How 3-point shooting revolutionized the game

Decades before Del Curry, Reggie Miller, Paul Pierce, and Stephen Curry raised the blood pressure of opposing NBA coaches, the American Basketball League developed the 3-point shot in 1961. Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein created the league and the shot was a relic of its brief history. The ABL folded after 1 1/2 seasons.

But the 3-point shot lived to see another day, with the upstart ABA giving it the green light when it began operations in 1967.

With a visually tantalizing red, white and blue ball, the ABA was unique. And the 3-pointer added an element of excitement to its game. The NBA was staid and conservative in comparison.

Ironically, the NBA’s first great big man, George Mikan pushed for the 3-pointer to be a part of the ABA. Mikan served as the ABA’s first commissioner.

Mikan once said:

“We called it the home run because the 3-pointer was exactly that. It brought fans out of their seats.”

Dislike of current era

Speaking to reporters after a November game, longtime San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich summed up the reality of today’s NBA. Actually, you could insist he was commenting on all levels of the game.

“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. That’s how much of an impact the 3-point has and it’s evidenced by how everyone plays.

These days there’s such an emphasis on the 3 because it’s proven to be analytically correct. … I hate it, but I always have. I’ve hated the 3 for more than 20 years.”

Could another echelon of scoring be implemented by NBA commissioner Adam Silver? Listen to Popovich’s rationale for such a move:

“If we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a 4-point play. Because if everybody likes the 3, they’ll really like the 4.”

Decades ago, Red Auerbach, the legendary architect of the Boston Celtics dynasty, echoed the aforementioned disdain for the 3-pointer. Auerbach famously said;

“We don’t need it, I say leave our game alone.”

The 3 was an afterthought

Old-school minds had traditional views of the game. They viewed the game as being quite fine as it was — with no need to fix it or tinker with it. Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens, who piloted the Seattle SuperSonics in 1979-80, told NBA.com in 2017;

“In the beginning, nobody even thought much about the 3. Now they must think about it all the time as teams shun traditional scoring opportunities for shots from deep. In days of yore, for example, a 2-on-1 break or a 3-on-2 would almost always have a layup as the No. 1 option.”

Not anymore.

For years now, impressionable youth have watched NBA and college players take pull-up 3s on the break or fade further back and take long step-back 3s.

Indeed, youth emulate their elders. And so that trend has manifested itself around the world in other pro circuits and in international play in all corners spanning the globe.

How 3-point shooting revolutionized the game

The NCAA didn’t permit the 3-point shot in the men’s national tournament until the 1986-87 campaign. But once players had the OK to let it fly from beyond the arc, the long-range option became a potent weapon for powerhouse teams and gritty underdogs alike.

FIBA approved the 3-point shot in 1984, and the shot made its Olympic debut at the Seoul Summer Games four years later.

Current distances for the 3-point arc from its center are as follows: NBA (23 feet, 9 inches; 7.24 meters), NCAA (20 feet, nine inches; 6.32 meters) and FIBA (22 feet, 1.7 inches; 6.75 meters).

Progression of 3-point shooting

So who are the most prolific 3-point shooters in the NBA since the shot became a part of the offensive arsenal during the disco era?

A few marquee names on the list shouldn’t surprise you. But for those who are only casual observers of the sport, there’s a good chance they know more about air conditioning maintenance than Brian Taylor’s hoop career.

Taylor, a former New York Nets point guard before the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, attempted a league-high 239 3s in the 1979-80 season. He knocked down 90 attempts while playing for the San Diego Clippers.

In that same season, Taylor sank a career-best five 3s in a 112-96 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. In today’s NBA, of course, five 3-point shots in a single quarter is far from a shocking occurrence. And in that November game, only two others drained a 3-pointer — San Diego’s Freeman Williams and Milwaukee’s Brian Winters with one apiece. Taylor finished with 23 points, nine assists, and six steals while playing alongside the Clippers’ Joe Bryant, father of future gunslinger Kobe.

Griffith, Adams raised the bar

Following Taylor, Utah’s Darrell Griffith set new standards with 252 and 257 3-point attempts in 1983-84 and 1984-85. Denver’s Michael Adams then emerged as the busiest long-range specialist, firing up 379, 466 and 564 shots in 1987-88, 1988-89 and 1990-91, respectively in an era when the Nuggets were known for their run-and-gun teams.

Adams stood 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) in his playing days. He adapted to the changing game with a mindset of being an outside attacker instead of mixing it up inside against the taller men who protected the basket. Adams told Hartford Courant in 2017;

“I was always the shortest guy on the court, so it was a push shot to get it over everybody else. My (junior varsity) coach, Stan Piorkowski, tried to change my shot in high school. But then he decided to leave it alone because he wasn’t helping me. He said, ‘Ah, you’ll be OK.’ ”

Indeed, that push shot sailed over countless tall arms and into the basket 949 times from 3-point range during his 653 regular-season games with Sacramento, Denver, Washington, and Charlotte. In his heyday, he made 100-plus 3s in five consecutive seasons, 1987-88 through 1991-92. He now ranks No. 123 on the all-time list, an indication of how quickly the era progressed.

In that same era, all-time leading NBA scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrapped up his legendary career. The King of the Sky Hook, Kareem retired with 38,387 points.

A fun trivia question follows: How many 3-pointers did the superstar center make in his NBA career?

Answer: One.

Abdul-Jabbar attempted 18 in total, including, for him, a whopping three in the 1986-87 campaign.

In the same Hartford Courant article, Adams provided a perspective that summed up the changing viewpoint of what’s the norm.

