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.

Buy Thinking Basketball at Amazon