Let it Fly

It seems absurd on the surface of it, which happens to be 23 feet, nine inches, except in the corners.

Three-pointers go up so often in the NBA these days, games often seem like long-distance H-O-R-S-E contests. Players line up around the arc and wait for a pass from a penetrating teammate, or run off a screen, and hoist up a shot – and hit it with amazing accuracy.

The Pacers are no exception. In fact, they're prototypical. They're on pace to shoot the best three-point percentage in franchise history, and could set the record for most makes and attempts as well. And, contrary to the outdated maxim that teams live and die by the jump shots, their long distance marksmanship is a primary reason they're winning.

The Pacers have attempted an average of 23.6 three-point shots heading into Saturday's game at Utah, and hit 40 percent of them – second in the NBA. If they continue at that pace they'll surpass the 2007-08 team that shot a franchise-record .386 percentage, and fall just short of that team's record 24.6 attempts per game.

But give this team time. It's trending toward shooting more, not less, as it gets the hang of a new offensive system that emphasizes a faster tempo and spacing the court. Besides, 18 teams are averaging more attempts. They're doing something new, but not anything unusual.

"It's still a little uncomfortable and a work in progress, and it will be all year," coach Frank Vogel says. "Playing a freelance style is a little outside my box, but I'm enjoying it."

Vogel's a flexible strategist, unmarried to any particular style. He was an understudy to Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky and the Boston Celtics, and Pitino is one of the forefathers of loosening the reins on NBA three-point shooters. He then was an assistant to another Pitino disciple, Jim O'Brien, who coached the 2007-08 Pacers team that set records for three-point shooting.

Vogel was completely comfortable coaching the halfcourt, interior-oriented, "smash-mouth" team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in consecutive years, however, and had to be convinced by team president Larry Bird to shift to the current mode. He listened to Bird's plan with an open mind, and his enthusiasm for it has only grown since introducing it in training camp.

So, yes, letting players pull up in transition and shoot three-pointers is "a little uncomfortable" and "a little outside my box," but the results so far don't leave much room for second thoughts.

The Pacers are conforming to a league-wide trend. In fact, they're a late convert, because of the success they had with a more traditional approach until injuries kept them out of the playoffs last season. Their made-over roster is loving it, though, especially the wings who get to form a firing squad each game.

"It's a weapon," said C.J. Miles, one of the hottest wings. "I came from playing in a system (in Utah), where we really didn't shoot threes. It was all mid-range and layups. Now it's threes and layups.

It creates space. That's what you want for the talents you have in this league now."

The new offensive system, however, must be a shock to the system of longtime fans who recall Pacers teams of past decades. This group is making them all look timid by comparison, not to mention inept. The Pacers teams of the ABA played a wide-open style for that era, but the teams of the early- and mid-1980s barely had a clue what to do with the line. Their three-point stats are practically laughable by today's standards.


  • The Pacers entered their Western road trip already having shot and made more three-pointers in 15 games than the franchise's first eight NBA teams that played with the line – from 1979-80 through 86-87 – did in an entire season.
  • The all-time worst three-point shooting team in franchise history was the one from the 1985-86 season, which attempted just 143 three-pointers – less than two per game. That was probably a good thing, because it hit just 23 of them for an accuracy rate of .161. Forward Clark Kellogg was the most accurate shooter, hitting 4-of-13. Slam-dunk contest runner-up Terence Stansbury was the most prolific, hitting 9-of-53. That was just 17 percent, but he actually improved the team percentage.
  • The Pacers didn't hit better than 30 percent of their three-pointers as a team until their sixth ABA season, in 1972-73, when they hit .312. Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis and Billy Keller got them over the hump.
  • Some of the percentages of the ABA players might surprise you, however. Rick Mount, regarded as one of the all-time greatest shooters to come out of Indiana, hit 31 percent over his two seasons with the team, although he shot much better in later years with other teams. Brown, one of the franchise's all-time best clutch shooters, made just 32 percent of his attempts in his career. Keller, the most prolific and most accurate Pacers three-point shooter until Reggie Miller came along, hit 34 percent. That shouldn't be surprising when you consider most players of that era didn't grow up practicing long-distance shots as many do today.
  • The ABA guys were absolutely deadly, however, compared to Johnny Davis, an otherwise talented guard who in three seasons with the Pacers hit 13-of-102 attempts. That's 13 percent if you're scoring at home. If you round up.
  • The Pacers didn't have a player – excluding those with minimal attempts – hit 40 percent of his three-pointers for a season until John Long made 34-of-77 (.442) in Miller's rookie season, 1987-88. Miller went on to do it nine times in his 18-season career, although three of those came when the line was shortened to 22 feet instead of 23-9 for three seasons beginning in 1994-95.
  • A breakthrough came in the 1989-90 season, when the Pacers collectively hit .382 percent from the line, far better than in any previous season. Five rotation players hit 35 percent or better. Miller led at .414. This season's team, by comparison, has three starters surpassing 40 percent – C.J. Miles (.450), Paul George (.431) and George Hill (.420). Chase Budinger has hit .429 of his attempts. Glenn Robinson III has hit 6-of-13 (.462) in limited playing time.
  • Larry Bird, who has said he's not a fan of the three-point shot, led the NBA in made three-pointers in the 1985-86 season with 82. The Pacers combined to hit just 23 that season, in 143 attempts – all of 16 percent. Steph Curry, by the way, hit 87 three-pointers in his first 17 games this season.

