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Book review: Betaball

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In his new book, Erik Malinowski outlines how the ownership of Peter Guber and Joe Lacob embraced Silicon Valley philosophy and technology to turn the Warriors into one of the NBA’s premier franchises.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What usually follows a team winning a championship is an endless supply of books about that team, particularly if there is something particularly special about their championship narrative.

The boon in books about the Chicago Cubs after their 2016 World Series win is a perfect example of this. Not surprisingly, there has been a rise in the Golden State Warriors-centric books being published. While this can feel like overkill with a baseball team—a sport has been written about ad nauseumthis is a welcome event for basketball.

Despite its worldwide popularity and the way in which the game lends itself to lush descriptions and fluid actions, there is a dearth of great basketball books. As the late Brian Doyle writes in Hoop: A Basketball Life in Ninety-Five Essays, “[W]here is basketball’s Roger Angell, Herbert Warren Wind, C.L.R. James, William Finnegan? [...] Where are the annual anthologies of terrific basketball essays? How can a game full of such wit and creativity and magic not spark more great books?” (xi).

Eric Malinowski addresses both these things, writing a book about a championship team and contributing to the slowly-growing library of basketball books, with Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History. A Bay Area-based sportswriter who has written for Bleacher Report among other leading publications, Malinowski tells the story of the Warriors under the current ownership group of Peter Guber and Joe Lacob. Malinowski draws a clear line in the sand between the Christopher Cohan-ownership, who took over the team in 1995, and Lacob and Guber’s taking ownership of the franchise in 2010. It is a transformative moment for the franchise and it is from them that the central idea of Betaball emerges.

The central idea of Betaball

In describing the central tenets of the Guber-Lacob ownership, Malinowski outlines the main point of the book. He writes:

“Both men had found success outside sports through constant innovation; both were convinced they could apply that same principle to construct a championship-caliber team. They would urge employees to speak out; encourage cross-collaboration; invest in bold, new techonologies that could flame out; and never resist the urge to adapt. In the tech industry, the term for this stage of development is ‘beta’-- never fully baked, always in flux, focused yet open to change.”

“That strategy worked beyond their wildest imagination. The Warriors captured their first championship in 40 years and followed that up with the greatest regular season in NBA history. [Stephen] Curry was a global megastar. The Warriors were raking in millions in pure profit, faster than any other franchise. And the winning seemed to come so easily, as it it was all preordained.”

Focusing on Lacob’s background in Silicon Valley, Malinowski describes how this new ownership instilled a vision that challenged NBA orthodoxies, largely by making use of technological and scientific innovations. This approach— one implemented by team president Rick Welts, general manager Bob Myers, and head coach Steve Kerr— led to a level of success on and off the basketball court that no one could have predicted and transformed the Warriors from perennial doormat to champions.

New Orleans Pelicans v Golden State Warriors
The ownership team of Joe Lacob and Peter Guber has yielded unprecedented success for the Golden State Warriors through their incorporation of Silicon Valley technology and techniques, which Erik Malinowski highlights in Betaball.
Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

The comparison one would be expected to make is between Betaball and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which is about Billy Beane, the beginning of his tenure as the Oakland A’s general manager, and the statistical revolution in baseball he helped to usher in. While there are ways in which the two books overlap, it’s a much more forced comparison than one might think.

The difference between Betaball and Moneyball

Moneyball is, at its core, about how Beane’s method was to find an inefficiency, specifically the baseball establishment’s not grasping the importance of getting on base, and exploit it. What Malinowski writes about in Betaball is a franchise, drawing both inspiration and tools from the worlds of technology and science, building something that could thrive and be sustained over an extended period of time.

In addition to providing an overview of the Guber-Lacob ownership, Betaball also provides a bit of Warriors history too, focusing particularly on the previous two-to-three decades. To properly depict just how remarkable the current stretch of basketball has been for Warriors fans, Malinowski documents the ownership of Chris Cohan, who “would quickly become the bane of every Golden State fan’s existence.” Malinowski documents the ways in which Cohan took a team that was “enjoying something of a renaissance” when he gained control and left them having “earned a reputation as one of the worst (and worst-run) franchises in all of American sports” in 2010.

