From Way Downtown: The Rise of the Deep Three
By Brian Martin
Here is the entry from the play-by-play for one of the most famous shots in recent memory:
0:00 Lillard 37' 3PT Pullup Jump Shot (50 PTS)
It wasn’t a desperation heave at the buzzer that somehow went in. It was a calculated, cold-blooded pull up three in front of one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. Damian Lillard’s series-clinching buzzer-beating three from 37 feet, followed by him waving goodbye to the OKC bench and being mobbed by his teammates was shared, memed, and analyzed by just about everyone in basketball.
At the postgame press conference, Paul George called it a “bad shot” and the old-school logic would back up that theory. It’s a tie game, get to the basket for a high-quality shot or draw a foul and get to the free throw line. Don’t dribble for seven seconds 40 feet away from the basket take a side step and launch a shot. But Lillard’s shot was a perfect symbol of a new-school look at shot quality and efficiency. For Lillard, this was not a bad shot. It was an open look, with the defender far enough away that he had a clear view of the basket and enough time to size up the shot and launch unimpeded.
And the numbers prove that what could be considered a bad shot for most players is a good shot for Lillard as he and Atlanta’s Trae Young far and away lead the NBA in the deep 3-pointers from over 28 feet away. They are more trendsetters than exceptions, as the numbers show that more and more players are pushing their range further behind the 3-point line (23 feet, 9 inches).
Most 3-point attempts, greater than 28 feet, 2019-20 season
|Player||3PM||3PA||3P%||% of 3PA Pull-Up||ORTG|
The percentage of 3-pointers attempted from beyond 26 feet has more than doubled over the past six years. At the All-Star break, 21.3% of all NBA 3-point attempts come from 26-30 feet and another 1.4% come from 30-35 feet. During the 2014-15 season, only 11% of all 3-point attempts came from 26-35 feet.
While the corner 3 continues to be the most efficient shot outside of the paint, the deep three is becoming a more prevalent offensive weapon.
Players aren’t just taking more long threes, they are also knocking them down at a higher rate. As the table below illustrates, the accuracy on shots taken from 30-35 feet has nearly doubled in the past six season – from 13.7% in 2014-15 up to 26.7% at the All-Star break in 2019-20.
|League AVG Year||3P% Under 26 ft||3P% 26-30 ft||3P% 30-35 ft|
Speaking of All-Star, this year’s MTN DEW 3-Point Contest has incorporated the long three into the competition with the addition of two shots in the MTN DEW Zone. These shots will be taken between the wing rack and top of the arc rack on both sides, with the shot coming six feet behind the standard 3-point line, and are worth three points each.
While the long three may help the 3-point contestants rack up higher scores on Saturday, the shot has produced real in-game benefits when the games count toward the standings.
Why Take Them?
When asked about his proclivity for shooting from the edges of the mid-court logo, Trae Young has said he extended his range as a necessity due to his lack of size and how he constantly played against older and bigger competition while he was growing up.
Which is better – a contested 3-point shot from 24 feet away or an uncontested 3-point shot from 28 feet away? Similar to Lillard’s game-winner against OKC in last year’s playoffs, sometimes getting a clean look from further away is better than having to shoot a closer shot with a defender in your airspace. Here’s a comparison of pressure on pull-up 3-point attempts by distance.
|Pressure Situation||Mid-Range||Short 3PA||Long 3PA|
|Overall Closest Defender Distance||4.23||5.24||5.06|
|AVG Closest Defender Distance on top 20 High Volume Shooters||4.15||4.8||5.1|
|AVG Closest Defender Distance on Young, Lillard, Doncic, Harden||3.56||4.5||4.99|
High-volume 3-point shooters see slightly more open looks the further away from the basket they shoot from, and even though the difference is less than a foot of space, the players still feel more and more comfortable with that tradeoff.
These high-volume shooters feel the shot quality (measured by the probability a shot goes in) of these deeps shots is about as good or, in some cases, better than if they dribbled closer to the hoop before shooting based on everything around the shot attempt, including the increased distance from the basket, increased space, and movement patterns.
