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Book Review: Basketball's Greatest by Sports Illustrated

SI's NBA Top 10 rankings bible may be Upworthy, but is the format relevant to a true hoops junkie?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Sport Illustrated wants you to view Basketball's Greatest as a water cooler made of double bond, a barstool with bookbinding. It's meant to stir up conversation by resorting to an age old tactic: The Ranking. Now, ranking things on an informal basis (read: Just for the mental exercise) is almost always reductive, and usually ends up doing more harm than good, or at least honoring one set of accomplishments at the expense of another. Combine this with the inherent self-importance and inefficiency of a coffee table book, and you have Basketball's Greatest, a follow-up to the SI's other sports ranking monoliths, Football's Greatest and Baseball's Greatest. Of course, just because ranking basketball players, coaches, franchises, clutch players, and even "moments" sounds to me like a recipe for social unrest doesn't mean there's no currency in it. Go online, and you'll find that articles ranking things like "Best TV villains" and "Top 25 Cities to Get Your Hair Cut" are tremendous click generators. But I'm skeptical of the My-Dad-Bill-can-beat-up-your-Dad-Wilt approach really working with this $32.95 marble slab of a book.

In a way, Basketball's Greatest is just a different manifestation of its parent publication. Beautifully designed and a little antiquated, Sports Illustrated the magazine exists with other paper periodicals in a kind of alternate reality, one where all walls are taupe and every reader is waiting in an uncomfortable chair for their name to be called. I cancelled my subscription to SI about ten years ago, and it's been at least that long since I've witnessed a coffee table book in the wild sitting atop its namesake. You'd have to go back to the Seinfeld days - and Kramer's metabook proposal for a coffee table book about coffee tables - to find a period of true relevance for these loud, heavy creatures which don't quite work either as reading or as art.

That this book employs the talents and expertise of actual basketball writers such as Chris Ballard, Lee Jenkins, Jack McCallum, and Ian Thomsen to moderate 300 pages of power rankings and popularity contests makes intellectual frivolity the greatest of Greatest's many inefficiencies. "This book will settle some arguments - and start some new ones" proclaims the teaser on the dust jacket. The presence of these basketball experts is supposed to add weight and authority to the judgements presented - to at least fulfill the first half of the promise. What happens instead is that the casual reader has no appreciation for the expertise behind the rankings, while the savvy basketball reader suspects the ballots were filled out the same way coaches and GMs fill out theirs come postseason awards time, with a mixture of dartboards, coinflips, and interns.

Basketball's Greatest, like all things SI, at least looks pretty. Editor Bill Syken, a longtime SI writer and now independent author, does well to provide each page with timeless photography of epic or iconic moments. You'll see Jordan's free throw line jam at the '87 dunk contest, Bill Russell swatting Elgin Baylor's shot into oblivion, and magnificent point of view shots of Tim Duncan guarding the paint and Wilt Chamberlain's spindly legs reaching all the way to the ground. Each player, coach, team, game, and moment ranked is also indelibly captured in all their frame-worthy glory. The book could truly be worth the purchase for the photography alone, were so many images not cropped and diluted for the sake of intrusive, sidebars containing writer soundbites and context-free snippets from old SI articles.

But what about the results themselves? The experts voted, so we might as well talk about how they voted. And since a book of rankings is defined first and foremost by its content, for the sake of clarity, and as an attempt to get into the spirit of the format, I present Oldmanshirt's list of The 10 Biggest Rankings Bloopers in Basketball's Greatest:

