Why NBA Teams Will Keep Shooting More 3-Pointers in 2014-15

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2014

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Stephen Curry dribbles the ball up the court, crosses up his overmatched defender, rises with picture-perfect form and uses his quick release to splash a self-created triple through the basket to give his Golden State Warriors a lead. 

Simultaneously, but all the way across the country, John Wall is using his speed to help the Washington Wizards. He corrals a missed shot, blazes his way over the half-court line, penetrates into the teeth of the defense and uses the eyes in the back of his head to find Bradley Beal, standing wide open in the corner, ready to take one of the NBA's most efficient shots. 

Bottoms. 

Meanwhile, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving take turns probing at the defense, sucking in the opposition as they get closer and closer to the rim. But as they've drawn everyone toward the paint, Kevin Love is standing unguarded on the perimeter, waiting to assert himself once more as the league's premier stretch 4. 

James fires the ball across the half-court set, and Love rewards him with three points for himself and an assist for the four-time MVP. 

Those are sights you'll see countless times throughout the Association's 2014-15 season. But they won't be the only ones, as the entire league seems to take more and more shots from beyond the arc every year. The big men are spreading the court with increasing frequency, the sharpshooters never hesitate to pull the trigger and offensive systems are built around finding unguarded players in the corners. 

Different aspects of the game always rule the league during certain eras. 

It was defense that won championships early in the NBA's history, and the contributions of traditional back-to-the-basket centers helped dramatically during later portions. Though mid-range shooting and versatility helped during the 1990s and 2000s, with plenty of triples sprinkled in, the true three-heavy teams popped up few and far between. 

But not anymore. 

If you're not behind the arc, you're behind the eight ball. 

 

An Unmitigated Rise

BOSTON, MA - 1980: Brian Taylor #14 of the San Diego Clippers dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics during a game played circa 1980 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachussets. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

Driven by the popularity of the ABA's three-point arc, which was largely a novelty item used to provide additional excitement in an entertainment-driven league, the NBA installed that key portion of the half-court set before the 1979-80 season.

That year, Brian Taylor of the San Diego Clippers paced the league by draining 90 triples over the course of the 82-game season. Rick Barry was the runner-up for the three-point crown, knocking down 73 long-range shots, and he was followed up by Chris Ford (70), Joe Hassett (69) and Larry Bird (58). 

To put that in perspective, Stephen Curry made 261 three-pointers this year, more than the top three finishers in 1979-80 combined. Five players topped the 200-triple benchmark, and Bird's fifth-place mark of 58 was matched or beaten by 142 players. 

Think about that. 

Whereas 58 was the No. 5 finish during the inaugural season of the NBA's three-point era, it was a checkpoint surpassed by an average of nearly five players per team 34 years later. 

This isn't just an aberration, either. Since the new arc debuted, there's been a steady increase in the frequency of triples made by the league as a whole. It's not one player or one team serving as a driving force, but rather the entire Association placing an increasingly elevated level of emphasis on the shot worth the most raw points. 

Let's look at how many threes have been made by the NBA during each year of the three-point era. It's worth noting that for the following graph, I've prorated lockout-shortened seasons to their 82-game equivalent for the sake of consistency: 

Why the spike for the 1994-95 season? 

The NBA attempted to end decreased scoring by moving the three-point arc in. Rather than the traditional 23 feet and nine inches above the break and 22 feet in the corners, the league adopted a pure arc that was 22 feet away from the hoop in all spots for the 1994-95 campaign. That experiment ended after the 1996-97 season, hence the corresponding dip. 

If you take that anomaly out of the picture, there's been a steady increase in each of the most important categories. 

The individual leader—most recently Stephen Curry—is fairly irrelevant because that player is, by very nature, an exception to the league as a whole. The same can be said for the league's best three-point-shooting team; it's a fun stat to look at, but it doesn't tell us that much, because one team can be loaded with snipers from top to bottom. 

Most relevant are the number of threes made for the league-average team, which has steadily risen, and the worst team, which has followed in the same pattern. 

