Back when players actually used to know how to shoot a basketball, the game was so different. Back in my day (the year I was born), Larry Bird made 90 three-pointers to top the league in 1986-87. More than one for every game of the season.
In other words, enough to tie Charlie Villanueva for 70th place in the NBA last season. Stephen Curry made more than three times as many three-pointers last season (272) as Bird made that year.
NBA teams in fact shot and made more three-pointers than ever last season. They made more than twice as many three-pointers last season as they did 20 years ago. And they converted a better percentage last season.
So it is not all quite as simple as one, two, three.
But smart teams know that threes are a comparably efficient shot, and now more than ever they build rosters with that in mind.
After all, NBA players made 48.3 % on two-pointers and 35.9 % on three-pointers last season. But three-pointers are… worth more than two-pointers. By virtue of eFG%, we know that those threes actually equal to 53.8 % compared to 48.3 % for two-pointers. In simple terms, that just means threes are a better bet.
Take a look at the best three-point shooting teams in terms of accuracy last season.
I spy just one team that missed the postseason. And all but one boasted an above average offensive efficiency. Perhaps even more telling, eight of the top nine teams in three-point attempts also made the playoffs.
And good teams that haven’t been on the three-point game like the Bulls and Grizzlies (and smart people like Tom Thibodeau and John Hollinger) recognize the importance. There is a reason the neighbors just signed Mike Dunleavy and the Grizzlies picked up Mike Miller.
Two final things: 1) Bird is better than Villanueva and better than all but a handful of players ever, and 2) The Bucks have some nice outside shooters this season, and here they are.
There was only one thing he could not make.
Delfino made 6-7 threes that night for the Rockets against the Bucks, back on Jan. 8, 2013. And it should not have been all that surprising.
After all, he really grew all the way into that nickname with the Rockets last season, and by that nickname I mean Del3no.
Maybe you noticed: He led the NBA in three pointers made per minute (9.0 per 36 minutes). He led the NBA in three-pointers attempted per minute (3.4 per 36 minutes). So yes, he shot threes more often than specialists like Steve Novak and C.J. Miles. And he made threes more often than ace shooters like Stephen Curry and Danny Green. He also broke his right foot in the playoffs, which deserves a… footnote.
Delfino’s minutes dropped a bit in Houston, to 25.2 per game. But he still managed to fit in more threes than ever, making 2.4 per game. This was part of Houston’s offense, an important part. The fastest-paced team and sixth best offensive team in the NBA attempted the second most threes of all teams. The vast majority of Delfino’s threes came as spot-ups, and he made 40.6 % of those attempts. He also set Argentinean fires from the right corner. Take note, readers, watchers, and teammates.
Always an outside threat, Mayo started his career-best shooting season last year by carrying a rather absurd three-point mark of 51.2 % into December. Of course he cooled off a bit from there, but by the end of the season he still sat comfortably among the league’s top 30 most accurate long range shooters, slotted just above names like Klay Thompson and Wes Matthews.
His hot spots encompassed all angles of the court, and from straight on he was particularly… straight on.
Mayo is a wise early bet to lead the Bucks in scoring this season, and the good news is that really excelled early on last season as the go-to scorer in Dallas while Dirk Nowitzki recovered from injury.
Most major league three-point shooters are catch-and-shoot types. They skate around screens and find their spot, receive the pass, and fire away a split-second later. Ray Allen and Kyle Korver are experts in this realm. As noted above, Delfino is also a spot-up star.
Neal is a little bit different. Watch him and you will see that he actually creates a relatively larger number of his threes. Actually, Neal finds threes in a variety of ways. In addition to spot-ups, he will hit threes as the pick-and-roll ball handler, or in isolation. In the best season of his life, 2011-12, Neal was assisted on by far the fewest number of his threes (54.2 %, which is quite low). Point is: Neal can make threes all on his own, off the dribble, which is valuable.
Last season, Neal also found success hitting threes in transition, at a 41.5 % clip. Like Delfino from Houston, Neal arrives from a fast-paced offensive system, as the Spurs ranked sixth in pace factor. Pleasant coincidence: New head coach Larry Drew has already vowed to push the pace in Milwaukee.
Neal also attempts a lot of threes, which is an important part of this whole story. For the sake of comparison, Neal shot 6.1 threes per 36 minutes, while Ray Allen and J.R. Smith attempted 5.9 each. And while last season was his least accurate of three years in the NBA, his career mark of 39.8 % inspires.
Knight is already known for a few things in the pros. He plays defense. He works hard. And he hits threes.
The new point guard historically shoots threes slightly less often than the departed Brandon Jennings and shoots them slightly more accurately. Interestingly enough, they both shot exactly 36.6 % on spot-up threes last season. But it should also be noted that last season was Jennings’ most accurate season from distance and Knight’s least accurate.
He shows nice form and the numbers are rather encouraging for the 21 year-old. It should also be noted that Knight arrives from a slow-paced Detroit team (26th and 22nd in pace factor in his first two seasons), so he should have more opportunities in transition, where shooters like Knight tend to shoot better.
Here, we have the five most accurate three point shooters over the past two seasons:
1. Stephen Curry (.453)
2. Kyle Korver (.448)
3. Steve Novak (.445)
4. Ersan Ilyasova (.444)
5. Danny Green (.431)
He is never going to take an absolute ton of threes, because he doesn’t create them, but Ilyasova is confirmed elite at this point. The sample size is legitimate and the sample is glorious.
In three years as a head coach, Larry Drew’s Hawks became more and more of a three-point shooting team, going from 17th to 8th to 5th in threes made. He is on board (even if he almost never shot threes as a player).
Meanwhile, the Bucks attempted their fair share of threes last season, ranking in the top half of the league in threes made (13th), attempted (11th), and accuracy (13th). Dunleavy made a lot but didn’t attempt a ton. Monta Ellis attempted a lot but didn’t make enough. The swaps should help; the revamped roster has the look of a fine outside shooting team.
Of course, the all-important byproduct is superior spacing for Larry Sanders, John Henson, and the rising post players. Like everyone else in this story they will know it well: the best things in life are three.