What's the end game for NBA's 3-point revolution? Coaches and players sound off on the game's most dominant shot
NBA teams are averaging a record 31.3 3-point attempts per game this season. How did we get to this point?
On May 10, 2015, the Golden State Warriors were down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the NBA playoffs. At the same time, several other teams who'd taken a ton of threes during the regular season were all trailing in their playoff series: the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets. Those four teams were all in the top five in the NBA in made three-point shots that season. To some, this felt like an apropos time to jump to some big conclusions about the efficacy of the three-pointer.
So that was when Phil Jackson -- the Zen Master, the 11-time NBA champion and at this point the president of the New York Knicks -- decided to do a little too-early dancing on the graves of three-point-dependent teams.
"NBA analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs...seriously, how's it goink?" Jackson tweeted.
Within weeks, that tweet aged poorly. The Warriors and Cavaliers met in the Finals that season, the first of four straight Finals meetings between the two three-point-reliant teams. Jackson quickly seemed to realize he'd overstepped, as he tweeted "some corrected thoughts" just two weeks later: "To play for 3pt shot is an error. Penetration, first principal of offense… The 3pt shot is not the be all end all of basketball."
In the three and a half years since, though, Jackson's tweet has aged even more poorly as the NBA has shifted even more drastically toward the three-pointer. It makes you wonder whether the three-point shot is, in fact, modern basketball's be-all end-all.
It also makes you wonder what will be the end game for the three-point-focused era of the NBA: How much further can we keep "goink" in that direction?
"I don't know, but it sure seems to be going really fast before our eyes, doesn't it?" Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, the architect of the Raptors' shift last season from a mid-range-dependent team to a three-point-dependent team, told me when I asked him last week. "We talk about it at least every other day in our staff meetings: 'My goodness, this thing's changing.' You gotta start thinking on the other end: How are you going to start taking some of these away? How are you going to start chasing down some of these long rebounds? How are you going to still protect the paint even though teams are shooting 45, 50 threes a night?
"It's moving fast," he continued. "I don't see it slowing down right now. Most teams, ourselves included, would like to put 10 guys out there in a rotation that every single one of them could at least threaten with the three ball."
The three-point line was introduced for the 1979-80 NBA season. At first it was thought to be a gimmick, and teams attempted a measly 2.8 threes per game that season. The three-point revolution may have been televised, but it was also very, very slow. It took a decade and a half before teams started attempting more than 10 threes a game. In the ensuing years, three-point frequency inched upward. Teams were taking 12.7 attempts per game in 1997-98. A decade later, in 2007-08, they were taking 18.1 attempts per game, and all the way up to 20 per game in 2012-13, Stephen Curry's fourth year in the league. The revolution had begun.
Then came the explosion: 21.5 in 2013-14, 22.4 in 2014-15, 24.1 in 2015-16, 27.0 in 2016-17 and 29.0 in 2017-18.
This season -- with an increased pace, a 14-second shot clock after offensive rebounds and a freedom-of-movement emphasis that has proven a boon to offenses -- NBA teams are averaging 31.3 three-point attempts per game. Some context: In the 2015-16 season, the Warriors shot roughly that same number of threes per game -- 31.6 -- and led the league in three-point attempts. Four years later, 15 NBA teams average more than that per game this season. The Houston Rockets set an NBA record with 42.3 three-point attempts per game last season, but the next-highest team, the Brooklyn Nets, averaged seven fewer. The NBA is a copycat league, and copycats have abounded: The Milwaukee Bucks are shooting nearly as many threes as the Rockets this season, and the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons aren't far behind.
"I wonder if there's a tipping point -- like, is a team going to start shooting 60 threes a game?" Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said when I asked what the end game is for the three-point revolution. "I really don't know the answer to that. We'll see it increase, but I think there will be a point where teams look other places to get their points."
So how far can this revolution go?
