The Quest for 900: How slingers have replaced Goliath in the NBA
It took a long time for the NBA to utilize the 3-point line, but now we're seeing historic rates of outside shooting that could lead to historic makes.
“Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up.” -- Red Auerbach.
In a piece for The New Yorker in May 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the tale of “David vs. Goliath.” He used a group of 12-year-old girls coached by Vivek Ranadivé, the current owner of the Sacramento Kings, as an example of how David beating Goliath isn't actually much of an upset at all.
These girls were not as talented or as big and athletic as the majority of their opponents but they went against the norm of just defending in the half court and decided to beat “Goliath” at a game Goliath wasn’t used to playing. They pressured opponents over the entire court, not just waiting to defend them in half court.
Gladwell hypothesizes that when David plays to David’s strength, it’s actually not an upset against Goliath, but in fact it’s the outcome that is supposed to happen when David comes out the victor.
Building on this concept of David beating Goliath because David is supposed to, Gladwell added to this idea in February 2013 at the American Booksellers Association's Eighth Annual Winter Institute. Gladwell said that in ancient times, there were three types of warriors available to an army: infantry, cavalry, and slingers. Infantry was the heavy hitters that would do hand-to-hand ground battle on the fields. Cavalry was a much quicker foe, riding horses and providing a difficult to hit, moving target. Slingers were archers and/or people who would use a sling to throw rocks, pebbles, or any kind of airborne weaponry.
His theory was that cavalry could defeat slingers because it was too hard to hit a moving target. Slingers could defeat infantry because it was easy to defeat someone so slow and plodding, and infantry had a easier time defeating cavalry because they could essentially set up a blockade of sorts and prevent the moving targets from moving around so much.
This theory about strategic warfare fits into the modern day of basketball quite nicely, but with a couple of minor tweaks.
In the 1979-80 season, the NBA finally adopted the 3-point shot even though it was widely considered more of a gimmick than a necessity. The 3-point shot was introduced into basketball in 1933 and experimented with in many minor professional leagues for decades. When it started to really gain a foothold in the game was when the American Basketball Association implemented the rule in 1967-68.
George Mikan, commissioner of the ABA at the time, said the 3-point shot "would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans." However, when it was brought into the NBA game at the turn of the decade in 1979, nobody really used it as a weapon.
In the first 11 years of the 3-point existence, only one team, the 1988-89 New York Knicks, took at least 900 3-point attempts in a season (they attempted 1,147). In the 1990-91 season, three teams cracked the 900-attempt marker. Only four teams did it the following season. Seven teams total cracked that barrier in the 1992-93 season.
Then in the 1993-94 season, something transcendent happened in the NBA. The New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets faced off in the NBA Finals with the Houston Rockets winning it all in seven games. Why was this so transcendent? The two teams with arguably the two best centers in the NBA with Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing also happened to be two of the nine teams in the NBA to crack that rare 900-attempt barrier. In fact, the Houston Rockets led the NBA in 3-point attempts and makes, despite shooting slightly above average from 3-point range at 33.4 percent.
In the first 15 years of the 3-point shot, 24 teams attempted more than 900 attempts in a season and only the Houston Rockets in 1993-94 had eclipsed 400 makes. Thirteen of those 24 teams made the playoffs, showing that the 3-point shot was something you could weaponize within your offense. With the Rockets making it such an important part of the game to space the floor for their Hall of Fame center, it showed the future of the NBA.
Considering the NBA is often referred to as a copycat league, the other teams quickly caught on and just started chucking 3-pointers at an alarming rate. A big part of the reason was that the 3-point line was shortened from 23 feet, nine inches to 22 feet all around the arc in the 1994-95 season. That year, the Utah Jazz were the only team that didn’t take at least 900 3-pointers in the regular season. The Rockets built upon their historic chucking by making a record 646 3-point attempts before winning their second straight NBA championship.
When the league moved the line back to 23 feet, nine inches in the 1997-98 season, it curbed some of the long-range attempts, but we still saw 19 of the 29 teams attempt 900 or more 3-pointers in the season. The league was sold on stretching the floor with a shot that was a bigger reward for success.
In the last 15 years, we’ve had 23 teams make at least 700 3-point attempts because the idea of slinging the basketball from distance is just a much better strategy than the plodding infantry of slow, interior offenses that have been smothered by the newer help defense rules.
And while the cavalry teams have become all the rage since Mike D’Antoni had exciting, marketable success with the “Seven Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns in the mid-aughts, we saw in the 2013 playoffs with the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, a team that pushes the tempo (as a cavalry essentially does) is nothing without slingers.
While ancient war, as Malcolm Gladwell theorizes, had cavalry beating the slingers because a moving target was too difficult to hit, the slingers in the NBA don’t have to worry about a moving target. They just have to find space to let the long distance shots fly. And that’s what the NBA has evolved to.
The current NBA has moved toward offensive efficiency over the insane pace we saw in the early decades of the league. The league slowed down the pace in the 1990s, against the grain of the Showtime Lakers, and found a much more physical, defensive approach. While this worked for a while, it begged for innovation and a new way of approaching the game to take away these slugfests. As the 3-point shot became staples of offensive systems to spread the defense and the league rules disallowed such physical play on the perimeters, it opened the floodgates to what we saw last season and what we’ll see in the future.
Why is volume three-point shooting effective? To put it simply, you're scoring more points.
The idea of effective field goal percentage is to factor in the extra point you get for shooting behind the 3-point line. That extra point is indeed the reason you take the risk of shooting from a farther distance. Shooting for that extra point or getting to the rim for a higher percentage bucket has taken the place of the midrange jumper. The art of the midrange jumper didn't die; it was phased out for more efficient basketball.
In the 2012-13 season, we saw two teams break the record for most 3-point makes in a season. The 2009-10 Orlando Magic, who made 841 3-pointers that season, held the previous record. Not only did the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets break that record last season, they obliterated it.
The Rockets finished the season with 867 made 3-pointers and the Knicks set the all-time record for one season with 891 made 3-pointers. With the Knicks finishing so close to being the first team in NBA history to crack 900 made 3-pointers in a season and the offensive schemes figuring out how important a high volume of good 3-point attempts can be, it seems like the 2013-14 season is likely to bring us our first team in the 900-make club.
The Knicks are unlikely to slow down the perimeter attack they love to employ. The Rockets just got the best center in the NBA to attract attention inside, which should open up their shooters even more on the outside. And teams with deadly accuracy like the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, and Golden State Warriors could find ways to attempt more deep shots.
As of right now, the only way to take away the 3-point shot is to allow a more physical brand of perimeter defense and we’ve already seen that muck up the game in the past. The NBA isn’t about to consider allowing such stagnation in the flow of the game when the fans seem to love where the league is heading. And it's heading right for the 3-point line.
The NBA has become a league of slingers. Sometimes teams like this last year’s Rockets combine the slingers with the cavalry, but the slingers are where the success on the court is manifested the most. Surround a Goliath with some slingers and you can find a great balance in an offense that gives you championship aspirations.
A former Goliath in the late George Mikan saw the future of basketball when he gave “the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans." Echoing the great, late Red Auerbach, an offensive weapon -- in this case the 3-point shot -- has been developed and optimized in a way in which is nearly impossible for defenses to catch up to.
Until they do manage to catch up, we're going to see even more history happen from behind the arc. A few teams have a great chance to be the first to make 900 3-pointers in a season next year. It may seem like something rare now, but some day it will probably just be the norm.
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