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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 3/3/07; it has been updated to include the 2006-07 season

The ABA is thought of as a run and gun league that featured guards launching three pointers from all angles, but ABA teams actually did not shoot that many three pointers--at least compared to NBA teams since the 1988-89 season. In the ABA’s first season (1967-68), the Pittsburgh Pipers led the league with 243 three pointers made; in 2005-06, Ray Allen alone made 269 triples. In 1967-68, ABA teams averaged 111 three pointers made in 390 attempts. That amounts to five attempts per team per game. Also, check out that shooting percentage: .285. Does that mean that ABA players were poor shooters? No, it means that the three pointer was not a regular part of the offense for most teams; it was generally used only for desperate heaves when time was running out in a quarter or near the end of the game when a team was trailing big and needed to score points in a hurry. Desperation heaves from half court and highly contested shots when the other team knows that you need three points are not high percentage shots.

The Indiana Pacers and the Kentucky Colonels were the two ABA teams that generally used the three point shot most frequently but even in their most prolific seasons they connected on far fewer long range shots than the average NBA team did last season (498, 163 more than Kentucky’s ABA record 335 three pointers made in 1968-69). After the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77, the three point shot went into mothballs for several seasons, largely because many established NBA owners did not want to incorporate anything from the ABA into their league. Eventually, the NBA Board of Governors relented and the three point shot made its NBA debut in the 1979-80 season. Most of the league’s 22 teams regarded it as a novelty shot; only three teams made more than 100 three pointers, while six made less than 30. Again, those totals are for the entire season. Rookie Larry Bird shot 58-143 (.406) from three point range, making more treys than 11 teams did. The one NBA team that was bombing away--relative to the rest of the league, at least--was the San Diego Clippers, who attempted 543 three pointers, 121 more than Bird’s Boston Celtics. Clippers guard Brian Taylor, who led the ABA in three point field goal percentage in its final season, topped the NBA with 90 three pointers made, which stood as the league’s single season record until 1983-84. Taylor made more three pointers than every other NBA team except Boston and Houston.

The NBA did not warm up much to the three point shot the next year, either. In fact, three pointers made and attempted both plummeted dramatically from their already low levels. At that time a player had to make at least 25 three pointers to qualify for the three point shooting percentage title; only eight players reached that mark in 1980-81. Taylor dropped from first to fifth in three pointers made but he led the league with .383 long range accuracy. Bird shot just 20-74 (.270) and the Clippers were the only team to make at least 100 three pointers. It was basically the same story in 1982--no NBA team used the three pointer as a regular part of its offensive arsenal; even the Clippers dipped to just 99 three pointers made as a team, barely more than one per game. Bird, whose name is now basically synonymous with the three pointer, shot 11-52 (.212) for the season. The three point shot reached its nadir in 1982-83. Not one NBA team made at least 100 three pointers and only four players topped the minimum qualifying level of 25; Mike Dunleavy led the league by shooting a pedestrian .345 and his 67 three pointers made were by far the most by one player, 25 more than Houston’s Allen Leavell hit. Bird shot 22-77 (.286).

Darrell Griffith, who earned the nickname "Dr. Dunkenstein" for his high flying exploits at the University of Louisville, transformed himself into a long range bomber as a member of the Utah Jazz. In 1983-84 he attempted to single-handedly revive the art of three point shooting, leading the league in makes (91), attempts (252) and percentage (.361). Other teams and players did not have nearly as much enthusiasm for the shot, though, as only the Jazz made at least 100 three pointers. Laker Michael Cooper ranked second in three pointers made with just 38; Bird shot 18-73 (.247).

The three pointer slowly gained more acceptance in 1985 and 1986. In both of those seasons the NBA produced a full complement of 10 players on its three point field goal percentage leaderboard. This is when Bird really started to utilize the three pointer as a weapon, ranking fourth in makes (56) and second in percentage (.427) in 1985 and first in makes (82) and fourth in percentage (.423) in 1986. The tipping point came in 1987, when for the first time more than half of the NBA’s teams made at least 100 three pointers. Dallas and Boston became the first NBA teams to nail more than 200 three pointers. This was just a hint of the coming explosion, though.

Rick Pitino became the Knicks’ head coach in 1987-88, fresh off of taking Providence to the NCAA’s Final Four. Pitino was one of the first college coaches to take advantage of the three point shot and he brought that same philosophy to the NBA. His Knicks ranked fourth in three pointers made in 1988, a prelude to the 1989 season when they would shatter the 1969 Colonels’ ABA/NBA record by making 386 three pointers. The Knicks won 52 games for the first time since their 1973 championship season. Pitino then left to coach the University of Kentucky, but he had shown that the three point shot could be a major weapon for a successful NBA team. When Pitino returned to the NBA in the late 1990s to coach the Boston Celtics, his squad launched three pointers at an even faster clip, leading to a classic Antoine Walker quote. While being coached by Pitino--and then his disciple, Jim O’Brien--Walker led the league in three pointers attempted for three straight seasons, leading some observers to question why a power forward would shoot so many three pointers. "Because there aren’t any fours," Walker replied simply.

In 1994-95 the NBA made a rules change that resulted in a tremendous increase in three point shots: the three point arc had been 23 feet nine inches from most spots and 22 feet in the corners but the league shortened that distance to a uniform 22 feet. Now it seemed like virtually every NBA player thought that he was a three point shooter. The Houston Rockets made a record 646 three pointers--217 more than their record setting total from the previous season--and the average NBA team made 450 long range shots, a far cry from the numbers posted just a decade earlier. The shortened arc lasted for three seasons. By the time the NBA restored the three point arc to its original distance in 1997-98 the die had pretty much already been cast--the three point shot was an integral part of the offensive game plans of most teams and that would not change.