Billy Keller (left), Roger Brown (right), and the ABA Pacers embraced the three-point shot, thanks to encouragement from head coach Slick Leonard. (Photos: Pacers Sports & Entertainment)

The first professional use of the three-pointer came in the American Basketball League, which opened for business in 1961 and lasted barely more than one season. It was popularized by the American Basketball Association, which began play in 1967 and lasted nine seasons. The ABA's first commissioner, George Mikan, successfully instituted a red, white and blue ball and a three-point shot. It was originally described in some places as a 25-foot shot, but actually was 23-9. (The ABL did in fact have a 25-foot three-pointer.)

Mikan's thinking was that giving an extra point for long distance shots would give the smaller players a greater role in the game and create more excitement for fans. And it did. But he never could have imagined the triplicate explosion that's occurred today.

The ABA Pacers made liberal use of it, at least when they had shooters who were elite for that era. Keller, Brown and Lewis all shot better than 30 percent from behind the arc over their careers, and could shoot it without fear of being yanked to the bench by Leonard.

"He wanted you to shoot it," Keller said. "I can remember times I'd be coming down the floor and he'd say, 'Billy, take the three, take the three!' He pretty much gave us the green light, especially to shoot on the break, because that's the best time to take it. Sometimes he'd draw up plays for the three, too."

Leonard and Keller thought a fastbreak offered the best opportunity to shoot a three-pointer because the player's momentum carried him over the line, making for a slightly shorter shot, not to mention an unguarded one.

That free-thinking philosophy, however, didn't carry over when the NBA adopted the shot in 1979. With the ABA dying out in 1976, the NBA reigned solo and supreme. It needed an injection of excitement, however, and introduced the three-pointer for what was described as a trial run.

Leonard, who was in his final season as the Pacers' coach, didn't have many legitimate three-point shooters on his roster to take advantage. He had just one, in fact. He brought in Joe Hassett, who took 198 of the team's 314 shots from behind the arc that season, and hit 69 of them – fourth-most in the league.

Let the record show the first Pacers player to connect on an NBA three-pointer was Davis, who hit one in his only attempt in the team's home opener in that 1979-80 season against Atlanta. It wasn't a sign of things to come. Davis would hit just four of his 42 attempts that season, less than 10 percent.

Leonard's successor, Jack McKinney, wasn't a particular advocate of the shot, remaining consistent with league trends. Don Buse took 189 of the team's 316 attempts in the 1981-82 season, for a rather startling percentage of .386. Buse was gone the next season, though, and the three-pointer nearly became extinct for the Pacers for awhile. They bottomed out with just 143 attempts in the 1985-86 season – less than two per game.

Jerry Sichting, who played four seasons for the Pacers in the early 80s, starting with the 1981-82 season, recalls the shot as primarily a weapon to be used only in comeback attempts.

"If you just came down in transition and hoisted one, most players would be out of the game," Sichting said. "You were supposed to move the ball three or four passes. If you were in a hole and trying to come back, it was acceptable."

The same philosophy was largely true in Boston, where Sichting played after his time with the Pacers. He recalls Celtics announcer Tom Heinsohn complaining about Danny Ainge taking too many three-pointers. "And he was probably taking two a game at the time," Sichting said.

