Sprawlball by Kirk Goldsberry is a must read for any self-respecting hoops junkie who claims to have an appreciation for basketball analytics and the way that they relate to the game on the floor.
Goldsberry has a rich background in both media and basketball operations through his time with places like Grantland, ESPN, and the San Antonio Spurs.
As a side note, Grantland will always hold a special place in my memories as the first niche site that I began following post-college. It was there that I began to read the creations of guys like Goldsberry, Zach Lowe, and of course, Bill Simmons.
This visually rich guide through the history and evolution of the game of basketball is full of captivating shot charts and graphs that depict the rise in the value of a sharpshooter and the aggressively declining usefulness of the traditional big man. The post player who used to play the most valuable position on the court, is now not even a necessity.
As Goldsberry points out, “The last time a center won the NBA MVP Award, Steph Curry was 12 years old and James Harden was 11”.
With frequent examples, he exposes the bias that the NBA has been exhibiting towards gargantuan guys over the course of several decades.
The NBA has made an effort to control the impact of post players through various rule changes like modifying the size of the lane and altering the rules to favor players on the wings.
In this book, Goldsberry takes a deep dive into the evolution of several players’ styles like Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love, who hitched a ride to the three-point express to avoid going extinct like their counterparts Al Jefferson and Roy Hibbert. Instead of taking contested shots in the mid-range where an optimistic shot is worth a basket every other attempt, the “stretch big men” have learned to move out to the 24 foot marker and take a shot where they only need to hit a third of their attempts and still produce the same amount of output per shot attempt.
Also, why did the NBA decide that it was ok for the corners to be shorter than the rest of the line? That decision makes it only that much easier of a shot to hit and increases the bang for your buck — any analytics novice can figure that out.
While Sprawlball does provide you with a history lesson, it also furnishes an argument that the strategy shift from crafty fade-aways and floaters, to a majority of shots being taken from deep, does not exhibit the same aesthetic that once was prevalent in the days of Kareem or Kobe.
Is the direction that the NBA is moving in a positive one?
As has been the case in the past, with the aforementioned rule changes, plus other changes like the hand check rule and even the implementation of the three point line brought over in the ABA merger, there is always a way to alter the current direction of the league.
Goldsberry outlines multiple rule and court changes that the NBA could elect to incorporate should they wake up one day and decide that they miss the olden days of play. You’ll have to read the book for examples on that one.
I recently read Terry Pluto’s oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls, and that was very helpful in understanding some of the origin story of the three point line described in Sprawlball.
Overall, I stand by the fact that Sprawlball is a book that every basketball lover should have on their shelf. It will help you understand the strategy shift in the NBA and basketball in general. Once you read it, you will wonder why it took so long for this evolution to occur. Time will tell if the game that has changed so much in the past decade will continue to morph into an entirely different experience than it has become today.
This is a five-star book and one that I will undoubtedly read through again to explain to my son why he should never take a mid-range two again.