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The Extra Pass: This season’s record number of threes is just the start

Mar 17, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

Stephen Curry AP

This season in the NBA, slightly more than one in four shots taken is a three.

Even though you know that’s the way the league is going, the number is kind of stunning. And yes, it is a record.

It’s also just the start.

The NBA stole the three point line from the ABA and introduced it in 1979-80 — the year Magic Johnson entered the league — as a way to both add some excitement to the game and space the floor out a little. It took time for guys to learn to hit it — with reason, there was no coach in 1978 who would have told you taking a 24 footer for the same number of points you can get for a four footer was a good shot. Take it and you got a seat on the bench next to Ernie DiGregorio. Guys hadn’t practiced the shot and in the first season it was introduced players shot 28 percent from three.

That changed and this season guys are knocking down 37 percent and because guys can hit it — because it can win games — coaches are encouraging them to take the shot. A lot. Analytics have made hot what is kind of obvious when you think about it — take your shots close to the basket because you are more likely to make them, and if you can’t get close get a three so you can get the extra point. The trend of increasing three point attempts is older than the analytic movement in the NBA it’s been going on for decades. Check out this chart of average threes taken per game, per team.


The number of threes has been spiking in recent years and that number is going to continue to climb.

This season about 41 percent of shots happen within 8 feet of the basket (teams are shooting 55 percent), and 25 percent from three. That leaves 34 percent in the midrange — those are the shots the analytics people are pushing to reduce. Look at what Rockets GM and analytics poster boy Daryl Morey is doing with the Rockets’ D-League franchise, that’s an extreme but you get the idea.

During Sunday’s Miami Heat win over Houston, former coach turned analyst Jeff Van Gundy went on a little “the midrange shot matters” rant. He bemoaned the analytics movement pushing shooters away from those shots.

You know what’s a good shot? One you make consistently. Nobody, analytics minded or not, would tell Dirk Nowitzki to stop shooting from the midrange — he makes them at a 49.8 percent clip. Courtney Lee hits 51 percent. Stephen Curry 48.2 percent, Serge Ibaka hits 48.5 percent. There are others, guys who if they get to certain spots will knock it down (Tim Duncan’s 15-foot bank, for example).

But that is not the norm. John Wall has taken 434 midrange shots and hit 36.2 percent. Bradley Beal 426 shots and hit 36.6 percent. And on it goes, most guys do not high a high enough percentage to make midrange jumpers a good choice — the league average is below 40 percent. You especially don’t want to take that shot if it is contested.

If you hit 37 percent of your threes and you get an extra point for those, it’s like hitting 55.5 percent of your midrange shots (that’s the idea behind eFG%, to count that extra point).

Which is why the trend of more threes will continue (particularly corner threes, a little shorter with a much higher make percentage).

It’s not complex algorithms changing the game, it’s just following logic — to win games you need to score the most points, so take the best shots. Get to the rim if you can. But if not, the three is a better choice than the midrange jumper.

  1. saint1997 - Mar 17, 2014 at 8:14 AM

    The question is, does the NBA really want the words most efficient offence? Okay I’m gonna go out on a limb and make a little defence for the fan here. Is it just me, or is it not insanely fun watching players go isolation and hit a mid range fall away, or even the old pull up in transition? Not all the time sure but in my opinion as a fan I’d HATE to watch a game with just layups and threes, that kind of takes a bit away from it for me. So for now, this humble fan will take a slightly less efficient offence in favour of watching a more diversified and unpredictable offence. Keen to hear people’s thoughts on whether they tune in to watch basketball games for the ‘efficiency’

    • apkyletexas - Mar 17, 2014 at 10:19 AM

      Mid-range jumpers are usually contested – they are occurring in the area that defenders typically roam. One big reason to move to the 3-point area is to get some space to set your feet and release. I watched a lot of basketball in the 70’s – good shooters were gunning from downtown back before the three point line was introduced also.

