How the NBA became a three-point league: It wasn’t all Steph Curry

Breaking down the factors that revolutionized the game

By John Krolik

Special to The Examiner

In the wake of Stephen Curry breaking the NBA’s all-time record for career three-pointers and becoming the first to surpass 3,000 all told, there has been a lot of discussion about his influence on the game. Many fans and pundits have credited Curry with ushering in the NBA’s three-point era.

It’s certainly true that NBA teams shoot many more threes than they used to. A skinny, 6-3 guard who relied on the three-pointer as the lynchpin of his game winning three NBA titles and two MVP awards would have previously been unthinkable.

So, Curry’s success has certainly helped make the three-pointer a more widely accepted shot. To say he’s entirely responsible for the radical change in how teams approach the three-pointer, however, would be misleading. Let’s take a look at some of the other factors behind the NBA’s three-point revolution.

First off, the three-point revolution is undeniable. In the 2003-04 season, the Thunder led the league with 8.8 made three-pointers per game, while the Cavaliers, who featured a rookie named LeBron James, were last in the league, with three made shots from distance per game. This season, James makes three triples a game all by himself. The Jazz currently lead the league with 15.1 made three-pointers per game, while the Wizards are dead last with 10.2 threes made per game — a figure that would have led the league in 2003-04.

That’s a seismic shift. During the 2009-10 season, Curry’s rookie year, the Magic led the league with 10.2 made threes per game, but seven teams finished the season with less than 5.3 threes made per game, which is what Curry is currently averaging this season.

The first reason for this radical shift in strategy was a massive set of rule changes that hit the league between the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons. The “illegal defense” rule, which stated players must be clearly guarding their defensive assignment or dedicating themselves to a double-team, was done away with. Gone were the days of being able to put a center who couldn’t shoot at the three-point line and earning a violation for when his defender wandered toward the paint to stop an actual threat. So were the days of a post player being able to get essentially a free catch down low in one-on-one coverage and having a few precious seconds to work before a double-team came their way.

Second, and just as importantly, the league did away with hand-checking on the perimeter entirely. It was no longer legal to harass a small, fast guard on the perimeter with subtle bumps, shoves and slaps, which players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Gary Payton (Sr.) had turned into an art. Suddenly, guards had free reign to run a pick-and-roll or an isolation, or get a head of steam going toward the basket, without having to fear a hip check or a strong swipe to the forearm making them give up the ball.

It took some players, coaches and front offices longer to realize it than others, but in one fell swoop the NBA had changed from a post-up oriented game controlled by giants to a perimeter-oriented game owned by players who could attack the basket from the outside-in.

Between 1991 and 2005, the only players to win the NBA Finals MVP were Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Chauncey Billups and Jordan, the latter of whom was the best post-up perimeter player of all time. No center has won the award since.

The point of attack had switched from the block to the perimeter, and these new outside-in attacks needed to be supported by three-point shooters who could space the floor for their speed merchants. Back in the old days, any player could stand out at the three-point line and create space just by tempting their man into playing “illegal” defense. But now that defenders were allowed to set up as they chose, to provide space a player sitting on the perimeter would actually need to be capable of knocking down shots from outside.

The next major thing that brought about the three-point revolution was analytics. The NBA’s analytics revolution was quite different from the “Moneyball” revolution that changed baseball. In baseball, those learned in the analytical arts were able to look at existing box scores. Without watching a second of game film, they could see where inefficiencies and the possibilities for extra runs existed.

Basketball’s analytics revolution could best be described as “teams started counting more things, and reacting accordingly.” A basketball box score, to this day, only separates between two-point field goal attempts and three-point field goal attempts. A wide-open dunk goes into the box score as a two-point attempt, just like a fadeaway with a player’s heel on the three-point line. Meanwhile, a wide-open three from the corner goes into the box score like it was a pull-up 28-footer with plenty of time on the clock.

With no statistical definition of an “outside” shot provided to them, except by the arbitrary measurement of whether a shot came from three-point distance or not, many coaches were left with a simple imperative. If a player’s field goal percentage was suffering because he was taking more threes than he should be, he should bring his game inside the three-point line and take more “efficient” shots.

However, when analytics came along, and people started tracking two-point jump shots separately from shots at the basket, they found something interesting. Almost no player in the NBA makes as many of his mid-range shots as was previously believed, and the extra point from a three-point shot made a three a better shot than a long two in nearly every situation.

To pick an example, Curry, the best shooter of all time, is a 45.9% career shooter from the 10-15 foot range and a 46.4% shooter from the 16-23 foot range. If we use simple math, we can figure out that those percentages are the equivalent to shooting just over 30% from the three-point line, which is far below the league average. For a point of comparison, the Lakers’ Russell Wesbrook is shooting 30% from beyond the arc this season.

Mid-range shots still have their place in the game, but with the caveat that players aren’t much better at shooting two-point jumpers than they are at shooting three-point jumpers, which are worth an extra point. The math has simply been too overwhelming for players to say the mid-range game “fits them” better than three-point shots, which was once a perfectly acceptable point of view for players to have.

There is even more that went into the three-point revolution than I’ve listed here. The proliferation of skills coaches have made individuals better at shooting. Fewer coaches who learned basketball without a three-point line are still in the league. And the list goes on.

Curry is certainly an important part of the three-point revolution, and has almost single-handedly changed what the definition of a “good” shot is. But to give him all, or even most, of the credit for the radical change the game has undergone doesn’t tell the whole story.

Regardless, Curry’s mixture of off-ball genius and on-ball wizardry makes him unique among NBA players to this day.

John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner

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