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Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part III

Here is a quote from 16 years ago about the three point shot: "It was a great weapon when the players shot eight or nine times a game. Now it's way overused." Care to guess which former player turned TV commentator made that remark? The answer is none other than Steve Kerr, owner of the highest career regular season career three point shooting percentage in ABA/NBA history (.454), and the current coach of the Golden State Warriors--one of the teams most identified with the recent vast increase in the usage of the three point shot.

I first wrote about the evolution of the usage of the three point shot for NBCSports.com in March 2007, and then I posted an updated version of that article at 20 Second Timeout a few months later. The American Basketball Association (ABA) is associated with the three point shot and deserves credit for popularizing it, but it should be noted that the ABA did not invent the three pointer; it had been used in the American Basketball League (ABL) in the early 1960s, and there are reports that the three point shot was used experimentally in a college game (Columbia versus Fordham) in 1945. Some ABA teams incorporated the three point shot into their regular offense, but not all ABA teams did so, and overall the ABA teams did not shoot nearly as many three pointers as NBA teams currently shoot.

The three point shot disappeared from the professional basketball landscape for three seasons after the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, but then the NBA brought it back for the 1979-80 season. For the first part of the decade, most NBA teams only shot three pointers to beat the shot clock, or to beat the buzzer at the end of a quarter, or when they were down by three points with little time remaining in the game. By the end of the 1980s, many teams began to use the three pointer as part of their offense. The NBA shortened the three point arc to a uniform 22 feet (instead of 23 feet nine inches everywhere but the baseline corners) for the 1995-97 seasons, which led to a spike in three point usage that continued even after the league restored the original three point line in 1997-98.

In December 2016, I revisited the evolution of the usage of the three point shot. The growing acceptance of "advanced basketball statistics" had resulted in a significant increase in the usage of the three point shot, and that trend has continued in the past several seasons. NBA teams averaged a then-record 9.7 three point field goals made per game during the 2016-17 season, and that number increased to 12.1 three point field goals made per game during the suspended (but hopefully not concluded) 2019-20 season, so now is a good time to examine how the usage of the three point shot has continued to evolve.

As discussed in the two previous articles in this series, the three point shot has evolved from a rarely used novelty, to an occasionally used weapon, to a minor part of the offensive game plan, to a major part of the offensive game plan, to a central part of the offensive game plan. To understand the distinction between the latter two concepts, think back to the Houston Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, or the Orlando Magic with Shaquille O'Neal; the three point shot was a major part of the offensive game plan, but the primary focus was to first get the ball to the big man, and then shoot three pointers if the opponent double-teamed the big man. In contrast, now many teams are actively hunting three point shots while openly disdaining even wide open two point shots.

One might assume that adding a point per shot for long field goal attempts would increase overall scoring, particularly as the three point shot gained greater acceptance, but history shows otherwise. NBA teams averaged 110.3 ppg in 1978-79, the year before the league added the three point shot. Scoring held steady during the 1980s, and then declined throughout the 1990s. By 1995-96, scoring had fallen under 100 ppg (99.5 ppg) for the first time since 1956-57. NBA scoring reached its modern nadir in the lockout-shortened 1999 season (91.6 ppg), and did not recover to the 100 ppg level until the 2008-09 season, by which time the league had passed rules restricting defensive contact on the perimeter; these rules opened up the game, made it much more difficult to guard players on the perimeter, and--among other things--played a major role in helping Steve Nash to become a two-time regular season MVP. Scoring regressed slightly in the early part of the next decade, but has been on an upward progression for several years, peaking at 111.4 ppg in the 2019-20 season.

Having a three point shot rule does not, in and of itself, increase or decrease team scoring; scoring is impacted by many different factors, including other rules changes, new coaching philosophies, and skill set evolution (or decline, depending on your perspective).

There is also not a direct correlation between shooting a lot of three pointers and winning championships. The Golden State Warriors made five straight Finals appearances from 2015-19, winning titles in 2015 and 2017-18, but during that time they only once led the league in three pointers made--2016, the year that they lost to Cleveland in the Finals. The Warriors ranked second in three pointers made in 2015, fourth in 2017, eighth in 2018, and third in 2019. Here are the rankings for three point shots made by NBA championship teams since I wrote my first article about the evolution of the usage of the three point shot:

2008: Boston (eighth)
2009: L.A. Lakers (17th)
2010: L.A. Lakers (13th)
2011: Dallas (eighth)
2012: Miami (20th)
2013: Miami (third)
2014: San Antonio (12th)
2015: Golden State (second)
2016: Cleveland (second)
2017: Golden State (fourth)
2018: Golden State (eighth)
2019: Toronto (eighth)

During the 2019-20 season, the Milwaukee Bucks rank fourth in three pointers made, while the Toronto Raptors rank fifth, the Boston Celtics rank 13th, the L.A. Clippers rank 18th, the Denver Nuggets rank 24th, and the L.A. Lakers rank 25th. The three teams that have made the most three pointers--Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans--are unlikely to win the 2020 championship (assuming that the season is completed), and most of the rest of the top 10 teams are championship long shots at best (Miami, Minnesota, Utah, Portland, Brooklyn).

