bookmark_borderThinking Basketball

Thinking Basketball is a book for basketball and analytics nerds, but especially for people who like to think outside the box and question prevailing narratives. It’s unlikely that you’ll read this book without having at least a few aha moments.

Thinking Basketball by Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor has an interesting background and is not your typical basketball journalist. In addition to his passion for basketball and numbers, he has a degree in Cognitive Science, which can be described as a combination of several disciplines (including neuroscience and psychology). He combines these interests by questioning typical thought patterns in the field of basketball.

An indication that Taylor sees the sport from a different angle is also provided by a look at the Bibliography at the end of the book. Only two basketball books are listed there: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons and “Wilt: Larger than Life,” a biography of Wilt Chamberlain by R.A. Cherry. The rest are works by authors such as Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, among others, who conducted research on behavioral economics topics.

Examples of narratives that Taylor questions include:

  • If a player takes a lot of shots and makes them efficiently, he should shoot even more often
  • The game is decided in crunch time
  • Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994, Tim Duncan in 2003 or Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 led average teams – without help from other stars – to the title virtually single-handedly.
  • Karl Malone disappeared in crucial moments, while Michael Jordan was virtually invincible in such moments.

Many of these points have been heard relatively often among NBA fans and journalists, without questioning them further. Ben Taylor questions them in this book and comes to one or the other surprising result. He collects facts and figures and evaluates them systematically to expose common errors in thinking or at least to show that it is not quite as simple as it seems at first glance.

Another question Taylor tries to answer is whether a best-of-7 series is enough to determine that one team is better than the other. Since, after all, there used to be best-of-5 series in the NBA – and this is being discussed again today to lighten the load somewhat – it stands to reason that (at most) 7 games should be enough to answer this question. Ben Taylor argues here that this is not so.

After reading Thinking Basketball, you’ll probably follow the sport a little differently than you did before. After the first look at last night’s box score, one will be less quick to draw conclusions. You’re more likely to question judgments about individual players or entire teams. For those who are interested in more about such topics after reading the book, I can also recommend Ben Taylor’s podcast of the same name.

Get Thinking Basketball at Amazon



bookmark_borderLife on the Run

Bill Bradley played for the New York Knicks from 1967 to 1977 and won two titles there. In “Life on the Run,” he provides insights into the inner workings of one of the most successful teams of the 1970s.

Life on the Run by Bill Bradley

Although the book was written by an active player, it is not an autobiography. Bill Bradley does writ eabout his own history, but this takes up only a small part of the book. Rather, “Life on the Run” is an account of the daily life of an NBA team in the 1970s. The author describes a span of a few weeks during the 1973-74 season. The title alludes to the hectic life of a professional player, the many flights, arriving at hotels in the middle of the night or early in the morning, frantically eating meals and training sessions.

It’s interesting to read how different the life of an NBA pro was back then. While the league has existed since 1946, some fans don’t consider the “true” start of the modern NBA until the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (and later Michael Jordan). The 70s, on the other hand, are considered somewhat of a forgotten decade as far as the sport of basketball is concerned. These differences are evident, for example, in flights between different NBA cities. The Knicks’ players used normal scheduled flights and were sometimes not even recognized or mistaken for a circus troupe.

“Life on the Run” is nonetheless more than a matter-of-fact description of a season. Just like David Halberstam in The Breaks of the Game, Bradley uses various passages here to introduce his teammates and tell their stories. In addition to the star players Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, as well as Bradley’s friend and roommate Dave DeBusschere, Phil Jackson, who would later win 11 titles as coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers, played there, among others. But the most interesting personality is Jerry Lucas, who seemed to have almost a photographic memory and a fascination with numbers of all kinds.

In the article on Drive by Larry Bird, I wrote that Bird probably didn’t want to piss other people off while he was still active. Bradley was still active when Life on the Run came out, but it’s a bit more polarizing than Drive. For example, Bradley is relatively vocal in his criticism of Wilt Chamberlain. While he praises his individual abilities, which were beyond reproach, he also describes how Wilt’s focus on personal statistics often came at the expense of team success. Bradley is full of praise for Wilt’s big rival Bill Russell, whom he sees as the ultimate winner.

Bill Simmons ranks “Life on the Run” in the highest category for basketball books (Influential Must-Reads) in his book The Book of Basketball. The praise for Russell and criticism of Chamberlain likely played a role in this. Simmons quotes passages from this book in the chapter on Russell and Wilt. However, I can definitely understand this classification. Bill Bradley has written a really good book here that even more than 40 years later is still very interesting to read if you are interested in the history of the NBA.

Get Life on the Run at Amazon