The NBA is worried.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem too worried about what we conservatives would like it to be worried about: the kneeling, its players and coaches talking so much politics, the league’s buddy-buddy relationship with China.
What has the attention of movers and shakers in the league as well as sundry insiders is the profusion of three-point field-goal attempts in a typical NBA game. That number has been growing the past few years. In fact, teams have been launching from beyond the three-point line, drawn 23 feet 9 inches (22 feet in the corners) away from the basket on NBA courts, at an unprecedented level. Currently, 15 teams — half the league — take 40 percent or more of their shots from behind the line. For the past three seasons, the Houston Rockets have attempted more than half their field goals from back there (51 percent in 2019). As comparison, in 2001, 17 percent of shots in the league were threes; in 2011, the number was 22 percent. The percentage of threes taken by the recently dynastic Golden State Warriors, they of “Splash Brothers” fame, fabulous long-range bombers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, during their championship run a few seasons ago, hovered in the low 30 percent range.
But what has the NBA worried even more than the number of threes taken is the number of these long shots that are being converted. Sixty-five players are shooting 40 percent or over from the arc this season; Tony Snell, of the Atlanta Hawks, is atop that list, converting 56.1 percent of his attempted threes. In the past 20 years, by my calculation, an average of 23.85 players shot 40 percent or over from distance. Lots more long ones are going in these days.
To understand why that is a problem, we call on the sports world’s new BFF, analytics.
The three-ball is the home run of basketball. For many, many years the high-powered dunk was what brought fans to their feet. Dr. J sweeps into the lane and throws the ball through the hoop with such force that defenders cover their heads. And the crowd goes wild! While monster slams still boast formidable cred, arguably more exciting is the shooter who goes up from 25 feet and drains it. Undeniably more exciting is a gunner who gets hot and drops three, four, five bombs in succession.
Basketball has always had such sharpshooters. They are household names in the hoops world: Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Steve Kerr, Glen Rice, Kyle Korver. The difference in today’s game is that there are so many of them. In addition to the current who’s who of Curry, Thompson, Damian Lillard, C. J. McCollum, et al., every team has three or four players who can step outside the arc and drain jumpers with proficiency. As mentioned, 65 players are shooting 40 percent or over from distance this season. The league is shooting 36.8 percent.
Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN writes, “It would be tactical malpractice for any team to swear off the 3-pointer. There are a handful of players whose midrange 2-point attempt represents a high-percentage shot, but for the vast majority of players, the best shot is one from behind the 3-point line or at the rim.”
Say what? If you can’t lay it up, dunk it, or toss in a little bunny, shoot it from 23 feet away? Sounds crazy, but that’s what the numbers say. Once a player gets six feet from the basket, it makes more sense for a team to attempt a three-pointer than that six-footer.
The three-point line, Kirk Goldsberry posits, when it came into the league in the 1979–80 season, made 33.33 percent a magical number in analysis of basketball. “Anyone who can make a third of their 3s can turn 3-point shots into one point on average. It’s the same as making half of your 2s.” But when three-point shooting percentages start inching above the one-third-make rate, threes give a team more chance to score points than do twos.
Analytics show that the six-foot shot mentioned earlier carries a point value less than one, because NBA players make less than 50 percent of their six-footers; whereas the 23-footer carries a point value greater than one, because NBA players make over 33.33 percent of them.
Goldsberry continues, “As a generation of shooters has warmed up to long-range shooting, NBA shooters are making 36 percent of their triples, and specialists regularly convert over 40 percent of them. [Forty percent of threes is] the same as making 60 percent of your 2s.”
As James Dator points out in SB Nation, at the current league-wide three-point shooting percentage of 36.8 percent, teams would have to convert 55.2 percent of their twos to make the shorter shots a better option than the long ones. The league average from two is 52.8 percent. Dator writes, “Only eight teams are shooting a .552 from two or better this season, while 13 teams are shooting better than league average from 3. This means that the weight of threes still outweighs the benefit of going for two — even if teams lifted their shooting.”
He cites as an example the Brooklyn Nets. While shooting 57.1 percent from two, the Nets are also shooting 40.7 percent from three. “They would need to lift their 2P shooting to .610 to reach point parity. Only two players in NBA history average over .600 from two, and this would need to be applied to an entire team.”
Zach Kram wrote back in 2019, “Shots from 23 feet away were actually more valuable than shots from just 2 feet away; shots from the midrange look even less appealing when compared to shots from just a few steps farther back.”
This is why 90 players attempt at least five triples per game, and why Curry, Lillard, McCollum, and Buddy Hield all put up more than 10 in every contest.
As might be expected, not everyone is enamored of the launch parties that constitute NBA games. Sitting in an NBA arena and watching a team jack up 70 balls from the arc (as Houston did in a January 2019 game), and its opponent, Brooklyn, chip in with 36 bombs (to add up to 106 three-point attempts in one game), is not every basketball fan’s idea of an edifying evening.
Teams do it because the team that makes more threes usually wins the game. “There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it,” opined championship coach Gregg Popovich. “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don’t even care.”
Goldsberry corroborates: “Pop [Popovich] is right. Not only has the analytics era of the NBA dramatically reshaped shot selection across the league, but shooting is by far the most important component of winning games.” He continues,
When most of us talk about how analytics has changed hoops, we hone in on the dramatic increases in 3-point scoring. But in a zero-sum game, if you’re doing a lot more of one thing, you must be doing less and less of something else. The rapid rises in perimeter shooting necessarily come at the expense of other basketball behaviors. As we continue to be increasingly seduced by the 3, what parts of basketball are we leaving behind?
