Bill Simmons on LeBron as Dr. J

By Jason Wojciechowski on May 14, 2010 at 6:40 PM

I take little joy in being a "Fire Bill Simmons" sort. He's a talented guy who's, in some areas, done his part to advance the analysis of sports. He's had Jonah Keri on his podcast to talk advanced statistics and written a column about them. He's talked about understanding the concept of pace and level of competition in basketball in the context of Oscar Robertson. And above all, he's a funny, engaging writer who's taken a revolutionary fan-based perspective and made himself the most-read sports columnist on the planet. He's done this all without ever being in a newspaper or on TV. To the extent that style can be separated from substance (and Simmons might be Exhibit A for why it cannot be done), his style, and what he has accomplished in building that style, is one to be admired.

But his faults are myriad, and they infuriate me, as a relatively objective and forward-thinking fan. He plays favorites without acknowledgment, refuses to substantiate the vast majority of his claims in any meaningful way, and he's, in general (to steal an idea from my buddy Migs) a sports mystic. He believes that forces larger than you or I, forces unknowable (but of course somehow divinable, if only by fans as dedicated and learned as himself), are responsible for vast portions of the results of sporting contests.

And yet I continue to read. I have for years, and I'm sure I will continue unabated for many years to come. But sometimes, every once in a while, I am moved to write. Simmons's column in the aftermath of the Cavaliers' debacle in Games 5 and 6 of their series with the Celtics has moved me.

I'm not going to fully fisk the piece, and I'm not funny enough to Fire Joe Morgan it, but I am going to essentially take that format. This is, after all, a reply, not a free-standing essay. Away we go.

the NBA playoffs boil down to one thing: urgency.

You know how I feel about this. I laid it all out in the introduction. This sentence, in the fifth paragraph of the column (really the third), nearly made me audibly groan right there on Wilshire as I was walking home, and gave me the first hint that I would be writing this post later.

One thing? Nothing in life boils down to one thing. I might even go so far as to blame all the world's ills on our desire to reduce problems to "one thing". Education sucks? Better teachers! Terrorism is hard to stop? Take away all our civil rights! The economy failed? Regulate derivatives!

Of course, I won't actually go this far, because that's just blaming all the world's ills on, you guessed it, one thing. One way or the other, though, the point remains that nothing reduces to one thing. Nothing.

You cannot call what happened in the Cavs-Celtics series an upset.

(This point is an aside from the larger issue, but it annoyed me.) Simmons follows the above statement with a bunch of post hoc reasons. Maybe he has a different definition of "upset" than I do. My definition of "upset" is when a team that was not favored to win the game does in fact win the game. How does pointing out how Rajon Rondo outplayed LeBron James (if that's even true, but put it to one side) turn this into something that wasn't an upset? Yes, the Celtics outplayed Cleveland. That's why they won. But "they won" does not mean "it was not an upset."

The playoffs hinge on toughness, chemistry, defense, leadership and urgency.

This sentence comes while the above sentence about the playoffs "boil[ing] down to one thing" is still in view on the page. There's his paragraph about about the types of urgency, then a parenthetical paragraph, then his paragraph about why "this was not an upset", which he caps with this sentence.

It's one thing to contradict yourself. When you've written as many hundreds of thousands of words as Simmons has, it's bound to happen. Your opinions change and you forget that you even held a different opinion because of the gradual nature of that change. This is why, unless there's a reason to be suspicious of that change (as there almost always is with politicians), I don't love playing the "gotcha" game. But this is absurd! It's right there! The playoffs, as it turns out, don't boil down to one thing, they actually hinge on five things.

Note, of course, how four of those things are completely unquantifiable, and thus perfect for a Bill Simmons argument.

From the moment he entered the NBA, he's been asked to do everything himself. He's never had a good coach. He's never had a great teammate, or even a very good one. These past two years, he's been asked to vacillate between Magic Mode and MJ Mode depending on the situation. Because his front office screwed up so many times, his supporting cast ended up being a peculiar blend of hand-me-downs, discount guys and bargain pickups from teams that wanted to cut salary. It ended up being too much. One-man teams don't win titles.

This is the smartest thing Simmons says all column. Remember it for later. He's 100% right on every one of these points. I'll say it again. Remember that he wrote this! Especially the last sentence!

If he owned that cutthroat Jordan chromosome, or Magic's leadership chromosome, it would have surfaced by now.

Simmons has set himself into a classic Simmonsian bind here. He's implicitly made the claim that Jordan's cutthroat nature had emerged by this point in his career. So why did it take him until his seventh season to win a championship? If cutthroatness=championships, Jordan should have been winning every year since basically his third or fourth season, right? So this leaves us with a choice. Either: (1) LeBron's leadership or cutthroatness could still emerge, since Jordan's didn't actually emerge until later in his career; or (2) cutthroatness actually doesn't matter as much as getting a few bounces a the right time, having good teammates, and being well-coached. You know where I'm going to come down on this. But the real question is whether Simmons even recognizes the logical difficulty he's set himself by ignoring a simple fact: Jordan didn't win until the middle of his career.

