SALT LAKE CITY — I’ve been a fan of basketball’s 3-point line ever since the days of the old American Basketball Association, which pioneered its use back in the 1960s and ‘70s when the old Utah Stars played in the league.
In fact, back in high school, my friends and I even organized our own “ABA League” with our own teams and names (I was Mel Daniels of the Indiana Pacers) using a local elementary school as our home court with 8-foot baskets where dunks were plentiful. We also had 3-point baskets, made possible by the lines we spray-painted on the blacktop (sorry about that, Indian Hills Elementary, please forgive us).
It took until 1979, three years after the demise of the ABA, for the NBA to adopt the 3-point line at 23 feet, 9 inches and 22 feet from the corners, and it took quite a while for teams to embrace the new concept. For instance in 1979-80, the first year of the 3-point shot, an average of only three 3-pointers were taken per game and one team, the Atlanta Hawks, averaged less than one try per game. A decade later, the NBA average was only up to seven 3-pointers per game.
An ESPN writer named Kirk Goldsberry has written the book “SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA,” which includes a lot of discussion about the proliferation of 3-point shooting. He shares this astonishing statistic: This past season NBA players made 4,000 more 3-point shots (27,955) than they made during the entire decade of the 1980s (23,871).
In those early years, NBA teams still stuck to the longtime basketball principle of working the ball close to the basket for a shot. By the mid-1990s, the NBA encouraged the long ball by moving the line closer to the basket (22 feet all the way around) over a three-year period before moving it back.
However, thanks in large part to the recent analytics boom that each NBA franchise now employs, 3-point shooting has gone bonkers. It seems simple, but as long as you’re making more than 33.3 percent of your 3-pointers that beats making less than 50 percent of your 2-point shots. This season, every team but one — the Phoenix Suns at 32.9 percent — exceeded that threshold.
The two teams that have exploited the 3-point shot more than any other are the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. In Saturday night’s Rockets-Warriors game, the two teams combined for 75 3-point attempts among the 188 total shots they put up. While that seems like a lot, it was a pretty average night of 3-point shooting for those two teams. Back in mid-January, the Rockets and Brooklyn Nets combined for a ridiculous 106 3-point attempts, with the Rockets attempting 70 of them, smashing the previous record.
Three-point numbers have really shot up the past five years from around 20 per game per team up to around 34 per team per game.
I remember interviewing Quin Snyder a few years ago about 3-point shooting before the recent surge and him telling me he was OK with more 3-pointers, but wasn’t a fan of players hopping backward behind the line in order to take a 3. Nowadays everyone is going backward to shoot 3-pointers and most coaches are more than happy for their teams to do so. The worst shot is that 22-foot 2-pointer just inside the arc.
The one outlier in all this 3-point madness is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who admits he "hates" the 3-pointer and has said, “I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing.” No surprise, his team shoots fewer 3-pointers than any other in the league at 25.3 per game, about half as many as league leader Houston (45.4).
However, it’s interesting to note that the Spurs were No. 1 in the league this past season in 3-point percentage (39.2), followed by the Clippers (38.8 percent), who ranked third in fewest attempts. So perhaps there is a case to be made that quality 3-point shots are as smart as a huge volume of 3-pointers.
In his book, Goldsberry has some ideas on slowing down the 3-point explosion, including moving the line back each year depending on results from the previous year. One of his ideas, which even he calls crazy, is to let each team make its own 3-point line, much like baseball teams have their own ballpark dimensions with different distances for home-run fences.
Here’s what I’d like to see happen:
Move the line back to an even 25 feet. That’s just 1 foot and 3 inches longer than the current distance. With the court measuring 50 feet wide, that means that the arc would run into the sideline before the baseline, eliminating those corner 3s where, as Goldsberry puts it, players “are just standing around picking dandelions like little league right fielders.”
With the line moved back slightly, that would eliminate a few guys who shouldn’t be trying 3-pointers, open up even more space around the basket and force players to perfect the midrange jumpers that have pretty much disappeared from today's NBA game. It would give fans more variety to watch, some 15- and 20-footers mixed in with all the dunks and 3-point shots.
Remember a little over a decade ago, college basketball moved its line back a foot to the current 20 feet, 9 inches and most would agree it’s opened up the floor more and made for a better game on the collegiate level.
Some might see a longer arc as a negative but great shooters like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, who already shoot from outlandish distances, would be rewarded. Meanwhile 7-footers such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, who ranked near the bottom of the NBA at 30 percent from 3 this year, might stay closer to the basket where they belong.