At the beginning of the three-point era, franchises like the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers refused to take shots from beyond the arc. The personnel didn't mesh with that type of playing style, and the statistical and stylistic benefit of launching away with reckless abandon lay dormant. 

But in 2013-14, everyone shot triples. 

Apr 14, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) dribbles against the Phoenix Suns during the first half at US Airways Center. The Grizzlies won 97-91. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Even the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans managed to top the 400-make benchmark, making it the first time in league history that every team in the Association had moved past that admittedly arbitrary milestone. In fact, the Grizzlies made more triples than any league-average pre-2001 team (excluding those during the short-arc spike). They drained more shots from the outside than any team in the league did from the advent of the rule change through the end of the 1992-93 season. 

And suffice it to say, the trend will only continue. 

The best teams are going to keep shooting, and everyone else is just trying to catch up. Why else was adding perimeter marksmanship such a priority for teams like Memphis and the Detroit Pistons, who went from terribly inefficient shooting to building a stockpile of wing snipers?

  

Still Value to be Gleaned

January 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) shoots the ball against Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (30) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Pacers defeated the Warriors 102-94. Mandatory Cre
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Eventually, that upward trajectory will run into an asymptote

There's only so high the number of made three-pointers can rise, seeing as there's a finite amount of shots to be taken during the course of any NBA game. Even if the pace quickens and teams look exclusively to shots from beyond the arc, the rise will eventually stagnate and flatten out into a horizontal asymptote. 

Where will that be on the graph up above? Your guess is as good as mine. 

When will that happen? See the previous answer. 

The only certainty is that it will not come to pass at any point in the near future, nor are we anywhere close to that stagnation in a statistical sense, seeing as there's far more value to be gleaned from three-point shooting. 

Back during the tail end of the 2012-13 season, Grantland's Zach Lowe introduced the SportVU cameras that have been so useful in the year-plus that has lapsed since. But during that article, he also revealed that the analytic data indicated all NBA teams should be shooting more from the perimeter: 

The analytics team is unanimous, and rather emphatic, that every team should shoot more 3s — including the Raptors and even the Rockets, who are on pace to break the NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a season.

[...]

[Dwane] Casey is obviously right that [DeMar] DeRozan is a bad 3-point shooter. But the analytics team argues that even sub–35 percent 3-point shooters should jack more 3s, and that coaches should probably spend more time turning below-average 3-point shooters into something close to average ones.

As I broke down early on in the 2013-14 campaign, you can find the statistical equivalents for efficiencies from all areas of the court. The basic principle is as follows in a simplified example. 

If a player shoots 50 percent on his mid-range looks and 50 percent on his three-point looks, shouldn't he take far more of the latter? After all, the triples are worth an additional point. In fact, since mid-range shots are worth two points apiece, the player in question is scoring one point per shot on those looks. Meanwhile, he's scoring 1.5 points per shot on his beyond-the-arc attempts. 

Now, let's use the real numbers: 

Shooting Breakdown
RangeFG%Points per Average ShotNecessary 3P% To Match
0-3 Feet63.61.27242.4
3-10 Feet39.00.7826.0
10-16 Feet40.10.80226.7
16-23 Feet39.50.7926.3
Basketball-Reference.com

As a whole, the NBA shot 48.8 percent on two-point attempts, as those ranges obviously aren't going to be weighted evenly. If all shots were able to be taken at the rim, by all means, eschew the three-point look. But there's still a large prevalence of mid-range shots, which is problematic. 

Shooting 48.8 percent from inside the arc means the average two-point attempt yields just 0.976 points. To break even, the necessary three-point percentage is only 32.53 percent. 

Well, the league as a whole shot 36 percent.

Only the Philadelphia 76ers (31.2 percent) and Pistons (32.1 percent) were unable to move past that break-even point, while the San Antonio Spurs paced the league by shooting 39.7 percent from downtown. 

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (4) shoots the ball during the second quarter against the Miami Heat in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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For the curious among you, that means the Spurs scored 1.191 points per shot from beyond the arc. From two-point range, the defending champions averaged "only" 1.034, indicating that even the three-happy Spurs could place more emphasis on their perimeter inclinations. 

