Who Would Rule NBA If 3-Point Revolution Never Happened?

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Who Would Rule NBA If 3-Point Revolution Never Happened?
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The NBA is a significantly different animal than it was back when the popularity of the three-point line was only gaining steam after its incorporation in 1979-80.

For example, the 1987-88 Boston Celtics led the league in triples, making 271 throughout the entire campaign on the backs of 148 from Danny Ainge and 98 from Larry Bird.

Compare that to the current season, in which Stephen Curry alone has already drilled a record-setting 288 treys with roughly a quarter of the Golden State Warriors' schedule yet to be played. 

How in the world do you stop—or at least slow down—a player who's so good he's bending basketball to his will? 

"If we're gonna have a three-point line, let's have a five-point line," San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich suggested when asked about moving the three-point arc further back, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "The only problem is Steph would probably kill it. So it's like cutting your nose off to spite your face, you know?"

Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

For the sake of preserving our noses, let's travel down a different route. Instead of moving the line back, what if this revolution had never taken place?

 

 

MVP No More

Imagine a league where slow play is king, leading to a plethora of high-scoring big men who still specialize in back-to-the-basket moves. Jahlil Okafor is easier to build around than Karl-Anthony Towns, since the stretchiness of the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie is no longer valued to nearly the same extent. 

But we have to start with Curry. As the reigning MVP and prohibitive favorite to retain the league's most prestigious individual award, as well as the face of three-happy insanity, he stands to be affected rather significantly. 

Heading into the Warriors' marquee clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, Curry was leading the league in scoring at 30.7 points per game. Obviously, that number would go down if his ridiculous pull-up jumpers from 30 feet only resulted in a pair of points, but would he still be one of the NBA's most prolific scorers? 

Merely removing threes from the equation allows Curry to remain near the top of the leaderboard. He's currently in first place by a significant margin, but our simple change lets James Harden move into second while DeMarcus Cousins becomes the leader with room to spare. 

It's worth noting there are other variables we can't account for here. Skilled as Curry has become at finishing around the basket, it would be tougher for him to score so efficiently if defenders were no longer forced to respect his perimeter prowess, but instead tried to bait him into 25-foot jumpers.

Accordingly, the discrepancy between his actual 2015-16 scoring and his hypothetical production in our no-threes world would likely be even more stark. 

 

Get Huge

But it's no fluke that a big man such as Cousins is moving up into the No. 1 spot. As the popularity of the three has grown, the necessity of interior scoring has correspondingly declined. And it's frontcourt players who have been affected most by the changing mentalities:

It's been quite some time since an interior player led the league in points per game. Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-00 was the last one to do so, putting together one of the finest seasons the Association has ever seen while averaging 29.7 points for the Los Angeles Lakers.

But just look at where the NBA's highest-scoring big has finished on the leaderboard over the years, again juxtaposed against the growing number of threes:

Bigs dominated the scoring ladder for decades but now are fewer than ever, with only versatile players such as Cousins and Anthony Davis serving as exceptions.

It's problematic that Brook Lopez was the top-scoring big in 2012-13 with 19.4 points per game.

Were the three-point arc erased from the hardwood, this would likely change as a matter of simple math: the most efficient spaces again become the ones right around the hoop.

Shooting from 24 feet makes sense in today's game. (Even knocking down 35 percent of your deep looks yields 1.05 points per possession—the equivalent of making 52.5 percent of your two-point tries.) But do away with the extra point granted for dominance from distance, and there's no incentive to work from the perimeter.

Basketball again becomes about pushing the rock into the painted area and trying to generate as many close-range attempts as possible. 

 

Redefining Success

Teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings, who score plenty of points in the paint, per TeamRankings.com, would benefit hugely. Perimeter-oriented contenders such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers would be hurt. And if you're curious about the Warriors, they actually rank No. 7 in paint points per game. 

Just as we did with Curry and the leading scorers in the league, let's simply convert all three-pointers into twos and see who holds down the new top 10 spots for offensive ratings: 

In reality, these numbers would all be higher. Teams simply wouldn't take as many perimeter jumpers without the luxury of scoring an extra point. There's also no telling how each squad would adjust and the success they'd have when changing their offensive style in dramatic fashion. 

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies jump out as notable case studies. Both have refused to cater to the changes rocking the NBA, and their offenses have correspondingly struggled to keep up. In the three-less world, however, this is no longer an issue, and they can remain content relying on the interior strategy. 

Other teams who thrive on post-up possessions, but use them infrequently, would likely see a similar jump in offensive efficiency: 

Adam Fromal/Bleacher Report

Here, we're looking mostly at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks as the squads who could easily take on more post-up possessions. The Denver Nuggets and Kings would benefit as well, though to a lesser extent. 

Studs such as LeBron James, who are already MVP candidates and don't exactly have smooth strokes from the outside, would continue to dominate. Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the other primary superstars would still be great. 

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

But there's a serious chance Cousins, who we've already put forth as the new favorite for the scoring title, would become the most dominant player in the league while playing for a vastly improved Sacramento squad. The Kings already thrive in the paint, and they'd rank No. 11 in offensive rating if all threes became twos—even before factoring in their efficient but underutilized post play. 

Could the NBA still belong to Curry's Warriors? It's definitely possible, and there are too many unsolvable variables in play here to be 100 percent certain about any changes. 

But at the very least, we'd have some new additions to the list of primary challengers. 

 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com's databases or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Wednesday.

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