Kirk Goldsberry Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), pp. 245 ISBN: 9781328767516 $25
This analytical turn for the NBA is a relatively recent phenomenon. Basketball is a spatial sport but, for many decades since its post-war founding, the only official statistics collected by the NBA were non-spatial tallies of the most basic daily box scores, such as points scored, rebounds, and assists. Then, at the turn of this century, basketball established an analytical branch and new metrics such as points per possession, true shooting percentage, and player efficiency rating were introduced, enabling analysts to quantitatively separate the great from the merely good.
Still, it took time for these new metrics to catch up with what would prove to be the most revolutionary rules-change in the history of the NBA: the introduction of the three-point shot (which has now celebrated its fortieth birthday). How truly game-changing this proved to be is easily demonstrated. Before the three-pointer, the professional game was dominated by big men. Of the first 25 MVP awards (from 1955), centers won all but four; of the next 25, centers won just two. It’s even better illustrated by a look at the history of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the two most consistently successful franchises (the other being the Boston Celtics).
Even more than the Celtics, the Lakers have regularly resurrected themselves into greatness (most of the Celtics’ titles came in that great run of championships under Red Auerbach). In the 1950s, while still in Minneapolis, it was Big George Mikan, the first truly dominant big man in the NBA, who led the Lakers to multiple titles. In the 1960s, even with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, the Lakers could not win a title despite dominating the Western Conference. So, they traded for the quintessential big man, Wilt Chamberlain, and broke through. Again, later on the 1970s, they traded again, this time for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who had already brought Milwaukee its one and only title). Shaquille O’Neal and more championships would follow. Today, the most successful team is the Golden State Warriors, where the ‘center’ position is regularly filled by 6’7” Draymond Green. Today, small ball rules – as illustrated by a pair of graphs, showing the most common shot locations in 2001-2, where half the shots are clustered in the mid-range areas, and 2016-17, where there is still a cluster of shots beneath the basket but most are ranged along the three-point arc. Why this shift?
The key was the analytics which finally truly recognized the spatial nature of the game: the plotting of the position on the court of every shot taken, enabling analysts to calculate, from points-per-attempt, which shots were the most profitable. This has proven to be a revolution with a downside. The game today has become one of spacing and three-point shots and isolation plays, where the team on offense simply runs one player to a corner to await a kick-out pass for a three-pointer. As the author comments, the NBA game has become ‘aesthetically monotonous.’ Perhaps, he suggests, rule-changes to bring back the value of the big man are needed. Rule-changes to enhance the attractiveness of the game were once all but routine in the NBA. George Mikan was so dominant both on defense and offense that goal-tending was introduced to prevent him from simply swatting away shots from beneath the basket and the lane was widened from six feet to twelve (the Mikan Rule) to prevent his scoring at will from in close. Then game the immensely-strong and athletic Wilt the Stilt and the lane was widened again to sixteen feet (the Chamberlain Rule). Still, the standard strategy remained to work the ball in to a post-up center. Wilt’s ‘finger-roll’ – Kareem’s ‘sky-hook.’ Play was intense (even brutal), back in the day. Now, it can feel routine.
The author tells the story of this fundamental shift in the game through concentrated looks at the playing history of key players over recent decades, such as LeBron James, James Harden, and, in particular, the ‘era-defining’ Steph Curry, with a chapter devoted to each, but dozens more are brought in (as well as comparable aspects of other sports, such as ‘pop time’ in baseball or the penalty shot in soccer). Illustrative games are replayed. All are graphed. Up front, this is, then, a book for the NBA fanatic. Food for endless arguments. But it is also a must-read for anyone excited by a demonstration of how a practical application of analytics can affect performance and change the conduct of a profession. In short, a book for jocks and nerds alike.