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Chris Ballard's, The Art Of A Beautiful Game is described in its promotional materials as "The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA". I suppose the publicists at Simon & Schuster searched their database of Thinking Fans and found it lacking because they sent me an advance copy to review. Never one to turn down free stuff, I read Ballard's book over the last few days.
Given how busy I am and how little time I have to actually read a book, the fact that I finished it so quickly is a testament to Ballard's work. It is both a compelling read for basketball fans (thinking or otherwise) but it isn't exactly War and Peace either.
The "book" really is more of a bound collection of 12 long articles ranging from Chapter 1 - Why Kobe Will Eat Your Babies If They Stop Him From Winning on to Chapter 12 - LeBron James Is The Bestest Human Being Every Made. I might be off on the actual titles.
For Suns fans there's a lot to chew on. Steve Kerr and Steve Nash each get an entire chapter and there is a fascinating look at rebounding which these days is of special interest in the Valley of the Negative Rebound Differential.
Kerr Shot Lights Out - But No Longer
Steve Kerr, we find out in the chapter dealing with "pure shooters", can still shoot. At least he could last year before blowing out his knee. He and Ballard played a little shooting game just to see if Kerr still had it after being retired for about 4 years. Mr. Wildcat nailed 21 or 25 three pointers with basically no warm-up.
I asked Steve if he could still do that a year later, "No, actually I can't. I really can't. I had knee surgery in December and both knees have kind of given out. They're both bone on bone now. At the time when I was shooting against him (Ballard) my knees still felt pretty good and I could still jump and take a jump shot and it's gone now."
Ballard can probably claim to have played the last competitive game of basketball with Steve Kerr and might also be responsible for the final nail in Steve's knee's coffin. Chris can answer for himself on that one.
The point of Ballard's shooting contest was to emphasize the difference between natural pure shooters and guys that have had to work to get better. Kerr is right on board with that saying it came naturally to him from the age of five while guys likeJohnson and Terry Porter had to work hard to become good shooters.
Kerr said that he can spot a natural shooter instantly when he's scouting young players. Perhaps because the Suns are playing the Clippers to open the season, he specifically mentioned seeing Eric Gordon in college and knowing that he had range from 25 feet in.
Nash - Ever Humble
The best chapter in the the book focuses on point guards and features Steve Nash in a prominent role.
I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about Nash (basketball-wise) but I learned a few things in this one. I wasn't aware for example that Don Nelson had to force Nash to shoot at least 10 times per game back in the Dallas days or that as recently as 2006 Nash was dunking the ball in practice.
The pass-first mentality that Ballard details made the streak last year after Amare's eye injury even more amazing in retrospect.
From February 22 through April 3 Steve averaged 16 attempts per game which was well above his 10.7 FGA for his career. For a four game stretch on a critical road trip he was putting up 20 shots per game. Very unNash-like and I recall at the time being highly critical of the shoot-first play. We can argue whether he should or shouldn't have taken so many shots but you can't argue with the results.
During that 19 game stretch the uber aggressive Nash increased his field goal percentage to 56% from his season (50%) and career (49%) averages. His assists per game also went up by 1 apg during that period.
All those numbers do is reinforce Ballard's point that Nash might be unselfish to a fault given his ability to be one of the most efficient scoring point guards in the league.
Nash hadn't read the book yet or even knew that it had come out when I asked him about it this week. When I told him that he had a full chapter to himself he quipped that it must be a best seller since he's featured so prominently.
Rebounding - Effort vs Technique vs Physical Ability
The chapter that I found myself most interested in was on rebounding. You'll have to read the book yourself to find out what Ballard concludes but it did inspire me to do a little research about what the Suns big men felt about that under-appreciated art.
I started with Suns assistant coach Bill Cartwright, who does make an appearance later in the book talking about free throw shooting and "Superbigs".
He asserts that the key to rebounding is opportunity by which he means going after the ball every time and giving yourself a chance to get it. It's no wonder then that he considers Louis Amundson the best rebounder on the Suns roster, "You watch the tape, he goes every single time in pursuit of the rebound."
Of course, Amundson is a limited offensive player who's made his living by grabbing boards. He is athletic in his own right but as Amare Stoudemire said, he's made going after loose balls a habit.
Amare list the keys to being a great rebounder as, "Strength. Athleticism. Determination," and adds that, "it helps if you're tall and can out-power guys".
Playing against bigger centers in the league like Shaq and Greg Oden, Amare tries to wear them down by running the floor so hopefully in the fourth quarter he can have the edge.
The self-described smallest center in the league, Channing Frye represents the thinking man's approach to rebounding.
In his typical cerebral way he said this, "For me it's just about understanding, knowing your personnel. Knowing who's going to shoot what and being able to attack the basket. Put yourself in a position. It's like a millisecond chess game you play with someone else. If you think the rebound is going to go off the long side of the rim you're going to step off the inside so he guards that and try and swim move and get your position on the other side."
Both Cartwright and Ballard agree that Dennis Rodman combined all of those attributes. He studied the game more than anyone else, was determined, and used his length and athleticism to put up gaudy rebounding numbers throughout his bawdy career.
On my book review scale I give Chris Ballard's, The Art Of A Beautiful Game 3 1/2 balls out of 5
Preventing this book from getting a five balls rating was its lack of theme or story. As a read it was easy, quick, fun and informative. Beach reading for the basketball fan.
For hard corp b-ball geeks (or die hard Kobe, LeBron or Nash fans) it's a book you will want to read. Others can probably wait for the movie to come out.
Amazon lists The Art Of A Beautiful Game for $17.16 and shows a November 3rd ship date.