointer [after pushing off Michael Jordan to get wide open] against the Bulls in the 1998 NBA Eastern Conference Finals and twirled around repeatedly in excitement. When it came to big shots, Reggie had ice veins. If I needed to choose one player to take a big shot for me, I would feel as comfortable with Reggie as any of the other great big shot shooters (Jordan, Jerry West, Bird, Kobe Bryant, etc.) Moreover, he had a flair for the dramatic and understood great theater. Unlike Horry, he was at least a star. He may not have been a superstar but he is a Hall of Famer and has a representative ranking on the list.
Again, fans like to ponder what could have been for players whose careers were derailed by injury or personal problems. Accordingly, I really enjoy how Simmons handles these players in his rankings. One player who stood out is number 88 Shawn Kemp. I started to follow sports during Kemp’s best years in Seattle. Nevertheless, I forgot how good he really was then. Simmons reminds us that Kemp was a force of nature who “ran the floor better than any big man ever” and “finished alley-oops from every conceivable angle”. More importantly, he was a dominant big man on Supersonic teams that averaged 58 wins from 1993-1997 and won 64 games in1996 on route to losing in 6 games to the 72 win Chicago Bulls. In that playoff run, he outplayed Hakeem Olajuwon in a four game sweep of the Rockets, outplayed Karl Malone, and did well against Dennis Rodman in the Finals. Obviously, Kemp was an incredible player at this peak. Unfortunately, he got fat and out of shape after he was traded to Cleveland and never realized his full potential. Another great example of a “What If” player is number 85 Arvydas Sabonis. He is a victim of the Cold War and injuries. A young Sabonis was a very athletic big man who could shoot threes and was one of the best passing big men ever with his signature no look passes. In 1988, he led the Soviet Union to a Gold Medal and outplayed Hall of Famer David Robinson in the semi-finals. Although he was drafted in 1986, he did not play in Portland until 1995 because of the Cold War and personally electing to play in Europe after the Soviet Union fell. From 1985-1988, he endured a heavy playing schedule and leg injuries that were not allowed proper time to heal. In 1988, he had surgery performed in Portland but the Soviet Union rushed him back for the Olympics where he was visibly limping. For all these reasons, it is a shame we never got to see a healthy Sabonis in his prime against the best talent in the world in the NBA. Naturally, no one can talk about star-crossed superstars without mentioning number 27 Bill Walton. Simmons’s has Walton on his short list of players in history who could guarantee a championship and I totally agree. For a 11 month span, his Blazers were 70-15. They won a NBA championship in 1977 and looked like locks to repeat until he suffered a crippling injury. Simmons also has the perfect description of Walton: “best passer, rebounder, shot blocker, outlet passer, defensive anchor, crunch-time scorer, emotional leader and undisputed ‘guy we revolve our offense around’ for a team”. In the 1977 NBA Finals, he averaged a ridiculous 19 points, 19 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 blocks which included a 20/23/8/7 monster performance in the deciding game. In addition, he outplayed Kareem and his team swept the Lakers on route to the Finals. After fighting through a number of injuries that derailed his career, he resurfaced in Boston in 1986 and played excellent as a sixth man and part of arguably the greatest team ever. Moreover, he won two NCAA championships as part of the great UCLA dynasty and should have won three in college. Accordingly, he shares a claim for the greatest college basketball player ever. How can someone whose peak was such a comet in the sky that flashed across the sky briefly be in the Hall of Fame and be number 27 on Simmons’s list? His brilliance was that great. If he stayed healthy, he would have been a top 10 player and maybe even top 5.