Pacers executive Donnie Walsh, who as an assistant coach and interim head coach for Denver when the three-pointer was brought to the NBA, recalls the coaching philosophy that a two-point shot was less risky than a three-pointer, and you could always get a three-pointer when needed. "The defenses weren't attuned to guard that far from the basket," he said. "You could always get that shot. You didn't have to set it up like you do now."

Gradually, the reins loosened on long-distance shooters. Pitino, who had used the three-point shot to fuel Providence's Cinderella run to the 1987 Final Four, took his philosophy to the Knicks the following season. His first team in New York lacked a serious perimeter threat, but still made the playoffs after finishing tied for the second-worst record the previous season by spreading the floor and putting them up. In his second season, the Knicks finished 52-30 by taking 1,147 three-pointers, more than double the league average. That team lost to Chicago in six games in the second round of the playoffs, and Pitino left for the University of Kentucky.

A skinny kid out of UCLA joined the Pacers the same season Pitino took over the Knicks, and brought a new era to the franchise. Miller would go on to set the NBA record for three-pointers made and attempted (since broken by Ray Allen) in his 18 seasons with the franchise, and used the shot to create some of its most historic moments.

By now, the cork has been popped. Rules limiting hand-checking have freed guards on the perimeter, and the mathematical concept of three exceeding two has become too good a deal to pass up as shooters have improved. It's to the point it hardly makes sense to take a two-point shot outside of the foul lane, given the number of players who can hit three-pointers at a 35 or 40 percent rate.

The shot has other benefits, too, such as drawing big men away from the basket and opening the lane for penetration. That's a significant part of the appeal for Vogel.

"Not just the three-point shots, but the threat of a three-point shot is a big part of teams' offenses," he said. "The threat of (taller players) being out there and being able to knock down a shot if left unguarded opens up a lot of space at the basket."

As shooters have gotten better, coaches have utilized the shot more, which only causes players to practice the shot more. Go to any NBA practice today, and the non-centers are likely to line up around the three-point arc afterward and put up dozens of shots. Rarely do guards and wings practice mid-range shots. The same holds true for the off-season.

"I will say this for the players," said Sichting, now an assistant coach for Phoenix. "That's all they do in the summer is shoot three-point shots.

"Now every team has four or five extra coaches who just work as workout coaches, and that's their whole job, to spend time in the gym with these guys all summer long. Everybody used to work on their game a little bit, but it's incredible how much time these guys spend working on their game."

Manpower is a factor in the improved three-point percentages. Keller said he rarely practiced three-point shooting because of the inconvenience. The Pacers didn't have an army of coaches and ballboys to rebound for players in the ABA, meaning players were usually on their own when shooting.

"We didn't have all these people," Keller said. "If we shot a three pointer we'd have to go chase down the rebound. How many threes are you going to take if you have to rebound your own shot after a two-hour practice?"

Players today can always find a staff member to rebound for them, either after practice, an off-day, or in the off-season. Bird when he coached the Pacers used to rebound for his players until the last one left the court, a Hall of Fame ball retrieval system.

If a player can't find a human being, there's a machine that does it, and counts the shots attempted and made for him, too. George, after that infamous scoreless game at Golden State on Dec. 1, 2012, drove straight to Bankers Life Fieldhouse after the team's red-eye flight landed in Indianapolis and put up 501 shots, although not all of them were three-pointers. He made 375 of them. That option simply wasn't available to frustrated players from previous decades.

The fans don't seem to mind the brown rainbows of NBA three-pointers, but some people wonder if the trend hasn't gone too far. Golden State proved once and for all the three-point shot can be a vital part of a championship team's offense, but as more teams employ the strategy – such as the Pacers – is there a point the strategy backfires?

"The guys in the ABA saw the value of it long before people in the NBA," Walsh said. "But now it's gotten to the point it's become the strategy for the whole league. Just spread the floor and hit threes. It does make for an exciting game. But I want to see us go through a whole year of people out to do that."

Some coaches admit to employing it against their instincts, having grown up with the concept that the closer the shot the better. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose team won the 2014 title largely because of the three-point shot, has told reporters it "mucks up the game." Vogel admits to not being entirely comfortable with it, but rides the wave.

Even Miles believes the pendulum will swing back toward a focus on inside threats.

"At some point there's going to be a big so big and so talented, (the emphasis) will go back to having to have a dominant guy to match up with him," he said.

Until then, teams will continue to dial long distance for offense. And why not? The rates are too good to pass up.

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