Now comes the fun part, the slanderous comparison to Dr. J. Yes, slanderous.

Doc at age 26 (ABA, 1975-76 season, his fifth): 29.3 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, 50.7% FG.

LeBron at age 25 (this year, his seventh season): 29.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 50.3% FG.

Remember what I said about how Simmons is a big proponent of knocking Oscar Robertson down because of league and pace considerations? Dr. J's team ran 106 possessions per game, which was middle of the pack for the league. LeBron's Cavs used 91. 91! That's a difference of fifteen possessions per game. That's an enormous number! In light of this, and before we even consider the quality of the leagues (which Simmons does address, sort of), LeBron's box score numbers are way better than Erving's, weren't they? How can you compare their stat lines without acknowledging this fact?

The big difference: Doc captured two ABA titles (in '74 and '76). LeBron hasn't won anything. Of course, the ABA played right into Doc's wheelhouse: The league didn't have enough big guys, nobody played defense, a school-yard-type game carried the day, and the league was diluted enough that someone as gifted as Doc could run roughshod.


Did you get that? NINE TEAMS. Come on, this is basic stuff. LeBron's NBA has more than three times as many teams as the Dr. J ABA did. And two of those nine teams didn't even manage to finish their schedules in 1976! It was a seven-team league! I've played Little League baseball against more teams than that.

And before you trot out that old chestnut about the talent level and dilution, etc. etc.: there were 27 pro basketball teams in all in 1976, because the NBA had 18 of its own. This is before the influx of players from overseas, before the enormous growth in popularity of the game domestically, and before the general growth in domestic and worldwide population. Before all of that, professional basketball 30 years ago was attempting to field almost as many teams as it is today. There's simply no way that Dr. J's titles can be put on par with LeBron's lack thereof. There's no comparison.

If nothing else, look at Dr. J's box score metrics. In 1976, the last year of the ABA, he had a 28.7 PER. (I'm not advocating PER as the best measure or anything here. It's just an encapsulation, in one number, of the stuff that shows up in the box score. It'll serve the purpose.) The next three years, in the merged NBA, he never even cracked 22. He did pick it back up from 80-82, with three years of 25+, and a couple of years of 23 following that, but, despite still just being 26 when the NBA-ABA merger happened, his numbers took a huge fall. He never again reached his ABA heights.

Is it possible that Erving actually declined that steeply from 1976 to 1977, and then worked his way back? It's possible. It is vastly more likely that the style and quality of play were simply better in the NBA than the ABA? Yes. You just can't compare ABA-Erving to NBA-James without an enormous number of caveats and hemmings and hawings. You can't do it.

Again, Simmons, the biggest advocate of hemming and hawing about the numbers there is, should know this. But this illustrates his relationship with stats: when they serve his conclusion, they're there for him. When they don't, forget it. Whatever his acceptance of WAR and UZR in baseball, he fundamentally does not understand or embrace the mode of analysis that the new metrics represent. Sabermetrics and its cousins in other sports are not, in the end, about the numbers themselves. They are about the way we approach understanding the game. Simmons's approach is flatly antithetical to the goals of the movement. He is, in this regard, a sheep (unthinking, following, easily devoured by smarter, more adept creatures) in wolf's clothing.

For the '76 Nets, Doc averaged 22.7 shots per game. From '77 through '79: 16.7, 16.4, 18.7. Do you realize what a joke that was? Unfortunately, he was too nice of a guy. Doc allowed everyone else to determine his destiny. When he tried to take over ⦠it never felt right. He was always one of those flow-of-the-game stars. Always. The same quality that made him a wonderful teammate also made him a liability if things were falling apart.

Simmons follows this with a parenthetical "Sound familiar?" Well, no, to be honest, it doesn't. LeBron took almost 20 shots a game in the playoffs. Only Jamison and Mo Williams were over ten, and they weren't much over ten.

Yes, LeBron passes a lot. That's how he gets assists. But when you're taking almost twice as many shots as the next guy on the team, and when almost everything those guys do is set up by your playmaking, how can it even be hinted that LeBron isn't assertive enough? (Don't forget, LeBron was doing this in a league that averaged over thirteen possessions fewer than the league Erving was playing in. Thirteen!)

[The Sixers] lost do-or-die playoff games by two points (1978) and three points (1979). [...] In 1981, the Sixers blew a 3-1 series lead to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, losing the last three games by five points total. (And by the way, they led in the final minute of all three games.) By the time Philly blew the 1982 Finals, the consensus on Doc was this: phenomenal player, loved by all, an ambassador for the game, one of the best ever ⦠doesn't quite have it.

(Another aside.) Remember what I said about Simmons not believing in luck? Here you go. How many studies have to be done that show that there's no significant close-game skill that can be attributed to having enormous testicles for people to stop spouting nonsense like this? How is losing three games by a total of five points anything but a heartbreaking turn of events, a result of a few inches here and a few inches there, largely out of the control of any human, no matter how athletically gifted.