I also like where Simmons has some of my favorite players growing up. After Michael Jordan, number 69 Dennis Rodman is my favorite player. He played with passion and was entertainingly nuts. I remember a playoff series against the Miami Heat. Alonzo Mourning had position and was about to dunk the ball. Instead, Rodman lifted up his shorts to prevent the dunk and forced him to shoot free throws. Later, he blew a kiss to the heat bench at Mourning. The cameras caught Mourning lipping “You’re sick.” Classic Dennis the Menace. In addition to being one of the top 3 rebounders in NBA history [based on percentage of his team’s rebounds he grabbed], he was a great defender who got into his opponent’s head. From 1987-1991, he was a “destructive” rebounder and defender off the bench for the Pistons. From 1996-1998, his defense was key in the Bulls going against Karl Malone in two NBA Finals. He was a versatile defender that could defend various types of players. Most importantly, Simmons attests that no one guarded Larry Bird better. He should not be in the top 50 since he was a non-existent offensive player outside of offensive rebounds so his 69 ranking is solid. Of course, number 24 Scottie Pippen is my third most favorite player. He had ridiculous athleticism and long arms that helped him be arguably the best perimeter defender ever. Moreover, he is a great all-around player who proved he could lead a championship caliber team in 1994. When he played on the 1992 Dream Team, coach Chuck Daly called him his second best player. Daly also referred to him as the “fill in the blanks” guy. He could rebound, score, handle the ball, or shut down anyone (e.g. shutting down Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals). Whatever you needed at any time, he could do it. Although Simmons noted that Pippen’s ranking was elevated by playing with Michael Jordan, I disagree a bit. A controversial call by the officials cost the Bulls the 1994 Eastern Conference Semi-finals against the Knicks. The Bulls would have had a great chance to win a title without Michael Jordan. That title would have brought coach Phil Jackson and Pippen to another level in terms of their legacies. Nevertheless, Pippen’s full body of work and performance in 1994 justifies his ranking. In regards to non-Bulls, number 19 Charles Barkley is my favorite player. I love his personality and confidence to bluntly say what is always on his mind. He was an undersized 6’6”, probably really only 6’4”, power forward who dominated with ferocity on the boards and scoring. There will probably never be another player like him. In terms players you would not want steamrolling towards you on a fast break, Barkley would be on the top of the list. His weaknesses were commitment to fitness and his inability to be a great defender because he was undersized. Since Barkley battled Karl Malone throughout their careers for the title of best power forward, I like that Simmons’s put Malone as number 18 and did a full comparison of the two players. Although I would take Barkley over Malone in a big game, I agree with Simmons’s reasons that conclude Malone was the better player. The most important reason is that “Malone maximized the potential of his career; Barkley can’t say the same”.
Before I comment about Simmon’s top 10, I will make some notes in a category I will call “Other”. Numbers 43 Jason Kidd, 41 Gary Payton, and 36 Steve Nash are all point guards that I watched in their prime. While I am not adamantly against the order, I personally rank them in reverse order. Without a doubt, Nash understood the “Secret” the best and was the best offensive player of the three. However, he was not a good defensive player. He also never carried a team to the NBA Finals. However, I agree with Simmons crediting Nash for staying loyal to the Suns instead of trying to chase a championship. Nevertheless, a complete deficiency on one side of the ball makes me put him third of these three players. Payton, the “Glove”, is one of the greatest perimeter players of all time. Once he guarded Michael Jordan in the 1996 Finals, the tone of the series changed but his coach George Karl made the decision too late. Kidd was also a great defensive player. Even at an advanced age, he had the strength to slow Lebron James down in the 2011 NBA Finals which was a key reason the Dallas Mavericks upset the Heat in that series. In terms of offense, Payton had an excellent post-up game and was an overall effective offensive point guard. However, he could not play in an offense when it was not centered on him. For this reason, he was the square peg in the triangle offense when he played with Shaq, Kobe, and Karl Malone for a season on the Lakers and struggled to be a role player with the Heat and Celtics. In terms of Kidd, he was a triple double machine and amazing in transition so he was a great offensive player. While he was a poor shooter, he actually adapted his game and at least became an effective three point shooter later in his career. In terms of winning, Kidd carried two mediocre New Jersey Nets teams to back to back NBA Finals. Moreover, he won a title as an effective and key contributor supporting Dirk Nowitzki with the Mavericks. Payton carried a Sonics team to the Finals and played in two more. Although he struggled as a bench player for the Heat, he did make some key plays in their upset of the Mavericks in 2006. Since Kidd and Payton are complete players and won titles [Titles are not the primary reason but I do use it as a tiebreaker in certain situations. And yes, I understand Payton was not a driving force in his championship], I would put them ahead of Nash with Kidd on top of the other two. Simmons also makes some very interesting comments about number 29 David Robinson. Throughout all the times Simmons saw players walk through the tunnel at Boston Garden, 4 players stood out above all (Manute Bol, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and David Robinson). According to Simmons, Robinson had every tool you want from a center: “Russell’s defensive instincts, Wilt’s strength and agility, Gilmore’s height, Parish’s ability to run the floor, Hakeem’s footwork and hand eye-coordination”. In addition, he was left handed. If Simmons were attempting to make the perfect basketball player clone, he would clone Jordan, Lebron, or David Robinson. On the other hand, Robinson lacked the leadership skills and killer instinct to maximize his physical talent. Accordingly, he did not win his two titles until Tim Duncan joined him.
