In the first NBA Finals to feature the 3-point line, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers made one 3-pointer. Not one per game, or per team, or per individual shooter; not one so impressive it led SportsCenter or one so clutch it swung a key game. No, in May 1980, the Lakers and 76ers combined to make one 3, total, across six competitive games.
That’s a gobsmacking statistic in retrospect; the Warriors made multiple 3-pointers in every quarter of their sweep of the Cavaliers in last year’s Finals. Any number of fun facts highlight the absurd languor with which the league embraced the 3-pointer upon its introduction. Another favorite: Last season’s Rockets made more 3s than any franchise’s combined total throughout the 1980s—but this Finals note in particular stands out for its extremity. It also coheres with the game’s general trajectory: Evolution, after all, begins with a single cell.
If the pre-3-point period in NBA history is the equivalent of the Mesozoic era, when insuperable dinosaurs like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain ruled the court, then Julius Erving’s 3 in Game 3 against the Lakers is the current game’s Lucy, a distant ancestor from a different era that nonetheless resembles the first instance of what the world looks like now. And like humans in the 21st century to the 3-million-year-old Lucy, the current 3-point environment is ages more advanced—greater in size, more nuanced and diverse, and smarter in every respect—than its initial predecessor.
Today’s NBA is full of 3s, emanating from all spots and distances beyond the arc at a once-unimaginable volume. Last season, the Houston Rockets became the first team in NBA history to attempt more 3s than 2s over a full schedule, and they’re on a similar pace this season. The trend isn’t reserved to the high end of teams, either. More than a third of all shot attempts over the past two seasons have been 3s; before this decade, no individual team had taken such a high percentage of its shots from range in a single season. And the pattern may not relent anytime soon.
“I still don’t think that we’ve reached the tipping point yet,” says David Arseneault Jr., head coach of the men’s basketball team at Grinnell College and former coach of the then–Reno Bighorns, Sacramento’s G League team. “I think that we’re getting closer, of course, but I still just think that there’s going to be a team out there soon … that’s going to be taking well over half of their shots from the 3-point line—60 percent, 65 percent of their field goal attempts just being 3-point shots.”
No team is yet within range of fulfilling Arseneault’s prediction—even the Rockets are at just 51 percent this season—but the league is growing closer every year. Long-range enthusiasm has spread across the NBA and filtered down to basketball’s lower levels, and not only are 3-pointers not going away, but all signs lead the movement’s evangelists to think it will continue to grow. Rockets GM Daryl Morey might not be the last point of progress, but rather just the first man to twirl a twig and call it a tool.
Dean Oliver is the forefather of basketball analytics. A Bill James disciple who transferred the baseball sabermetrician’s ethos to the hardwood, Oliver became the NBA’s first full-time statistical consultant, with the Seattle SuperSonics, in the 2004-05 season. But not even Oliver noticed the historical significance of the Sonics’ game in Philadelphia in 2004.
In a 103-95 win that saw Ray Allen score 37 points and Vladimir Radmanovic add 20 off the bench, Seattle took 39 3-pointers and 38 2s—and in so doing became the first team in league history to attempt as many (or more) shots from distance as not. It was the first vision of a futuristic NBA, but it went unnoticed at the time. The Associated Press’s recap mentioned the team’s high 3-point total but not what it signified, and when informed about the feat recently, Oliver burst into laughter as he replied, “I don’t think I did know that.”
Yet even though the Sonics won that game, and even though they made 18 3s that night, and even though Oliver says it was clear the team’s strength was shooting, they never again approached such a lofty total. The Sonics ranked second in overall 3-point attempt rate (3PAr) that season, but at only 28.1 percent—meaning 28.1 percent of their total field goal attempts were 3s. All 30 teams have topped that mark so far this season.
This tale of the 2004-05 Sonics reflects less a missed opportunity for one team than a leaguewide failure of imagination. Nobody, in Seattle or elsewhere, had yet learned the power of the 3-pointer. It wasn’t until 2006, via the then–New Jersey Nets, that a second team took 50 percent of its attempts from 3 in a single game, and it took another three years for the next teams, the Magic and Knicks, to do it (in the span of a week in December 2009, no less). The overall total inched, and paused, and inched some more—and then it leaped like it had been coated in Flubber. (The 2018-19 bar in this graph is projected out for the rest of the season.)
