Carnivalesque: On the Ways We See Basketball
By Tosten BurksSeptember 29, 2023
AFTER THE EIGHTH-SEEDED Miami Heat took a surprising series lead over the Boston Celtics in May’s splendid NBA Conference Finals, Heat veteran Udonis Haslem joked on a podcast about projection models favoring his opponents. “I don’t listen to assalytics,” he smirked. Assalytics! Tortured but inspired. Haslem, 43, was the league’s oldest player before retiring in June. Once a key rebounder on championship squads, his role of late was more like a chaperone. His beard is gray. He entered the NBA the same year Michael Lewis published Moneyball.
Basketball looked different when Haslem’s career began. Today’s teams play faster and score more, from a wider spread of locations on the court, stretching beyond the three-point line. Haslem’s Heat, his employer since 2003, averaged 19 more points and eight more possessions per game this past season than they did when he was a rookie and yours truly was a fifth grader. Players’ creative responses to rule changes and advancements in statistical analysis both changed the game’s shape and pace, according to a raft of recent books.
A new professional class of math-minded basketball experts, who started advising teams around the time Haslem turned pro, stopped focusing on basic counting stats like points or assists. Savvy application of large databases of detailed historical data allows these analysts to more precisely quantify (and, at the negotiation table, price) the past and potential future impact of a player, lineup, or tactic on outcomes, adjusting for numerous variables, which are growing as new tools measure ever more granularly what happens during games.
Still, part of the expert class finds new technical methods and their supposed dictates less useful. The great forward turned star commentator Charles Barkley once declared, “Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap some people who are really smart made up.” Mild hating in the media is persistent and funny; after a made shot from an inefficient location during a trivial December game, my local L.A. Clippers broadcaster Brian Sieman exclaimed, “John Wall pulls down his shades and tells the stat geeks to deal with it!”
Ironically the so-called “modern game” backed by dry math is spectacular to watch. Miami’s tallest starter, Bam Adebayo, likes to dribble the ball up court after rebounds, expediting the start of the attack (analytics support speedy “transition” because offenses score more easily when defenses aren’t set) and reorienting our sight line away from the smaller guards who traditionally steer. Adebayo will pause as sprinting teammates curl up around or dart down past his body, or he’ll pretend to do one then do the other. He’ll quickly feed them for a drive or deep shot or fake a pass before driving to the hoop himself, opening paths for new passes, picks, and cuts.
Movement, misdirection, depth, and touch at this tempo can make for a thrilling display that teases and overwhelms the eye. The Heat’s underdog run last season was ultimately stopped by a Denver Nuggets team that did it all even better, led by a six-foot-eleven passing savant Nikola Jokić, around whom players slice to convenient delivery addresses in quick patterns of slants, screens, and feints. Like Sol LeWitt’s lines from corners to points on a grid, these offenses—my favorite kind—create a dense crisscross geometry that appears prescribed until a closer look reveals endless improvisation and surprise.
The new styles spawned discourse and therefore a book market. There is an audience that likes to read about structural changes in sports, and if your contribution to those changes was maligned, I could see the appeal of receiving money to explain yourself. I was curious to see how the numbers guys (they’re all guys) write and whether their words add up to much. Basketball explaining is pretty saturated. I skipped the book that interviews magicians, the self-published one from a math professor, and the one with hand-painted infographics. What’s left are semi-closeted aesthetes, passionate about a game they find beautiful but whose passion they feel inclined and professionally obligated to rationalize. For most of us, looking is enough.
The first credentialed media member to market was ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, whose Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA (2019) illustrates some of basketball’s formal evolution. Goldsberry, a former Harvard geographer, admits that he fits Barkley’s stereotype of nerds who “never got the girls.” Early he writes, “girls definitely didn’t talk to me,” but snipes back that certain analysts “treated these opportunities to study and learn about the game in exciting new ways the same way girls treated me in high school.”