The Phoenix Suns have led the NBA in three pointers made the past three seasons, setting a record with 796 in 2005, breaking it in 2006 with 837 and making 785 in 2007. History suggests that teams that lead the league in three pointers made will not win the championship; in 37 years of ABA/NBA three point shooting, only the 1968 Pipers (ABA), 1972 Pacers (ABA), 1973 Pacers (ABA), 1994 Rockets and 1995 Rockets have won titles while making the most three pointers. The 2007 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs ranked sixth in the NBA with 595 three pointers made but that is obviously a significantly lower figure than Phoenix'; the other Western Conference Finalist, the Utah Jazz, made 354 three pointers. The Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers made 494 three pointers, while their opponents in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Detroit Pistons, made 449 three pointers.

Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

Most Three Pointers Made

Year/League...Team...3 FGM...Player (team)...3 FGM

1967-68/ABA..Pittsburgh..243..Les Selvage (Anaheim)..147
1968-69/ABA..Kentucky..335..Louie Dampier (Kentucky)..199
1969-70/ABA..Kentucky..330..Louie Dampier (Kentucky)..198
1970-71/ABA..Indiana..306..George Lehmann (Carolina)..154
1971-72/ABA..Indiana..220..Glen Combs (Utah)..103
1972-73/ABA..Indiana..172..Bill Keller (Indiana)..71
1973-74/ABA..San Diego..216..Bo Lamar (San Diego)..69
1974-75/ABA..Indiana..224..Bill Keller (Indiana)..80
1975-76/ABA..Indiana..250..Bill Keller (Indiana)..123

1979-80/NBA..San Diego..177..Brian Taylor (San Diego)..90
1980-81/NBA..San Diego..132..Mike Bratz (Cleveland)..57
1981-82/NBA..Indiana..103..Don Buse (Indiana)..73
1982-83/NBA..Spurs..94..Mike Dunleavy (Spurs)..67
1983-84/NBA..Utah..101..Darrell Griffith (Utah)..91
1984-85/NBA..Dallas..152..Darrell Griffith (Utah)..92
1985-86/NBA..Dallas..141..Larry Bird (Boston)..82
1986-87/NBA..Dallas..231..Larry Bird (Boston)..90
1987-88/NBA..Boston..271..Danny Ainge (Boston)..148
1988-89/NBA..New York..386..Michael Adams (Denver)..166
1989-90/NBA..Cleveland...346..Michael Adams (Denver)..158
1990-91/NBA..Portland..341..Vernon Maxwell (Houston)..172
1991-92/NBA..Milwaukee..371..Vernon Maxwell (Houston)..162
1992-93/NBA..Phx..398..Majerle (Phx)/Miller (Ind)..167
1993-94/NBA..Houston..429..Dan Majerle (Phx)..192
1994-95/NBA*..Houston..646..John Starks (New York)..217
1995-96/NBA*..Dallas..735..Dennis Scott (Orlando)..267
1996-97/NBA*..Miami..678..Reggie Miller (Indiana)..229
1997-98/NBA..Seattle..621..Wesley Person (Cleveland)..192
1998-99/NBA^..Houston..336..Dee Brown (Toronto)..135
1999-00/NBA..Indiana..583..Gary Payton (Seattle)..177
2000-01/NBA..Boston..592..Antoine Walker (Boston)..221
2001-02/NBA..Boston..699..Ray Allen (Milwaukee)..229
2002-03/NBA..Boston..719..Ray Allen (Mil-Sea)..201
2003-04/NBA..Seattle..723..Peja Stojakovic (Sac)..240
2004-05/NBA..Phx..796..Korver (Phi)/Richardson (Phx)..226
2005-06/NBA..Phx..837..Ray Allen (Seattle)..269
2006-07/NBA..Phx..785..Arenas (Was)/Bell (Phx)..205

* The NBA shortened the three point arc to a uniform 22 feet (prior to and subsequent to these three seasons the three point arc was 22 feet in the corners and 23 feet nine inches elsewhere).

^ Season shortened to 50 games by a lockout.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM



At Thursday, September 27, 2007 8:54:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I just watched Record Breakers of the NBA on ESPN Classic (they have been showing old videos this week).
It was interesting that you posted this because one of the records was Dale Ellis breaking the most threes made in a game. He did it versus the Clippers. The crazy thing was that after he made his last 3, Earl Strom gave him the ball and shook his hand. I loved it....there is no way you would see that now.

And they also showed Michael Adams, who had one of the illest releases that Ive ever seen. But he was so effective with it.

At Thursday, September 27, 2007 4:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Adams was fun to watch--a 5-10 guard who shot some kind of push shot from his chest but was able to get it off (and make it) in the NBA.

At Tuesday, December 06, 2022 10:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At Wednesday, December 07, 2022 12:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure which game you are referencing. In 1971-72, the Oakland Oaks had become the Virginia Squires. Erving played for the Squires as a rookie in 1971-72, and Rick Barry played for the New York Nets in 1971-72. The Nets beat the Squires in the second round of the 1972 playoffs.

I don't see the connection between any of this and Stephen Curry, but that takes nothing away from the ABA's pioneering role in the evolution of the three point shot, which I acknowledge in this article and in other articles that I have written.


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