The NBA has changed dramatically in recent years. The three-point line wasn’t a big factor when it debuted in 1979. Today, shooting from behind the arc has become the main plan of attack for many teams, thanks to the influence of analytics. Data experts like Kirk Goldsberry have found a way to illustrate statistics in clever shot charts, which educate players and fans alike.
I talked to Kirk, who just published his first book, SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA. We discussed Sprawball, the rise of the three-pointer, and the future of the NBA.
SI Kids: Can you explain the gist of SprawlBall in a few sentences to our readers?
Kirk Goldsberry: Well, the NBA has changed a lot in the last few decades, and SprawlBall is an attempt to capture the nature of those changes. It’s a really remarkable time in the NBA, as every year more and more players take more and more three-point shots and fewer and fewer mid-range shots. The game just changes so quickly. The book tries to explain how that’s changing and why that’s changing so much.
SIK: Is writing a book something that you always wanted to do? And what was the process of bringing it to life?
KG: No, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do. In fact, it was something as a kid I never thought I would do. But I fell in love with making the charts and the graphics in the book.
SIK: How much of a role do you think Steph Curry played in the rise of 3-pointers?
KG: Well, there’s no question that he’s one of the most influential players of our generation. His ability to win games with three-point shots is unprecedented. And he has definitely shown the world, particularly the pro basketball world, that you can win championships and MVPs by being a fantastic perimeter shooter. Before him, none of the world’s best players and none of the NBA’s MVPs were really great, great shooters. He’s by far the best three-point shooter the league has ever seen. And he’s shown us, and the rest of the world, that you can win with the three-pointer as your signature tool. No other superstar in NBA history can really say that.
SIK: Do you think he made the three ball cooler in any way?
KG: Oh, for sure. He made it super cool! In his best season, he hit 402 threes. Coming into that year, nobody had ever hit 300 in a single season. I always say that’s like if a baseball player suddenly hit 100 home runs in a season. So he definitely made it cool! And kids have responded to him very well around the world, not just around the United States. Almost every ten-year-old or eight-year-old kid I know loves watching Steph Curry.
SIK: You were once the Vice President of Strategic Research for the Spurs and the Lead Analyst for Team USA basketball. Those sound like really cool jobs. Can you talk about how they contribute to helping teams win?
KG: Well, data is really important in the NBA right now. Every team has a group of people that’s studied the numbers, studied the data sets, to try to find competitive advantages and help their teams win through studying the data. I was fortunate to do that with the San Antonio Spurs and help coach Popovich, R.C Buford, and their front office try to understand all aspects of the basketball operations through data, through research. And that was the thrill of a lifetime.
SIK: How did you come across these jobs and is this what you imagined yourself doing as a kid?
No, it didn’t exist when I was a kid! I never thought I would combine my love for math and visualization with pro sports and get a chance to work so close with an NBA team. The job like the one I had with the Spurs didn’t even exist a decade ago, let alone when I was a kid, twenty or thirty years ago. These kinds of jobs are kind of new, and it’s really exciting for those of us who love both math and basketball that there’s opportunities for us to combine those passions at a high level in the NBA.
SIK: You deserve credit for pioneering the hexagonal shot chart, which is shown a lot throughout SprawlBall. Can tell what that is to our readers and how do you hope that will be used in coming users?
KG: I think the shots charts are really a good way for people, at a glance, to understand the shooting ability of the players. When I was a kid they didn’t exist. There was nothing you could just look at a chart and understand, “Oh, Steph Curry does this a little bit differently, a little bit more often than Klay Thompson or James Harden or LeBron James.” So the charts are essentially an x-ray to a player’s shooting abilities and tendencies. And I hope that people enjoy looking at them and can understand a little bit more about their favorite players by interacting with them.
SIK: In the final chapter you discuss some possible changes to shake things up, to make basketball more exciting. Can you talk about the top suggestions you would like to see the NBA actually implement?
I think it’s time to move the three-point line back. I think the shots become too easy for too many players. And I think that it’s so easy for so many guys that that’s what is really driving our game towards a sort of a monoculture and less diverse version of the game than we’ve ever seen. So I think if we move the line back a foot or two, we would see a reduction in both the three-point efficiency and the three-point activity on NBA shooters. And we would see a better diversity of the game.
SIK: Given the changing trends in the NBA, who are some lesser known players who are set up now to make a big impact on the league moving forward?
That’s a great question. You know, I’m really looking forward to watch Devin Booker enter his prime for the Phoenix Suns. Devin Booker is a phenomenal player who can shoot from anywhere on the court, can get his own shot. And similarly, Luca Doncic for the Mavericks. Both really young players, both really skilled with the ball in their hands, and both really skilled at shooting three-point shots. So I think those two guys stick out to me as guys that can drive us into a future that’s really exciting.
SIK: What do you think is the golden age of basketball? Is it in the past, present, or the future?
I think if you’re a kid, it’s always in the present. I think that’s when I fell in love with the game, watching games in the 90s with Michael Jordan. I’ll always love those games and those teams the best, because I was a kid reading Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated for Kids. But I think the kids right now would say that this generation is great. And that’s what I want them to say! Basketball is so important to young people. It’s very important that the league recognizes that and takes care of themselves, because we have a really beautiful sport to celebrate forever.
Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcout