The 3-pointer has never been more prevalent than it is in today’s NBA. This season, the Houston Rockets are on pace to attempt 3,263 3-pointers, shattering the previous record.
But in 1986, when the NBA held the first 3-point contest, things were wildly different -- per Basketball-Reference.com, the 1985-86 Dallas Mavericks led the NBA by attempting 446 3-pointers. Two years later, in 1988, Mavericks forward Detlef Schrempf was chosen to participate in the Three-Point Contest despite having made just three 3-pointers all season heading into the All-Star break.
Back in the day the 3-point shot was something closer to a novelty, and the Three-Point Contest celebrated it as such. But over the years something changed, and today the 3-pointer has become a potent weapon utilized by almost every player in the NBA. And today, as this year’s JBL Three-Point Contest field proves, the competition is as fierce as ever.
While fans enjoy the Three-Point Contest each year, for the most part we treat it like a diversion, a frothy, fun contest where we give the winner some cash and a trophy, and then we get right back to regular season NBA action.
But I decided to dive deeper. So, along with some data-sorting help from my NBA.com colleague John Schumann, I spent the last two weeks watching every Three-Point Contest I could find online and tracking every shot attempt that has been taken. I was able to get full footage and track every attempt of most of the contests. I was only able to find partial footage of some years, and in those cases I included whatever shots I could watch in the data that I collected.
(The only contest I couldn’t find any full rounds from was the 1998 shootout. Several other years -- from 1990-94 -- were mostly incomplete broadcasts) We also made the decision not to log any data from tiebreaker sessions, which are usually just 24 seconds long and are a different animal altogether.
So, over 6,000 3-point shots and a lot of Visine later, I was able to come to a few conclusions.
If you want to check out the data, you can click over here and stare at it for hours upon hours (like I’ve been doing for the last two weeks).
If you’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. Lots and lots of answers.
First of all, what were some of the limitations of this study?
Aside from the footage that was missing from the internet, some of the some of the broadcasts do not always lend themselves to quality data collection. For instance, in the Italian broadcast of the 2003 competition that I found, a graphic pops up several times completely obscuring the basket, which makes it hard to tell if a shot was a make or a miss. The inaugural Three-Point Contest in 1986 is similarly affected, but more on that later.
So just how good are the Three-Point Contest shooters?
All in all, I tracked 6,261 3-point attempts, spread out over the last 30 Three-Point Contests. Of those 6,261 attempts, 3,304 went in. So that means overall, participants in Three-Point Contests have made 52.8 percent of their shots. For some sort of comparison, last season in the NBA, the league as a whole made 35.9 percent of their 3-pointers. We should probably expect the total to be higher in a Three-Point Contest -- after all, these are purportedly the best shooters in the NBA -- but we should probably also consider that there are extenuating factors at work: the nerves involved with being alone of the basketball court and having 18,000 people staring at you; having to pluck the basketballs out of a rack; a clock forcing you to speed up your natural shooting rhythm, etc.
From which of the five racks do shooters historically shoot the best?
In the modern NBA, the corner 3-pointer is often referred to as the “easiest” three, as the 3-point line in the corners of the court is almost two feet shorter than it is around the arc on the wings and top of the key. But as it turns out, in the Three-Point Contests the corner threes are where people shoot the worst. Players have connected from the left corner at 50.2 percent (625 of 1244) and from the right corner at 51.6 (638 of 1237). Shooters shot a better percentage from both the left wing (53.7) and the right wing (52.1), but their best performances have historically come from the top of the key, where they’ve made 56.2 (708 of 1260) percent of their shots.
Which is the best ball of the five on each rack?
Sifting through the numbers, it seems as though contestants get more warmed up as they go through each rack. Looking at all rounds, players have made the first ball at a 44.9 percent rate. On the second ball that jumps up to 52.9 percent, and then 55 percent on the third ball. This peaks with the fourth ball at 56.5 percent, and then settles back slightly to 54.7 percent on the final ball.
Historically, what is the worst ball of the entire contest?
Let’s get really specific: The worst percentage of all 25 balls available is on the first ball from the right wing in the third round, where the players we tracked made just 5 of 16 attempts. (A reminder, the Three-Point Contest had three rounds from 1986-98.) Discounting the third round, where we have a small sample size, the worst ball has been the first shot from the right corner in Round 1. Keeping in mind this would be the first shot of the contest for players who choose to start from the right side, players from the right corner have made just 39 percent (63-160) on the first ball from that rack.
Which year had the best overall shooting?
