Monday, February 01, 2010

NBA Revisited

Chicago has passionate sports fans but generally we don't win titles, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding (the 1985 Bears, the 2005 White Sox). The only significant change to our karma came when the Chicago Bulls landed Michael Jordan, and the result was 6 titles (with 2 more lost solely because he "retired" midway through).

With Jordan gone, the Bulls have gone back to their lousy ways. Recently I read a book by Bill Simmons called "The Book of Basketball" that I highly recommend. It took me back to the good old days of Jordan and the Bulls.

Bill Simmons is a funny writer. He uses a lot of footnotes, similar to the way that the late David Foster Wallace used to (I highly recommend "Consider the Lobster", a collection of essays).

The best part of the books are the odd facts about the NBA before it became ubiquitous and world-wide. One of the main NBA players for the Celtics at the time, Dave Cowens, drove a cab at night during the playoffs and was out collecting fares. The author had Garden seats near the tunnel where the players came out and he got to see them up close along with their wives and had many hilarious stories about that, too. I never knew anything about Oscar Robertson, either, and since he didn't do much since he retired from the NBA it makes sense why when you read what a pill he was (even if extremely talented).

The author tries to "rank" the players from the different eras of the NBA, which is also interesting, because the game has changed so much over the years, and thus it is obviously subjective. I really didn't know enough about the Celtics under Russell and their battles with Wilt (before my time). I start to remember the NBA about the time of Larry Bird and the famous Celtics teams and their battles with the LA Lakers, which are well documented here.

Being from Chicago the chapters about Jordan and the championship Bulls are the most interesting. He ranks Jordan as the #1 player of all time, ahead of Bird and Russell, which must have pained him, being a Celtic fanatic. He discusses the insane fact that Jordan was selected third in the 1984 draft, and demolishes the myths that Portland didn't see this coming when they selected Sam Bowie (even Sam Bowie's wikipedia article said that he is most famous for being selected ahead of Jordan in the draft). From the footnotes describing Chicago's selection with the #3 pick
If you ever get a chance to watch this clip (on you tube), check out the look on the guy who's on the phone for Chicago - he's so delighted, it looks like he's getting blown under the table. We'll never know for sure.

He also talks about team chemistry, and how important it is beyond statistics. It is true that NBA fantasy points don't seem to correlate into winners. I really liked his discussion with Isiah Thomas, who as a PLAYER enabled this type of chemistry, but as a GM was just awful with it. I first saw Simmons with this article, the "first ever atrocious GM summit", which is just hilarious, you have to read it, but in the (obviously fake) interview there are a bunch of critical points. This is the (not real) Isiah back when he ran the Knicks:
Thomas: Keep changing the roster -- you don't want any semblance of continuity. Once guys get used to playing with one another, they might start winning. Look at the teams that have done well over the last 25 years -- it's always been the teams that built around a nucleus. I even played for one in Detroit. That's why I like to keep mixing things up every six to seven weeks. Why chance it?

Or this one:
Crazy players can throw off the fans because they can say, "Wow, on paper, we look fantastic, the only question is chemistry." But that's the thing -- a good NBA team is 50 percent talent and 50 percent chemistry: Look at Phoenix right now, they're getting it done with two All-Stars and parts that nobody else wanted. How? Chemistry, that's how. On the flip side, if you don't have good chemistry, you're going to lose.

The recent run by the Chicago Bulls made me think about what Simmons' had written. The Bulls, who were left for dead in December when the team failed to support coach Vinny Del Negro, recently won 5 games in a row, on the road, all against winning teams. The Chicago Tribune put the odds against this (according to Vegas) at 486-1 in an article titled "Startling Five". This is amazing because the Bulls typically are an awful road team.

I am hoping that some of the chemistry that Simmons' discusses is starting to rub off on the Bulls. A few years back the team was riddled with guys right out of high school (Curry, Chandler) and aging veterans like Wallace who just look disgruntled. Now they have intelligent guys who actually played 4 years of college (Noah, Gibson), some savvy guys making the most of their talent (Miller), a guy who's been to hell and back (Deng, from Sudan) and that #1 lottery pick that just fell into their lap (Rose). This happened after they traded their top scorer (Gordon), to boot. Maybe they can build up this team; all the pieces will likely only get better, and pick up someone so that they can win 2 rounds of playoffs (actually one would be nice).


Carl from Chicago said...

Dan - I really recommend that you buy that NBA book. You will get a real kick out of it

Dan from Madison said...

You should send me yours. If not I will probably pick it up.

It is always so hard to pick the greatest of anything. Would MJ compete with the likes of LeBron today? Hard to say.

And what about in 30 years? I am sure when Bird and Magic were doing their thing that nobody could imagine a guy like Jordan out there.

In the end, would a guy like Babe Ruth be able to play AAA ball today? I don't think so.