- The NBA has gone through a revolution with the rise of the three-point shot thanks to players like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. ESPN analyst and author Kirk Goldsberry spoke to The Crossover about his book Sprawlball and where the league is going next.
Kirk Goldsberry has a knack for taking complicated concepts and boiling them down to their essence. Goldberry’s swift rise in journalism was rooted in that ability, as he documented the habits of the best players in basketball and converted their on-court tendencies into easy-to-follow charts. For almost a decade he provided visual aids for basketball fans at Grantland, ESPN and The New York Times. With a background in Geography and Data Visualization, Goldsberry was uniquely qualified to create screenshots of the basketball landscape.
In his new book Sprawlball, he continues that effort from a higher perch. Instead of zeroing in on a specific athlete, he considers how basketball has changed as a result of the rise of the three-point shot and the analytics era. Goldsberry talked to Sports Illustrated about the central figures in that shift—Stephen Curry, LeBron James and more—and where the game could go next.
DeAntae Prince: The first question is very basic: How did you come up with the name Sprawlball for the book?
Kirk Goldsberry: Sprawlball came to me because the word sprawl in geography refers to how a city grows outward from the traditional sort of economic center, out into the suburbs and you start to get box stores and office parks and it's sort of this expansion that’s not always tasteful. And that's what I sort of thought was going on with the three-point shot and the game of basketball. The economic activity was sprawling out towards the perimeter more and more in our sport.
DP: That tasteful line is interesting to me. Do you feel like there are some aspects of basketball shifting outward that aren't necessarily tasteful or that have taken away things that were great about basketball?
KG: Personally, I do, but it's not up to me to decide. The book is more about trying to capture the drastic metamorphosis in shot selection and tactical behavior in the NBA. But I think regardless we're heading towards a version of the sport at the pro level that's virtually unrecognizable from the heritage of the game's past. It's not up for me to decide whether that's tasteful or not, but as an analyst, I think I can do a pretty good job capturing the nature of that change.
DP: How different do you think basketball would be without the three-point line?
KG: Well, first of all, I think the three-point line changed the game more than any rule in the sport’s history. It's probably the most influential rule change in American sports other than the forward pass. It’s a drastic change, and the metamorphosis didn't happen overnight but it certainly happened. I think it's opened up the game and made it a lot better to watch, to be sure. And I think we should always have a three-point line.
The question becomes where should that three-point line be. The line as it is currently constructed was drawn in 1961 in the exact same shape and size that it is now. Nobody could shoot out there then; everybody can shoot out there now. Why do we have the line in the same place? Where should it go and why I think those are really interesting questions. And I don't pretend to have the answers to that, but the book dives into some ways we could approach that problem and there are some interesting scenarios in there.
DP: That just makes me think of the corner three and what exactly happens to that.
KG: So the three-point line is 22 feet in the corners and 23.75 feet above the break. And that 22-foot shot is too easy for today's NBA players, and the result is the margins between say a corner three and any two-point jump shot are so big that it makes no sense to take a two-point jump shot. You should be trying everything you can to get good looks from the three-point arc or driving the ball to the hole, and that's the sort of shot selection of the analytics world and it’s smart. But when we walk away from the midrange and the post game we walk away from the heritage of the sport. I don't think that's good.
DP: You worked with a team and there are a lot of guys who learned to play basketball a different way. How do players like a DeMar DeRozan generally feel about analytics in your experience and how much do they try to apply it?
KG: I think everybody tries to shoot good shots for them, and one of the best parts about basketball is everybody's like a snowflake. They have their own unique skills, strengths and weaknesses. Some players are really good at shooting the ball eight, 10, 12 feet away and some can’t expand it out to 24 feet.
It's remarkable because some players obsess over analytics and some people don't even care about it. So what's happening in the league is that the younger players are more sort of in tune with it and then some organizations are affecting it. So I think a lot of the shot selection dogma from the organizations is affecting the behavior on the court. But if you have Kevin Durant that Rockets strategy doesn't make any sense. Kevin’s such a good midrange shooter that he can average a healthy number in that two-point area. He's good enough from that area so you don't want to apply some sort of dogmatic shot selection rule as an organization without accounting for your personnel.
DP: What kind of got you into mapping this out and putting all of this data into a visual format that people could take in?
KG: My expertise was in mapping. I was a professor in the world of geography and map-making and designing data visualizations. And I had a lifelong passion for the game of basketball. I always knew in the back of my head that you know people have unique shooting abilities like fingerprints, but nobody had really exposed that and showed what really makes Kevin Durant different than Kyle Lowry who's different than Damian Lillard.