Even the championship winners/championship contenders that shoot a lot of three pointers are not teams that are built around three point shooting the way that the current Rockets are. The Golden State Warriors utilized the three point shot as a very effective offensive weapon, but the foundation for their championship success was their tremendous defense: the Warriors ranked first in defensive field goal percentage in 2015 and 2017 before slipping just slightly to third in 2018. Their 73-9 team in 2016 that lost in the NBA Finals ranked third in defensive field goal percentage.

In order to win games during which their shooting touch deserts them, a legitimate championship contender must be able to rely on consistently great defense.

While there is not much correlation between the three point shot rule and team scoring, or shooting a lot of three pointers and winning a championship, the increase in the usage of the three point shot has dramatically changed the shot charts for the league's most prolific individual scorers. During the first decade that the NBA used the three point shot, even the top scorers did not shoot a high volume of three pointers. Alex English, the NBA's leading scorer of the 1980s, scored 21,018 points during that decade while making just 16 three pointers. The next two players on that list made even fewer three pointers; Moses Malone scored 19,082 points in the 1980s while making three three pointers, and Adrian Dantley scored 18,157 points in the 1980s while making six three pointers. Only four of the decade's top 10 scorers made at least 100 three pointers during the 1980s, headlined by Larry Bird and Mark Aguirre; Bird ranked fourth in scoring (17,899 points) while making 455 three pointers, and Aguirre ranked eighth in scoring (14,488 points) while making 255 three pointers. Bird ranked second in the 1980s in three pointers made, trailing only Dale Ellis (472).

Only 11 players made at least 200 three pointers during the 1980s--but 12 players made at least 200 three pointers during the 2018-19 season! Each of the league's top 10 scorers during the 2019-20 season is averaging at least one three pointer made per game, and seven of those 10 players are averaging at least two three pointers made per game. Four of the top five scorers are averaging at least three three pointers made per game, led by James Harden, who ranks first in both scoring (34.4 ppg) and three point field goals made (271). Harden's Rockets have gone all-in with small ball, relying on volume three point shooting to overcome their lack of size/lack of rebounding, but after experiencing initial success the Rockets sputtered recently.

Was Kerr's assessment 16 years ago correct? Since there are no live NBA games now or for the foreseeable future, there is plenty of time to watch classic games from the 1980s and 1990s, and then compare those games--in terms of quality of play, and in terms of entertainment value--with the games that we have been watching recently. I am not opposed to the three point shot--I love the ABA, and I love shooting three pointers when I play pickup or rec league ball--but I prefer to watch basketball players and teams that utilize all areas of the court on offense, as opposed to basketball players and teams that jack up three pointers regardless of time, score, matchups or momentum because the "stat gurus" made the supposedly revolutionary discovery that three is more than two. I cannot say that there is a "right" number of three pointers per game (even though the "stat gurus" think that they can), but both in terms of winning championships and in terms of entertainment value I do not think that 30, 40, or 50 three point shot attempts per team per game--numbers that we are seeing on a regular basis in today's game--is optimal.

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..San Antonio..94..Mike Dunleavy (San Antonio)..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..Phoenix..398..Dan Majerle (Phoenix)/Reggie Miller (Indiana)..167
1993-94/NBA..Houston..429..Dan Majerle (Phoenix)..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 (Milwaukee-Seattle)..201
2003-04/NBA..Seattle..723..Peja Stojakovic (Sacramento)..240
2004-05/NBA..Phoenix..796..Kyle Korver (Philadelphia)/Jason Richardson (Phoenix)..226
2005-06/NBA..Phoenix..837..Ray Allen (Seattle)..269
2006-07/NBA..Phoenix..785..Arenas (Washington)/Bell (Phoenix)..205
2007-08/NBA..Orlando..801..Jason Richardson (Charlotte)..243
2008-09/NBA..New York..823..Rashard Lewis (Orlando)..220
2009-10/NBA..Orlando..841..Aaron Brooks (Houston)..209
2010-11/NBA..Orlando..770..Dorell Wright (Golden State)..194
2011-12/NBA^^..Orlando..670..Ryan Anderson (Orlando)..166
2012-13/NBA..New York..891..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..272
2013-14/NBA..Houston..779..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..261
2014-15/NBA..Houston..933..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..286
2015-16/NBA..Golden State..1077...Stephen Curry (Golden State)..402
2016-17/NBA..Houston..1181..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..324
2017-18/NBA..Houston..1256..James Harden (Houston)..265
2018-19/NBA..Houston..1323..James Harden (Houston)..378

* 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.

