The 3-point line was first introduced into the NBA for the 1979-80 season, after which it has revolutionized and opened up the game.
Shooting is the fundamental skill in basketball and it has become more exciting than ever. What could be more fun than watching Stephen Curry catch fire and rain 3s from everywhere; Catch and shoot, off a screen, isolating one on one and breaking down the defender. A sliver of daylight is all that Curry needs to get a shot off and make it. He is so good that he’s changing the game while he’s doing it. Never before has there been a player like Curry who can destroy you from everywhere 30 feet and in. Just look at a play like this:
Curry shoots better than 41 percent from 3 off of pick and roll situations, which basically means that on possessions like these when you don’t fully on double team and trap him, he will destroy you and everything you have planned on defense. The average NBA possession is worth about one point. If Curry shoots better than 40 percent on these he creates a possession value of around 1.2, 20 percent higher than a normal possession. And this is a tough shot! Navigating through a screen with an NBA athlete chasing you at full speed and shooting off the dribble with a 7-foot human being contesting is insane. This literally breaks the game.
Another such man with a propensity to destroy your defense is Dirk Nowitzki, who’s basically your king of stretch 4s (Ryan Anderson can also be considered for this category). Players are terrified to leave Nowitzki even for a second when he’s the screener, leaving wide open driving lines to the middle. If you go and hedge on the ball handler, he can short roll to the foul line for an easy shot, if you drop down to the foul line he will have an open 3-pointer. There’s literally no satisfactory way of guarding Dirk Nowitzki.
The combination of things you can do with a player like Dirk Nowitzki as the screener makes him unguardable. According to Synergy Sports, Dirk ranks as one of the most efficient pick and roll players in the league, which is insane considering that most of his finishes are mid-range jump shots, supposedly the most inefficient shot in the league.
The point here is that it is insanely valuable to shoot the 3-pointer well as it creates lanes for dribble penetration, another huge value creator. Everyone has more room to operate and, well, you get an additional point for making one.
The Pelicans offense goes nuts when Ryan Anderson is on the floor, Ryan Kelly rates well on adjusted plus minus because of his floor spacing, the Spurs started Matt Bonner and played Boris Diaw huge minutes to stretch the Thunder defense and shifted the direction the Western Conference Finals were heading. The sample size showing where the league is going with shooting big men is getting bigger. This year’s Finals features two elite 3-point shooting teams, the Spurs ranked first in the regular season and Miami is No. 1 right now in the playoffs in 3-point field goal percentage. In the modern NBA you almost have to shoot the 3-pointer well if you want to succeed, increasingly so at every position.
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3-Point Percentage since 1970-80 season:
Three-point percentages after the meteoric rise have stagnated. There’s a few years in the 1990s where the percentages jumped because of a shortened line, but for now the growth has slowed down.
Field goal percentage since 1979-80 season:
Field goal percentages have dipped since the ’90s (even accounting for increased 3-point shooting). Modern defenses are more complex and basically better than they have been ever before.
Ratio of 2-point field goals and free throws to 3-point field goals since 1997-98 season:
The numbers are a bit irrelevant here but the trend line should be obvious and, especially during the past two years, we have seen an explosion of 3-point attempts. More and more shots are being taken from behind the line while the league continues to shoot the same percentage from 3. The most interesting question here is; How long can this trend continue? In essence, when are is the NBA going to be too trigger happy from deep? And when do we reach a point of diminishing returns and taking too many 3s? The answer: not for the foreseeable future.
What the future holds
Many are already starting to complain that the league is getting too 3 happy, and the art of the mid-range and post-up games has been made irrelevant. Remember it’s not just the mid-range shots that suffer. The league shot as a whole 40.1 percent from 10 to 16 feet, 39.5 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line, 36 percent from downtown and only 39.2 percent from three to 10 feet. That’s where most post-ups happen, rendering posting up statistically devalued. Lots of floaters happen in that range also, which are tough shots when guys like Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka are meeting you at the rim.
It’s all about incentive right? When a player gets passed the ball for a semi-contested 3 he makes a decision based on a million factors like; “Who is closing out on me? Can I get all the way to the hoop from this angle?” “My goodness, I should go left. Do I know how to dribble left?” and “How valuable are each of my choices?” Those decisions are made in a fracture of a second in a player’s head obviously, but the NBA as a whole is radically transforming based on changing players skill sets that influence those decisions. Now the decisions has become to let if fly from deep more frequently than ever before. Especially when the rules protect shooters so well; we’ve already seen what feels like a thousand four-point plays just in these playoffs alone.
If you just created an incentive structure for how you’d want players to react and shoot it would probably be one where shots came quite equally from every spot on the floor, rewarding outstanding individuals for outperforming the average on certain areas of the court. You don’t want the players to only have an option between shooting it from 25 feet or at the rim. While the situation isn’t that bad of course, the more I’ve looked at the stats it looks like the 3-point shot has become a too big a part of the game, or if not yet, it will soon.
The counter argument to this is that defenses are catching up since they are designed to stop the most valuable shots from occuring frequently. Getting to the rim, free throw line or creating corner 3s is exactly what the other team is trying to stop you from doing. it’s just really difficult to do when LeBron James is barreling down the court towards you. The Houston Rockets only took 5.7 percent of their shots from mid-range this year, per stats on NBA.com. That’s almost one in 20 shots. Is that really where we want the league to go as a whole?
Look, if you shoot long 2-pointers well it can be really valuable, as shown by LaMarcus Aldridge against the Rockets in their first-round meeting. It opens up a lot of good stuff for you and can be a weapon. But as a whole the league is moving away from that. There have already been discussions in league offices about adding a 4-point line or getting rid of corner 3 by widening the court to change the dynamics of the game. Every solution has ripple effects that are impossible to figure out now, like the effects of widening the court on creating more space for driving lanes.
It will be fun to see if the trend continues and 3-point shooting increases drastically in the coming years and how the NBA will react to it.