The recent 3-point boom goes beyond the extremists. Besides a massive one-season spike in the mid-’90s when the NBA experimented with a shorter arc, the three largest year-over-year 3PAr jumps in league history are from 2015-16 to 2016-17, 2016-17 to 2017-18, and 2017-18 to 2018-19. In other words, the 3-point increase is still increasing.
“It’s funny,” says Oliver, who has also worked for the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets, “because if you were out on the playground in [previous decades], a lot of people were out there taking 3-point shots. It seemed like it took hold in the playgrounds before it did in the NBA.”
Finally, now, the idea has resonated at the highest levels of the game: Three is better than two—or perhaps more accurately, the possibility of three is better than the possibility of two.
Morey was one of the first basketball minds to adopt that aphorism in a disciplined, decision-directing manner. Yet even his teams in Houston, where he took over as general manager in 2007, didn’t begin to push the boundaries of the sport until recently. “Most people think we’re going too fast; you’re the first person to ask why it went too slow,” he says. “It’s a combination of getting the right players and then obviously Coach D’Antoni being one of the all-time great innovators in the sport of basketball, and working with him to basically try and create a great offense.”
Morey needed a cohesive system in place to implement his ideas fully, and Mike D’Antoni, who had supervised an avant-garde pace-and-space scheme in Phoenix a full decade prior, was the coach who could turn vision into strategy. But while getting athletes to buy into the math took time and effort and the right personnel, teams don’t need a D’Antoni or even a James Harden to realize the gains of a 3-heavy strategy. That’s because shooting percentage remains almost constant from every distance on the court. According to the tracking data at NBA Savant, the league shot between 37 and 42 percent from every 1-foot increment between 3 and 25 feet last season.
But of course, the 3-point line means that even if shooting percentages are the same across a large section of the court, the value of those shots varies. Even if the math is clear in theory, the effect is still staggering.
The red line represents the expected point value across every attempt in the league last season. The value of any given shot plummeted beyond 3 feet, but it perked back up at the 3-point line. Shots from 23 feet away were actually more valuable than shots from just 2 feet away; shots from the midrange look even less appealing when compared to shots from just a few steps farther back. (That analysis doesn’t account for free throws and the potential for offensive rebounds and turnovers, but the general pattern remains the same.)
From both a mathematical and aesthetic perspective, Oliver couldn’t be more thrilled with the NBA’s warm embrace of the 3—and, by extension, his own ideas about how to construct a maximally efficient offense. Responding to a question about the possible criticism that current trends produce a less entertaining version of the sport, his voice is firm in rebuttal. “I completely disagree with that,” he says. “I think the evolving play right now in the NBA is some of the most fun I’ve seen in my lifetime. I think we’re running more. The ball movement epitomized by some of the best teams to identify the good shot, the fact that the lane is more open because defenses have to go out and be aware of the shooter—I think makes it a much more interesting version of basketball.”
No team has benefited more from the 3 than the Warriors—even if they are talented enough to be title favorites without any 3s. But the shot proved a thornier proposition for the franchise when first introduced. After NBA owners voted in 1979 to adopt the 3-point line on a trial basis, then-Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli stormed out of the meeting and groused, “Changing the 2-point basket is immoral. … We are going to destroy the team concept.”
The notion of immorality has faded, but complaints persisted for decades—about the questionable entertainment value of 3s, about the looming singularity of offensive styles, about the dissolution of a staunch big-man tradition. Just five seasons ago, Zach Lowe wrote a story at Grantland titled “Life Beyond the Arc: Is a heavy reliance on the 3-pointer the future of basketball?” in which he quoted an assortment of league types who wondered whether “all the long-range chucking [is] good for the game.”
“The league does not want NBA basketball to look like a pickup game,” Lowe wrote, “and it is concerned that games with, say, 70 combined 3-point attempts would take on the feel of a ragged, me-first open gym game.”
Since the 2013-14 season, when Lowe penned that column, there have been 464 instances of teams combining for 70-plus 3-point attempts, including 225 this season alone—compared to just five in league history before then. But the sport is no worse for wear. By jersey sales, the Warriors have been the NBA’s most popular team and Steph Curry its most popular player for nearly half a decade, and even amid a TV ratings dip this season, the league is doing just fine from a perceptual perspective.
The players don’t mind, either, from the Rockets (no. 1 in 3PAr this season) to the new-look Bucks (no. 2) to Luka Doncic’s Mavericks (no. 3) to the surging Nets (no. 4). “One of the big things was just how much the players embraced playing this way,” Morey says about implementing an approach centered on 3s. “They love playing up-tempo. They love spacing. They love offense. I think that it ended up being a much easier transition than maybe anyone would think.”
