How the 3-Point Shot Has Revolutionized the NBA

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2013

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 18:  Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat makes a game-tying three-pointer over Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 18, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The three-point field goal and I need some time apart. What was for months a torrid love affair experienced some seriously irreconcilable differences on June 18, in an NBA Finals Game 6 that will live in infamy. I was hoping the Spurs won that game.

Just two days prior, Danny Green broke Ray Allen's record for three-pointers in the NBA Finals, and he did it with Ray Allen watching. The unlikeliest of heroes posted a combined 51 points in Games 3 and 5, taking the Miami Heat to the brink of second place. He did it with a weapon that allows previously unknown journeymen to look like All-Stars.

Three-point field goals have become the NBA's great equalizer.

And equalize they did. Green made just 2-of-11 three-point attempts in Games 6 and 7 combined. He lived and died by the three in the span of two weeks. Allen proceeded to save Miami's season with a historic baseline bomb in Game 6, and a combined 11 long-balls from LeBron James and Shane Battier closed the deal in Game 7. 

Has the NBA season become a protracted, slightly more-complicated three-point shooting contest? Loosely speaking, maybe. But the oh-so-televised three-point revolution is upon us, and it's not going anywhere.

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Really Short History of the 3

Somewhere between the 1948 decision to permit a sixth personal foul and the mythical origins of the alley-oop, the three-point line owns a hallowed spot in the pantheon of iconic NBA innovations. It's hard to imagine today's NBA without the arc or the growing number of shooters making their livings from it.

Three-point field goals weren't introduced to the Association until 1979, but they'd begun figuring prominently into the nine-year existence of the ABA. In 1967, then ABA commissioner George Mikan presciently explained (via The Miami News) that the three-pointer "will give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable to fans".

Three years after the NBA absorbed the ABA in 1976, fans and "smaller players" alike were only beginning to realize the possibilities.

Fast-forward three decades, and three-pointers have become a way of life.

A 3-Point Generation by the Numbers

You don't have to be especially good with numbers to notice when they're obviously and consistently getting bigger. There's an outlying uptake in three-point attempts during the three seasons from 1994-97 when the line was shortened to a fixed 22 feet from the basket (as opposed to just 22 feet in the corners). Otherwise, the growth in three-point attempts has been pretty constant.

And dramatic to boot. Still more telling are the details. 

  • Six of the last seven NBA champions averaged at least 18.5 three-pointers during the regular season. Last season, both Miami and San Antonio averaged over 21 attempts per game. (h/t to B/R's Jared Wade)
  • In 1987-88, Michael Adams led the NBA with 379 attempts, the first of four-straight seasons he came out on top. Last season, 25 players had at least 379 attempts.
  • The Sacramento Kings led the league with just 20.2 attempts per game in 1999-2000. Last season, the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets tied for a league-leading 28.9 attempts per game. The Kings' mark of 20.2 was surpassed by 12 teams. Nine of those teams made the playoffs.
  • Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard made 185 three-pointers in 2012-13, a new NBA record for rookies. Stephen Curry set the previous best with 166 in 2009-10. Kids these days.
  • The Minnesota Timberwolves' .305 three-point shooting was the league's worst by far last season, well behind the Orlando Magic's .329 clip. Undeterred, the T-Wolves attempted 18 a game anyway.
  • The Golden State Warriors were 2012-13's most efficient team from long range, cashing in at a .403 rate. They attempted just 19.9 a game, though, tying them with the Dallas Mavericks at No. 13.

Teams are shooting the three like there's no tomorrow, whether they're especially good at it or not. There's a reason for that.

Modern-Day Xs and Os

A strong three-point attack is the gateway to everything else good offenses do. The mere existence of a three-point threat opens lanes for penetration, creates room for operating in the post and forces defenders into difficult choices between remaining glued to their assignments and helping on the ball. 

The challenge for coaches is putting their three-point shooters in positions to be successful.

Both the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat use the pick-and-roll frequently. Ostensibly designed as a two-man game between the ball-handler and screener, "third" or "fourth" options around the perimeter often end up wide open with all defensive eyes on the ball. Mike D'Antoni's high-octane perimeter attack has gotten plenty of mileage out of those options.

Getting the ball into the paint (by penetrating or posting up) is often a means to an end, as much about collapsing the defense as getting a high-percentage look at the bucket. 

It also helps having LeBron around. 

Note that by the time James passes the ball, four Indiana Pacers are in the paint, and David West isn't far. LeBron's straight-line sprint to the basket causes a defensive implosion.

Sometimes all it takes is the idea of penetration. Here, LeBron makes a move to the basket, stopping short at the elbow. Even after picking up his dribble, James has Pau Gasol and Matt Barnes' full attention. They both stay glued to the paint.

As usual, Shane Battier finishes from the corner. In this instance, all it took was a well-spaced floor and the threat of penetration.