And so I looked at it as sort of a matchmaking challenge. How could we leverage the world of map-making to make these charts that explain our favorite players strengths and weaknesses and their chances? And that really started me making these maps for the first time 2012.
DP: So that tradition from when you started to when it was actually on websites was pretty quick, right?
KG: Yeah, I presented this in March 2012 at the Sloan Conference at MIT and this was during Linsanity, to put you back in time. By June 2012 we were on the front of The New York Times for the Finals preview. And by the fall of 2012 I was at ESPN putting this stuff there.
DP: You mentioned Damian Lillard earlier and made me think of Paul George and the bad shot conversation. When you first started could you have imagined that a guy would be shooting from 38 feet out with the game on the line?
KG: I had to expand how far beyond the three-point line I look at shots now because of these guys. But I love it. That was such a magical moment, but to me it also sort of epitomized the expansion of the scoring area that Trae Young and Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry are bringing us. And I’d say whether you think that was a good shot or a bad shot, I don't think many people realized the dude hits like 40% of the shots between 30 and 40 feet. That extra 10 feet doesn't really affect these guys as much as you think it does.
And then the other point is Damian wasn't practicing those shots five years ago, and now in practice they're shooting out there on purpose and in drills and that's crazy. Where’s this all going? More and more guys are going to be able shoot from out there as kids watch Curry and Damian and Trae. That’s why I think let's move the three-point line. If these guys can make more than a third of their shots from 30 feet back, why do we have a three-point line of 24 feet? Those kinds of shots used to be desperation heaves or when you messed around after practice. But now you're doing it with coaches watching and you’re doing it with intentional repetition to try to get that range down. And the crazy thing about that Dame shot was that the first shot of the series was almost in the exact same spot as the last shot in the series and he made them both.
DP: I don’t know if the defensive mentality is changing at the same speed as the shot selection.
KG: It made me think the other shot that will go down in history as sort of this signifying moment of this shooting range expansion also features the Oklahoma City Thunder. Stephen Curry in 2016 hitting a 35-footer and Andre Roberson, also one of the great defenders, sitting back too far. Steph sort of deformed what you think a good shot or a bad shot is, and I think Damian at least owes some of that to Steph. He was the first guy who was really doing this in 2016. You’re not supposed to shoot from there, man. It’s been a thrilling time to map all this stuff because these trends are so extreme and fascinating. I've been really lucky to sort of study shooting data in this particular decade because it's been drastic with that.
DP: Do you think Steph will go down as one of the most influential players ever? And what potential rule changes do you think could come as a result of his style of play?
KG: Steph is definitely one of most influential players in our time. I'll tell you, if this decade goes down for anything in basketball it will be the rise of the three-point shot and he is the central figure in that rise. He is the main character in that story. He proved that you could win MVP with three-point shots. He proved you could win NBA championships with three-point shots. Nobody did that. There’s no NBA MVP who led the league in three-point shooting before Steph. Now three of the last four have, including Harden. So there was a time when the best shooters in the league were sort of role players with a few exceptions—Ray Allen, Reggie Miller come to mind. Jordan was never a long-range shooter or Shaq obviously wasn't. Tim Duncan wasn't. Kobe never thrived from three-point range like these dudes. Steph took the MVP and O'Brien Trophy and brought him to the other side of the three-point line. So he's going to be remembered for that.
DP: So I guess I'll just ask you one more quick thing. In putting together the book, did you sort of approach it the way you do articles to break it down? How did you take that process and move it into a book form?
KG: I never thought I'd really write a book but I started to see this central theme emerging that was bigger than an article or bigger than a feature piece about these incredible trends that we're living through in the sport that we love the most. And I wanted to tell the story of how fast the game has changed and capture the nature of that change both analytically but with people like Steph and Harden and LeBron, who have shaped the league and been shaped by some of these changes themselves. And to me when I started to think about it that way it was like just big enough for a book. So I was thrilled to get the chance to do that.
DP: And we hadn’t touched on LeBron. How do you think LeBron has changed the way the game is in played?
KG: LeBron has more three-point assists than anybody else this decade. So people are like, ‘Oh, he can shoot it.’ Well, he creates them. Those Miami teams and those Cleveland teams were decorated with great shooters, and LeBron got them locks more than anybody else. You know 80% of the threes in the league are still assisted, and he was the best person in the world at creating those shots for his teammates because of his ability to attack the center of the defense and create shots on the edge for his teammates. If you just look at LeBron shooting stats he doesn't look like he belongs in a sprawl-ball era, but if you look at the nature of those assists in his championship teams he certainly does.