^^ Season shortened to 66 games by a lockout.

Bold indicates an ABA/NBA record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM



At Wednesday, March 25, 2020 12:40:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

well, 100 3s at 33% is about 100 2s at 50% ... so why would greater usage change total scoring all other factors being equal?

Open shot is what matters, so collapsing defenses to get an opportunity is most important. And 2 pointer is much more consistent, so relying on it is better long term strategy. Surely 3 point shooters are nice to have, because it widens play variety.

At Wednesday, March 25, 2020 4:52:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hey David,

I was curious, is there a particular period in NBA history where you think we had a sort of golden mean in terms of style of play?

I'm partial to the early 90s, where 3 point shots were far more plentiful than during most of the 80s but we still had a relatively high scoring league focused on post play and midrange shots combined with good defensive effort. The game also hadn't slowed down to a defensive crawl yet like it did during the late 90s and early 2000s.

At Thursday, March 26, 2020 2:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Some commentators state or imply that the increased usage of the three point shot has led to increased scoring, supposedly because increasing the usage of the three point shot results in the game being more wide open, faster paced, and with better spacing. My point is that there are other factors that have played a more significant role in the increased scoring.

At Thursday, March 26, 2020 2:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In terms of overall quality of play plus diversity of playing styles, I loved the 1980s. Unfortunately, there were not nearly as many televised games during that time. During the early 1990s, the overall quality of play may not have been quite as high, but financially the league was healthier, and more games were televised, which makes for a better experience for the fans.

At Thursday, March 26, 2020 2:34:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

One of the biggest myths about the Warriors during their run of five straight Finals is that they were the poster child for the three-point shot. They certainly shot a lot of threes but even before Durant arrived they regularly posted up Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston for a quick two points and of course with Durant they won back-to-back championships that were largely centered around his mid-range game. Virtually every single Finals MVP in league history has been a mid-size player or bigger who has operated primarily in the low post to mid-range area. I don't see this changing anytime soon.

At Thursday, March 26, 2020 7:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree both about the Warriors in general, and also about the type of player who has won/will likely continue to win Finals MVPs.

At Monday, March 30, 2020 11:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael said, "Virtually every single Finals MVP in league history has been a mid-size player or bigger who has operated primarily in the low post to mid-range area." That's an overstatement:

-- T.Parker
--D. Wade
--C. Billups
-- I. Thomas
-- J. Dumars

At Friday, April 03, 2020 12:30:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

The point I was really trying to make is that a high-volume three-point wizard hasn't won a Finals MVP and probably won't anytime soon, especially one who is under 6-6. The last player under 6-6 to win a Finals MVP was Tony Parker in 2007 and he attempted seven threes in that series. There were a few Finals MVPs in the mid 2000s under 6-6 (Billups, Wade, Parker) but before that there was a stretch of 13 years were every single recipient was at least 6-6 and mostly scored well within the three-point line. There is a current streak of 12 years for such players and I would bet anything and everything that over the next five or so years LeBron, Kawhi and Giannis will be adding Finals MVPs to their resume as opposed to Curry, Lillard and Harden. The three-point shot is an integral part of today's game but it doesn't negate the fundamental basketball truth that size combined with proximity to the basket will consistently produce more success than launching from 25 feet out, especially when the player launching from 25 feet out is undersized.

At Saturday, April 04, 2020 4:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I just noticed that part of my previous comment was truncated, so I deleted that comment and I am re-posting the full comment:

The NBA Finals MVP has been awarded since 1969. Wade probably is best categorized as a "small" mid-size player; he certainly was taller and stronger than the other players on your list, and he definitely operated primarily in the low post (as a driver) to mid-range area. So, if there have been 50 NBA Finals MVPs and 45 or 46 of them fit Michael's description then I would say "virtually every single Finals MVP" being a mid-size player or bigger is an apt description. The players you listed are the proverbial exception that proves the rule (a phrase that does not really make sense, yet is applicable here).

Further, if you include the nine ABA Playoff MVPs you see a similar story: Freddie Lewis was a perimeter player but the rest of them were forwards or centers; even Warren Jabali, who stood just 6-2, was a powerful inside player who played forward and guard.

It is worth noting that even in this era that emphasizes three point shooting all of the Finals MVPs since 2007 (Tony Parker) have fit the description that Michael provided, including Kawhi Leonard (2019, 2014), Kevin Durant (2018, 2017), LeBron James (2016), Andre Iguodala (2015), LeBron James (2013, 2012), Dirk Nowitzki (2011), Kobe Bryant (2010, 2009), and Paul Pierce (2008).

At Saturday, April 04, 2020 4:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with your original comment, but thank you for clarifying your main point.


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