10. Point Guard rankings, Jason Kidd over Bob Cousy

9. Power Forward, Dirk Nowitzki over Kevin McHale

8. Defenders, Dikembe Mutombo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar over Dennis Johnson and Bruce Bowen

7. Coach, Lenny Wilkens over Don Nelson

6. Franchise, Utah Jazz over New York Knicks

5. Single-season team, '13 Heat over '14 Spurs

4. Center, Willis Reed over Bill Walton

3. Clutch Performer, Robert Horry over Isiah Thomas

2. Power Forward, Karl Malone over Tim Duncan

1. Coach, Chuck Daly over Gregg Popovich

Call me populist, but I think those last two deserve a few words. The ballot was split between Duncan as Center and Duncan as Power Forward, which just reinforces the flaws in the system itself, but is at least an explanation for voting Malone #1 when his only objective advantage over Duncan at this stage in Duncan's career is total points. Of Malone, Alexander Wolf says "As he aged, the Mailman got better at everything, from defense to free throw shooting." The better with age argument, and many other arguments, could be made for both power forwards. Duncan has played only one fewer season than Malone, is playing at arguably a higher level than Malone did at age 38, his teams have gotten better during the last third of his career, and the ring tally is now Duncan 5, Malone 0. As any Chris Paul apologist (apaulogist?) will tell you, rings aren't everything; but 5-0 is, shall we say, definitive. If you want to parse it further, Duncan has gone 2-1 in the Finals against his era's dominant wing player, while Malone went 0-2. And, yes, his free throw shooting has improved, too. Also, Malone got zero votes at center.

Putting Popovich behind Daly is much more of a head-scratcher. Of Daly, Chris Ballard writes "If he'd done nothing else, Daly might make this list for being the only coach to solve Michael Jordan." Yes, he solved Jordan right up until Phil Jackson came along and the Bulls ran Daly's team into the ground with defensive pressure and ball movement. As for the "something else", Daly's Pistons did win two titles as the bridge between the Lakers-Celtics era and the Jordan era, much like the '99 Spurs were the bridge between Jordan and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. (To be honest, If '99 - or even '99+'03 - were Pop's only titles, I could understand putting Daly above him.) Daly also won a gold medal with '92 Dream Team. Is anyone prepared to argue that Pop wouldn't have done the same? The Daly section quotes McCallum from 1989: "The Coach is there to motivate, to prepare, to direct. But not to star." This self-effacing demeanor was also cited by Bob Ryan as one of the reasons Daly was perfect to coach the Dream Team. Is there any reason to believe Pop would've handled the job differently, or gotten results that were any less successful than Daly's? As I've argued before, Chuck Daly, while an innovative and, by all accounts, beloved coach, simply doesn't have the consistency and longevity of the other coaches I'd put in my top 5 all-time. (I also find the praise of certain coaches for letting players take the spotlight to be particularly ironic any time someone decides the top players based on the opinion of non-players.)

So here we are. Rankings are fun, and healthy in small doses, and even help maintain the intrigue that raises sports above the level of a game in our culture, as long as it's realized that the kinds of arguments that rankings foster are ultimately a zero-sum race to the bottom. And since the Spurs fans reading this are likely twisting their Coyote shorts into knots by now, I thought it would be fun to imagine what else SI might rank for a follow-up, which I'll call Basketball's Lamest. Here's some ideas:

- Top 10 worst defenders (Harden's indifference! Bargnani's incompetence! Nash's Canadian accomodative-ness!)

- Top 10 most disappointing players named Joe (Smith? Johnson? Jellybean?)

- Top 10 stupidest fights (On the court or off, Carmelo Anthony would definitely be involved one way or the other.)

- Top 10 ugliest uniforms (Are these #1? Or these? Neither! It's these.)

- Top 10 best guys to dunk on (Basically, Shawn Bradley, Roy Hibbert, and 8 other guys.)

- Top 10 worst owners (An epic battle between Ted Stepien and Donald Sterling!)

- Top 10 worst tattoos (I'm torn between Richard Jefferson's "RJ" and Tom Gugliotta's half-finished bicep barbed wire.)

- Top 10 dumbest quotes (How would Latrell Sprewell's "I've got a family to feed" rank versus something like Shaq's "There's no answer for my offense, just like the polythagorean theorem"?)

Whether or not you spend your hard-earned cash on Basketball's Greatest ultimately depends on your approach to sports. Those who look at basketball from a predominantly social or ritualistic viewpoint - the types who use the term "Big Game" and "Man Cave" a lot - will love having a important-looking but ultimately superficial NBA "tome" on their coffee tables. For the hard-core, or those truly interested in exploring the history of the game, something by David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, Free Darko's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball, Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball, or just about anything else by the wonderful writers in this book, will prove more informative, more entertaining, and far more bathroom-friendly.