The Evolution of the NBA’s Three-Point Shot
The historic 1979-80 NBA season is considered legendary, primarily because it is remembered as the year both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league as rookies. However, the three-point shot was also introduced into the NBA that same season, and while it didn’t have nearly the same impact as Magic or Larry initially, it has slowly but surely increased in importance ever since.
The rival ABA (American Basketball Association), in an attempt to create buzz and distinguish itself from the NBA, first instituted the three-point shot back in 1967. Twelve years later, the NBA followed suit. The hope was that the rule change would increase excitement by preventing clogged lanes and slow, methodical play dominated by big men in the post. During that first season, the NBA implemented three’s on a “trial basis.” It wasn’t instituted as an official, permanent rule until October of 1980. Initially, it was considered an afterthought by most NBA teams. Many assumed it was more or less a gimmick that would soon be eliminated from the game.
Just how insignificant was the three-point shot during those early years? Consider this: The 1979-80 Atlanta Hawks, coached by Hubie Brown, attempted a total of 75 three-pointers over the course of the full 82-game schedule. They knocked down just 13 of those attempts. In contrast, last year in the NBA, there were 241 individual players that made at least 14 three-pointers – or more threes than that entire Hawks team combined. And the 2012-13 New York Knicks attempted a total of 2,371 three-point attempts. In fact, the Knicks attempted at least 13 threes in a single game on 25 separate occasions last season.
Still, the Hawks were by no means an anomaly back then. Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, who went with the title in 1980, attempted a total of just 100 threes during the 1979-80 regular season, and made only 20. The league average that year was less than three attempts and less than one make per contest for each team.
The next season (1980-81), three-pointers actually decreased league wide. Team averages dipped to 166 attempts and 41 makes over the full season, and teams shot just 24 percent from behind-the-arc. Brown’s Hawks knocked down just 10 triples over the course of that entire season. A remarkable number, considering that multiple players have made more than 10 threes in a single game in recent years. Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams made nine three-pointers in the first half alone in a win over the Washington Wizards back in March.
Throughout much of the 1980s, threes remained a relative afterthought. During the 1986-87 campaign, sharpshooter Larry Bird led the league in three-pointers, despite knocking down a total of just 90 threes. In comparison, during the recently completed 2012-13 season there were 70 players that nailed at least 90 threes – including standouts such as Corey Brewer and Wayne Ellington.
However, as the late 80s rolled into the early 90s, long-range gunning saw a moderate increase in frequency. By 1991, the league average for team attempts finally crept above five three-point attempts per game.
During the mid-1990s, David Stern and NBA league officials became concerned that overly-aggressive defense and decreased scoring was negatively impacting the league’s popularity. In response, prior to the start of the 1994-95 season, in an effort to boost scoring and TV ratings, the NBA announced it would shorten the distance of the line from 23 feet, nine inches (22 feet at the corners) to a uniform 22 feet all around.
The rule change resulted in an immediate increase in three-point attempts throughout the Association. The league wide per-team average jumped from fewer than 10 three-point attempts per game in 1993-94, to an average of over 15 treys attempted per game by each team in 1994-95. In 1995-96, Dennis Scott hit a then-record 267 threes, which was 100 more triples than league-leaders Reggie Miller and Dan Majerle had converted just three years earlier.
However, the rule change lasted only three seasons. Following the 1996–97 season, the NBA moved the line back to its original distance of 23 feet, nine inches at the top of the key and 22 feet at the corners. Unsurprisingly, this had a significant dampening effect on both attempts and accuracy.
One of the teams that benefited in a big way from the shortened line during that three-year stretch was the Chicago Bulls, and a certain shooting guard named Michael Jordan. Over the first nine seasons of his career, MJ averaged just 31 three-point makes per season, and shot a pedestrian 30.1 percent from behind-the-arc. After his return from a brief retirement and pilgrimage to baseball’s minor leagues, Jordan found the new three-point line much to his liking. From 1995 through 1997, Jordan averaged 111 three-pointers per season, and shot 40.4 percent from three-point territory.
In the following season (1997-98), when the line was moved back to nearly 24 feet, Jordan hit just 30 threes and shot below 24 percent from long distance. In his final two professional seasons, after coming back to play for the Wizards, MJ averaged just 13 treys per season, and shot 24.1 percent. Jordan’s wingman, Scottie Pippen, also saw a sharp increase in his three-point efficiency during those three special seasons. From 1994 through 1997, Pippen shot 36.4 percent on threes and averaged 138 threes per season. In the seven seasons prior, he averaged 25 threes per season and shot below 27 percent. In the six seasons after (1998-2004), he averaged 55 triples on 32 percent shooting.
The Bulls weren’t the only team to take advantage of the shortened three-point line. The Houston Rockets decided to surround their all-world center, Hakeem Olajuwon, with perimeter marksmen. The Rockets led the league, by a wide margin, in both three-point attempts and makes in 1994-95, on the way to capturing back-to-back titles.
In the years following the return of the deeper line, there was an unsurprising reduction in three-point shooting; however, as the years went by, there has been a slow but steady increase in three-point gunning. Recently, more and more teams have made long-distance shooting a staple of their offense. Last season numerous three-point shooting records, of the team and individual variety, were broken.
The Knicks shattered the all-time records for most three-point attempts and makes in an NBA season. The Knicks shot 891-for-2,371 from behind-the-arc during the 2012-13 campaign. The Rockets weren’t far behind (867-of-2369). Together, the Knicks and Rockets made 1,758 treys last season. That’s 350 more made three-pointers than the total of the entire league combined back in 1979-80.
Also, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors established a new NBA record for most three-point makes by an individual player last season, knocking down 272 triples. That’s 178 more threes than the entire 1982-83 San Antonio Spurs team, and the Spurs led the league in three-point makes that season!
Even as recently as 1992-93, there wasn’t a single NBA team that attempted more than 1,100 three-pointers. Well, last season each and every team in the league attempted at least 1,100 threes.
Will the importance and frequency of the three-point shot continue to rise at a remarkable rate? It will be interesting to see if teams that are dependent on three-point shooting are able to advance deep into the postseason and ultimately capture an NBA championship. Many teams have come close, but the only team to lead the league in three-point attempts and also take home the title in the same season was those mid-90s Rockets squads.
Interestingly, the top two seeds in each conference last season (the Miami HEAT, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder) all finished in the top-five in three-point percentage last season. Could it be the teams that take plenty of threes and make a healthy percentage of those attempts are the squads that will achieve ultimate success in today’s NBA? Stay tuned…