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors
While Steph Curry is largely responsible for the Warriors miraculous rise to the top of the NBA, GM Bob Myers shares much of the credit too as he took the vision of Peter Guber and Joe Lacob and turned into an approach to basketball
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Step-by-painful-step, Malinowski takes the reader through the many failures and missteps of the Cohan ownership to give you a sense of how far down the NBA ladder the Warriors were when Guber and Lacob purchased them in 2010. Malinowski takes you through it all— Curry’s early career injury troubles and mounting losses to playoff success with Mark Jackson after the arrival of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut and finally the championship years with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala joining the team, now coached by Kerr.

Reliving moments from the Warriors’ past

Part of what I enjoyed most about this book was the chance to re-live moments from seasons that I had forgotten or that seem like distant memories given how quickly the franchise has risen to the top of the league. Once your team reaches that exalted place you often forget the narrative of how you got there and Betaball provides Warriors fans by describing the path the team took.

Malinowski’s prose is also eminently readable, which makes Betaball a literal page-turner. When one writes about things like scientific progress and technological advancements, it is very easy to get lost in the weeds. Many a book with an interesting premise have gotten bogged down when it engages with the specifics of that premise. This is something that Malinowski deftly avoids. Conversations about technological advancements, like how on-court performance is tracked or how athletes are able to take better care of their bodies through greater understanding, can be… maybe not boring, but very dry. It is in those spots where reading becomes slower and thus interest can be lost. But in the sections of Betaball that deal with this dryer subject matter—things slightly less interesting than reading about wins and losses and on-court matters—the narrative continues to briskly move forward and you feel compelled to read on.

This is due to how Malinowski intertwines the narrative of the team on the court along with the developments off of it. You get the story of the team, the basketball, as you hear about these new approaches that Myers and Kerr (along with his coaching staff) were implementing. If you lean too far into the more “behind the scenes” changes, you get away from the most important part of the book—the basketball itself. If you focus solely on the narrative and telling the story of the Warriors in the given years, you limit what your book can speak to. Fortunately, Malinowski deftly walks that line and has crafted a book that discusses a basketball team but not just about one.

Why Betaball is a book that reaches beyond Warriors fans

If I were to offer up any critiques of the book, most of them would be rooted in just wanting more. I wanted to know more but that desire could go on forever and at some point you have to cut yourself off as a writer. I do feel as though the pacing could be a bit more balanced as the Keith Smart season as head coach along with Jackson’s first season with the Warriors feel a little over-explored while the more recent seasons could have been expanded. But these criticisms are of the extremely minor variety as Malinowski has written an outstanding book that Warriors fans are sure to enjoy from cover to cover.

But Betaball isn’t a book just for Warriors fans. Even those who did not rejoice with the Golden State’s titles in 2015 and 2017 will enjoy it and find Malinowski’s book interesting. Betaball is a book that isn’t just one thing. It’s not just a history of a franchise or the story of a specific season. It’s not even a book that’s just about basketball. Rather, what Malinowski writes about is an organization growing and evolving with the times. In it, there are lessons that could be learned by other companies and organizations, particularly those in Lacob’s familiar Silicon Valley. It’s a book that brings together a story about a championship team, a narrative about up-and-coming figures within the sports world, and the examination of an organizational approach that can apply to many fields.

What makes these Warriors special is that they are not only a great team but an important one as well. In much of sports, but particularly in the NBA, that is not always the case. The important teams, the teams that shake up the game or change how things are played, are not the teams that win titles. Those teams that win titles are often of a more traditional variety and do not change the sport itself. What Malinowski depicts in Betaball is that the Warriors are a team that has done both. The Warriors, under the Lacob-Guber ownership group, affected the way basketball is played while also etching their names into the history books and championship trophies through the accomplishments of their brand of basketball.