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The 3-Point Shot and the Time Lag of Innovation

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the evolution of 3-pointers on ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jump-shooting teams are now winning the Finals, but it took us a long time to get here. For years after the NBA added the 3-point line in 1979, players and teams didn’t make much use of the arc. Now teams are taking a record number of 3s. Why did it take so long? Malcolm Gladwell joined Bill Simmons to discuss the evolution on The Bill Simmons Podcast.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Are Players Just Better Shooters Now?

Bill Simmons: Nash’s Suns always get credited for being the team that brought back the 3-ball. But there was an Antoine Walker–Paul Pierce two-year run on the Celtics where basically all they did was shoot 3s because that was the only way they had a chance to compete at a high level. There’s like three years in a row where the Celtics led the league in 3-pointers. In the [2002–03] season, they averaged over 26 a game, which is a ton. It was way more than anyone else. Antoine would shoot eight a game and Pierce would shoot [five] a game. But they weren’t going in — Pierce was like a 30 percent 3-point shooter.

People were thinking this way, but they weren’t good enough at shooting them yet. I think the difference now is people are just better at shooting them. That’s the story I haven’t read yet. Why are people better at shooting 3s now? Is it spacing? Is it just practice? Is it that they grew up during an era when they were all taught to shoot the same way and release the same way and that’s helped? Is it 20 years of repetition? That’s the part I don’t know.

Malcolm Gladwell: It would be really interesting to get a completely accurate practice diary of Steph Curry and compare it to what [the equivalent scorer] was doing 20 years ago. Maybe it’s just that Steph Curry is taking 80 percent of his practice shots from outside the arc?

The Arc Was Alien for a While

Simmons: [In] the ’79-80 season, [the 3-point line] just comes in. It’s this long line, and I remember going to those games the first year. I was living in Boston with my dad, it was Larry Bird’s first season, we went to a ton of those games. And the 3-point line was like an oddity. It would be the equivalent of like if they had a 4-point line now at midcourt. You would just stare at it and when somebody shot it, it was like, "Whoa, he’s shooting from there!" It just didn’t seem conceivable that this would be the thing that completely changed the league.

Gladwell: The history of the 3-point line is completely consistent with the history of all major innovations. There’s a literature on time lag in innovations. So you introduce an idea, it’s clearly a disruptive, revolutionary idea — how long does it take to be adopted in a widespread way? You can look at the ATM. The first ATM [was introduced] in the [late ’60s]. The ATM doesn’t reach maturity until 20 years later or so. Same thing with the telephone, same thing with the fax machine, same thing with the smartphone. You go down the list — it always takes a generation.

Simmons: You think a generation?

Gladwell: Yeah. Like I said, there is a massive literature on this in economics about how it takes a generation for even the most obviously good ideas to get widespread acceptance. The 3-point shot is a perfect example of that. What seems like a no-brainer to us now — move back two feet and all of a sudden —

Simmons: It’s worth an extra point! The math!

Gladwell: Same thing, no-brainer. Get your cash from a machine! Don’t go to the bank during bank hours and line up in a long line and spend 20 minutes getting your $40 for the weekend. That seems really obvious to us now; it was not obvious in 1989! It was a weird idea. Do I trust the machine? The banks were like, "I don’t know how many machines we should put out there." It’s the same thing.

It Was a Desperation Shot for a Long Time

Simmons: I did something about this where Isiah Thomas [was second in the league] in 3-point shooting with like 28 percent, the second or third year [after the league adopted it]. Literally, 28 percent was the [second-highest] one. I remember things started to shift. First it was, when you’re down three with 10 seconds left, "Oh, we’ll shoot a 3, we can tie it!" And everybody’s just taking terrible 3s and that started it.

Bird was the first guy that I remember who understood what the psychological impact of it was. He would take them in big moments as the dagger. The first one, the biggest one he made his second season, was the one that clinched Game 6 in Houston to win the NBA Finals. They swung it around to him, he makes his 3 in the corner, clinches the game, runs down with his fist [up], it was like, "Oh, the 3!" It could be like a closer. But it wasn’t until the mid-’80s when people started seeing it that way. Then all of a sudden in the late-’80s, that’s when the Dale Ellis types started coming in. … And then Reggie Miller comes in.

Gladwell: In retrospect, how good of a 3 shooter was Dale Ellis?

Simmons: I mean, pretty good, in that high 30s to low 40s percent.

Gladwell: Was Dell Curry?

Simmons: If you compared him against everyone else in his era versus Steph, it’s probably similar? They screwed things up, though. There was like a [three-year] stretch in the mid-’90s that they moved it in. So everybody’s numbers are way off.

When they moved it back, the numbers started coming around. When the Celtics were shooting all those 3s, they made the 2002 Eastern finals. And they’re just gunning 3s, like, I think Antoine took [6.8] a game in the playoffs.

How Much Harder Is It to Step Back a Few Feet?

Gladwell: The interesting physics problem is, if you add two or three feet to a midrange jumper, all things being equal, how much harder is the shot? So you’re going to get an extra point, but obviously you’re attempting a more difficult shot. Someone surely has quantified exactly what is the cost of moving back a couple of feet. We know the benefit, we don’t know the cost.

Simmons: You know what I found? When I was playing pickup hoops for a few years, I had a 20-foot shot. Which is about three feet in from the 3-point line. But most of the time, when you play pickup, everything counts one point. If you’re doing it correctly, it’s a game to 11 and everything is one point. What was interesting is that people would shoot 3s anyway. [David] Jacoby and I, the guy I always played with, we would always talk about [why] these people shoot 3s. It was because they had practiced so many 3s, and the line, it made them know where they were on the basketball court. So you can make the case [that] people are more comfortable shooting a 3 than [a shot] that’s three, four feet in, because you don’t have your bearings the same way. If you’re behind the 3-point line, you’re like, "When I’m here, this is what I have to do." I think that’s one of the reasons the 3-point shot has taken off like it has.

Should the Line Move Back?

Simmons: Would you move it back or no?

Gladwell: No. I don’t think so. Although, what I’m interested in is, there will come a point where everyone plays Houston ball. Did you see the clip online of a high school team that really does just do layups and 3s — there’s no in-between game. It no longer resembles basketball.

Simmons: I’m not sure I love it.

Gladwell: Yeah, I don’t know, I had mixed feelings. It was really cool to see; the coach basically said, "You can’t shoot anything that’s not a 3 or a layup." So you see the players, they move into the paint and they do these kind of U-turns once they see that there’s nothing available. It’s almost like there’s a huge gray zone inside the 3-point line and they just don’t go near it. It’s some hybrid basketball you’ve not seen before.

Simmons: The most interesting idea I’ve heard tempering this a little bit would be to change the arc so that it goes out before the corner. Basically, eliminate the corner 3. Because you could argue that the corner 3 is where a lot of the damage is. You can put the guy on the corner, he just stands there, he doesn’t do anything, spreads the floor for everybody else, and it’s worth three points every time the defense screws up and he’s able to take a shot. If you’re trying to establish a better inside-out flow, that’s what you’d have to eliminate. The counter would be: Everybody likes watching [basketball] more now. People like 3s.

Gladwell: I don’t know why we we’re defending the basketball of the ’90s. That was really really difficult to watch basketball.

Simmons: The [Pat] Riley era was pretty rough.

Gladwell: I don’t want to go back to that.