Back to point guards, number 23 Isiah Thomas may have been the best pure point guard ever. Simmons provides his checklist for his “dream” point guard and Thomas checks all the boxes: “scoring, crunch-time scoring, passing, penetration, quickness leadership, competitiveness, toughness, defense, ability to run a fast break and willingness to sacrifice his own numbers to get everyone else involved”. His only weakness was that he did not have a three point shot. In terms of quantifying his greatness with statistics, he accomplished the rare 20+ points and 10+ assists per game averages four times in his career. The signature badass moment in his career was in a losing effort in the 1988 NBA Finals against the Lakers. He scored 25 points in the third quarter and 43 points overall in a one point loss in a game that would have clinched the title for the Pistons. More impressively, he sprained his ankle in the middle of the third quarter, was visibly limping the rest of the game, and the Lakers still could not stop him. The Lakers probably do not win Games 6 and 7 if Thomas never gets injured. The Pistons would avenge the loss by returning to the NBA Finals the following year and sweeping the same Lakers. Why has Thomas been a bit forgotten in history? Part of it is popularity. He made the critical error trying to organize a freeze out of Michael Jordan during the All-Star game in Jordan’s rookie season. Jordan is not so forgiving and prevented Thomas from playing on the 1992 Dream Team. In addition, there were a couple of other questionable moments in Thomas’s career that did not win him any friends. He made the mistake of agreeing with teammate Dennis Rodman that Larry Bird would be considered just another player if he was black and not white. Next, he led the Pistons off the court instead of shaking hands with the Bulls after they finally overcame the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. It was one of the worst displays of poor sportsmanship. Of course, his laughable failings as a GM has not helped his legacy. When people do not like you, they tend to want to discredit or forget your accomplishments. I respect Simmons for ignoring any personal feelings he may have for Thomas and properly ranking him very high on the list. Simmons also provides me great insight about number 16 Julius Erving and number 13 Moses Malone. Dr. J captured our imagination with his unthinkable dunks. I assumed he was a great all-around player. However, he had a lot of flaws for a great player. He could not shoot a ball from 15 feet or more because of his large hands, he was a subpar defender, and he played passive offensively. Nevertheless, he earned his ranking because he was one of the most ground breaking, important, and influential players fort he NBA. In terms of Moses Malone, I knew he was one of the best big men ever but did not really know why. As Simmons notes, Moses is the greatest offensive rebounder ever. He had tricks with positioning (e.g. butt bump) and the passion. If he had position, his teammates knew to just throw it up because Moses would grab the rebound if they missed. In addition, he is one of a short list of players with 3 MVPs or more. He is also on Simmons’s list of players who guaranteed a title as long as you gave him a supporting cast.