Easier—and quicker. The 3-pointer’s hegemony has sprung with surprising speed. Nevada Smith has been connected to the NBA for only six years, since he brought an audaciously 3-laden scheme to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s G League team. But in that time he has gone from, in his words, an “outcast” to a relatively mainstream strategist. “People definitely thought we were nuts and ruining basketball, and now it’s the most widely accepted way to play,” says Smith, who now coaches the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Miami’s G League team.
Numerous sources interviewed for this story used the same word, unprompted, to describe the NBA: copycat. “We’re a result-oriented business,” Smith says. “If Golden State never wins, I don’t think teams would be playing the way they’re playing or building rosters the way they’re doing right now.”
Adds Oliver, “I had heard plenty of stories over the course of my time working with the NBA about how, ‘Yeah, well, they’re good, but they’ve never won a title.’ … You do kind of need to validate [a strategy] for it to have the full influence.”
This validation hasn’t come only in the NBA, either. In the WNBA, the three teams with the highest single-season 3PArs in the past decade are the 2018 Mercury, Storm, and Mystics; the Storm and Mystics met in the Finals in September after the former knocked the Mercury out in the semis. In men’s Division I, Villanova won last season’s title attempting nearly half its shots from distance, a clear record for title-winners.
But the experimentation necessary to reach that point started at the lower levels. David Arseneault Jr., for instance, grew up in the Grinnell College ecosystem, where his father innovated a pressing, up-tempo, 3-oriented—and controversial—system to help the Division III school compete. The younger Arseneault once dished 34 assists in a single game, a NCAA record that would still stand if not for a different Grinnell guard who tallied 37 in a game in 2014.
For at least the last 15 years, Grinnell’s 3PAr has never dipped below 59 percent and has reached as high as 68 in a season. “I just took it for granted that that’s how the game was played,” Arseneault says. When he watches NBA games now, Arsenault says, “I find myself constantly looking at the screen or watching any game, and just four, five times a possession being like, ‘Well, there’s a shot that could’ve been taken,’ and getting a little impatient myself when people aren’t pulling the trigger.”
In 2014, Oliver was searching for new strategies that might help the moribund Kings. A G League coach opening, Oliver says now, afforded the right opportunity to try to “take advantage of some of the things that were being underutilized in the NBA.” So he turned to Arsenault, then Grinnell’s associate head coach. “I’d been having email conversations with various people about the Grinnell system over a couple years,” Oliver says. “I had some skepticism, but I always felt there was something to it.”
When Arseneault first received Oliver’s message, he thought it was to ask a question about his father’s system, or maybe a low-ranking assistant’s position. But the job offer to run the Reno Bighorns and test his approach in the G League was real. “I honestly had no idea how it would translate with better-caliber athletes, better shooters, better in every aspect of the game,” Arseneault says. Some of his ideas quickly proved ineffectual—he abandoned his college press against the better opposition in the G League—but his 3-centric offense thrived, with the two best offensive ratings (116.2 points per 100 possessions in his first season, 116.0 the second) in recorded G League history.
It’s tricky to draw a straight line between Arseneault’s time in Reno and the success of the Kings this season. Oliver left the team in 2015 and Arseneault a year later; the latter is now back at Grinnell as head coach. But as the 2018-19 Kings make their push for the franchise’s first playoff berth in 13 years, they’re playing at warp speed and taking six more 3s per game than just last season, one of the five largest increases of any team. “If the Sacramento Kings were able to take away one thing that helped them win one extra game over the course of the season,” Arseneault says, “then it would’ve been a success in my mind.”
All that rapid success, in both lower-level experiments and, courtesy of the Warriors, the NBA Finals gives the disciples of Moreyball the most powerful weapon against nonbelievers: proof of concept. “It’s a little easier to settle a direction,” Morey says, “when you can say, ‘We’ve done it, we know it works, we know it helps you win,’ than, ‘Hey, I’ve got something that on a piece of paper seems like it might work.’”
