Too Many 3-Pointers?

At the end of today’s Celtics-Nuggets game, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan tweeted “Celtics and Nuggets a combined 15-for-67 on threes today. Yeah, that three-point shot is a great idea. It really enhances the game. By the way, Nuggets score 8 points in the fourth quarter. I don’t have a punch line.”  Ryan’s disgust triggered the typical back-and-forth about the relative merits of the three-pointer to which Ryan noted: “How about just junking the whole needless thing? The three was the gimmick of a promoter, Abe Saperstein. The ABA borrowed it because it needed its own gimmick.”

This brings up the continuously asked question: do we finally have so many threes that it detracts from the enjoyment of the game?  It is clear that the three-point shot frequency has been creeping up for decades (I recall writing about this phenomenon way back in 2004).  Basketball-Reference has provided the stats for the last decade of three-point makes and attempts per game, along with the percentage of field goal taken that were three-pointers:

2010-11: 6.5-18.0, .358 3FG%, .222% 3FGA%

2011-12: 6.4-18.4, .349 3FG%, .226 3FGA%

2012-13: 7.2-20.0, .359 3FG%, .244 3FGA%

2013-14: 7.7-21.5, .360 3FG%, .259 3FGA%

2014-15: 7.8-22.4, .350 3FG%, .268 3FGA%

2015-16: 8.5-24.1, .354 3FG%, .285 3FGA%

2016-17: 9.7-27.0, .358 3FG%. .316 3FGA%

2017-18: 10.5-29.0, .362 3FG%, .337 3FGA%

2018-19: 11.4-32.0, .355 3FG%, .359 3FGA%

2019-20: 12.2-34.1, .358 3FG%, .384 3FGA%

2020-21: 12.7-34.7, .367 3FG%, .393 3FGA%

Wow.  Threes have nearly doubled since 2010.  At the same time, the shooting has gotten much better (.367% would tie the best percentage with 2008-09 and 1995-96).   The shooting has actually extended to the free throw line, where the NBA has shot year best .778% so far. On the other hand, the ratio of free throws to field goals of .190 is the lowest since the shot clock.  Conversely, nearly 40% of shots taken this year have been threes, by far the highest percentage ever.  Basically, the NBA has turned into a fast paced three-point contest and the players have gotten really good at it.

Having seen that three-point shooting has grown, is this really a problem?  Let’s take a look at the arguments against the rising use of the shot:

-General dislike of the shot:  This seems to be Bob Ryan’s argument.  While he didn’t appreciate the crappy shooting, his real problem was that he thinks that the three does not represent pure basketball because it was invented to jazz up the game.  This thought has been echoed by other vet NBA writers like Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune in December 2019.  After watching the T-Wolves and Kings go 19-87 from three in a game, Reusse wrote that “three-point madness has ruined the NBA for me. Wolves-Kings was the final, rim-bending night of nauseam. Serious column desperation might win out occasionally, but I can’t stand what has become of Elgin’s game.”

I can appreciate that teams missing shots is not aesthetically pleasing to the viewer but that’s true about any shots (threes included).  Just randomly search old columns and you will find similar complaints about the state of the game.  Take this February 1997 column by Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel where he decries the state of the defensive-minded NBA of the late 1990s: “[n]o shots are pretty or easy in the NBA, circa ’96-97. Scoring has been so difficult, you wonder if the league wouldn’t bring in the 3-point stripe to college range.”

If you go back to the beginning of the three-point shot in the NBA in 1979, puritanical objections were also made.  Golden State Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli told Sports Illustrated that “[c]hanging the two-point basket is immoral.  The ABA had it and folded. What have we done except hurt ourselves? We have separated ourselves from the main body of basketball by tampering with a game that has lasted for 90 years. We have paid too high a price. I could even accept raising the basket, which has always been 10 feet up, because the people are bigger. But two points for a basket is a good concept. Otherwise it wouldn’t have lasted this long. Everyone else from kids on the street on up will give two points for a field goal, but the NBA will give three for outside shots. We are going to destroy the team concept.”

Most of what Mieuli spews there is, umm, questionable.  First, the fact that the rule didn’t exist before is not a particularly strong argument for not changing anything.  The question was whether the rule improved the game in some way.  Mieuli doesn’t really deal with that consideration and his morality argument (which is similar to the “gimmick” argument made by the old-time writers) holds little weight to me. 

In fact, for the most part, the three-point shot made the NBA a much more watchable game.  The spacing in the 1970s is bunched near the basket and 15-feet.  When a team was down late, it was difficult to come back at all.  The three-point shot improved both of those aspects of the game. 

-Lack of diversity of styles:  Most of Mielui’s hysterical arguments against the three-pointer seemed silly.  Still, he made one point that had some merit.  What if teams stopped shooting twos because the allure of the three-pointer?  That’s not exactly what has happened but 40 years later there is some real concern.  As noted above, three-point attempts continue to rise exponentially each season.  In addition, the modus operandi of all teams is to park one or two specialists in the corner, where the three-pointer is closer (22 feet) than the 23’9 mark from the top of the key (Stephen Shea wrote a nice article at the growth of this tactic). 

In April 2019, Kirk Goldsberry wrote that the three-point shot was seemingly overshadowing other facets of the game.  Goldsberry referenced an interview with Greg Popovich where Pop said “[t]here’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it.  Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don’t even care.”  In other words, Pop is making the same point Mieuli made but in more refined terms. 

A few months earlier, in November 2018, Reid Forgrave of CBS Sports did a nice review of the issue and asked coaches about how far the three-point revolution would go.  Here’s what they told Forgave:

-Kenny Atkinson (correctly) saw no end in sight to the increase in threes and wondered when teams would hit 60 attempts per game.

-Nick Nurse said that teams had to shoot threes to compete and that the shot made protecting the rim hard and that the coaches had to plan for the long rebounds caused by the three-point misses.

-Brad Stevens guessed that the line had to be moved back to 28 or 30 feet because of how easily the modern players can shoot the three off of the dribble.

-Quinn Snyder smartly noted that it was obvious that teams would take more shots that were worth more points and players would train and adjust to a further line (his exact quote was: “[i]f they put [a four-point line] in, we’ll start figuring out how to use it”).

Last month, Kevin Arnovitz wrote that the NBA finally thinks it has a problem: “[m]easures that have been implemented over the past 20 years to help jump-start scoring are approaching an age of overcorrection.”  In other words, the pendulum has swung too far from towards the offense.   It is sort of shocking to see centers like Andre Drummond be discarded because they have less utility than solid small forwards.  I’m agnostic about how big a problem the three-point heavy game is but it does seem that some tweaking of the three-point rules is in order.

No matter the rules, it’s nearly impossible to stop guys likeSteph Curry from hitting shots off the dribble from 30 feet.  Nor do I mind, particularly, the three-point barrages but I do agree that there needs to be more than one roadmap for success in the NBA.  The NBA players and teams have perfected the rules dealt to them and you can’t criticize them for doing so.  If the NBA wants change (and it seems like reversing the three-point trend slightly would make some sense), they will have to make some rule alterations.

Numerous ideas have been floated including moving the line way back (as Stevens’ noted it would have to be waaaay back).  My personal preference would be to eliminate the 22-foot corner threes and limit the shot to 23’9.  This move is not a perfect change.  It could encourage the teams to keep several players outside even farther from the paint.  Still, it would be a good start to encourage other innovations.