In Lowe's article, Alex Rucker, the Toronto Raptors director of analytics, reveals a problem, though: 

When you ask coaches what’s better between a 28 percent 3-point shot and a 42 percent midrange shot, they’ll say the 42 percent shot. And that’s objectively false. It’s wrong. If LeBron James just jacked a 3 on every single possession, that’d be an exceptionally good offense. That’s a conversation we’ve had with our coaching staff, and let’s just say they don’t support that approach.

Tradition and loss aversion are at the heart of this.

Even if it's statistically beneficial for good shooters to fire away whenever they receive the slightest window of space, a coach asking his players to do that wouldn't last. As soon as the strategy backfired—and randomness dictates that it sometimes would, even if the statistics indicate it would be a positive strategy over a large enough sample of games—the management would call for his head, as he flaunted established tradition in a manner that failed.

Fortunately, tradition is changing. The unmitigated increase of three-point attempts and makes across the league will lead to more acceptable strategies. 

The NBA tends to lean toward what's supported by numbers, even if it doesn't know that. Teams that are leading the charge in the three-ball revolution are going to be more successful, and the rest will follow suit. And that's saying nothing about the increasing value of stretch bigs. 

After all, defenses and offenses often evolve in cyclical fashion. 

Feb 19, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer (5) and forward Mike Dunleavy (34) and center Joakim Noah (13) and guard Kirk Hinrich (12) listen to head coach Tom Thibodeau against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Bu
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First, a dominant offensive system arises, then a defensive counter comes into fashion. After that, offenses readjust, and so on and so forth. It can also happen in reverse, with a suffocating defense leading the charge. For example, consider Tom Thibodeau's paint-packing strategies, leanings that have allowed the Chicago Bulls to remain elite on the less glamorous end ever since he took the reins of the franchise.

To counter that, Erik Spoelstra adopted a positionless system with the Miami Heat. He might not have been the innovator of such stylings, but he certainly popularized them, using the league's best offensive weapon (LeBron James) and making tweeners into positive entities. 

"I've found, through pain of the (losing) 2011 Finals, I needed to look at this team in a different lens," the Miami head coach told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today just prior to the 2012-13 season. "And that was key for us to play more position-less, to put our best players out there and to create a system where guys could fully utilize their versatility of playing multiple positions."

It worked, and then a counter was needed for Spoelstra's initial counter.

Enter Billy King and the Brooklyn Nets. 

While discussing his team on ESPN Radio's The Herd with Colin Cowherd, as relayed by Nets Daily, King flat-out admitted he was building his team to beat the Heat, even if that effort ultimately failed: "Yeah, you try to build a team to challenge the champion. So, yes, I would say we did."

That was done by adding big and versatile players, ones who could switch and trap on virtually every pick. 

What does this have to do with three-point shooting? Well, the current en vogue defense is the model popularized by teams like the Bulls and Indiana Pacers—establishing great rim protection, packing the paint and forcing teams to beat them from the outside. 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 03: Pero Antic #6 of the Atlanta Hawks shoots the ball during game Seven of the Eastern Conference Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 3, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expres
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

As the Hawks found during the playoffs—and most of the NBA did the same to lesser extents during the second half of the season—that can be done by utilizing stretch bigs, players who can draw the rim protectors out of the paint and marginalize their impact on the half-court proceedings. If stretch 4s and 5s weren't valuable enough already, they'll be especially popular moving forward as teams almost have to employ at least one for those speciality situations. 

Chances are, the continued rise of the three-ball will happen organically rather than stats forcing the issue. But it will still happen. The rise to prominence of stretch frontcourt players will help speed along the process, not that it really needed any acceleration to happen in the first place. 

Three-point shooting has been trending up for a long time, and the remarkable frequency of the outside shot isn't going to break that trend. 

When it comes to perimeter marksmanship, 2013-14 was already a record-setting season. Chances are, those marks won't stand for long. 

 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.