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These days, more than ever, the best teams shoot the three

Celebrating its 35th year in the NBA, the 3-pointer is the new king

POSTED: Nov 7, 2014 3:59 PM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann


The Evolution of the 3-Pointer

See how the 3-pointer has changed the NBA game.

Rick Pitino, winner of two NCAA championships, was not a great NBA coach. He got to the playoffs in each of his two seasons with the New York Knicks, but was fired after 3 1/2 seasons in Boston and left the league with a 192-220 record because Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were not walking through that door.

Or, maybe, Pitino was just too far ahead of his time.

In the 1987-88 season, the Boston Celtics became the first team to take at least 10 percent of its shots from 3-point range. A year later, Pitino's Knicks took it to a new level, attempting 15.1 percent of their shots from downtown.

After he returned to the college ranks (for the second time), Pitino's legacy lived on through former assistant Jim O'Brien, who coached the '02-03 Celtics, the first team that took at least 30 percent of its shots from 3-point range.

Last season, that 15.1 percent that Pitino's Knicks took from beyond the 3-point arc? It would have ranked last in the league.

The 3-point shot has come a long way in its 35 years in the NBA. And it has changed the game dramatically.

Go back to Dec. 13, 1983, when the Detroit Pistons and Denver Nuggets played the highest scoring game in NBA history, a 186-184 triple-overtime victory for Detroit in the fifth season of the 3-point shot. There were 251 shots attempted in that game. Only four of them (two from each team) came from beyond the arc.

It was just a matter of guys not being used to it yet," forward Nuggets forward Kiki Vandeweghe told on the 25th anniversary of the game. "They never practiced it."But in pockets around the league, players and teams began getting used to it. The Celtics, led by Bird and Danny Ainge, led the way. Michael Adams arrived in Denver in 1987 and started attempting 450 threes a year.

After the '88-89 season, Bird wrote a book with Bob Ryan entitled "Drive." And it included his thoughts on the early evolution of the three ...

It's still interesting to me what's happened with the 3-pointer because I thought so little of the shot when I first came into the league. It's a great weapon and I'll tell you when it is a particularly good time to use it. You're the road team, you've got maybe a five-point lead with a couple of minutes to go and you're wide open. That's when I love to crank that thing up there, because if you make it, you simply destroy a team at that point. That's when you need your concentration.

The 3-point shot demoralizes an opponent; there is no question about that. You're working hard on defense and all of a sudden there is a 3-pointer and you feel so deflated. If the deficit goes from two to five with a minute to go, you're dead in the water. It's really a killer.

Twenty-five years later, a guard or small forward who can't shoot threes is an offensive liability. It's preferred that even power forwards step out and shoot from the outside.

Just 10 years ago, NBA defenses focused on protecting the paint. Now they know that they have to defend the perimeter as much as they defend the basket. Teams with guards or forwards who can't shoot make that job easier.

It's simple math. A made three is worth 1.5 times a made two. So you don't have to be a great 3-point shooter to make those shots worth a lot more than a jumper from inside the arc. In fact, if you're not shooting a layup, you might as well be beyond the 3-point line.Last season, the league made 39.4 percent of shots between the restricted area and the arc, for a value of 0.79 points per shot. It made 36.0 percent of threes, for a value of 1.08 points per shot.

Overall, 10 3-point shots have been worth about a point more than 10 2-point shots for the last 20 years. So you can increase your offensive efficiency just by increasing the number of threes that you attempt, even if you don't shoot them all that well. That's exactly how the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) improved offensively last year.

"We didn't shoot a significantly better percentage," Hornets coach Steve Clifford told, "but we shot like 5 1/2 more threes per game. People don't realize that how many threes you shoot is a big deal, too."

That doesn't mean that mid-range shots are pointless. The Portland Trail Blazers built a top-five offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, the league's most prolific mid-range shooter.

