Want to Make the NBA Even Better? Rethink the 3-Pointer

Dennis HansSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 25, 2015

Kyle Terada/USA Today

Editor's note: When Adam Silver took control of the NBA commissioner's office last season, he made one thing abundantly clear: The game can always be improved, and he's open to suggestions. 

In a sprawling interview with Bleacher Report's Howard Beck last October, Silver mentioned myriad areas of the game he's considered tweaking: NBA draft lottery reform, in-season tournaments with international clubs, shorter 44-minute games and more. 

Semi-serious discussions concerning the rules of the game itself have captured hoops fans' imaginations, if only momentarily. In one of the more eye-raising stories of 2014, Rod Thorn, the league's president of basketball operations, said NBA execs entertained the idea of implementing a four-pointer.

In the spirit of offering the NBA our fair share of research—Silver's words!—veteran NBA writer Dennis Hans offers a modest proposal for a more logical scoring mechanism. 

The objective of offensive basketball—particularly for the growing number of analytics-attuned teams—has shifted from working to get the best possible shot, as measured by the likelihood of it going in (the old standby stat, field-goal percentage), to getting the shot or making the play with the highest yield. The magic formula is high-percentage threes, layups and free throws, while leaving the remainder of the court to suckers trying to win the antiquated way.

An uncontested corner three has a higher yield than an uncontested 18- or even 12-footer, even when those deuce tries have a better chance of finding the net. This payoff disparity creates a pecking order of shots that will vary from team to team but renders inside-the-arc shots between eight and 20 feet poor options (unless the shot clock is about to expire or your name is Dirk Nowitzki or LaMarcus Aldridge).

The game has evolved into a cynical version of the one intended, where strategy and personnel cater to the imperfectly placed three-point line.

Is there some dramatic difference in degree of difficulty that makes a 22-foot shot from the corner or 24-footer from elsewhere worth a whopping 50 percent more points than field goals attempted from inside the arc?

So the question must be asked: How many points should a three-pointer really be worth?  

In 2013-14, NBA players combined to shoot 63.6 percent on field-goal attempts (FGAs) within three feet of the basket, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Once we move beyond the range of dunks and layups, the percentages plummet:  

  • 39 percent on FGAs from three to 10 feet from the basket
  • 40 percent from 10 to 16 feet
  • 39.5 percent from 16 feet to the arc

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media

So all distance groupings beyond point-blank range and extending to the arc have roughly the same degree of difficulty and are sunk at the same 39 to 40 percent rate.

From beyond the arc in 2013-14, NBA players shot 36 percent. A modest 10 percent improvement (.360 plus .036) would put them at 39.6 percent, which is right in line with the three inside-the-arc ranges beyond point blank. Bear in mind that players achieved that 36 percent mark despite taking nearly as many attempts from beyond the arc (26 percent of all FGAs) as they did in the vast expanse from 10 feet to the arc (28.5 percent).

Do modern sharpshooters like Danny Green, Kyle Korver and the Splash Brothers (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson) really need a 50 percent subsidy if the three-point shot is only 10 percent more difficult? 

As it stands, the current 3-point system gives shooters a disproportionate 50% subsidy.
As it stands, the current 3-point system gives shooters a disproportionate 50% subsidy.Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

I say no. There has to be a better way.

Solution 1: Decimal Scoring

To restore balance to the NBA court and equal shot-rights to its players, I propose that each team determines the worth of beyond-the-arc shots on its home floor from these four options: 2.0, 2.2, 2.25 or 2.33 points, with the latter three representing a subsidy of 10, 12.5 or 16.7 percent, respectively. The first option would remove the arc entirely from the court.

The decimal system allows each team to choose an option that best suits the makeup of its roster, just as baseball teams have leeway, within limits, in where to set the home run fence. The San Francisco Giants can't have a 200-foot fence down the line, and the Los Angeles Dodgers can't have 500-foot power allies.  

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

Bonuses within a range of 0 to 16.7 percent mean every option is reasonable and will spur players at every position to hone their increasingly relevant inside-the-arc scoring skills while penalizing those who don't.

