Pro Basketball Prospectus
by John Hollinger
Who’s Better, Who’s Best
by Elliot Kalb
Contemporary Books, 2004.
The statistical revolution in basketball is only beginning, and it seems petty to begin to criticize it now. However, the field is ill served by books like Kalb’s, purporting to contain statistical analysis while only, essentially, containing a “Shaq’s the best because I said so” argument. One can only hope John Hollinger continues to illuminate the truth about basketball statistics, so that perhaps someday we will know more exactly whether Shaq’s Lakers could have beaten Jabbar’s, or Chamberlain’s, or Bird’s Celtics. Until that day and certainly well after it, of course, we will have Replay to tide us over and allow us the chance to fight those battles on our tabletops.As sports fans, one of our most beloved pastimes is arguing. Was Chamberlain better than Russell? Willie, Mickey, or the Duke? Johnny U or Joe Montana? Gretzky or Howe ? All intelligent sports fans have opinions about these and many other of the “big questions” of sports. One of the aims of many sports books today are to argue for one position or another. Most sports readers have read 300 page treatises on why Writer A thinks Sandy Koufax and Joe DiMaggio are the greatest players who ever lived, and anyone who disagrees is a fool. However, since the Bill James revolution, a different level of sports analysis has evolved-the sabermetric or scientific method of writing.
Sabermetric writing, which is derived from the word sabermetrics, the science of studying baseball statistics to determine their meaning, attempts to step outside the “Mays Is Better No Matter What You Say” type of argument. Sabermetric attempts to answer, as exactly as possible, exactly what one can prove about past teams and players. Mays was better? OK, how much better? What do you mean by “better”? How much better on defense? How much better at the plate? How much better on the bases? And for how long? Is it more valuable to be spectacular for 10 years, or above average for 15? Or perhaps spectacular for 5, above average for 5, and average for another 15? Obviously, we cannot teleport Willie Mays from 1955 to the present and see how he would handle a 2-2 changeup from Pedro Martinez. And as exact as baseball statistics are, there are gaps and holes in the data where items were not collected or mislabeled. But, as near as one can, a sabermetric author will attempt to sort through whatever information is available or can be obtained to answer questions not based on opinion, but on solid fact.
Basketball writing is a recent convert to such systematic thinking. The only truly American game suffered from humble beginnings that cloud early players in the mists of history and radical rule changes that distort numbers. In addition, some of the most rudimentary statistics, such as blocked shots and offensive rebounds, were not collected, shockingly, until relatively recent times. Despite these limitations, Hollinger turns out the most consistently enjoyable and surprising reads of my sporting life. A relatively recent addition to the crowded sports bookshelf, Prospectus is a detailed look at all regular NBA players from the past season, their strengths, weaknesses, and potential for future production. Hollinger has generated a number of new statistics that are brilliant in their conception and usefulness, such as the PSA (points per shot attempt). Hollinger is consistently surprising, like James, not only asserting but proving bold statements. Before reading Hollinger I, like a lot of fans, would have easily ranked Latrell Sprewell over Michael Redd. Hollinger not only claims the opposite, but shows fairly convincingly that it’s not even that close.
Hollinger’s book is so enjoyable it seems ridiculous to criticize, but his previous edition featured a number of fascinating looks at players of the past, including an essay about rebounding that proves that Dennis Rodman, instead of Chamberlain, Jabbar, or Russell, is by far the greatest rebounder of all time. His new book has no discursions into history, which is a disappointment. This is understandable when one notes how much work has gone into the player comments, but it is still a loss to students of the game’s past.
There is no such lack in Kalb’s book, a straightforward look at the author’s version of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time. Kalb, who is called “Mr. Stats” in his work for ESPN and (previously) NBC, is a somewhat pugnacious arguer, and goes into a detailed accounting on each player, justifying his selection and place on the list in turn. Kalb’s sources are, of course, the statistical record, along with a series of conversations with players, coaches, and media, such as Bill Walton, Matt Guokas, and Bob Costas. His style is breezy and enjoyable, and he provides an ample window into the careers of players like Dolph Schayes and Walt Frazier, who can be forgotten by current fans.
Kalb’s book has a major flaw, however-he very rarely engages in sabermetric adjustments for era and style of play. It is unclear why this is-it seems to me that Kalb could have easily done more, given his breadth of knowledge of the game, but it is concievable that Kalb feared losing the casual NBA fan as his reader, and left such detailed analysis aside. I disagree with that assumption-I believe that writing seriously about the game, if you do it slowly and with humor, can bring even the most casual (and math-phobic) fan along with you. Bill James proved this by bringing serious statistical work to a broad audience in his books. However, Kalb, for whatever reason, does not and finishing his book, one is left with the somewhat empty feeling as one might after reading a book comparing baseball players by batting average. Not a useless comparison, but so many better ones can be made it seems a shame to waste paper on it. --Mike Webb