Well, there’s post play, for one thing. The big man with back-to-the-basket skills, efficient with drop steps and hook shots (remember those?), who can shoot equally well with both hands, is a joy to behold. So are players who base their games in coming off screens and draining 15-footers in traffic or taking it all the way to the hoop. Think of the historic greats of the mid-range game, of the Oscars and Baylors and Dr. Js, or more contemporary figures like Dwayne Wade or Charles Barkley or, yes, even Michael Jordan.
The emphasis on threes deemphasizes post play and the mid-range game. It also changes the flow radically. Without question, some of this change is attractive — it encourages movement and sharp and rapid passing. But it has its downside. When a team puts three or four long-range shooters on the floor, the game opens up. Long-range shooters must be picked up farther out from the basket than other players — Curry and Lillard require attention already 30 feet from the hole — and the result is a lot more open space on the court, a lot more drives to the basket, and, when help arrives on the drive, a lot more dump-outs to the circle for threes. “It often looks like no defense is being played,” NBA coach Dwane Casey says. “But when there are four shooters on the floor and a big man at the dunker [spot], spacing is inflated and a defense is stretched to its limit. Guys are working, but it’s impossible to cover that much ground against NBA speed, quickness and power.”
Some authorities worry about a monotonous rhythm of play developing, a one-dimensional game. “A three-pointer is such a devastating shot, especially if it’s a high percentage shooter,” says Philadelphia 76ers general manager Daryl Morey. “I don’t think it’s less aesthetically pleasing, but I think as someone who’s really into games and winning in general … you can tell a game that’s not well-structured is when there’s only like one path to victory. Everyone knows it, and you know, we’re getting there in the NBA.”
Critics of triplemania aren’t advocating a return to the shuffle, a continuity offense where all five players end up playing all five positions, or some version of the “passing game,” a full-time freelance offense based on cutting and ball movement made famous by the Doug Moe Denver Nuggets of the 1980s. They just want a little more of the game everybody over 50 played in high school and college, where teams worked for shots as close to the basket as they could get them. A few more 12-foot bank shots and a few fewer pick-and-pop threes, or pull-up threes with 14 seconds left on the shot clock, or drive-and-kick threes. Fewer offenses that anchor a couple of players in the corners and then make them stand there waiting for a pass that frequently never arrives. Fewer seven-footers jacking it from 25.
The problem for traditionalists is that too many triples is not a problem for anybody else.
Players love this sort of wide-open, long-distance game. Said Morey a few years back, about implementing an approach centered on threes: “[Players] love playing up-tempo. They love spacing. They love offense.” And young players, starting in the lowest levels of the game, want to be Steph Curry. They see their heroes throwing up long ones, so that’s what they do when they get to a playground or into a gym and into the organized game.
Coaches love the three too. “Right now, we’re sitting in the first generation where 90 percent of the [high school] coaches played with a 3-point line,” says Dan Barto, head skills trainer at the IMG Academy in Florida. The three is not a novelty to them, a desperation ploy useful when one’s team is behind. No, a game with the three-point line is all they know. Coaches will employ the strategy that makes it easiest to win games. Under the current rules, that strategy leans heavily on three-point shooting.
And the long shot itself remains irresistibly sexy. There has emerged in the last couple of years, among long-distance marksmen, a new term, the “logo three.” Curry and Lillard are its chief purveyors. They shoot it from just inside half court, from the team’s logo painted on the floor. It’s no “heave” — the players shoot it with the same stroke they employ from 20 feet away. It is a thing of beauty.
As shooting improves, as more players gain the ability to convert from distance, the three-pointer will become even more integral to offensive systems, and NBA coaches will insist on their players launching even more long ones because threes give them the best chance to win. Also, the league is in the midst of a feedback loop. Says Kram, “The best teams win with 3s, so copycats take more 3s, so their competitors take more 3s, and so on.”
Thus, any solution to this “problem” will not be organic. Some external factor must be imposed on the game to diminish the value of a three-point field goal.
Pundits sensitive to the overuse of the three have offered up numerous solutions. One suggestion is to establish a limit to three-point attempts in a game, that after a certain number of attempts, say 20, three-pointers no longer count for three but thereafter only two. Another is to allow each franchise to draw the three-point line on its court where it wants to. Or to permit goaltending on threes. Or to eliminate the corner three, the easiest three on the court, or keep the corner three but reconstruct arenas to make it more difficult. Morey recently talked about making the long ones worth only 2.5 points.
An obvious solution is to move the line back. But to where? Goldsberry employs analytics: “We now have data and analyses capable of mapping out with great precision where NBA shooters make and miss. These maps should inform how and where the league places its 3-point line.” He advocates a three-point arc moving with the 33.33 percent mark. The analytics say a line drawn 25.773 feet from the rim, almost exactly two feet farther out than currently, would yield the desired 33.33 percent efficiency. A line two feet farther back would cull out many of the current three-point shooters and leave the field to the players for whom two feet, or, to be honest, five or seven feet, make no difference. The line would be adjusted every year, based on where shooters are making threes at a 33.33 percent clip. The line in the corners could be moved back by a smaller amount.
Alas, the most effective solution to bringing balance back is also the most unlikely to be implemented — removing the three-point line altogether. That happening is what you’d call a really long shot.