On average, Luka Doncic gets higher quality chances from deep, James Harden and Damian Lillard get very similar quality chances, and Trae Young gets slightly lower quality chances from deep versus shallow threes.
Because the quality of the shot does not change much, they feel those shots are worth it for the good of the offense because of the effect on the defense and the space it creates.
Creating Open Space For Teammates
Any scouting report on players like Lillard, Young, Luka or Harden is going to stress the need to defend them well beyond the 3-point line. If a player starts their defense straddling the 3-point line, they are too far back and susceptible to the wide open pull-up deep three.
With that reputation, high-volume 3-point shooters are, on average, pressured around 6.3% more when they have the ball in the front court at least 28 feet from the hoop than other players.
In addition, the deep 3-point threat also get double teamed far from the basket significantly more than anyone else, with Lillard specifically facing multiple matchup defenders at the perimeter for over a second per perimeter touch.
In terms of deep perimeter double teams per perimeter touch, Kyrie Irving is the only player within 0.34 of the four most frequent targets of those doubles - Luka Doncic (0.82). It is worth noting that while double teams frequently occur when multiple defenders defend a ball screen action, these four players receive screens very high and attract full attention from multiple defenders anywhere in the front court.
Stretching up the defensive pressure in turn opens the floor for teammates, especially when double team comes, and means there’s more open space in the middle of the front court. These players are very effective in creating offense for themselves and creating offense for their teammates through the attention the defense gives them when they have the ball.
The threat of the pull-up deep three isn’t the only thing that defense have to account for. There are a handful of wing players that are now spotting up four to six feet beyond the 3-point line, forcing defenders to make a decision on playing in help position or sticking close to the shooter and opening up the floor.
High-volume spot-up shooters are pressured about five percent more than others when they are standing between 28 and 35 feet from the basket. Here’s a quick look at the players with the most off-ball magnetism from this distance.
|Player||AVG Matchup Pressure||28+ ft 3PM||28+ ft 3PA||28+ ft 3P%||% of 28+ ft 3PA Pull-Up|
Having these shooters so far from the basket draws their defensive matchup, who serves as a potential help defender on the ball handler, further away from the hoop and increases the driving and cutting lanes available.
On average, the matchup defender of the floor spacer plays nearly five feet further from the basket when the spacer is stationed 28 feet from the hoop as opposed to 23. That extra five feet also, on average, puts the help defender around 21% further from the perimeter ball handler’s basket line, allowing for a clearer drive space for the ball handler. The increased distance from the basket also increases cut space for the other teammates to engage in.
As an example, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Bradley Beal, Luka Doncic, and De’Aaron Fox are all ball dominant players and effective drivers who play with one of the aforementioned high-volume deep shooters (Lopez, Gordon, Bertans, Porzingis and Bjelica, respectively). Of those five players, all saw either increases or approximately the same drive efficiency (team points per possession) with the shooter positioned far from the basket over the past two seasons compared to their normal efficiency.
Antetokounmpo, Harden, and Fox saw their efficiencies stay very similar while Beal and Doncic saw their drive efficiency go up by over five points per 100 possessions. Harden and Antetokounmpo had a significant amount of their drives over the past two seasons occur with their floor spacers positioned deep.
In the example below, James Harden drives from the right wing and kicks to Russell Westbrook in the left corner, who in turns drives toward the basket. This forces the help defense to collapse and leave Eric Gordon wide open from well beyond the 3-point line. Gordon's ability to catch-and-shoot from that deep, makes it impossible for the defender that was sucked down to help on Westbrook's drive, recover in time to contest Gordon's shot.
How Much Is This Helping Offense?
The trend of shooting more 3-pointers and shooting from further away from the basket continues to grow for both players and teams. But has this trend improved offensive efficiency for teams?
Below is a plot comparing shot distribution with offensive rating for all teams over the past six seasons, which shows a correlation between high offensive ratings with a higher percentage of shots that are deep 3-pointers.
The chart below looks at the same trends on a league-wide level over the past six seasons. Offensive ratings are climbing across the league in general and as more and more teams adopt the deep three, these numbers could continue to climb in the future.