Popular conception pegs the beginning of the 3-point revolution right around the emergence of the Splash Brothers. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson popularized the 3-pointer, but if the NBA had had its way, that honor would have belonged to their Golden State Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, and it would have come decades earlier. To explain why, we need to turn the clocks back 26 years.
Every season from 1988-89 through 1993-94 saw a decrease in scoring, with the average team dropping from 109.2 points per game all the way down to 101.5. Pace experienced a similar dip, as the average NBA game went from 100.5 to 95.1 possessions in that span. With Michael Jordan retired and more and more teams emulating Pat Riley's borderline violent New York Knicks, the NBA desperately wanted to change the style of basketball being played.
"Scoring in this league has gone down for something like 10 straight years," Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice president for operations, said in 1994. "Teams are not taking as many shots. They're holding the ball more.
"If you have a sport, you like to have some action. You don't want it to become a grappling match."
So the league adopted a novel solution. In an effort to neutralize the physicality teams like those Knicks played with, the NBA incentivized 3-point shooting by moving the line ahead of the '94-95 season. The arc typically stretches to 23 feet, nine inches, but is not uniform. In the corners, the distance between it and the basket is only 22 feet. The NBA decided to redraw the arcs so that they sat 22 feet away from the basket across the board.
In some ways, the results exceeded the NBA's wildest expectations. The average NBA team attempted 9.9 3-pointers per game during the 1993-94 season and made 33.3 percent of them. A year later, those numbers jumped to 15.3 and 35.9, respectively, but as incredible as that leap seems, the improvements were even more pronounced in players.
Consider Michael Jordan. Never known for his long-range marksmanship, His Airness made only 30.1 percent of the 955 3-point attempts he took before his first retirement. From his second return until the line was eventually moved back, he shot 40.4 percent on 589 attempts. Such growth was a standard feature of mid-'90s stardom. Gary Payton attempted only 124 3-pointers in his first four seasons and made only 21 percent of them. In his next three, he took 915 and made 31.5 percent. The real winner of the shortened, arc, though? That was Kerr.
Already one of the NBA's best shooters before the change, the new line made Kerr one of the greatest shooters in history. In the first season after its inception, he shot 52.4 percent from behind the line. That was the NBA record until Kyle Korver shot over 53 percent during the 2009-10 campaign. Kerr would have to settle for second place ... and fifth, because he hit 51.5 percent of his attempts a year later. He had to settle for a mere 46.4 percent mark on 3-pointers during the 1996-97 season, giving him a total percentage of 49.8 during the three-year window. He fell to a more realistic 43.8 percent mark in his final season in Chicago, and dipped below 40 percent for the rest of his career. It hardly mattered, as Kerr used that rule change to set records, cash in and win championships.
Players like him across the league reaped similar benefits. Tim Legler and Detlef Schrempf both topped 50 percent during that stretch. The Rockets won a championship attempting the most long-range shots in the NBA. Even Curry's father, Dell, got in on the fun by more than doubling his prior 3-point output, taking only 2.1 per game in the first eight years of his career compared to 4.9 with the shortened line.
But even as individual numbers soared, the change failed to produce the intended result. Total points per game continued to decline in each of the three seasons with the shortened 3-point line, and Kerr offered a compelling theory as to why.
"Utah and us were two of the highest-shooting percentage teams, but we also were two teams with among the fewest 3-point attempts," Kerr told the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith in 1997. "To me that showed we were running our offenses and working for good shots, where a lot of teams come down and fire up 3s."
Kerr's message has, to some extent, proven prophetic. The NBA sees fairly steady annual growth in 3-point attempts. This season, 38.2 of field goal attempts have come from behind the line. While as a whole this has led to better offense, a number of teams have leaned too heavily into taking ill-advised jumpers. The Minnesota Timberwolves, for instance, have taken the third-most 3-pointers in the NBA this season, but are 23rd in the NBA in offensive rating. The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, took the fewest 3-pointers in the NBA during the 2018-19 season, but finished sixth in offense.
These are isolated examples, and the numbers overwhelmingly prove that offenses tend to play better when they take more 3s, but those numbers have led to a concerning stylistic homogenization. While teams like last season's Spurs suggest that scoring without an overreliance on long-range shots is theoretically possible, teams like Minnesota have turned 3-pointers into an identity, jacking up shots as a crutch while failing to run coherent offenses. As more and more teams veer in that direction, large groups of fans have expressed concern over waning stylistic diversity. Some teams gunning from behind the arc is fun. Every team doing so could potentially get boring.
A number of ideas for altering shot selection have made the rounds. In his 2019 book Sprawball, Kirk Goldsberry suggested shrinking the lane to encourage more post-ups. Others have suggested the opposite of the NBA's 1994 plan. Rather than adopting the corner's length around the entire arc, the league could remove the corner 3-pointer to prevent shooters from camping out there. Thorn himself even seemed open to the idea of a 4-point shot in a 2014 interview with ESPN's Henry Abbott, which would theoretically space the floor for other kinds of shots even further than modern shooting.
The NBA has grown far more sophisticated in the implementation of rule changes over the past two-and-a-half decades. Shortening the 3-point line was a relatively untested plan, but the modern game has a number of laboratories it uses to tinker with new ideas. The G League has been a popular staging ground. As has summer league. When an idea is ready for the big boys, it usually first finds its way into an exhibition. When the NBA wanted to, it did so during the 2020 All-Star Game to rave reviews.
The lessons the league learned in the mid-'90s are one of the primary reasons these changes are so thoroughly vetted. As well as any rule change works in theory, its success in practice is never guaranteed and its ripple effects are almost never anticipated. It only took a minor tweak to change the course of Kerr's career. If the NBA ever submits a direct response to the weight of Curry's, it will have been thoroughly vetted before being unleashed upon the league and its record book.