"Twenty-eight or 30 feet, I would say," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. "When you think about how people now shoot it so freely off the dribble. How they shoot it off the move. How bigs can be going away from the basket, set their feet and make a 23-footer. I just think range is going to continue to be expanded. It's going to be an even bigger emphasis to defend, and that's one of the things that makes it so hard. Layups I'm sure are up as well compared to 10 or 15 years ago, because you have to guard so much more space. It's really hard to do it. I'd be shocked if it stops any time soon."
Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey traces the three-point revolution back further than these current Houston Rockets, further than Curry, further even than the Mike D'Antoni's "7 Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns. He looks back at his early days in the NBA with Houston in the mid-1990s, the Rudy Tomjanovich-coached Rockets where three-pointers were utilized effectively out of the post: Hakeem Olajuwon posted up then passed out to Charles Barkley or Clyde Drexler. At a time when the NBA was becoming overly physical -- too physical for then-commissioner David Stern -- the three-pointer offered a more skill-based alternative.
"If you ask Rudy, the three-pointer saved the league," Lindsey told me. "Even though it was underutilized compared to today's game. It gave it more spacing for the stars to be stars, big shots, the comeback ability on shooting threes, where teams can spurt."
D'Antoni's Suns brought the possibilities of fast-paced basketball into stark relief against the formerly physical game. Now, said Lindsey, we're seeing second- and third- and fourth-generation iterations of what D'Antoni was doing.
And that revolution saw its leader in a skinny kid out of Davidson College who could really shoot it.
"Even Steph Curry and the way that Golden State has played -- nobody can really play that way, because Steph and Klay and their shooting makes it unique," Lindsey said. "But Steph has in my mind revolutionized a few things here in the last five years with his shot accuracy, but even more so than his accuracy, his shot quickness. He tees it up a tick faster than everybody else. So you couple accuracy, range, shot quickness -- he's taking threes, I'm sure some old coaches are thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what's happening to our game? Get off my lawn!' But I think he's been terrific for the league. You can make an argument that he's the most skilled player."
NBA players, from pass-first point guards to hulking bigs who have traditionally made their living on the block, have seen this shift, and they've adapted. If they haven't adapted -- well, there's a good chance they're not in the league anymore.
"I didn't really fully realize it until I got in the league," Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet told me. "I had to change the way I play a little bit. In college I was more so like a facilitating, get-everyone-the-ball type of point guard. When you get in the league, you gotta shoot, you gotta score, you gotta be able to knock it down. It can take your game to the next level."
When VanVleet was a rookie, he often passed up on open shots. His thought process: Get his team the best shot available -- and him taking a three off the move was not, in his mind, the best shot available. "But I come to find out an open three is maybe the best shot you can get on a possession," VanVleet said. "If you get it going, you better shoot it, because you might not get another one."
Now in his third season, VanVleet is taking more than four threes per game. As a rookie, he attempted fewer than one.
"You go into it thinking, 'I'm going to need to shoot five, six, seven threes a game, so I have to rep this, I have to shoot a good percentage,'" VanVleet said. "That shot-making can keep you on the floor, can boost your rotation minutes and your role. You see guys who can't shoot, they're struggling in the league these days. But shooters can always be steady. There's always room for shooters on a team."
So what next for the NBA's three-point revolution? Will the move to three-pointers go so far that there will there be a pendulum swing back in the other direction? Or will some team take the three-point craze to the point of absurdity -- taking 50 threes a game, or even more? After all, it was only a few years ago when the Rockets were considered an outlier. Instead, they became a trendsetter.
"I think it's just a question of efficiency," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. "The shot's worth more. And over time, players start to shoot it more and more at a younger age, and coaches start to get more and more comfortable with it being taken, where it's considered good offense. There was a time it was almost stigmatized where if you were taking a jump shot you weren't playing good offense. You were shooting quickly, and it was a reflection of being disorganized. Quite the opposite now. I would think the game would continue to gravitate to anywhere there's efficiency to be gained. … My guess is the game will continue to evolve. If players five years from now, their range is increasing further and further, maybe we'll see longer threes."
And so, to take this to the point of absurdity: Does Snyder think that shooters with longer and longer range will someday beget a four-point line in the NBA?
"If they put one in," Snyder smirked, "we'll start figuring out how to use it."
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