Sports Chat: Bill Simmons Goes Back From the Future

Josh Levin: So … Bill Simmons has written 4,400 words about the Lakers-Celtics series.

Tom Scocca: It only read like 4,350.

JL: I guess that’s if you count the words that are about The Karate Kid and Teen Wolf as being about the Lakers-Celtics series.

TS: Oh, that explains it. I might have skimmed some parts.

JL: You might think that the Teen Wolf -referencing lede is beside the point, Tom.

But Simmons actually spends many, many, many pages of his book comparing Kobe Bryant to Teen Wolf. So it is very relevant.

TS: Can you help me out with something? I don’t want to be dumb.

JL: What can I help you with?

TS: When he writes something like this about Ron Artest’s effect on Lakers fans: “it’s a little like the vibe on the ‘MTV’s 25 Lamest Videos’ set right before Vanilla Ice sent everyone scattering with a baseball bat”—that’s supposed to be stupid, right? The gag is that it’s got nothing to do with anything and he’s shoehorning it in there, which is why it’s funny?

We are not supposed to think, “Oh, right, I bet that when Lakers fans are watching Ron Artest, it does feel exactly like that forgotten television moment.”

JL: Considering that he’s made the exact same reference in three other columns, I think it’s safe to infer that he believes there’s value in merely making the allusion.

TS: Oh.

Well, so, then it’s not the novelty of it, then.

He does mean for us to say, “Yes, now we better understand the feeling in the Staples Center when Ron Artest has the ball.”

JL: Yes, traditionally analogies have been used to help one’s audience grasp a hard-to-understand topic.

TS: Traditionally they flow from the more obscure or unfamiliar to the less so.

JL: But this is more like an analogy-to-make-an-analogy analogy.

TS: Ron Artest’s game can be as ugly as the bruise on my little toe where I stubbed it on the door.

You haven’t seen my little toe; in fact, right now, it is hidden inside my sock. But trust me, it is ugly.

The first couple of days, it looked like a ripe heirloom cherry tomato. Oh, wait, that’s the old-fashioned kind of analogy.

JL: Simmons is genuinely interested in understanding how basketball works. Which is why it’s weird that he explains the game to his readers by, say, comparing Kobe Bryant to a fictional lupine point guard.

And then there’s this side of Simmons: “In my book, I had [Kobe Bryant] ranked No. 15 as a Level Four guy. Last year’s title moved him to Level Five; I thought he moved into the top eight if the Lakers made the Finals again. Which they did. But if they win again? Now we have to talk about Duncan’s No. 7 spot.”

Tom, now we have to talk about Duncan’s No. 7 spot.

TS: Yes! Bill Simmons says that Kobe is so successful, Bill Simmons will have to reconsider the place where Bill Simmons has put Kobe in basketball history.

JL: That seems to be a recurring theme of this NBA Finals preview.

On Kevin Garnett: “I had him ranked No. 21 in my NBA Hall of Fame Pyramid, with Barkley at No. 19 and Malone at No. 18. If he wins a second ring? I think he leapfrogs both of them.”

On Paul Pierce: “I had him ranked No. 54 in my book; if he can score consistently on Artest and lead Boston to a second title, I’d have to bump him to the 44-47 range. A big ‘if.’ “

TS: It’s sort of like when Andrew Beyer would write a whole column about nothing but Beyer Speed Figures. Except at least you were supposed to be able to take those Speed Figures to the race track and use them to guide you in wagering on horses that might win.

Oh, no, that was a Simmons analogy! Comparing a widely read national basketball columnist to a horse-racing writer.

JL: How do we feel about this analogy?

Think about the whirlwind setup for 2008: Boston’s nucleus was hastily whipped together the previous summer, while the Lakers only came together that February after the Pau Gasol hijacking. The Finals were like a microwaved pizza that we threw in for four minutes and quickly chowed down.This one feels more like a prepared meal.

I think that’s kind of good!

Although, wait a second … since nobody was expecting the Celtics to make the Finals this year, I’m not sure it ultimately holds together.

TS: Yeah. And who wanted to see the Lakers again? I think this Finals is more like a meal of leftovers, except when you go to heat up the leftovers, you realize somebody ate half of them, so you have to get out some even older leftovers to round out the meal.

