The 3-Point Revolution

A gimmick? A publicity stunt? That’s what many thought of the 3-point line when the NBA adopted it for the 1979-80 season.

Back in 1979, Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta commented, “The three-point field goal will definitely make things interesting.” He meant interesting in the sense that a game that would have been over might now be sent to overtime by a desperation heave. Neither Coach Motta nor anyone else foresaw an NBA game played like it is today.

Five years after its inception, NBA teams were only averaging 2.4 three-point attempts (3PA) per game. This past season, James Harden alone averaged ten. Teams averaged 29.

Each season, NBA teams are taking more 3s and there are no signs that the trend is leveling off. If anything, it’s taking off.

Why are teams taking so many threes? The three provides value in two ways. First, it’s an efficient shot. Over the last 20 years, NBA players have averaged 1.05 points per above-the-break 3 and 1.16 points per corner 3. In contrast, players have averaged just 0.79 points per 2-point attempt outside of the restricted area. In other words, 100 mid-range jumpers will provide 79 points on average, while 100 above-the-break 3s would provide 105.

Teams have realized that they can improve their offense by simply changing their shot selection. Take more threes and score more points.

It can help to see how this plays out for specific players. Last season, Anthony Davis had a better FG% than Draymond Green in both mid-range and behind the arc.

If we considered each player’s efficiency on their jump shots (from both regions), we’d expect AD to be more efficient…And we’d be wrong. Draymond averaged 0.87 points per jump shot while AD only produced 0.82. Simply put, Draymond averaged 5 more points per 100 jump shots.

How? Draymond had far better shot selection. Only 17% of Draymond’s jumpers (from mid-range or 3) were mid-range attempts. A whopping 72% of AD’s jumpers came from mid-range. AD is the better shooter, but Draymond took better shots.

The change was gradual at first, but by the early 2000s, teams were drastically reducing their mid-range attempts in favor of the more efficient 3-pointer. In 2014-15, NBA teams, for the first time, were more likely to shoot a 3 than a mid-range jump shot. Today, 1 in 3 FGA is a 3PA.

In the last 20 years, teams have more than doubled their use of both the corner and above-the-break 3.

Above, we stated that the three-point shot adds value in two ways. We’ve already covered its efficiency. In addition, spacing the floor with 3-point threats provides space for players to drive, cut, roll, and post-up.

Did you know that the NBA’s top two teams in 2017-18 in 2-point FG% were the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, arguably the league’s two best 3-point-shooting teams. Golden State led the NBA in 3P% while the Rockets led the NBA in 3PA (42.3 per game).

The 3-point revolution isn’t limited to the NBA game. In 2017-18, Division I men’s teams launched from deep at a higher rate than the pro ranks. Over 37% of FGA were 3PA. Savannah State led the way with 55.5% of their FGA coming from 3 (over 40 3PA per game). Belmont was a close second at 54.2%.

What happens when an NCAA team takes nearly half of their FGA from 3 (47.5%) and makes over 40% on them? That team, Villanova, wins the NCAA Championship. Other strong contenders weren’t far behind in terms of 3-point usage. Kansas shot 40% from 3 while taking 41.2% of their FGA from behind the arc. Purdue shot 42% on 3s while taking 40.1% of their FGA from distance.

Today’s game looks very different from that of even 10 years ago. As such, the offensive and defensive strategies—actions, plays, zones, presses, or lineups—that were successful in the past may not work today.

Basketball is evolving and the numbers help us understand to what degree and why. The stats can also teach us how best to respond.