Of all the contests that I was able to track in full, there were three contests that rose above the rest: In 2015, 2012 and 1996, players averaged 59 percent
Which year had the worst overall shooting?
Analyzing all of the years that we were able to accumulate complete data, the worst overall shooting performance that I watched came in 2005. Quentin Richardson got hot at the end of the championship round, making 9 of his last 10 shots to defeat Kyle Korver and Voshon Lenard in the finals and win that contest. But overall in that contest, contestants shot just 44 percent.
Have any non-NBA players ever participated in the Three-Point Contest?
In 1989, the NBA invited Lithuanian guard Rimas Kurtinaitis to participate in the contest. While the global popularity of the NBA was yet to really take hold, with the Dream Team coming a few years later, it was an interesting diplomatic maneuver to invite Kurtinaitis. It seems Kurtinaitis was mostly accepted by the NBA players -- Charles Barkley, for one, had big plans for their time together -- but Kurtinaitis didn’t make it out of the first round.
Have any non-active NBA players participated in the Three-Point Contest?
It’s happened twice, as best as I can tell. Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges won the 1992 Three-Point Contest, scoring 16 to beat Jim Les of the Sacramento Kings in the finals. A few months later, the Bulls waived Hodges, and when the 1993 contest came around, Hodges was still unsigned. The NBA let Hodges compete without being on an NBA team, so he wore a generic NBA uniform to the contest.
On the video of the broadcast, Bob Neal notes that, “[Cleveland Cavaliers guard] Mark Price wasn’t real happy about Hodges being invited, based on the fact that Craig is not in the league this year.” Price ended up winning that 1993 contest anyway, beating Terry Porter of the Portland Trail Blazers in the finals.
The other non-active player to participate came in 2005, when Nuggets guard Voshon Lenard defended his 2004 title. Lenard had ruptured his Achilles’ tendon during Denver’s 2004-05 season opener. By the time the 2005 All-Star weekend rolled around, Lenard had recovered enough to defend his title, and he competed although he was still on the injured list. He actually did quite well, winning the first round with 21 points, before losing to Quentin Richardson in the championship group. Which sorta leads us to ...
Which year had the most amusing commentary?
Because Lenard was recovering from his Achilles injury and had not been able to get around, he had exceeded his normal playing weight. With Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on the call, things quickly spiraled out of control ...
Does fatigue play a factor?
While watching all of the old Three-Point Contest broadcasts, whenever a player would seem to waver as the contest went along, fatigue was quickly cited as the definitive factor. And this would seem to be an obvious reason, as the players are often out of breath at the end of rounds.
But the numbers seem to suggest otherwise.
On a per-round basis, as the rounds go on in the Three-Point Contest, shooting averages go up. In the first round of all the contests we looked at, players make an average of 50 percent (1,991 out of 3,968) of their shots. In the second round, that number goes up to 57 percent (1,080 of 1,893), and it edges up to 58 percent in the third round (233 of 400).
How has the rack of money balls changed things?
A twist was added beginning with the 2014 Three-Point Contest, as players were allowed to select one rack and make it entirely money (or 2-point) balls. In the three contests since this rule change, players have shot 59.4 percent (91-153) on those designated racks.
Now that we know players shoot best on the middle rack, how many have selected the middle rack as their money ball rack?
Kyle Korver and James Harden. They shot a combined 66 percent (10-15) on those money balls.
Who put up the worst score ever in the Three-Point Contest?
Michael Jordan arguably is the greatest player in NBA history, but he had a bad round in the 1990 Three-Point Contest.
He got off to a nice start, sinking 2 of his first 5 shots, but then made just one shot in each of the next three racks, and didn’t make anything on the final rack.
He also didn’t make any money balls, which are a crucial aid in bumping up scores. Jordan finished with a score of 5, which remains the lowest point total in Three-Point Contest history.
What is the highest total someone has scored in a single round?
This is a bit of a tricky question. As we mentioned, changes were made in the scoring of the contest in 2014, when the money ball rack was introduced. This made 34 the highest score available. So if you’re talking post-2014, the best score is a tie between two Splash Bros: Klay Thompson (2016) and Curry (2015) have each posted rounds where they scored 27 points. Before 2014, 30 was the highest total anyone could reach, and two people in the history of the contest got as high as 25 points. The Miami Heat's Jason Kapono scored 25 in the championship round in 2008, which you can watch here.
And then there’s Hodges in 1986. Presumably because it was the first-ever NBA Three-Point Contest, the first round was not televised using a split-screen while two competitors were competing simultaneously. So as Hodges and Norm Nixon competed at the same time, the cameras cut back and forth between the two, while Hall of Famers Rick Barry and Bill Russell narrated the action.
