In rapidly evolving NBA, Pistons get up to speed in need for 3-point shooting

Avery Bradley was a key addition in enabling the Pistons to increase their volume and accuracy from the 3-point arc
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Imagine an NBA game played without the 3-point line.

“I don’t think guys would even know how to play,” Stan Van Gundy said. “The idea that we’ve got to get closer to the basket?”

The Pistons are shooting more 3-point shots than ever this season, 28.4 per game. That’s almost exactly one-third of their shot attempts, 33.2 percent. Last season, 33.2 percent of their shots would have put the Pistons No. 9 in the league in that category. This year? They’re 18th.

“The game has changed in a very short amount of time,” Van Gundy said. “It really has. In the last three, four years, it’s changed.”

How much change, how fast?

When Orlando got to the 2009 NBA Finals against the Lakers on Van Gundy’s watch, the Magic took the greatest amount of 3-point shots as a percentage of their field-goal attempts in the NBA. They took virtually the same amount Van Gundy’s current team is taking: 33.5 percent of their shots were triples.

This season, Houston leads the NBA in that category, a whopping 53.3 percent of its shots coming from the arc.

Is there a breaking point?

“I don’t know where the breaking point is in terms of what’s entertaining and I think that’s something the league will have to question,” Van Gundy said. “The general thinking when all this started was fans didn’t like low-scoring games. But I think it’s more than the numbers. When it gets to the point that all you’re doing is coming to watch guys shoot the ball, I don’t know how exciting that is. I do know that there’s fewer and fewer of those great plays at the rim where guys are attacking and shot blockers are coming. We don’t see much of that any more.”

Van Gundy doesn’t think about any of that when he’s building a roster or plotting a game plan. He understands the game is trending that way because that’s where the reward is. The league average on 3-point shots is 36 percent; on 2-point shots, 50.2 percent. Do the math. You’d have to shoot 54 percent on twos to make it worth as much as 36 percent on threes.

“Which you can do on layups, but you can’t do on anything else,” Van Gundy said. “The free throw is still the most efficient shot you can get and the layup’s still the second-most efficient shot you can get. But then it’s the three.”

The mid-range shot, he says, is “definitely dying a not-so-slow death.”

The Pistons are taking exactly the league average of 3-point attempts at 28.4 a game and shooting them better than the norm at 38.5 percent. It’s tough to win these days – or tough to cobble together a good offense, at least – without either shooting a high volume of threes or making them at a very high rate.

Two teams that are beating the odds so far are Indiana and Minnesota. Both rank very low in 3-point attempts as a percentage of total shots – the Pacers 28th, the Timberwolves 29th – yet they’re sixth and seventh in offensive rating.

“Everybody’s taking more than people did five or 10 years ago, so you can’t just totally eschew the 3-point shot, but I think if you look at Minnesota’s a top 10 offense and the bottom five or six in the league in 3-point attempts. Indiana shoots them very well. They’re the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the league (40.4 percent). I would say Minnesota has proven that there are other ways to do it. But even then, they don’t take a lot and they’re taking more than we took when I was in Orlando when we took a lot.”

Van Gundy understood last year’s toxic combination of finishing 26th in attempts and 28th in percentage needed to change and he built the roster accordingly, adding Langston Galloway, Anthony Tolliver and Avery Bradley while drafting Luke Kennard and retaining Reggie Bullock in free agency. Is 33 percent of their shots being taken from the 3-point line the right mix for this roster?

“It varies from night to night,” he said. “Our philosophy is – we don’t always do it – I want layups, stuff at the basket and then everything else should be a read from inside out. We want to try, if we can get something in transition, if we can get the ball in the lane and out, we like those. I don’t want to just first pass, jack it up. In transition, I don’t mind – they’re wide open. But in general, yeah, you want to shoot a lot of layup, a lot of free throws and a lot of threes.”