But defenses don’t yet have ideas that work even on paper. In his 2013 piece, Lowe cited NBA executives who thought improved defenses would stymy the rise in 3s. It was a reasonable prediction—give defenses time to adjust, and Newton’s Third Law would manifest on the hardwood. A half-decade later, though, 3-happy folks agree that preventive schemes haven’t improved to the point of thwarting their plans. “They have gotten better,” Oliver says, “but it’s not as though you can get so much better that you offset all the gains associated with it. … There’s only so much you can do because it’s just hard to stop someone who’s a great shooter.”
Even with better defenses, 3-point-shooting teams would still have the upper hand—and it’s not clear the defenses are that much better in the first place. The league shot 36.2 percent on 3s last season, the third-highest mark in history, and it hasn’t dipped below 34.9 percent in any season since the introduction of new illegal defense rules in 2004. That consistency might result from greater commitment to shooting practice from the league’s premier marksmen, but it also stems from a broad and continuing ability of sophisticated offenses to find the looks they want on a nightly basis.
Teams aren’t just shooting more 3s—they’re specifically shooting more open 3s. NBA.com/Stats splits shot attempts into four categories based on the proximity of the closest defender, and all the new 3-pointers are coming in the “open” (with the closest defender between 4 and 6 feet away) and “wide open” (6 or more feet away) categories.
Wide-open 3s comprise more than half the league’s attempts, and every season, the league shoots 38 or 39 percent on those looks. That level of accuracy is what players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki have shot from 3 in their careers—it’s no wonder offensive efficiency is at a record high.
An inability to curtail 3-point production has surfaced at lower levels, too. Arseneault notes that in his second season in Reno, the Bighorns led the G League in both 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage. But the coach doesn’t blame his competitors for failing to mute the Reno barrage; when asked how he would strategize to stop an offensive system like his own, Arseneault laughs. “I don’t really know how that would be done,” he says. “It’s tough.”
After a moment of thought, Arseneault suggests that frequent switching on screens might help; indeed, NBA teams like the Rockets have invested in this strategy as well. But that approach necessitates that all five of a team’s defenders be athletic enough to guard players of all sizes, and even if they are, a single slow step or moment of miscommunication can create room for high-quality looks because the defense has more ground to cover than ever before.
As The Ringer’s Justin Verrier explored earlier this season, defenses have struggled to adapt to the new offensive order. Rule changes designed to help with freedom of movement haven’t helped, either. “I don’t know if the goal is to have 211-185 scores, but we’ve really legislated a lot of the competitiveness out of the game,” former Cleveland GM David Griffin told The Ringer.
While defenses scramble for answers, offenses have continued to discover new advantages in the evolving league environment. Early 3-centric attacks homed in on the corners, but as defenses learned to send extra help in those directions, offenses responded by changing the types of 3s they hunt. Corner 3s still have the highest expected value because of their shorter distance from the rim compared to elsewhere around the arc, but other spots carry their own perks.
A team can generate above-the-break 3-pointers—i.e., any 3-pointer not taken in the corners—out of a variety of offensive sets. They help offensive players cut off potential transition opportunities on a miss because they’re already between the other team and its goal. And, perhaps most important, they generate lanes to the hoop.
The greatest enemy of an ever-expanding 3-point total might, ironically, be its offensive complement: the layup. As mighty as the 3 may be, coaches say a point-blank shot is still the goal of any offensive possession. “If we get a layup every time,” Smith says, “we’re taking a layup; we’ll take zero 3s.” The shot produces the highest expected point total, after all, and the only reason 3s are the shot du jour is because they’re easier to create from scratch than high-quality attempts at the rim. “If you overextend [because] you are so worried about stopping 3s and you’re closing out,” Smith adds, “you’re going to give up layups, which is the best shot you can take.”
An effective 3-point attack actually generates more opportunities at the rim because of the resulting manipulation of space. It also works the other way, inside out: In Reno, Arseneault found that drive-and-kick 3s yielded a “ridiculously higher percentage across the board” compared to other kinds of long-range shots. He says he wants his guards driving for a layup or defensive foul if possible, with a kickout for a 3-pointer a secondary—and still high-efficiency—option. Cycle through enough fast-paced forays into the lane on a single possession and even the sturdiest defense will make a mistake while scrambling. This season in the NBA, players are shooting 5 percentage points better on catch-and-shoot 3s than pull-ups (37 vs. 32 percent).
“Frankly, if you have a guy who can shoot from out there,” Oliver says, referring to the space well beyond the arc, “it opens so much up. I view the benefit of testing it as higher than the cost. If the defense has to go out and cover some guy out there 26, 27 feet [away], that’s one less guy you have within the 3-point arc who’s able to really help.”
