Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Books: "Sprawlball" on the evolution of the NBA

Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA
By Kirl Goldsberry
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover, $25.00

Kirk Goldsberry is an NBA analyst at ESPN and a professor at the University of Texas. He has worked as the vice president of strategic research for the San Antonio Spurs and the senior analyst for Team USA Basketball.

The beautifully done new book he has created, Sprawlball, combines stunning visuals, in-depth analysis, and behind-the-scenes stories to chart a modern revolution. 

Goldsberry says the recent change in the league "isn't from large ball to small ball. It's from large ball to sprawlball."

With an exploration of the past, present, and future of a league in transition, the game finds itself at a midway point between two dramatically different aesthetics. With the outward migration of jump shooters and the death of the post player, the entire look and feel of the NBA has changed, and there is now a new model for success.

Goldsberry's work has allowed the field of basketball analytics to leap into overdrive. His spatial and visual analyses of players, teams, and positions have helped teams understand who really is the most valuable at any position.

"The NBA began tracking the spacial locations of every shot taken in 1996-97, but it didn't become reliable until 2001," Goldsberry writes. "Every time Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant released a field goal attempt, one of the official scorers over at the scorer's table would record where on the court the shot occurred and whether it went in or not. For decades we obsessed over the 'did it go in' part, and stats like field goal percentage and three-point percentage became standard fodder for even the most basic basketball conversations. But while the shot location stuff had a chance to make us smarter, it didn't neatly fit into the established set of spreadsheet formulas we'd built to evaluate NBA players and teams.

"Aside from crude considerations like the shooter's location (Was he beyond or in front of the three-point line? Was he in the paint?), the spatial components of scoring in the NBA were generally ignored. The daily newspapers would plot league leaders in primitive metrics like field goal percentage, and inevitably these leaders would be big players like Shaq or DeAndre Jordan. While it's true that these guys were very likely to make field goal attempts, it's also true that this was the case because they were also unlikely to ever shoot more than a few feet from the basket. And their status at the top of the FG percentage leaderboard had just as much to do with their interior prowess as it did with their utter impotence away from the rim."

From when the three-point line was introduced forty years ago, which was one of the most significant rule changes in American sports history, to the present moment, the game has changed radically. Whether mapping "The Geography of the NBA," or detailing the success of "The Interior Minister (LeBron James)," "The Evolution of Steph Curry," and "What a Time to Be a Five (Draymond Green)," Goldsberry explains why today's on-court product, which is based on shooting, passing, and spacing, has never been prettier or more democratic. It also has never been more popular.

Sprawlball presents a bold new vision of the game, and makes this avalanche of analytic data entertaining and easy to grasp.

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