Of course, not everybody has superstar playmakers to get this whole inside-outside thing rolling. And given the scarcity of post players who can draw a double-team, pounding the low block may not be an option.

That's where movement off the ball comes in handy. Like Reggie Miller before him, Ray Allen has made a living getting open with ninja stealth. Notice how often he uses screens away from the ball in the process.

In this next play, Allen gets a baseline screen from James and a de facto screen from Udonis Haslem to find daylight in the corner.

Many of the best three-point opportunities don't come off set plays at all. Quick shots have gotten a bad rap, and many are indeed ill-advised. But launching before defenders have an opportunity to get in position can be a shooter's best friend. Those quick shots don't always require a fast break, either. In this case, Brooklyn's defense gets back, but it doesn't quite get set. LeBron and Battier know exactly what to do.

Your average, run-of-the-mill fast break works too.

There's no one way to get open for the three. 

For the very best shooters, it may be less about what the rest of the team is doing and more about creating their own opportunities. Stephen Curry's mastery of such wizardry qualifies him to speak on the matter (via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt):

"You've got to be consistent in the way you shoot it. Just try to be as versatile as you can," Stephen Curry said of getting your feet square, using the same release point and finding different spots to take the three.

"It really opens the floor if you can shoot it ... off the right-hand or left-hand dribble, moving to your right, moving to your left. And also catch-and-shoot threes, using pick-and-rolls, coming off a down screen or in transition and pulling up for a three."

Like so.

Forget X's and O's. Just give him the ball. 

Meet the Specialists

Stephen Curry set a single-season record for made three-pointers last season, ultimately finishing with 272 of them. The crazy part is he was obscenely efficient in the process, cashing in over 45 percent of the time—the third best rate in the league.

You can't really classify Curry as a three-point "specialist". He's a superstar in the making. Nevertheless, he and his Warriors—especially sniping partner Klay Thompson—have proven just how far the three-ball takes you in today's league. Here's a look at a few other long-ball revolutionaries.

Best of the Best

1. Ray Allen, SG (Miami Heat)—There's still no one you'd rather taking the clutch trey. Allen's proven it time and again. He shot just a hair under 42 percent last season, still ahead of his career average at age 38.

2. Kyle Korver, SF (Atlanta Hawks)—Korver has set the bar for three-point specialists, making a career-high 46 percent of his threes last season. This guy's shot always looks like it's going in.

3. Kevin Durant, SF (Oklahoma City Thunder)—With everything else he does, it's easy to forget Durant shot over 41 percent from range last season. What made him even more valuable is his ability to take difficult shots, often created off the dribble.

Corner Marksmen

1. Stephen Curry, PG (Golden State Warriors)—Curry made a ridiculous 52.8 percent of corner threes last season, the best mark of anyone with more than 27 attempts. His efforts helped the Warriors to a league-best 45.5 percent from that spot.

2. Kevin Martin, SG (Minnesota Timberwolves)—In his lone campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Martin made exactly half of his 112 attempts from the corner. The quintessential spot-up shooter will add needed firepower to Minnesota's league-worst three-point efficiency, along with a healthy Kevin Love of course.

3. Chandler Parsons, SF (Houston Rockets)—Parsons made almost half of his 123 corner bombs, cashing in 49.6 percent of the time in his sophomore season. 

(Corner-three statistics courtesy of NBA.com)

Off the Bench

1. Shane Battier, G/F (Miami Heat)—Battier shot 43 percent from range last season, mostly in a sixth-man three-and-D role. Amazingly, 316 of his 362 field-goal attempts were from beyond the arc.

2. Mike Dunleavy, G/F (Chicago Bulls)—In his two seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, Dunleavy was a beast from range. Last season he shot nearly 43 percent and gave the Bulls a very compelling argument for snagging him this summer.

3. Steve Novak, F (New York Knicks)—Steve Novak was born to do one thing: shoot the three and shoot it fast before Carmelo takes the ball from him. You're allowed to do that kind of thing when you're successful over 42 percent of the time.

Big Men

1. Kevin Love, PF (Minnesota Timberwolves)—Love never found his range during an ill-fated (and brief) return from injury last season, but he made 37 percent of his attempts in 2011-12. That's all the more impressive, because he took 5.1 of those attempts per game. 

2. Ersan Ilyasova, F (Milwaukee Bucks)—Though he's not a prototypical power forward, Ilyasova is 6'10" and spends a lot of his time in the paint. What makes him an especially valuable commodity is that he always made 44 percent of his three-point attempts. He's not a prolific bomber, nor is he shy.

3. Dirk Nowitzki, F/C (Dallas Mavericks)—Dirk doesn't take a ton of three-pointers these days, but he still makes over 41 percent of them. Still one of the league's deadliest assassins trailing the break.


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