Commentary

The Book of Basketball

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Bill Simmons | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Bill Simmons' new book, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books.

This excerpt is from a chapter called "The Most Valuable Chapter," where I break down the fishiest MVP choices in NBA history and determine whether they were justified picks or not.

Should Bill Walton Have Won the 1978 MVP?

Even an unbiased observer would admit that for the eleven months stretching from April '77 through February '78, the Mountain Man was the greatest player alive and pushed that Portland team to surreal heights.31 Right as that team was cresting, the February 13, 1978, Sports Illustrated -- one of the watershed issues of my childhood because of an insane Sidney Moncrief tomahawk dunk on the cover -- ran an extended feature on the Blazers in which Rick Barry called them "maybe the most ideal team ever put together." Everything centered around Walton (19-15-5, 3.5 blocks), the next Russell, an unselfish big man who made teammates better and even shared killer weed with them. Two weeks after the SI story/jinx, the big redhead injured his foot and didn't return until the Playoffs, when he fractured that same foot in Game 2, killing Portland's playoff hopes and leading to his inevitable messy departure.32

Now …

It's hard to imagine anyone qualifying for MVP after missing twenty-four games, much less taking the trophy home. But we're talking about an especially loony season, as evidenced by our rebounding champ (Mr. Leonard "Truck" Robinson) and assists champ (the one, the only, Kevin Porter). Kareem sucker-punched Kent Benson on opening night, missed 20 games and struggled for the remainder of the season. Erving submitted a subpar (for him) season.33 The strongest candidates were George Gervin (27-5-4, 54% FG) and David Thompson (27-5-5, 52% FG), both leading scorers for division winners who weren't known for their defense. Guards weren't supposed to win MVPs back then; only Cousy and Oscar had done it, and as much as we loved Skywalker and Ice, they weren't Cousy and Oscar. So Walton drew the most votes (96), Gervin finished second (80.5), Thompson third (28.5) and Kareem fourth (14); a dude from Venice named Manny, the league's unofficial coke dealer, finished fifth (10).34

The case for Walton: He played 58 of the first 60 games and the Blazers went 50-10 over that stretch. He missed the next 22 games and the Blazers stumbled to an 8-14 finish (hold on, huge "but/still" combo coming up), but they still finished with a league-best 58 wins and clinched home court for the Playoffs. So yeah, Walton missed 24 games and had an abnormally profound impact on the regular season, winning 50 games during a season when only two other teams finished with 50-plus wins: Philly (55) and San Antonio (52).

The case against Walton: Borrowing the Oscars analogy, would you have accepted the choice of No Country for Old Men for Best Picture if the movie inexplicably ended with thirty-five minutes to go? (Actually, bad example -- that would have been the best thing that ever happened to Old Men. I hated everything after we didn't see Josh Brolin get gunned down.35 You're never talking me into it. I hated English majors in college and I hate movies that are vehemently defended by English majors now. The last twenty minutes sucked. I will argue this to the death.) Take two: Would you have accepted The Departed as Best Picture if the movie inexplicably ended with thirty-five minutes to go and you never found out what happened to DiCaprio or Damon? No.

Ultimately it comes down to one thing: even if Walton and the Blazers only owned 70 percent of that season, still, they owned it. Nobody else stood out except Kareem (for clocking Benson), Kermit Washington (for clocking Rudy T.), Darryl Dawkins (for breaking two backboards), Thompson/Gervin (for their scoring barrage on the final day), the Sonics (who started out 5-22 and staged a late surge to make the Finals) and Manny (the aforementioned coke connection that I made up, as far as you know). That's good enough for me -- I'll take 70 percent of a Pantheon season over 100 percent of a relatively forgettable season. I'm signing off. We'll make an exception here with all the missed games. Just this once.


FOOTNOTES

31. I am not an unbiased observer. Wait until we get to the Pyramid section.

32. "Messy" is an understatement: Walton demanded a trade, filed a medical malpractice suit, lost some friendships and signed with the Clips in 1979. This was one of the ugliest sports divorces ever. Right up there with Clemens and McNamee.

33.. That was also the year he cut down his afro. Big mistake. That afro made him look 6-foot-10 and added at least a foot to his vertical leap.

34.. I have no clue what the scoring system was this season; all they released were final points. For all we know, the players voted right after plowing through a pile of cocaine the size of a Gatorade bucket. I can't make enough coke jokes about this era.

35.. If I ruined the movie, too bad -- it's been out for two years. That reminds me: at a New Year's Eve party in '95, my buddy JackO told me that he hadn't seen The Usual Suspects; I had a few in me and blurted out, "Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze." He's still pissed 14 years later. And you know what? I don't care. If you haven't ruined a movie twist for a friend as a way to bust his balls, you're missing out in life. I'm telling you. We've had probably a hundred hours worth of conversations about me blowing "The Usual Suspects" for him. Even right now, he's fuming. This is great.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.