Back to LeBron: I think we know what we have. He's Doc 2.0 with a little Magic and a healthy dose of Bo sprinkled in. That means the following:

1. LeBron can win an NBA title (or titles) as the best player on a really good team with another leader in place (whether it's a great coach or another player).

Argh! Argh! I ... argh! This is what has been aptly named by some friends of mine as an OBO. Objection Buffer Overflow.

Ok. Deep breath.

Let's start with this: a list of NBA championship teams since the first Jordan Bulls and their best players.

  • 2009 Lakers, Kobe, Pau
  • 2008 Celtics, Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rajon Rondo (don't sleep on Rondo)
  • 2007 Spurs, Duncan, Manu, Parker
  • 2006 Heat, Wade, Shaq
  • 2005 Spurs, Duncan, Ginobili, Parker
  • 2004 Pistons, Chauncey, Ben Wallace
  • 2003 Spurs, Duncan
  • 2002-2000 Lakers, Shaq, Kobe
  • 1999 Spurs, Duncan, Robinson
  • 1998-1996 Bulls, Jordan, Pippen
  • 1995-1994 Rockets, Akeem, Jordan's bookie
  • 1993-1991 Bulls, Jordan, Pippen

I count exactly three one-man teams on that list. Rockets fans like to say that they got robbed of a shot to knock off the Bulls by Jordan playing baseball, but they're not serious, are they? Have they seen that 1995 team? The '94 squad had Otis Thorpe going off, but in general, I just can't see those teams standing up to the Jordan-Pippen (with Jordan at full strength, not the '95 version of himself) Bulls. One-man teams just don't win championships.

Hey, wait, that sounds familiar. Do you remember what I asked you to remember earlier in this post? Way up above, Simmons flat-out says that one-man teams don't win championships! So why is LeBron relegated to Dr. J status because he couldn't carry a one-man team to a championship? Why does LeBron's inability to break the mold mean anything other than the fact that he, like every player in the history of the game (even Jordan!), needs a second banana?

Who's the worst second banana on that list? Pau Gasol? Ben Wallace? The 1999 David Robinson? Has LeBron ever had a teammate as good as any of those guys? I'm not sure LeBron's even had anyone as good as the 1994 Otis Thorpe. How does a failure to do something that pretty much only Tim Duncan has done in the last two decades relegate you to second-tier superstar status? This is not even coherent.

All that's before we even get to the coaching. The coach list for the last two decades looks like this: Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, Pat Riley, and, uh, Doc Rivers. (Doc, of course, had perhaps the most talented championship winner of the past 20 years (if also the shallowest), along with, in Tom Thibodeau, a guy who should have been a head coach years ago, and who is the only assistant coach in the league who you'll ever see shove aside his head coach to shout instructions at his players. Doc knows better than to say anything. He's on coattails, Doc is.) Anyway, Doc aside, Mike Brown doesn't belong on that list. Even given that the roster handed to him was ridiculously mismatched and poorly constructed, he never built a rotation, never developed an offense. He's been on the job for years now. How is your best offensive play still "LeBron!"? How do you have four different guys playing in that no-man's-land of 20-ish minutes in the playoffs? How does LeBron get blamed for this ineptitude?

Nobody, not Jordan with his cutthroatness, not Magic with his leadership, not Bill Russell, not Larry Bird, not Tim Duncan, not Jerry West, nobody could have made this work. Maybe some of those guys, just for pure matchup reasons, get past the Celtics. But do they also beat the Magic and the Lakers? (Or even the Suns?) With this supporting cast? With this coach? It would take a miracle with any of those guys. LeBron is the greatest player people my age have ever seen (I was not even in high school during Jordan's heyday), but he's not a miracle worker.

Simmons follows this up with a long analysis of where LeBron should go and for what reasons. It's reasonable. But he basically concludes with this:

Within the next six weeks, we will find out precisely what matters to LeBron James.

No we won't. We really really won't. You cannot set arbitrary ideas, your ideas, for why he should go play for X, Y, or Z, and then turn around and say that this is also exactly what LeBron is thinking! It doesn't work that way. LeBron might look at Chicago, see a totally unstable front office / ownership situation, an inability/unwillingness to hire a top-notch coach, and balk, regardless of your evaluation of the talent. He might want to go to New York because he trusts Donnie Walsh, rather than because you think it's for the endorsements and the fans. He might want to stay in Cleveland because Dan Gilbert promises to clean house, not because of loyalty. Whenever he makes his choice, we will have no idea of the panoply of reasons that goes into that decision.

This is the height of arrogance. I can only come to one conclusion: Simmons has drunk his own Kool-Aid. He's bought the hype. He gets fifteen thousand Celtics fans to chant "New York Knicks" while LeBron shoots free throws and he thinks he's a god. No, seriously -- Simmons believes he's created the construct in which LeBron will live this summer, and now LeBron has the free will to go select what team he wants. Simmons will then judge him, once and for all, based on that choice. Is this not a god?

I said above that Simmons is a mystic. I had not realized before today that he actually fancied himself a deity.