“When I was shooting all the 3s, nobody else was doing it and they just labeled me a ‘3-point shooter.’ And I shot a lot of bad ones, too. Now, it’s a staple. It’s analytics. It’s what you’re supposed to do. Think about it. It has revolutionized the game. Teams that aren’t doing it aren’t winning as many games.”

Successors to Adams

After Adams’ rise to stardom, New York Knicks gunner John Starks shot a league-most 641 3-pointers in the 1994-95 season. George McCloud of the Dallas Mavericks pulled the trigger on 678 3-point attempts the next season. That figure that remained No. 1 in the NBA record book until Stephen Curry’s staggering stats from the 2015-16 season, when the Splash Brothers dynamo unleashed 886 3-pointers for the Golden State Warriors.

One more neat trivia tidbit: Curry’s record 886 3-point attempts were 243 more than San Diego Rockets’ total attempts in their 1979-80 season.

A numbers’ game

While the rise of 3-point specialists has infiltrated the pro ranks since Taylor’s time in San Diego, there hasn’t been a huge increase in overall shooting accuracy.

In the 1979-80 NBA season, players made 28 percent of their 3-point attempts. Since 1986-87, when it reached 30 percent (.301) for the first time, 3-point accuracy hasn’t dipped below that threshold for any season.

What’s the lowest percentage since then? It was .347 in the 2003-04 campaign; a high of .367 was achieved in 2008-09.

Charting the shot-taking trends over the years, the NBA teams averaged 2.8 3-point shots per game in 1979-80 and 0.8 3-pointers made. In 1985-86, it was nearly the same — 3.3 and 0.9. The Nuggets, guided by run-and-gun guru Paul Westhead, had a league-high 12.9 3-point attempts in the 1990-91 season.

In 1993-94, during an era of hard-fouling, clutch-and-grabbing squads such as the New York Knicks, NBA clubs averaged 9.9 3-point attempts per game and 3.3 makes.

Current era

Fast forward to 2011-12, when the game had become more free-flowing and hard fouls were less common, and NBA squads averaged 18.4 3-point shots and 6.4 makes per game.

This season, through Jan. 15, with 637 games in the books, NBA organizations averaged 31.2 3-point shots and 11.0 3-point baskets. Klay Thompson also broke the indivual record for most 3-pointers made in a single game.

With four decades of statistics in the record books, the list of top 3-point shooters has changed greatly in that time.

Through Jan. 15, 2019, the top-10 career leaders for makes in regular-season games are:

Ray Allen (2,973)
Reggie Miller (2,560)
Stephen Curry (2,296)
Kyle Korver (2,289)
Jason Terry (2,282)
Jamal Crawford (2,180)
Vince Carter (2,166)
Paul Pierce (2,143)
Jason Kidd (1,988)
Joe Johnson (1,978)

Dirk Nowitzki, considered by many to be the greatest European basketball player of this or any era, is just outside the top 10. The longtime Dallas Mavericks player is 12th with 1,926 3-pointers.

Above all, throughout his NBA career, the German giant provided a template for what a versatile big man is capable of — and expected — to do: stretch the defense and make shots with regularity from anywhere.

How the 3-point shot became a giant-killer

Patrick Ewing posting up

Do you recall legendary pivots Mikan, Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaq? Remember the big men who stood at least 7 feet tall, posted up with polished back-to-the-basket moves and often scored a deuce with a drop-step power move?

Honestly, when these behemoths met, it was a showcased activity. It was a game in the game. People showed up at the arena to watch them square off. They were a marquee attraction.

On the other hand, today’s ideal big man stands only 6-9. He’s lithe, athletic and plays as far away from the basket as possible. In the truest terms, that’s not a big man, but a 2/3, a traditional shooting guard or small forward.

Moreover, not only the traditional big man disappeared, but also the prototypical pure point guard, aka a John Stockton-type  player.

As a result, today there are only three basic positions; the 2, 3 and 4 and a variety of combinations of them.

Shot selection

Mathematically, it pays to shoot treys at every chance. You only have to make 34 percent of your 3-point attempts to be better than 50 percent on 2s. The notion of “taking bad shots” doesn’t appear to be a problem anymore. That’s absurd.

Why?

Because taking a bad 3-point shot often means that a player’s teammates are not in a good rebounding position, which also means there’s no defensive balance. Clearly, boxing-out fundamentals have also vanished from the modern game (as the ball bounced back further away).

To illustrate the woes of the modern game, consider this: Houston star James Harden, the reigning MVP, had a woeful shooting game on Jan. 15, 2019. Harden was 1 of 17 from 3-point range in the Rockets’ 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic. He kept shooting without thinking about only taking his shots from inside the 3-point line.

Harden had a game-high 38 points but probably would’ve scored more if he had opted to attack the basket. He made 15 of 16 free throws and was 11 of 32 overall from the field.

The terror of the pick-and-roll

Contemporary basketball is dominated by the 3-point shot in conjunction with the pick-and-roll. It’s omnipresent. From the NBA to youth basketball, you see it everywhere.

Which brings us back to the big man’s role. His job is to set screens and keep quiet. Posting up low is frowned upon. If he does it too often, he will be banned from basketball for life.

Conclusion

The 3-pointer is here to stay. It’s an established weapon for diminutive point guards, long-limbed bigs and everyone else, too. When a player is wide open, he’s expected to be able to make a 3-point shot. Therefore, improving one’s 3-point shooting skills is an essential activity.

Because of the 3-point shot, this era is defined more and more by positionless basketball. In other words, the ability to sore and defend anywhere on the court is vital for staying power for individuals and teams.

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