Can an NBA Team Win a Title Living and Dying by the 3?

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Can an NBA Team Win a Title Living and Dying by the 3?
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Carmelo Anthony's Knicks shoot more threes than all but one team in NBA history: this year's Rockets. This is the league in 2013.

The three-point shot was so irrelevant during its first year in the NBA that the Los Angeles Lakers made just three shots from behind the arc on their way to a title in 1980. Rookie Magic Johnson was their sharpshooter, making two of his eight long-range attempts during his team's 16-game playoff run. Norm Nixon hit the other one, but he missed his five other long-range tries.

Yes, they won the title while playing 16 playoff games and making just three three-pointers. That is fewer than one every five games. On the 82-game season, that Lakers team made just 20-of-100 attempts from deep.

Los Angeles wasn't alone in not embracing the gimmick.

Few teams shot many threes in that first year, and only four attempted more than 3.6 per game. For reference, in 2013, that is the same number J.J. Barea takes every night.

That first season, the San Diego Clippers were the one team of true gunners. They launched 6.6 attempts per game—which puts them in line with Klay Thompson's 2013 individual numbers (although Thompson, at 39.3 percent, is much more accurate than those 32 percent-shooting Clippers were).

While the three-pointer continued to be seldom used by most good teams throughout the 1980s, the following decade began to feature players who had grown up with the shot, and more and more coaches implemented it into their strategy.

Still, it was nothing like it is today.

In the 2012 playoffs, for example, Kevin Durant took 110 threes. That's more than the 1979-80 Lakers took collectively over an 82-game season.

Durant's 5.5 attempts per game may be higher than some coaches would like mere mortals to be taking, but in the modern NBA, hitting a lot of threes seems to be a prerequisite for team success.

Plenty of teams still get by without making it a primary focus, but nearly every team that has made a conference final in the past decade relies on more makes behind the arc than even the longest bombers of the early 1990s ever contemplated.

For sure, the idea of "live by the three, die by the three" is outdated. Now, you're more apt to die if don't shoot it.

For example, the Dallas Mavericks, who ranked fifth in the league in three-point attempts per game, were able to win a title in 2011. Their 21.6 attempts per night is the most ever by a champion, eeking out the 1995 Houston Rockets, a team that surrounded Hakeem Olajuwon with shooters and fired away from a short three-point line.

It is interesting that people generally point to the 2004 season and the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns as the catalyst for the era of increased three-point shooting. They certainly did provide an uptempo spread model to follow.

What really introduced the three ball to the NBA in a major way was the league's decision to move in the line right as the Rockets were winning back-to-back titles on the strength of the three ball (Houston led the league in attempts in both of its championship seasons).

For three seasons in the mid-1990s (1994-95, 1995-96 and 1996-97), the three-point line was shortened to a uniform 22 feet around the arc. That's the same distance as the current corner three.

Three-point shooting went through the roof.

The year before, the league average was 9.9 three-point attempts per night. In the first year of the short line, it jumped to 15.3. In all, 14 players attempted at least 400 threes. Before 1994-95, Basketball-Reference lists only four players (Michael Adams, Dan Majerle, Vernon Maxwell and Reggie Miller) who had ever tried that many in a season.

It didn't make for the prettiest basketball, with chuckers and clogged lanes failing to have the league office's desired effect of more scoring. So they scrapped the short line.

But the idea of using the arc as a weapon never really went away. It slowed marginally in the post-short-line years, but once the rule changes (to disallow hand checks, most notably) took place in 2004, the league already had a developed strategy around the three that had never existed on a league-wide basis before the short line.

The combination of the two pushed three-point shooting attempts to new heights.

Laggards remain, and some have been successful, but the trend is clear: It now seems easier to win a championship while shooting a high volume of threes.

Consider the following:

  • In the 33 years that the NBA has had a three-point line, no team has ever won the title while finishing last (during the regular season) in three-point attempts per game. Twice the league leader has won the title (Houston in 1993-94 and 1994-95). 
  • The team that finished last in thee-point attempts has made the conference finals just five times, including zero appearances since 1999. The team that has led the league has made it 10 times. Four of these conference finals runs by the league leader have happened in the past 11 years (meaning that the team that shoots the most threes each year has had a 36.4 percent rate of getting to at least the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four since 2002).
  • Nineteen of the last 33 champs have scored a higher percentage of their points from three-point land than the average NBA team. Only 13 champs have finished below average. One team was equal. Jordan's Bulls account for five of the 13 below-average seasons and the one equal one. Since 2001, nine of the 12 champs have been above average (the three that shot below average are the 2004 Pistons, 2009 Lakers and 2012 Heat).

It's possible that the NBA has reached a saturation point as far as how many threes a team can reasonably take and remain successful. The average team last year scored 20 percent of its points from beyond the arc, for example.

That number has been steadily trending upward since 1995, but can it really ever hit 30 percent? 

That seems somewhat preposterous at first. It would mean a team averaging 100 points per game would have to make 10 threes per game—a feat that only seven teams in NBA history have achieved.

It just so happens that two of those teams, the New York Knicks and the Rockets, will be playing in the 2013 playoffs. They also happen to be the two highest-volume three-point shooting teams ever.

Clearly, their success will have implications on how the world views "living and dying by the three." The Steve Nash/Mike D'Antoni Suns are well respected among most diehard basketball circles, but their inability to ever make the NBA Finals certainly doesn't help the cause that living by the three can lead to a title.

The Miami Heat, on the other hand, look poised to at least make the Finals, if not win another ring. And this year, the Heat are taking 21.3 threes per game. If they hoist another banner, they will join the 2011 Mavericks and 1995 Rockets as the only champs to attempt more than 20 per night.

Still, that rate doesn't even put them in the top five this season.

Seven of Miami's 2013 peers take even more than it does. And none of the title contenders, depending on how you feel about the Denver Nuggets, shoot fewer than 19 threes per night.

When you combine that with the fact that five of the past six title winners have attempted at least 18.5 per night in the regular season (and the one that didn't, last year's Heat, upped their output to 19.7 per game in the postseason), it starts to become clear that living by the three is not the real problem.

Not living by it is.

The NBA in 2013 is a three-point league, and it seems that the best way a team can ensure it won't win a championship is to not shoot three-pointers. Perhaps this year's Memphis Grizzlies (13.5 attempts per game) or Boston Celtics (17.1)—two traditional, hard-nosed teams that pound the paint and the mid-range—are the ones we need to worry about.

Sure, the Knicks and Rockets may rely on the three too much. But despite these outliers, it seems that dying by not shooting the three is the league's new Achilles' heel. 

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