The shot charts Goldsberry invented and for which he’s best known fill his square book’s pages in the manner of a pitch deck. These charts, based on X–Y coordinate data that the NBA started tracking and sharing last decade, map representative players’ aggregated shot locations in colorful hexagons to illustrate Sprawlball’s argument that the majority of the game’s scoring takes place in an increasingly limited, and in his view boring, number of spots, near the rim and far from it, chosen for the sake of efficiency and scale.
Goldsberry’s primary tone is irked. His writing addresses lingering skepticism of the discipline he helped popularize. (Later, he calls Barkley fat and elsewhere criticizes Barkley’s diet.) But he also seems frustrated with the “aesthetic upheaval” that analytics reinforced and attempts to defend more traditional styles of play. He dislikes how franchises value skills and players now. In one short passage, he mentions three-point specialist Ryan Anderson’s contract size eight times. “The Rockets were paying Anderson $20 million a year to loiter,” he writes.
Loaded language helps Goldsberry make his point. Sprawl of the non-basketball variety has a touchy connotation, whatever your politics: a favorite of his analogies for stationing shooters deep to spread defenses is “suburban loitering.” (“Dumb sprawl and senile suburbanism,” a different geographer once wrote.) Goldsberry tells a cursory history of the three-point line and describes its introduction to the NBA in 1979 as “the most influential gerrymander in sports history.” In another fraught formulation, he calls the line the “Most Valuable Partition.”
Goldsberry’s interest in market dynamics drives his work and exacerbates his dismay. Readers learn about shot selection in terms of “economic behavior,” “incentives,” and “subsidy.” How referees officiate the defending of ball handlers, made less physical by a rule change in 2004, is part of the game’s “regulatory landscape.” The framework leads him into a corner where he ends up protesting the “fundamental relationship between shot difficulty and shot value” as “deformed.” He imagines awarding points more fairly—a perfect market.
Mike Prada’s Spaced Out: How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball (2022) tells a more complicated story. Basketball has always evolved in contested ways. The NBA’s adoption of the three-point shot followed its introduction first in an upstart competing league, and many stalwarts opposed the move, calling it a gimmick and “carnival basketball.” The vote for the addition by the organization of team owners was “the furthest thing from a (pardon the pun) slam dunk.” Prada often intends puns, I’m sorry to say.
Basketball’s flux dates back to its earliest days. Inventor James Naismith’s 1891 version featured nine players per side and little dribbling, shooting, or contact; late in life, he complained about the game’s increasing physicality. Rules banning (and later unbanning) certain defensive formations, limiting the number of seconds an offense has to score, permitting dunks, reshaping the key, and, most recently, modifying the amount of contact to which perimeter players are subject have all emerged from debate about the game’s style and “freedom,” and all have produced unintended new styles in turn.
In Spaced Out’s telling, this century’s developments are themselves misunderstood and unsettled. For one, the rapid rise in three-point volume, as pioneered by a mid-aughts Phoenix Suns team that I loved to watch on my great-uncle’s cold tile floor on hot Yuma nights, resulted from granting nontraditional shooters permission to take deep shots because the response this demanded from spaced out defenders created more room to attack the rim, not because of some shooting fetish. But defenses adapted with more coordinated approaches to court coverage, and yielding some perimeter shooting to better protect inside is once again in vogue.
Prada excels at describing the formal characteristics of schemes and tactics, which strengthens his argument for more nuance in how we discuss what we see. The expository approach requires a new vocabulary for what is in his words “an emerging field of study”—in other words, an avant-garde. This is a book about blitzes, shows, hedges, deep drops, levels; switches of the soft, contact, peel, scram, and veer-back sort; snake dribbles, patient dribbles, yo-yo dribbles, crab dribbles; step-up screens, drag screens, flat screens, and ghost screens, the last of which is “really just a fake screen, but it’s a lot more fun to say ‘ghost screen.’”