In terms of Simmons’s players in his top ten, I have slightly different preferences but he has an excellent top 10. As a fan of New York sports talk host Mike Francesa on WFAN, I agree with his thought that there have been five players who have dominated the game like no others: Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Lebron James. As such, they are my top 5. Naturally, Simmons and I agree on Jordan as number 1. He was the greatest scorer of All-Time and one of the greatest defenders. Of the top 5 who have won 6 or more titles (Russell 11 and Kareem 6), Jordan dominated on both sides of the ball. Simmons provides plenty of other great reasons. I also agree with Russell and Kareem as 2 and 3 respectively. It is unthinkable to win 11 NBA championships. Russell definitely had a full understanding of the “Secret” and a killer instinct. It does not happen by accident. I would slate Wilt at 4 pending how Lebron finishes his career. Simmons had Lebron 20 for this book which was solid at the time and he knew it was trending up. Since then, Lebron has carried 6 consecutive teams to the NBA Finals (Heat – 4 and Cavaliers – 2). Only one player today guarantees a team 55+ wins and a trip to the NBA Finals [as long as it is through the Eastern Conference]: Lebron. He is a great all-around player. He is an incredible passer. Scoring is the weakest part of his game and he is still one of the best ever at it. He is not a great shooter, which is why he is not as great of a closer as a Jordan or Kobe, but he is also not bad. In addition, I have never seen someone play defense as suffocating as Lebron. He does it against all positions. A 6’8” man should not be able to be as quick as the quickest point guards (e.g. Derrick Rose and Tony Parker). The biggest criticism against him is his 2-4 record in the NBA Finals. It is nonsense. In 2007, he carried a Cavs team to the Finals that was not very good and faced a dynasty Spurs team at its peak. In his last year in Miami, Dwyane Wade and the supporting cast got old and deteriorated while they faced a great Spurs team firing on all cylinders. Last year, he lost his best two players and elevated a bunch of average players to take the Golden State Warriors, who won 73 regular season games this year, to 6 games. The only Finals that he lost that maybe his team should have won is his first in Miami against the Mavericks in 2011. As such, I rank him 5 with still a chance to move up.
6 and 7 are where I have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Simmons has them 4 and 5 respectively with Wilt 6. Again, the Lebron ranking is outdated. In regards to putting them ahead of Wilt, I disagree but am not outraged. They understood the “Secret” more than Wilt. Simmons has Kobe in his top 10 at 8. I have him in somewhere between 12-15 in my Ode to Kobe (/2015/12/08/mamba-out-my-ode-to-kobe-bryant/). While I also note I would not have a problem with someone placing Kobe in their top 10, I would bump him for Lebron in an updated Simmons’s rankings which would leave us with spots 8-10 to fill. In terms of 8-10, I have Oscar Robertson, Tim Duncan, and Jerry West but am not really firm on the order. Simmons has the order as Duncan, West, and Robertson. He also provides a funny anecdote about Duncan. When he asked his father whether he would be interested in reading a column about Duncan, he responded that it would be too boring to read. Duncan is just not that interesting. It is the story of his career: boring but legendarily effective. His San Antonio Spurs were good for 50 wins [over an 82 game schedule] every year and won 5 titles during his career. He allowed himself to be coached by Greg Popovich which empowered him to coach the rest of the team. In terms of the “Secret”, Duncan probably understands it as well as any player. Individually, he was the greatest power forward of All-Time and dominant on both sides of the ball. Since he was not flashy, your initial thought about his ranking is “Really? That high?” You start to think about it and realize “Duh. Of course he is.” In fact, I would not even argue if someone moved him up to as high as 6. Robertson and West were modern day guards playing in the past. Robertson is still, and probably will always be, the only player to average a triple double in a season. He was a complete player in every way and the Michael Jordan of his era. West’s success as the greatest General Manager/ Team President or talent evaluator of All-Time has overshadowed one of the greatest playing careers ever. Since West’s resume as a player is underrated or completely unknown by young fans, I am pleased with his placement within Simmons’s rankings. West could score inside with his dribble penetration and outside as one of the greatest shooters ever. As such, he was known as “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside”. He was also one of the greatest clutch players of All-Time and is the only player to win a NBA Finals MVP on a losing team. Simmons provides an excellent summary of his greatest hits. In addition, he provides a long list of unlucky breaks that prevented him from winning more than one NBA title. Moreover, West is a great defender. Of course, he is also the “Logo” as his silhouette is still used for the NBA logo. I will leave it to Simmons make the complete case for these players. I agree with most of it.
