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The Long-Range Revolution: How the 3-Pointer Transformed the NBA

As the NBA tips off tonight, it's a great time to examine how the 3-pointer has completely changes the way the sport of basketball, especially the NBA game is played.


The 3-point shot was first introduced to the NBA in the 1979-80 season, but few could have predicted the immense impact it would have on revolutionizing offensive strategy and altering the way the game is played at the highest level. Those early days saw an average of just 2-3 three-point attempts per game, treated largely as a novelty rather than an integral part of a team's offense. Fast forward over 40 years, and the 3-pointer now dominates as a primary weapon for elite teams and players. The proliferation of long-range shooting has steadily increased over the past decade, shaping modern basketball into aSpacing-driven, high-scoring affair.


In the 2021-22 season, the average NBA team took over 34 three-point attempts per game, a massive uptick from under 10 attempts in 2000. No tactic has impacted recent stylistic shifts more than the rising dependence on three-point shooting. The math is simple - a three-pointer provides 50% more points than a two-pointer, and when combined with the floor-spacing it provides for drives and interplay, has proven to be a highly efficient way to rack up points. This was not always common wisdom, as coaches and teams traditionally favored mid-range shots as a safer and more consistent option.


Three pointers by team in the 2022-2023 NBA Season


The first team to employ an early version of "pace and space" built around the three-ball were Don Nelson's Milwaukee Bucks squads of the late 80s. Nelson realized the geometric advantage of surrounding a dominant interior force like Bob Lanier with multiple perimeter marksmen, pulling big men out of the paint. Mike Dunleavy, Craig Hodges, Ricky Pierce, and Terry Cummings each attempted over 100 threes for the first time under Nelson's visionary scheme.


Other innovative coaches like Rick Pitino and Jim O'Brien pushed the boundaries over the next decade, unafraid to unleash high volumes of threes despite its perception as a foolhardy gamble. The NBA also briefly experimented with a shortened three-point line from 1994 to 1997, leading to a spike in three-point attempts and makes. When the line was moved back to its original distance, teams did not completely retreat from their newfound long-range ways. The age of analytics soon fully embraced the 3 as the most efficient shot after dunks and layups.


No team epitomizes the analytical 3-point evolution more than Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s. D'Antoni focused everything in his uptempo system around generating a deluge of three-point looks, hiring stat guru Dan Rosenbaum to maximize points per possession. Steve Nash quarterbacked an offensive juggernaut with shooters like Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, and Shawn Marion fanned out around the perimeter. Their 2006-07 squad is still the ninth-best offensive team by relative efficiency over the past 25 years.


D'Antoni continued his 3-happy philosophy as coach of the Houston Rockets, enabling James Harden's individual scoring explosions. The Rockets lifted a record-shattering 45.3 threes per game in the 2016-17 season, eclipsing the hallowed 30-point barrier. D'Antoni's fast-paced, open style of play relying on a heavy dosage of threes has infiltrated much of the league's strategic DNA. Teams are smarter, realizing greater emphasis on shooting more threes improves scoring efficiency, creates space, and provides a catch-up mechanism if trailing late in games.


The NBA has followed a similar progression towards increased 3-point reliance as the college game. NCAA divisions have witnessed a rapid rise in three point attempts across the board, with power programs like Villanova winning championships behind the strength of their long-distance shooting prowess. The correlations are clear - teams that shoot and make a higher percentage of threes relative to their competition hold a distinct advantage in terms of winning games.


Superstar players have also evolved their skills and work daily to extend their shooting range farther behind the arc. Stephen Curry stands at the vanguard of this transformation, shattering the limits of volume and proficiency from three. Curry's shooting ability off the dribble has made him essentially indefensible. The greatest shooters can casually sink deep threes off movement and screens that act as deflating gut punches for opponents. Players without a consistent three-point shot are now seen as offensive liabilities for contending teams.


Defensive schemes have been forced to adapt to counteract the rising propensity of offenses to launch threes early and often. Modern NBA defenses aim to limit efficient shots at the rim first, while trying to prevent open perimeter looks. Even the best defenses face challenges guarding all five players spread across the three-point arc. Teams like the Bucks under Jason Kidd began experimenting with ultra-aggressive trapping defenses designed to force turnovers through denial out on the floor.


As three-point oriented offenses came to dominate recent seasons, there was some thought the pendulum may swing back towards balance. But past results suggest the long ball is here to stay as an integral fabric of the league's identity. The NBA smashed its team three-point attempt record for a remarkable ninth straight season in 2021-22. All evidence indicates that coaches will continue finding ways to maximize the advantages of three-pointers. Teams now shot over a third of their attempts from three, once unthinkable numbers.


Basketball has undergone a sea change at all levels as part of the performance revolution driven by analytics. Kids grow up shooting threes at an early age more than ever before. Maintaining adequate spacing to open driving lanes while surrounding star players with shooting continues to be a winning recipe. The three-point line formerly served as a seldom tested gimmick - now it stands as the defining modern feature of the sport. Its rapid emergence as the premier weapon of choice has intricately shaped offensive and defensive philosophies. The long-range revolution reflects basketball's evolution into a positionless, specialized, hyper-efficient scoring showcase.



3 points taken as percentage of total shots in the NBA since 1980


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