Analyzing the Evolution of Three-Point Shooting in the NBA: Where is it going?

Oct. 18, 2023, 4:54 p.m.

 Analyzing the Evolution of Three-Point Shooting in the NBA: Where is it going?

At the end of the 70s, the NBA had just beaten its main competitor the ABA, from which up to 4 teams became part of the NBA, thanks to a rapid expansion in those years. However, it was a bittersweet victory, because the NBA was going through its worst moment, the low attendance in the pavilions, the social problems in the country, among other things were affecting the impact and growth of the competition.
It is in this context that, along with other changes, the three-point line arrived in the league in 1979, with the objective of making the game more dynamic and favoring the spectacle. 

While it is true that we cannot attribute all the credit to this measure, the NBA lived in the 80s its golden years and its greatest boom as a sporting competition, the Showtime Lakers and their rivalry with Bird's Celtics or young people who entered the league those years as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Olajuwon, made the league became an international phenomenon. 

The triple came in 1979, however, the league did not reach the triple until many years later. The late 70's to early 90's were the years of the highest scoring average and pace of play, however, the three-pointer did not even account for 8% of the shots taken by teams.

Percentage of three-pointers attempted out of the total shots attempted in the season from the three-point line.

The three-pointer has been gaining importance in the game over the years, but as you can see in the graph, in the last 10 years has grown more the use of this shot over the total of the teams, than in the previous two decades. In the previous post we mentioned it, the irruption of new technologies in the league along with the advancement of statistics and its growing importance in the decision-making process of the franchises, began to shape the new paradigm shift that was being built in the competition.

As can be seen in one of the following graphs, the eFG% (Effective Shooting Percentage) which measures the effectiveness of a player or a team in shooting, taking into account that the value of the three-pointer is 50% higher than the two-point shot. In other words, a player who scores 4 out of 10 three-pointers (40%) scores the same points as a player who scores 6 out of 10 two-point shots (60%), therefore, knowing that the average accuracy from the three-point line is around 35%, all the two-point shots that do not have an efficiency of more than 50% are doomed to disappear, as is the case of the mid-range shot.

1. Two- and three-point shots attempted in the NBA per season.   2. eFG percentage in the league since its inception.

However, the change that we now see in the NBA was also accelerated by the arrival of certain players (Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Trae Young, among others) and especially the emergence of dominant teams like the Warriors, the Cavaliers or the Rockets, whose tactics and success were based on the mastery of the three-point shot, which led other franchises to emulate the model.

After a brief review of the evolution of the three-pointer and its use in the NBA, let's answer the question we asked ourselves at the beginning: Where is it headed?

You only have to sit down and watch a game in the league where Curry or Lillard, among others, participate to see at a glance what the ability of these players from very long distance conditions the defense of their rivals:

Curry's outside threat range forces Smart to have to jump high, creating a huge amount of space for the offense to exploit.

But while there are certain situations like the one shown above in which the advantage generated through the "gravitational pull" of players of Stephen Curry's stature is very clear, if we look at how the game and tactics in general have changed due to this three-point phenomenon, we find that the pace has picked up to levels not seen before, we find that the pace has risen again to levels not seen in the 80s (+100 possessions per team per game), the use of smallball as a recurring option in the quintets, increased transitions and especially a greater understanding and use of spacing, thanks to the threat of having on the court players capable of shooting with good percentages from long distance, it seems very important.

Visual example of an offensive clearance with 4 players with the possibility to score from outside, forcing the defense not to help too much and with the center positioned in the dunker, behind the defender's back to cut in case of entry to the hoop.

We do not know what the future holds, if the competition will implement new changes, such as the 4-point line or increase the size of the court or the physical development of new players who arrive but what is clear is that the ability to shoot three-pointers is no longer a quality, it is already a prerequisite to enter the league and the trend marks that either something changes at the level of regulation or the triple is on its way to becoming the most common shot of the competition, dragging with it the tactics and technique that should focus on maximizing this resource.

* Graphs of own elaboration (source: basketballreference) and images taken from longomatch. *

Luis Cordero Ramírez
Twitter: @BallData42