But the Blazers were also one of 10 teams that attempted at least 2,000 threes last season, the second straight year in which the percentage of shots that were threes jumped by more than 1 1/2 points. Fourteen of the 15 most efficient offenses last season ranked in the top 10 in either 3-point percentage or in the percentage of shots that were 3-pointers.

The league saw its biggest increase in the number of 3-point attempts in 1994-95, when the line was shortened to 22 feet all around. After that three-year experiment, the number dipped back down. But a steady climb had the league attempting 40,000 threes for the first time in 2006-07.

Then, led by the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, we saw a big uptick in '12-13. Several more teams joined the party last season.

The increase in threes hasn't come at the expense of shots at the basket. It's those inefficient mid-range shots that have seen their numbers decrease. At this point, everyone knows the math. Taking a three vs. a two is simply another part of a player's decision-making process.

It's also a part of a general manager's decision-making process when he's putting together a team. Shooters are the best complement to a star player than can draw the attention of multiple defenders. Not only do they make defenses pay for sending two to the ball, but the threat of the three gives those stars more room to operate.

So deep threats are getting paid more than ever. Witness Channing Frye getting $32 million from the Magic and Jodie Meeks getting $18 million from the Pistons, who ranked 27th in threes last season and who are now run by a man -- Stan Van Gundy -- who got to The Finals with a team (the '08-09 Orlando Magic) that led the league in percentage of shots that were 3-pointers. Clifford was an assistant with that Magic team.

"We had four good years," Clifford said, "but the two great years we had, we literally never played anybody, besides Dwight [Howard], who couldn't shoot threes. It's hard to guard."

Defenses are much better than they were 35 years ago, when there was usually an "I get mine, you get yours" approach to the first three quarters. But defenses also have it much tougher now, with the need to defend the entire floor.

"The 3-point line is a monster," Sixers coach Brett Brown, who played for Pitino at Boston University, said. "You got to guard it. You got to use it."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

History of the NBA 3-point shot
Season 3PM 3PA 3P% 3PA%
1979-80 1,403 5,003 28.0% 3.1%
1980-81 936 3,815 24.5% 2.3%
1981-82 1,129 4,308 26.2% 2.6%
1982-83 1,011 4,248 23.8% 2.5%
1983-84 1,120 4,484 25.0% 2.7%
1984-85 1,671 5,917 28.2% 3.5%
1985-86 1,774 6,294 28.2% 3.8%
1986-87 2,687 8,913 30.1% 5.3%
1987-88 2,979 9,421 31.6% 5.7%
1988-89 4,332 13,431 32.3% 7.4%
1989-90 4,829 14,608 33.1% 7.6%
1990-91 5,055 15,812 32.0% 8.2%
1991-92 5,587 16,898 33.1% 8.7%
1992-93 6,668 19,825 33.6% 10.4%
1993-94 7,301 21,907 33.3% 11.7%
*1994-95 12,153 33,889 35.9% 18.8%
*1995-96 14,000 38,161 36.7% 20.0%
*1996-97 14,383 39,943 36.0% 21.2%
1997-98 10,450 30,231 34.6% 15.9%
1998-99 6,463 19,080 33.9% 16.8%
1999-00 11,513 32,614 35.3% 16.7%
2000-01 11,524 32,597 35.4% 17.0%
2001-02 12,402 35,074 35.4% 18.1%
2002-03 12,200 34,912 34.9% 18.2%
2003-04 12,321 35,492 34.7% 18.7%
2004-05 13,777 38,748 35.6% 19.6%
2005-06 14,086 39,313 35.8% 20.2%
2006-07 14,926 41,672 35.8% 21.3%
2007-08 16,124 44,544 36.2% 22.2%
2008-09 16,352 44,583 36.7% 22.4%
2009-10 15,822 44,622 35.5% 22.2%
2010-11 15,886 44,313 35.8% 22.2%
2011-12 12,693 36,395 34.9% 22.6%
2012-13 17,603 49,067 35.9% 24.3%
2013-14 19,054 52,974 36.0% 25.9%
* Shorter distance
3PA% = 3PA/FGA

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