After Simmons’s “Pyramid”, he also has a chapter about the best teams in NBA history. Similar to the rest of his book, he clearly defines his criteria and provides a comprehensive analyses. He categorizes the best teams in 3 Levels: “A Team Capturing Its First Title”, “A Champion Defending Its Title”, and “A Great Team with the Eff-You Edge”. For the top of his list, he also considers “invincibility at the time coupled with a willingness of everyone else to concede, level of consistent/ methodical/ transcendent greatness from October to June, their defense of that ‘greatest season’ the following year, and hypothetical ability to transcend eras and succeed no matter the year.” My only gripe is the final criteria. It seems kind of silly not to include the best Celtics team of the Russell era somewhere in the top 5. Simmons does such an incredible job balancing past and present when ranking his players that it seems contradictory that he goes slightly in the opposite direction when it comes to ranking teams. On the other hand, it shows his willingness to put down his Celtics fandom in order to be objective. After he ranks his top 10 teams and honorable mentions, his top five teams are the 2001 Lakers with Shaq and Kobe, 1989 Detroit Pistons, 1987 Lakers, 1996 Bulls, and 1986 Celtics. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers definitely deserve their place. It is one of two teams in the top 5 that I watched live. The 2001 team had the most dominant playoff run. They lost one game in the entire postseason (Game 1 of the NBA Finals when Allen Iverson crossed then stepped over Tyronne Lue). As Simmons notes, they “swept a 50-win Blazers team (that nearly beat them the previous spring), a 55-win Kings team (that almost beat them 12 months later), and a 58-win Spurs team (that won three titles in the next six years)”. Moreover, it is probably the postseason when Shaq and Kobe played at their bests together. In terms of the “Bad Boys” Pistons, they were among the best defensive teams ever. They intimidated teams by literally beating them up. Of course, their style of play would be completely outlawed in today’s NBA. The 1987 Lakers were the best “Showtime” team so number 3 is a good landing spot in the rankings. Of course, I agree the 1996 Bulls and their 72 win season trump the Lakers. Nevertheless, Simmons makes a great case that the 1991 Bulls might have been the best Bulls team in the Jordan era. I would like to say the Bulls should have been ranked 1. However, I cannot really argue against the 1986 Boston Celtics. Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish formed the greatest front line ever. In 1986, they were joined by Bill Walton who played magnificently off the bench. In addition, Dennis Johnson was a top guard in the backcourt and the Celtics had a great bench. The Bulls struggled against elite centers. It would have been a monumental task to go against four “Pyramid” big men. Rodman and Pippen would have held their own going against that front line. Not so much for Luc Longley and Bill Wennington. In addition, that Celtics super team simply could not have been formed after the 1980s. Due to expansion and the salary cap, Bill Simmons has often noted that the Celtics would not have had the luxury of rostering McHale in the current NBA. For this reason, the 1986 Celtics will likely be the greatest team ever… forever.
Simmons ends his book visiting the great Bill Walton at his home in San Diego. Despite being gifted with a tremendous ability to play and understand basketball yet cursed with a body that could not handle it, Walton features an infectious smile and undying optimism. Moreover, he understands the “Secret” as well or better than any other player who has played the game. In their conversation, Walton explains that the “Secret” is not really a secret. Instead, it is a “Choice” that a player decides to make or not. Another endearing quality of Walton is his humility. Instead of being angry about his hard luck career, he is grateful for all the great players he has played with on the court. As with this conversation with Walton and other interviews I have heard him give, he talks excitingly and proudly of his teammates but feels uncomfortable and a little embarrassed when someone compliments him on his abilities. For all these reasons, a conversation with Walton is the perfect way to end The Book of Basketball.
Again, Simmons has written the perfect book about the NBA. For a basketball fan, it is a must read.
Simmons, Bill. The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.