JL: The thing that intrigues me about this series, from an analyzing-Bill Simmons’-entrails perspective, is that the 2009-2010 Boston Celtics are the ultimate proof that he’s making it up as he goes along.

I don’t mean to single out Simmons. I don’t think any sports columnist knows what he’s talking about when he claims there are Rules that explain How Sports Work.

But Simmons claims to know how basketball works, cf. the 800-page basketball encyclopedia he just wrote. And he always claimed, above all else, to know how the Boston Celtics work.

He has watched them since he was a child. Larry Bird is his hero. He has deeply analyzed every game they have ever played.

And he spent the entire season telling us how bad this Celtics team was. How they were losers and quitters. How Rasheeed Wallace was a disgrace to Boston and to basketball and to Earth.

And now the Celtics have shaken off their poor regular season form to storm through the playoffs.

How does Simmons respond to being wrong about the thing he claims to be the rightest about? He writes: “I will never count out an old team again. You just never know.”

So that was the problem! He made the mistake of counting out an old team, failing to recognize that “you just never know.”

TS: When there is, after all, precedent for old teams that have already won titles waiting for the playoffs to turn it on.

JL: This is my problem with Bill Simmons. I find the man very entertaining, but when—every single year—the season doesn’t follow the pattern he expects, he explains that there’s a small problem with the pattern. No, Bill, the problem is that there is no pattern. The NBA is a scatter plot and you’re doing line-of-best-fit analysis.

(Also see all the columns in which he claims to have figured out the secret to betting on NFL games. The casinos in Vegas—or Simmons’ bookies’ houses—were built using the Sports Guy’s home-field-advantage-doesn’t-matter-anymore money.)

When your predictions turn out wrong, you can either (a) acknowledge that maybe predicting and analyzing aren’t so easy to do, or (b) move people around in your Hall of Fame pyramid and create some whole new arbitrary system that purports to correct whatever mistakes you made the last time out.

I mean, have we really learned that you can never count out an old team? So now every time I see a roster that includes, say, 34-year-old Tim Duncan as the star player, I should be sure to advance that team in my playoff bracket?

Am I making any sense here??

TS: Yes, you are.

It is fair to move people around your Hall of Fame pyramid, I guess, because you are basing it on accomplishments, and a Kobe Bryant who had won five rings would be a more accomplished basketball player than the one who has four rings.

There was another piece of his historical analysis that bugged me, though.

Derek Fisher, according to Simmons, is “someone who improbably has evolved into a mildly Horryian veteran who isn’t afraid to take big shots (Fisher)” and is “[o]ne more clutch shot in a big momentfrom upgrading from ‘Homeless Man’s Robert Horry’ to ‘Very Poor Man’s Robert Horry.’ “

Seven years ago, Derek Fisher shot .515 from three-point range in the playoffs as the Lakers won a title.

Two years after that, though they did not win a title, he shot .617 from three in the playoffs.

JL: Horryian!

TS: Overall, his career three-point shooting jumps from .373 in the regular season to .405 in the playoffs.

This is not because he is a mystically great playoff competitor, but because the underappreciated principle of Phil Jackson’s offense is that it creates great shots for mediocre players.

In the playoffs, teams make the mistake of focusing extra-hard on throwing defensive players at guys like Kobe Bryant or Shaq.

And though Derek Fisher is not a scintillating basketball talent, he can knock down a wide-open three-pointer with the best of them.

JL: Tex Winter is confused about why you’ve taken to calling him Phil Jackson.

TS: “Phil Jackson” is a corporate entity, covering his coaching staff.

Like a U.S. senator.

JL: Right.

But in this case the mediocre players, at least when it comes to outside shooting, are Ron Artest and Lamar Odom.

The Celtics want Artest and Odom to shoot threes, not Fisher.

TS: Well, the greater point of the system is to fit limited players into limited roles.

An open three-pointer for Ron Artest is not the shot the Lakers want to create when Kobe gets double-teamed.

JL: So what does this have to do with Robert Horry?

TS: Besides that Horry went 0-for-18 from three-point range when the Spurs bounced the Lakers in the Western finals?

We should probably address Simmons’ idea that Rajon Rondo is a future Hall of Famer.

“(I know, Rondo has a loooooooooooooooooong way to go, but it’s not an unreasonable statement).”

