Three-Point Specialists Rule the NBA

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Three-Point Specialists Rule the NBA
USA TODAY Sports

The notion of the three-point specialist is hardly a new one in the NBA, particularly among title contenders.

Ever since Michael Cooper launched nearly a third of his shots from beyond the arc for the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers—and Chicago Bulls sniper Craig Hodges kept the practice going after a bit of a hiatus during the Detroit Pistons' reign—long-range shooting has practically been concomitant with bringing home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

But the extent to which some role players are specializing in three-point shooting these days borders on what would've seemed absurd just 20 years ago. According to NBA.com (via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today), there are currently 16 players in the NBA for whom three-pointers constitute at least 60 percent of their attempts, including a whopping 88.5 percent for Shane Battier, the league leader in this regard.

To answer the question that's probably/hopefully come to mind, yes, the ranks of players taking a supermajority of their shots from beyond 23 feet, nine inches have swelled considerably over the last decade-and-a-half—since the line was moved back from its short-lived stint at 22 feet all around:

 

Similarly, so has the number of marksmen settling for treys at least 70 percent of the time:

 

Just for fun, here's a look at the league leaders in percentage of three-pointers taken in that time:

 

This uptick in "high-density" three-point shooters doesn't come as too much of a surprise, given the overall upward trend in the popularity of long-range looks in the Association, dating back to the institution of the arc in time for the 1979-80 season:

 

But even that general incline can't completely explain why more players seem to be stationing themselves on the perimeter, as Battier says he's been instructed to do by Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra (via Jeff Zillgitt):

Spo' just told me, "Don't worry about running pick-and-rolls. Don't worry about cutting. Don't worry about posting. Don't worry about coming off screens. Just get in open space on the perimeter and shoot threes all day."

Spoelstra's decision to position Battier like so—and those of so many other coaches around the NBA to make similar requests of the likes of Danny Green, Steve Novak, Kyle Korver and Jodie Meeks—is an outgrowth of a shift in the philosophical paradigm of the pro game that's taken place over the the last eight years. 

When the NBA decided, prior to the 2004-05 season, to tighten the hand-check rules and relax those governing zone defenses, it essentially gave teams an extra kick in the pants to move toward a more wide-open, perimeter-oriented style of play and away from the deliberate, post-heavy approach that had essentially dictated the succession of champions since the Association's inception.

To be sure, the league had every impetus to make the changes it did. By the early to mid 2000s, bigs capable of scoring in the low post had become something of a dying breed, thereby giving those teams fortunate enough to employ one an all-too-distinct advantage.

That drop in parity, coupled with a clunkier game characterized by low scoring and the favoritism of physicality over artistry, led David Stern and the powers that be to devise new ways to create games that were more entertaining, on account of higher scoring and a freer flow between ends.

The three-point shot was emphasized as a particularly powerful tool toward that end.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

A number of smart, innovative coaches—most notably Mike D'Antoni—took note of the changes and came up with strategies that took fuller advantage of the new rules.

The spread pick-and-roll schemes employed by D'Antoni with the Phoenix Suns and Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic (to name a pair) weren't entirely novel; just ask the Houston Rockets of the 1990s, who regularly surrounded Hakeem Olajuwon with four guys who could slash and shoot from the outside.

But the successes of D'Antoni and SVG with the likes of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire in Phoenix and Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu in Orlando revived those old ideas and updated them to better fit the new rulebook.

Since then, having at least one shooter whose primary function is to stretch opposing defenses with his stroke has become part-and-parcel with running an elite offense in the NBA.

Each of the top five most efficient offenses in the league today can boast at least one player who attempts better than 50 percent of his shots from three-point land, including three for the New York Knicks, four for the San Antonio Spurs and five for the Heat.

(Note: The Oklahoma City Thunder would have two, but Kevin Martin's share of 49.1 percent just missed the cutoff to join Thabo Sefolosha in that category.)

Interestingly enough, the Heat, the Knicks and the Spurs all rank among the top seven teams in the NBA in three-point attempts from the corners (i.e. the second-most efficient shots in basketball, behind only those right at the rim), alongside fringe contenders like the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets.

According to NBA.com, the Thunder rank second in shooting percentage from the corners but are just 21st in such attempts.

All of which is to say, the three-point shot is more important now than it's ever been, both in terms of its inherent value and its strategic value as a means of opening up the floor for other actions. The best offenses force opposing defenses to make tough, split-second decisions—to pick their poison, if you will—and stationing sharpshooters around the arc aids in this endeavor.

Take, for instance, the Heat, for whom Battier is but one of a slew of snipers. Miami has the endemic advantage of having LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on its side, both of whom regularly command double-teams—as does Chris Bosh from time to time.

James, in particular, is adept at running the pick-and-roll, as he showed during the Heat's eventual evisceration of the Indiana Pacers in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals:

 

LeBron's ability to dribble, pass, shoot and drive with equal proficiency makes him an unparalleled offensive threat in and of himself. Surround him with three-point shooters, though, and he becomes nearly impossible to defend.

You might expect the best player on planet Earth to regularly draw multiple defenders, even when he's not all that close to the basket. And yet, in the video above, notice how often the help either is slow to arrive or doesn't come at all once James blows by the initial defender on the pick-and-roll.

That's no accident. The Pacers here are loath to leave Battier and Mike Miller, both of whom are hovering above the arc, free for open threes. They essentially choose to allow the three-time MVP to beat them rather than let Miami's role players puncture them from the perimeter.

It's a choice no defense wants to make, but one that any elite offense will routinely force upon the opposition these days. With the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the Heat's options for throwing their foes into a modern basketball torture chamber have expanded to depths rarely (if ever) seen in the NBA.

USA TODAY Sports

In truth, the Heat have merely expounded upon D'Antoni's "patented" spread pick-and-roll, with a 6'8" hybrid forward replacing a traditional point guard up top. They've created a successful template that has, in some ways, been adapted by the Houston Rockets, the Denver Nuggets and even the Thunder—all of whom boast offenses built around players who can attack the rim and run the pick-and-roll.

This shouldn't shock anyone, given the NBA's long history as a "copycat" league.

As a result, there's never been a better time in pro basketball to have but one superior skill, so long as that skill relates to launching from long range at every opportunity.



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