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

Whichever the choice, fouled attempts from beyond the arc that don't fall would merit just two free throws. 

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

You'll also notice the above court designs don't include the too-short, too-easy corner trey. Make the arc a uniform 23'9" while giving each team the option of widening the court by two feet on each side if it wants to extend the arc to the baseline.

Solution 2: The Money Ball

Decimal scoring isn't the only method of cutting the trey down to size. The same goal can be achieved with whole numbers—and with a name the NBA marketing machine can love.

Fans of All-Star Weekend are familiar with the "money ball" in the Three-Point Contest. The last ball in every rack—the red, white and blue one, paying homage to the ABA—is worth twice the value of the other balls in the rack. You get two points for sinking the money ball, one point when you sink any other.

The money-ball concept can be applied to the standard NBA game (without requiring a tri-colored ball).

Our objective is to get the payoff for a beyond-the-arc shot roughly in line with its difficulty. If that's a little bit more or a little bit less, fine. Either way we've eliminated the game-distorting 50 percent subsidy. "Money ball" achieves this by awarding the bonus point not on every bomb you make, but, for example, every fourth bomb you make.

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

The money ball would have a variety of payouts, depending on the preference of the home team. Every team plays by the same rule, meaning each will get a bonus point when they sink their fourth, eighth, 12th and 16th bomb of the game. All other beyond-the-arc makes will earn the standard FG payoff of two points. The penalty for fouling a shooter who misses from beyond the arc will, in all cases, be two free throws, not three.

If a team makes exactly four, eight or 12 bombs, it averages 2.25 points on those baskets, which amounts to a 12.5 percent subsidy. If it makes some other number, the subsidy will be slightly less. If the Spurs sink 10, that will earn them 22 points, as they collected the bonus on the fourth and eighth make. That's a 2.2 average and 10 percent subsidy for that game.

My preference, as with decimal scoring, is to allow the home team to set the money-ball interval, according to the strengths of its roster. The four options would be the money-ball bonus on every third, fourth or fifth make, or remove the arc and forgo the money ball.

The arena of a money-ball team would have a green light with an embossed dollar sign for each team, visible throughout the arena. If it's an every-fourth-bomb arena, the money ball would light up after a team had made three bombs to indicate the next make is worth three points.  

Once that shot is sunk, the money-ball light goes dark until it's again in play. A red number within the light would track the number of made bombs so fans would know how far each team was from the next money-ball opportunity.

The Upshots

Dramatically reducing the long-distance subsidy will be good for the game and the vast majority of players, because it will:

• Add variety to a far-too-predictable, high pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop product. (If the NCAA, high schools and AAU are listening, this applies to you, too.)

• Encourage wing players to develop a perpetual-motion, all-around game rather than being "three and D" specialists (i.e., good defenders who do little on offense but stand behind the arc and shoot an occasional trey).

So instead of players narrowing shot selection to these areas:

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

Players instead would, in theory, focus on getting closer to the bucket and diversifying shot selection:

Ryan Hurst/Bleacher Report Media Lab

• Promote the development of scorers at every range, and diverse, hard-to-block shooting styles. Scoring within the arc is more varied and artistic than outside it.

• Enhance the value of players who can shoot while closely guarded or off the dribble and on the run, as is often required inside the arc. In other words, the value of a Steph Curry would be magnified.

• Enhance the value of centers and power forwards who can make shots—jumpers, bankers, runners, hooks, jumphooks, pull-ups, floaters or whatever else they can master—in relation to big guys who can't.

The NBA has embraced change throughout its history, and there's no reason to believe that the owners—spurred by an open-minded, forward-thinking commissioner—won't continue to tinker with the league's rules and traditions. Instituting a more logical and equitable scoring system is a radical yet sensible place to start.


Dennis Hans is a former adjunct professor of mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg. His essays on basketball—including the varied styles and rhythms of free-throw shooting—have appeared online at HoopsHype, InsideHoops, Sporting News and Slate, and in print in The New York Times. His writings on a host of topics are linked at his blog, Centers' Little Helper.


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