As luck would have it, Hodges opened the very first Three-Point Contest with a 25 in the first round. I even went back and checked the archives, hoping to find some lost tape of Hodges’ record-setting round, but alas, it does not seem to exist.
What is the best music that has been used during the Three-Point Contest?
This is completely subjective, but to me the best songs came early in the contest. In 1986 and ‘87, for instance, contestants shot along to Jan Hammer’s iconic “Miami Vice” theme song.
In 1988, the soundtrack was a truncated version of Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” The rockabilly version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” that was deployed in 1996 was fun, as was the instrumental of “Wipe Out” a year later.
Who has had the most shots discounted?
The LA Clippers' J.J. Redick had three shots taken away during the 2015 Three-Point Contest. Or, as Redick put it, he set a new record for making long twos, which is probably not good during a Three-Point Contest.
Just found out that I set the record for most long 2s in a 3 Point Contest. Ever. Couldn't be prouder.— JJ Redick (@JJRedick) February 15, 2015
Who has competed in the most Three-Point Contests?
Hodges has competed in eight different contests, his last appearance coming in 1993. The runner up to Hodges is Dale Ellis, who appeared in seven Three-Point Contests, making his final appearance in 1998. The active player with the most appearances is the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, who has been in five Three-Point Contests.
Who has had the most strange stuff happen to them in the Three-Point Contest?
Easily Hodges. This may be a function of competing in a lot of Three-Point Contests, but in watching so many old Three-Point Contests, I saw some weird stuff occur when Hodges was competing.
In the 1986 finals, for instance, Hodges knocked over the ball rack while removing his third ball from the fourth rack. After pausing briefly, Hodges took his third shot with the ball rack leaning against his leg, missing the shot. Two ballboys came over to help stabilize things, and Hodges ended up shooting the money ball from the other side of the rack.
Two years later, Hodges had two makes taken away because his foot was on the line. During the first round in 1992, Hodges had a ball bounce out of the rack and didn’t notice it, so he ended up shooting the money ball before one of the regular balls.
And then in ’93, while he was competing in a blank uniform, Hodges sank a shot during his last rack and the ball improbably got stuck in the net. Hodges continued shooting while a ballboy jumped in vain, trying to free the ball from the net.
Who has made the most shots in a row in a Three-Point Contest?
You guessed it: the great Hodges.
In 1991, Hodges made his first 19 shots in a row, en route to a score of 21.
The closest anyone has come to that was in 2015, when Curry made 13 in a row. And while it wasn’t consecutive, Kyrie Irving made 17 of his first 18 shots during the final round in 2013.
Who has won the most Three-Point Contests?
While there have been several two-time winners (Jason Kapono, Peja Stojakovic, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Price), only two men have won the Three-Point Contest three times: Larry Bird and, yep, Hodges.
Bird won the first three in a row, from 1986-88, and then after an Ellis interlude in 1989, Hodges won from 1990-92. (Hodges has also finished second two other times.)
What was the best celebration by a contestant?
Easy: Then-Seattle Sonics guard Brent Barry dancing in 2003.
Have any future NBA referees ever competed in the Three-Point Contest?
Actually, they have! During the initial contest in 1986, then-Washington Bullets guard Leon Wood made an appearance. All these years later, Wood is an NBA referee.
What is the strangest single shot in Three-Point Contest history?
Early on in the ‘88 Three-Point Contest, Dale Ellis takes his first shot and the ball bounces around a few times and ends up just sitting on the rim. While that’s going on, Hodges takes his second shot, which hits the rim and falls short. And after the second ball falls away, the first ball then falls in.
Has there ever been a replay controversy?
No, but perhaps there should been in 2006. At the end of his first round appearance, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki sank his final money ball after the buzzer sounded.
At the time, announcers Reggie Miller and Barkley quickly pointed out the shot should not have counted. The broadcast goes to a commercial, and when they return, announcer Kevin Harlan notes that there was no replay available so the shot would count. Nowitzki ended up narrowly advancing to the finals and then winning the contest. Lucky for Dirk the Secaucus replay center was not yet in use.
Has anyone competed wearing a jersey other than their own?
In 1986, Bird won the contest wearing an Eastern Conference All-Star jersey, but it was his own. But in 2012, then-Brooklyn Nets guard Anthony Morrow paid tribute to the late Nets guard Drazen Petrovic, who had competed 20 years earlier in the 1992 Three-Point Contest, by wearing a Petrovic jersey.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann contributed to this story.
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