Very Quick Review: BETABALL by Erik Malinowski (Atria)

MalinowskiE-BetaballUSHow the Warriors came to dominate the league

Betaball is the definitive, inside account of how the Golden State Warriors, under the ownership of venture capitalist Joe Lacob and Hollywood producer Peter Guber, quickly became one of the greatest success stories in both sports and business.

In just five years, they turned a declining franchise with no immediate hope into the NBA’s dominant force — and facilitated the rise of All-Star point guard Stephen Curry. By operating in “beta,” the Warriors morphed into a model organization for American professional sports, instituting the best workplace principles found inside the world’s most successful corporations, and instilling a top-down organizational ethos that allows employees — from the front office to the free-throw line — to thrive.

With in-depth access and meticulous reporting on and off the court, acclaimed journalist Eric Malinowski recounts a gripping tale of a team’s reinvention, of worlds colliding, of ordinary people being pushed to extraordinary heights, and the Golden State Warriors’ chase for a second straight NBA championship during the 2015-’16 season.

Journalist Erik Malinowski offers an engaging, well-written account of how the Golden State Warriors rose from a moribund franchise into the juggernaut of the 2010s. This is the sixth book I’ve read about the Warriors or people connected to the winning organization. Given their dominance during the 2010s, coinciding with a rise in global popularity, it’s not surprising that they have proven such good fodder for books. Betaball is a well-written, engaging and briskly-paced account of the team’s rise, and I enjoyed it.

Let’s get this out of the way early on: Betaball offers a very engaging and accessible account of the Golden State Warrior’s rise to league dominance in the 2010s. It includes plenty go tightly-written portraits of key players and personnel, as well as explanations of and context for key moments and decisions that helped lift the team to the top of the sport. If you know nothing about the team and players, then you’ll get everything you need: you’ll learn about the challenges the team overcame, you’ll get some insight into the highs of leaping to the top. You’ll learn about the characters of those who were instrumental in the team’s success. If you are already familiar with the stories of the people involved (as I was), you will still get something new — through his journalism, Malinowski has plenty of new tidbits and observations that keep the story fresh.

However, the way this book is pitched is interesting and a little bit misleading. The idea of a “Moneyball, but basketball” was intriguing — I’m a huge fan of Michael Lewis’s work, who I consider to be one of the best non-fiction authors currently writing, so it was also quite a bold statement. Betaball, however, is a lot more conventional basketball book than might be expected from the subtitle and back cover copy: more a way to hook readers who are (also) interested in Silicon Valley culture. Yes, there is mention of analytics and statistics used by the Warriors (and others). And yet that is often all it is: a mention. Malinowski provides plenty of numbers, but I’d guess that 90% of it is made up of player stat-lines, and not any form of dive into the numbers that have come out of the team’s analytics infrastructure, or how it has actually influenced the development of the team. Oftentimes, the conclusions that are drawn by the team and management — apparently from the analytics — seem like common-sense good governance and decision-making; any analytical support comes across as just that: support, rather than the ultimate stimulus for a decision.

An interesting addition to the book would have been a deeper comparison between and examination of the Warriors and the Rockets. The latter, under GM Daryl Morey (now at the 76ers), was another team to go all-in on analytics and statistics — and yet, they never won a championship under that leadership, and with players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two players who (regardless of whether or not you like them or their styles of play) are amongst the best players of their generation. What is it about the Warriors that allowed them to break records and win it all, repeatedly? One could easily make a good case that having Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant on the same team would be a winning formula regardless of which team they were on. Steve Kerr is, likewise, a superb coach.

Looping back to Michael Lewis, I’d recommend his New York Times profile of Shane Battier and the Rockets, “The No-Stats All-Star”this is what a basketball analytics story should look like.

Reading Malinowski’s book, though, it is nothing inherently “Silicon Valley” that made the team successful: rather, it was the fact that they followed most of the good governance, leadership and management recommendations to which the majority of organizations and corporations merely pay lip service. Treat the employees (players) well and like human beings? Check. Make health and welfare a priority? Check. Be open to ideas from all corners? Check. Adjust strategy to give top performers greater responsibility and opportunities to deliver? Check.

It seems to me that it is the personalities involved that made the Warriors of this era so successful. (In other words, it is more a victory for the humanities than it is for science.) Did analytics inform policies and performance? Absolutely: but it almost always does, even if we don’t recognize it as “analytics”. It is almost incidental that Joe Lacob and the other owners hail from Silicon Valley (especially given what we actually know about Silicon Valley corporate culture). Betaball tells a story of good governance and thoughtfulness, more than anything else. Which, and I shouldn’t need to stress this: is a good thing. I think we absolutely need to be better at praising and normalizing this style of leadership over others.

When he’s recounting the stories of the Warriors players, coaches, and executives, Malinowski is on top form — his portraits are brief, but substantial, and he does an excellent job of giving us an idea of the characters of Curry, Kerr, Iguodala, Myers, et al. On the other hand, the author also often succumbs to game reporting. It remains my least favourite aspect of basketball literature: even for games that I watched, I just don’t find long and/or detailed accounts of past games to be riveting or good reading. Picking out key moments in a series or game can provide great context and impact to a player’s or team’s story, but do we need a game-by-game account of each playoff series? Nine times out of ten: no. He writes well, though, and no doubt his journalism on the sport is excellent.

Despite this grumbling, I want to stress that my only issue is with the packaging and framing of this book, and the apparent fetishization of analytics (which, it’s true, have come to dominate a lot of reporting and discussion of the NBA). Betaball is a very enjoyable, briskly-paced read. Malinowski is a very good writer, and offers engaging and thoughtful portraits of some of basketball’s leading talents on and off the court.

A must read for any fan of the Warriors, and one that should appeal to fans of the NBA in general.

*

Erik Malinowski’s Betaball is out now, published by Atria Books in North America and in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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