By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Aug 20 2009 12:26PM
The Orlando Magic made history last season.
In the 30 years since the NBA adopted the 3-point shot, no team had taken a greater percentage of their shots from beyond the arc (or scored a greater percentage of their points from 3-point range) than the 2008-09 Magic did.
|Percentage of field-goal attempts from 3-point range, single season|
|Percentage of points scored from 3-point range, single season|
|%FT = Percentage of points scored from the free throw line|
%2FG = Percentage of points scored from 2-point range
%3FG = Percentage of points scored from 3-point range
The league as a whole is shooting more threes and shooting them better than ever. Last season, 22.4 percent of all field-goal attempts (36.2 per game) were 3-pointers. That percentage is at an all-time high and has increased each of the last nine seasons.
NBA teams shot 36.68 percent from downtown, a mark which ranks second all-time. The only mark better -- 36.69 percent in 1995-96 -- was when the 3-point line was set at 22 feet even (its 23 feet, 9 inches now). Every year, the three becomes more of a weapon, and teams are learning that it's much more efficient than the mid-range shot.
|3-point shooting, last 16 seasons|
|Bold = Record high|
Since the line was moved in (and then moved back after a three-season experiment), the 3-point shot has clearly become more of a weapon. But interestingly, the numbers say that for team success, defending the three is more important than shooting it. Looking at team stats over the last five seasons, there has been a stronger correlation between opponents' 3-point percentage and defensive efficiency than there has been between a team's own 3-point percentage and offensive efficiency.
The explanation is fairly simple: Poor 3-point defense is a byproduct of poor defense overall, and it starts with the guy guarding the ball. Once the defender on the ball is beaten, the whole defense is compromised. And if the help doesn't come quickly and from the right place, it's compromised even more and shooters will be open.
It's also no coincidence that over the past five seasons, improved 3-point shooting has gone hand-in-hand with a league-wide increase in offensive efficiency. Teams understand that defense wins championships, but better shooting means that poor defenses are being punished more than they were before.
Five of the six teams last season that were among the worst at defending 3-pointers were, not surprisingly, ranked in the bottom eight in defensive efficiency, too. Only the Heat defended 3-pointers poorly (28th, allowed opponents to shoot 38.9 percent from downtown), but were still a decent defensive team overall (14th, allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions). That was due largely to an ability to force turnovers.
Further, of the five teams that defended 3-pointers the best, four were in the top five in defensive efficiency. Only the Bulls defended 3-pointers well (4th, 34.6 percent allowed), but were not a top defensive team overall (17th, 110.0 points per 100 possessions), due largely to an inability to rebound and finish possessions.
It's more common to find anomalies on the offensive end. That is where teams that shoot 3-pointers well -- but aren't strong overall -- like the Spurs (third in 3-point percentage, 12th in offensive efficiency), Bulls (seventh, 18th) or Pacers (eighth, 17th) reside.
As many 3-pointers as the Magic shot last season, they weren't totally dependent on it. They got to the line quite a bit, ranking fourth in the league with 30.4 free throw attempts per 100 possessions. And they were the best defensive team in the regular season, allowing just 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Ironically, they ranked second in defending 3-pointers, with opponents shooting just 34.2 percent.
But in the Playoffs, things changed. In the conference finals against the Cavs and the Finals against the Lakers, the Orlando defense wasn't as strong (or the opponents' offenses were stronger), allowing more than 111 points per 100 possessions in both series. That's when 3s became so key.
In the conference finals, they were going against the NBA's best at defending 3-pointers. Cleveland allowed their opponents to shoot 33.3 percent on 3s in the regular season and allowed Detroit and Atlanta to shoot a combined 31.0 percent in the first two rounds.
It seemed reasonable to expect the Magic would have their 3-point shooting nullified by the Cavs. But the Magic shot a scorching 40.8 percent from 3-point range in the series, better than their percentage in the regular season (38.1), in the first round against Philly (34.6) or in the conference semis against Boston (34.6).
It was Orlando's deep shooting in Games 1 and 4, the two most important games of the series, that did the Cavs in. The Magic won Game 1 by one and hit nine of their 20 attempts, including Rashard Lewis' game-winner. They won Game 4 by two, making 17-of-38 from outside.
In the minds of some, the series may have been decided by Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus. He shot just 33.8 percent from 3-point range during the season (and 27.6 percent in the semis), but hit six of his 12 threes in Game 4. Pietrus, who made 35.9 percent of his 3s during the season, shot uncharacteristically well (17-for-36, 47.2 percent) in the series.
The Magic came back down to Earth in the Finals, shooting just 33 percent from 3-point range. In Game 3, their lone Finals win, Orlando attempted just 14 threes. It was easily the fewest the Magic had attempted in 106 games last season. L.A. did not double-team Dwight Howard as aggressively (or as often) as Cleveland did, and as such, wasn't forced to leave perimeter shooters.
Cleveland took notes on the Lakers' strategy. Cleveland traded for Shaquille O'Neal to single-cover Howard (something Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao or Ben Wallace were unable to do in May) and to let the perimeter plays stay with Orlando's shooters.
Of course, the Magic made a few personnel changes as well, trading Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie to New Jersey for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson. The Magic also signed Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes. All of those players combined are quite similar to the group Orlando sent out.
With Howard still drawing attention in the paint and Carter's playmaking ability matching that of Turkoglu, Orlando's offense shouldn't change much. That means we should see more records broken this season.
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