      • saint1997 - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:32 AM

        But nowadays that’s wrong. Defences have geared for this new ‘offence’ and now either have bigs at the rim or athletes on the line. The Bulls defensive plan is to run teams off the 3PT line but have long bigs that force them to shoot midrange

    • spursareold - Mar 17, 2014 at 12:46 PM

      I don’t think it’s a matter of what the NBA wants, per se. If two teams have equal defenses, and one has an offensive rating of 110 and the other 100, the first team is going to beat the second most of the time, and would be heavy favorites in a seven game series.

      In the league, wins = $$$. If you go to the playoffs, you make more money. If you go DEEP into the playoffs, you make even more.

      • saint1997 - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:30 AM

        Yeh i know that is what wins games, I’m just saying I don’t think it is as necessarily as fun from the fan’s perspective

    • 1forest1 - Mar 17, 2014 at 3:06 PM

      I like to see my team taking efficient shots, not dumb or cool looking shots. As long as they come out with the win, I don’t care how they look

      • saint1997 - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:29 AM

        Yeh see I actually like to watch the game, so that’s why I care about how they look. The NBA is not a sum total of statistics and numbers, it’s about something greater than what is captured in a box score

  2. davidly - Mar 17, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    You know what’s a good shot? One you make consistently.
    Which also happens to be a shot that is open.

    The same reason players took a while to develop a better three is the same reason the midrange game is not the norm: Coming into the league, they’re encouraged to to go rim or three, so players are not developing it. They better start, because once you get to the playoffs–the place where you separate flash from substance–that’ll often be the only shot that’s open.

    • spursareold - Mar 17, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      If you consider the guy with the ball the ONLY possible shooter, then yes, it may be the only shot open. I can guarantee you though, if someone runs you off the line, and you penetrate, someone else will have to rotate to cover your drive, and a shooter WILL be uncovered in the ensuing melee. Really good offenses exploit this. Watch a healthy Miami or Spurs team to see it in action.

      • davidly - Mar 17, 2014 at 12:52 PM

        Well this brings up a point that occurred to me after I commented:
        The stats above are league-wide, which does not apply to everyone — as Kurt properly mentions in highlighting the mid-range masters.

        Reading too much into the data applies when one makes assumptions about what would be effective for themselves based on someone else’s tendencies. A healthy Heat and Spurs offense — or any effective ball-movement — includes a mid range game that has to be respected.

        It’s no mystery that you can beat elite defenses more easily by playing their gaps — which is often inside the line and outside the paint. Obviously that does not mean that you give up on inside-outside game or ball movement, which will, of course, include getting to the rim and hitting open threes. But when the competition is stiff, only those two will leave you short, if you will.

  3. RavenzGunnerz - Mar 17, 2014 at 12:56 PM

    I find the NBA today more fast paced, therefore more entertaining imo. The pace is become of the 3pt shot. Teams no longer pack the paint, they have to guard a bigger portion of the court. That is fun.

    Slam dunk or splash… yes sir…

  4. mogogo1 - Mar 17, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Part of it is that coming up through AAU ball there’s absolutely no reason to do anything but shoot 3s or go all the way to the rim. Those are the highlight shots. And while there are far better athletes playing in the NBA nowadays, the actual level of basketball skill isn’t very high. Lots of big guys with no clue how to score from the block, guys who can’t even hit free throws, let alone a mid-range jumper with a defender on them, etc.

  5. dinofrank60 - Mar 17, 2014 at 10:05 PM

    The midrange game is what we played. Everybody would like to dunk and layup, but those shots are contested. You don’t want to get caught gunning up 28 ft shots, because if you miss, you might as well keep running.

    And maybe that’s the one of the things that make me increasingly apathetic about the league: It is moving away from from the game we played and play now at night or weekends or such, that it has lost something in increasing the entertainment value. More people like the NBA now, but it isn’t as interesting.

    Fine, if the NBA wants to emphasize dunks and bombs, micromanaging possessions, shaky referees and crazy scheduling and tanking, fine.

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