The latest episode of the National Podcast of Texas features Kirk Goldsberry, an NBA analyst at ESPN and professor of sports analytics at the University of Texas at Austin. While a visiting professor at Harvard in 2011, Goldsberry—who was then specializing in mapping and cartography—began an effort to map underutilized NBA shooting data. What started with retrieving five seasons’ worth of notes on who took shots from where led to him building a database that included more than one million NBA field goal attempts. A year later, Goldsberry published his first work on basketball at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Through his use of data visualization and spatial analysis, his findings—particularly about the efficiency of three-point shots—supercharged the use of analytics in the NBA. After writing for ESPN’s Grantland, he signed on as head analyst for Team USA Basketball and vice president of strategic research for the San Antonio Spurs. Goldsberry left the Spurs last year, and earlier this month, he released his book Sprawlball—a narrative and visual report on the myriad ways, for better and worse, data analysis is driving decisions in the NBA.
Three takeaways from his appearance on the National Podcast of Texas:
1. Analytical basketball doesn’t require NBA players to be significantly smarter than they used to be.
“The Houston Rockets offense is very innovative and very efficient. However, it’s pretty basic. There are really only two or three acceptable ways to shoot the ball or places to shoot the ball from. For the players, there’s less to think about than in some of the earlier team’s offensive strategy. I don’t think it has affected individual players very much other than updating conventional wisdom and some basic shot selection strategy.”
2. In the era of analytics, the game’s most efficient plays aren’t always its most impressive plays, which changes how we measure greatness.
“Greatness has usually meant somebody who is the best at doing the most difficult things—Michael Jordan flying through the air or Muhammad Ali knocking out George Foreman. In basketball, shooting three-point shots is hard, but it’s not as hard as some of the other elements of the game: hitting a fadeaway shot over a seven-foot-tall guy, flying through the air and dunking the ball. But [three-pointers] are literally worth a point more than any other field goal that you can get in the two-point area.”
3. Goldsberry believes one of the reasons behind the NBA’s success and the depth of its fans’ fanaticism is its willingness to tinker with the rules and the court, chasing the best version of the game. He’s hopeful the NBA can not only survive, but actually thrive, by adjusting to its analytical era.
“Basketball’s at its best when it’s very diverse—different kinds of players thriving in different ways, different kinds of teams winning in different ways. But if present trends continue, that’s decreasing to an extent that I’m not comfortable with. But basketball has always evolved and adapted to the times. There’s a way forward where the kind of analytical reasoning that’s pervasive in sports, and really everywhere now in our society, can be best friends with the aesthetics. I believe there’s a way that we can adopt an analytical supplement to our rule making and to our game’s engineering that can create a very beautiful version of the sport.”