The importance of the three pointer in the NBA is at an all-time high. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich emphasized how the game has evolved, “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the threes. If you made threes 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 an impact the three-point shot has and it’s evidenced by how everybody plays.” This new style of play began in the 2012-2013 season, when the average three point attempts per game began to spike, and it has been on a steady climb ever since.
What caused this sudden shift to the perimeter? One explanation comes from analytics. Points per shot (PPS), which calculates points scored per field goal attempt (Total Points)/(Total Field Goal Attempts), is one of the best measures of a player’s efficiency. PPS can also be used to determine the places on the court where shooters are most efficient from, providing a reference for where teams score most efficiently. Tracking PPS by location over from 2013-14 to 2017-18 showed that only shots in the paint are worth more than three pointers. The corner three (22ft instead of 23.75 ft) is only behind the restricted arc in PPS. As a result, teams are opting to shoot more threes instead of less efficient shots like mid-range jumpers.
This sudden change in offensive focus has impacted the makeup of the typical starting five in the NBA. Teams no longer have a single three point specialist, and it is common for an entire lineup to be a threat from deep. The Golden State Warriors’ “Death Lineup” of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala is the most famous example of a small ball lineup in the modern NBA. Curry and Thompson both shoot over 40 percent from three, and are considered two of the greatest shooters ever. Durant is another elite three point shooter (38 percent), and Green and Iguodala are both around 33 percent, which forces defenses to at least respect them from deep. This type of lineup causes an unprecedented amount of spacing, since opposing defenses are not able to help because every player is able to shoot the three. For comparison, here is the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls starting five and their career three point percentages: Harper (28 percent), Jordan (32.7 percent), Pippen (32.6 percent), Rodman (23.1 percent), and Longley (0 percent). Steve Kerr, the current coach of the Warriors, was the only player to shoot over 40 percent from three on this Bulls team.
In the new perimeter-centric NBA there are fewer big men who play with their backs to the basket. There is now a new brand of frontcourt players who can shoot from range, and some of the most prominent stretch fours and fives in the league today are Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingus, and Brook Lopez. Each of these seven-footers averages at least five three point attempts a game, a number of attempts that the three point specialists of the early 2000s would average.
Stephen Curry is perhaps the one player who is most responsible for the three point revolution. In the 2012-2013 season Curry made 272 three pointers, breaking Ray Allen’s previous record of 269. Three years later Curry shattered his own record, making 402 threes. Curry owns five of the top ten seasons with the most threes made in NBA history, including three of the top four. While Curry is groundbreaking in the number of threes he makes, he also belongs to an elite group of deep three point shooters. Last season the trio of Curry, Damian Lillard, and Trae Young combined to make 71 of 186 threes from 30 to 40 feet, a 38% clip well above the league average (25.9%) at this range.
Although it is more difficult than ever to make the league without shooting the three, there are still players who are effective without being three point marksmen. Elite rim protectors like Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, and Derrick Favors are all able to play without stretching the floor, perhaps because of their ability to prevent easy baskets in a spaced modern NBA.
Ben Simmons is one of the few NBA guards who does not shoot threes. The six foot ten point guard has never made a three in his career, nearly all of his points come in the paint on drives or in transition. Other guards like Rajon Rondo have tried to add the three pointer to their games, since the majority of backcourt players coming into the league now are able to shoot.
Note: All statistics are from Basketball Reference, unless linked to another source.