Beyond the savored jargon, Prada maintains a critic’s focus on language, even if his own sometimes flops. (Stephen Curry’s Warriors “flew around the court like a beautiful symphony.” Which symphony is that?) He traces the etymology of terms like “point forward” and “Eurostep,” coined by players themselves. He quotes rules to show how “creativity has outstripped” them. He’s interested in words failing. Most breaks are now “fast breaks.” Any step can be a “first step.” The most advanced and beautiful offenses evade taxonomy. One coach called this higher form “just playing.” Another called it “summertime.”
Seth Partnow’s The Midrange Theory: Basketball’s Evolution in the Age of Analytics (2021) also explores how new basketball inspires new language. He specializes in the statistician dialect. Partnow was director of basketball research for the Milwaukee Bucks before joining The Athletic’s writing staff. (Goldsberry was the San Antonio Spurs’ vice president for strategic research. Prada, to be fair, is just an editor—Partnow’s, in fact.) This book, the cottage industry’s most revealing read, is about NBA technocrats.
Basketball analytics is a collection of distinct jobs. Teams employ data engineers to create and maintain databases, product designers to build interfaces, researchers to construct models, and analysts to communicate findings to coaches and executives. These individuals rely on quantitative observations recorded live during games by scorekeepers, and increasingly those produced by computer vision software that translates player and ball location and movement into “useful information.”
These latter duties raise epistemological questions about words and their roles. What is a shot? When does one type become another? Who decides? Computers and humans alike require vocabulary to function as “units of measure” that make sense because “numbers must take on the properties of conversational language” to be worth anything. The words we choose “help shape the story as much as the reverse.” Analytics is assalytics to the extent that practitioners fail to create meaning.
So Partnow tours the lexicon and its intellectual history. Readers meet a roster of presenters at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the sector’s most important platform and hangout. A central chapter traces how player efficiency rating (PER) developed into adjusted plus/minus (APM), then into regularized adjusted plus/minus (RAPM), then into statistical plus/minus (SPM), then into box plus/minus (BPM), then into real plus/minus (RPM) as regression models grew more sophisticated. Such “impact” metrics obtain the properties of conversational language through their wonky conversion into “wins produced.”
These more abstract all-in-one measurements are key to the analytics project. The workers who calculate and analyze them serve owners who increasingly share backgrounds in finance as franchise valuations grow by the billions. The most important number of all is the NBA’s salary cap, to which Partnow attributes how “performance metrics serve to commodify players.” Assembling a team entails predicting a player’s production, how many wins they are likely to produce, assigning to these dollar values, and optimizing available dollars, roster spots, and minutes. The Midrange Theory breaks down the formula.
Throughout, Partnow welcomes skepticism. He details how diffuse definitions, data input errors, and “allocative incentives” can dirty conclusions. But he doesn’t explore how that last bit, perverse incentives like those that compel a player to stage a rebound to earn a triple-double, might also be noneconomic, like those that compel a player to attempt a more extravagant dunk and miss. He concedes early that aesthetics is “ultimately the thing,” but style as an end in itself does not occur to him or seem a consequential part of the game for him to deconstruct.
Nor does Partnow explore how perverse incentives might apply to observers. How do professional constraints and ambitions inflect an analyst’s (or critic’s) perspective? How do those perspectives spread among fans, and for what purpose? Boardroom influences can’t drain basketball’s beauty or the pleasure found therein, but they can distort our appreciation. Winning and efficiency aren’t the only things. To these authors’ credit, writing is one way to combat a managerial mind. A more expressive relationship to the game lies beyond the charts and spreadsheets.
Tosten Burks is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He’s currently editing his great-grandfather’s memoir.
LARB Staff Recommendations
In a preview of LARB Quarterly no. 39: “Air,” Katie Kadue breaks down the misogynist history of the rape joke....
In a preview of LARB Quarterly no. 39: “Air,” Lauren Collee explores the history of light pollution....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.