The entire league, from James Harden and LeBron James on down, has taken note. The average length of a 3-point shot has slowly increased over the half-decade, and the total volume of 3s from 28 feet or longer (with end-of-quarter heaves excluded) has increased four-fold just in the past five years, per Basketball-Reference, and more than doubled just in the last two. Teams don’t even need a 4-point line to reap the rewards of extra distance. Just ask any of the defenders trying to keep up.
The whole sport has been enchanted by the Warriors’ success—from their peers in the NBA all the way down to the horde of Steph Curry wannabes popping up in youth leagues. “It’s really all the high school kids know today,” says Dan Barto, head skills trainer at the IMG Academy in Florida. Several factors have pushed the youth game in that direction, he explains. First, kids want to imitate the stars they watch; second, coaches want to imitate the successful systems they watch, so they select for better shooters; and third, a “coaching onslaught” has created more opportunities—and more advanced opportunities—for players to improve their shots.
“Right now, we’re sitting in the first generation where 90 percent of the [high school] coaches played with a 3-point line,” Barto says, plus, “we’re about a decade into private training as a full-time profession.” For these elite recruits taking private lessons, Barto estimates that around 40 percent of that time is devoted exclusively to shooting. “It’s really the first priority,” he says. “When you walk in the gym, the first thing [a coach is] going to see is your size. The second thing that anyone’s going to look at is probably how you shoot the basketball.”
Curry himself told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor that shooting is “infiltrating the league, younger generations and how they approach the game. … Everybody should shoot.”
This shift is particularly noticeable among players with size, who were traditionally pigeonholed as back-to-the-basket big men from an early age. In the NBA, the expansion of the “stretch 4” and even “stretch 5” positions has played a considerable role in the leaguewide 3-point explosion. In 2012-13, players 6-foot-10 or taller took about 4,000 3s; in 2017-18, players in that height range took more than 10,000—an increase of greater than 150 percent in just five years. (For reference, players shorter than 6-foot-10 saw their 3-point attempts tick up by 35 percent in that span—still a boost, but nowhere near as large.) They’re already north of 8,000 this season, with more than a quarter of the games still to come.
But that rise mostly involved growing pains at the NBA level, as stretch bigs like Brook Lopez, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins started to learn long-distance technique in the pros. From the 1999 through 2013 drafts, only five players 6-foot-10 or taller became a top-10 selection after taking at least one 3 per game in their final college season. Last summer’s draft alone included five such picks, and all five big men taken that high entered the NBA with plenty of 3-point experience (though no. 1 pick Deandre Ayton admittedly hasn’t translated that frequency to the league). Shooting is a teachable skill, but it helps to have a head start.
“Especially players that have size, the coaches are not just locking them into the low post from a very early age,” Arseneault says. “You’re seeing more and more of these players with incredible size and athleticism that are just spending their time on the perimeter, and it’s opened up people’s minds, coaches’ minds.”
This broader shift is not yet a two-way matter, however: While younger players receive new offensive instruction inspired by the 3-point revolution, defense isn’t keeping up even at lower levels. Before they reach college, talented players can often thrive with athleticism alone, Oliver explains, and though the trickle-down effect of the Warriors’ success is “making those guys think a little bit more about practicing their jump shot, they’re still not hearing from any coach at AAU or high school or anybody, ‘Well, if you learn how to shut down a jump shooter, you can make it.’ That is still not popular. I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of those guys embracing defending the 3 for quite a while.”
So if more players than ever before, and bigger and more athletic players than ever before, are entering the NBA with many more hours of shooting practice, but the defensive development still lags behind offensive progression at all levels of the sport, there is every reason to expect teams to feature even more shooting going forward. The NBA is in the midst of a feedback loop: The best teams win with 3s, so copycats take more 3s, so their competitors take more 3s, and so on.
And if 3s beget more 3s, it’s a challenge to figure where the trend might reverse, or even just plateau. Not that some of these 3-point progressives wouldn’t mind if it did.
“Selfishly,” Smith says, “I hope that teams with multiple bigs come back and just pound it inside all day and live from 15 feet.” That way, his approach would garner a greater advantage. But such a course, at this point, isn’t likely. “The way that the NBA is going,” Smith adds, “the way they’re thinking, if that’s a goal that a team has … to be 3-point heavy, then I wouldn’t see putting a cap on anybody.”