JL: Are we talking about the actual Hall of Fame or the pyramid in Bill Simmons’ mind?

TS: That’s a great question.

Maybe by the time Rondo retires, they will be identical.

JL: Simmons also writes that Rondo “could absolutely grab the championship belt as The Athlete With The Highest Approval Rating In Boston.”

Which I thought was permanently in the hands of whichever white guy was playing a skill position for the Patriots.

TS: Are you implying that race affects Boston sports fans’ outlook on players?

JL: Pumpsie Green told me to say that.

TS: But Bill Simmons knows otherwise. He linked alongside this preview to an old column that addressed it directly.

Myth: In the ‘80s, white Americans supported the Celts, and African-Americans supported the Lakers. Truth: The Showtime Lakers were definitely a flashier team, exemplified by Worthy’s signature tomahawk dunk and Magic’s near quadruple-double average in the 1982 Finals (18 points, 11 assists, 9.5 rebounds, 12 women a game). And the C’s were definitely a dorkier team, exemplified by Bird’s blond Afro-mullet-which did make him a hero in thewhite-trash states-and McHale and Bill Walton whiffing on 47.8 percent of their high fives in 1986. That said, isn’t it racist to assume blacks gravitated to L.A. and whites gravitated to Boston just because Spike Lee blasphemed Larry Legend in Do the Right Thing? The only thing we know for sure is that, besides Lakers fans, everyone despised that ninny Kareem. If anything, he transcended race and united the country.

I assume this is meant to be comically nonsensical, but Dot he Right Thing came out in 1989.

By which time the deliberately and theatrically white 1980s version of the Celtics was done with playing the Lakers.

JL: Perhaps Simmons meant to reference Vanilla Ice there, another pop culture phenomenon that had nothing to do with race.

TS: Or does he mean that Do the Right Thing rewrote the racial history of ‘80s basketball after the fact? (It did not.)

JL: I think he does mean that Do the Right Thing rewrote the racial history of ‘80s basketball after the fact.

I also think he’s probably still mad that Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas said that Larry Bird would’ve been just another player if he was black.

Which was a dumb, racist thing to say.

TS: He’s probably also mad that those Pistons bumped off the Celtics.

But if we dwell on Bill Simmons’ failures as a historian and as a predictive basketball analyst, we miss the conceptual brilliance of this preview.

JL: Which is what?

TS: It is a work of predictive history!

He is not analyzing or predicting what might happen in the Finals; he is predicting what the analysis would be if various different things were to happen in the Finals.

It is the complement to those pieces he does where he re-watches a game he’s already seen and writes a running analysis of the action.

If the Lakers win, it will have meant that the following premises were true. If the Celtics win, it will have meant that these other premises were true. He is doing pregame analysis of the postgame analysis.

JL: Yes!

TS: A lesser sportswriter would write up only one set of conclusions, after the series had been decided. But that sportswriter would have to do it on a tight deadline, while everyone else was also writing the same conclusions.

JL: But don’t forget that Simmons won’t be boxed in by his pregame postgame analysis.

It’s possible that his comprehensive dissection of what hasn’t happened yet won’t turn out to be a comprehensive dissection of what actually happens.

At which point he can declare that the 2010 NBA Finals taught us something.

TS: Right. The lesser sportswriter probably has his analysis in the can, too, and is ready to beat one into final shape. But if Kobe breaks his leg in game five and then Jordan Farmar scores 60 points in game seven to win the series for the Lakers anyway—well, nobody’s going to publish that guy’s guesses about what a Lakers win would have proven about Kobe.

JL: Your hypothetical 2010 NBA Finals taught us that Jordan Farmar has a loooooooooooooooooong way to go to make the Hall of Fame. But it’s not unreasonable!

TS: If Jordan Farmar were to score 60 points in a game-seven victory with Kobe on crutches, he would have to move up several levels in my Pyramid of Imaginary Basketball Success & Glory.

Chris Bosh and LeBron James would really have no choice but to join him in Chicago next year, with Michael Jordan coaching.

And then Michael Jordan would have to be in the conversation about the greatest NBA coaches of all time, assuming the Bulls went on to win seven consecutive titles with Farmar, Bosh, and LeBron.

JL: In that scenario, where would Bosh rank on the all-time list of greatest NBA second bananas?

TS: Somewhere between Tex Winter and Vlade Divac.