The Evolution Of The NBA 3-Point Shot

IN THE BEGINNING

On October 12, 1979, the three-point shot made its NBA debut as the Boston Celtics hosted the Houston Rockets in their home opener. At the 3:48 mark of the first quarter, Celtics guard Chris Ford gathered a pass from Nate “Tiny” Archibald. Ford squared up and launched a three that saw nothing but net. Referee Jim Capers raised one hand and immediately the other, signaling that Ford had just scored the first three-pointer in NBA history.

 

Without knowing it, Ford ignited a wildfire that night which simmered, spread slowly, gained momentum, and now rages out of control some forty years later. A novelty at its inception, the three-point shot has become such a part of the NBA landscape, it is impossible to imagine the game without it.

 

Some teams have become so enamored with the three-point shot it has become the focal point of their offense. The 2019-20 Houston Rockets launched an astonishing 3,251 three-pointers (45.2 per game) which accounted for 50% of their total field goal attempts, and about 40% of their total points scored.

 

So 3-ball dependent were the Rockets, they waged an in-season experiment with a super-small lineup, relying on undersized sharpshooters to drain threes to compensate for the forgone rebounds, post-ups, and extra possessions a more conventional lineup may have provided.

 

OVER THE YEARS

It wasn’t always this way. In 1979-80 NBA teams averaged only 2.8 attempts from downtown per game, a laughable total by today’s standards. As teams became more familiar with the new weapon they fired it more often:

 

Year      3P PG      3P FG%

1980       2.8         28.0%

1990       6.6         33.1%

2000      13.7        35.3%

2010      18.1      35.5%

2020      34.1        35.8%

 

In ten years the attempts more than doubled and the FG percentage climbed to 33.1%. After twenty years the totals were 13.7 and 35.3%. After 30 years the numbers were 18.1 and 35.5%, and in 2020 NBA teams averaged 34.1 three point attempts per game, and knocked them down at a 35.8% clip.

 

The trend is undeniable and indisputable. NBA players are taking more 3’s, and they’re making more 3’s, which explains why the practice of firing away from beyond the arc has been universally accepted, embraced, and employed.

 

THE FUTURE

The question is, where will this trend take us? Will the attempts and the percentages continue to climb? Will we ever see cumulative three-point shooting percentages of 40% or maybe 50%? 

 

Maybe not. The highest cumulative 3P FG% was 36.7%, which occurred in the 2008-09 season. The FG percentage has flattened somewhat since then, hovering around 35.5% each year.

 

But there have been notable individual performances that suggest lofty shooting numbers are indeed possible. Kyle Korver shot 53.6% from downtown in 2009-10, the highest mark on record. That may be an aberration, or it may be motivation; something for the kids all over the world with NBA aspirations to shoot for.

 

The triple has come a long way from it’s inauspicious beginning in Beantown forty-one years ago. It has obviously changed the game and there is no doubt its impact will continue to be felt, but with the advent of advanced statistics and analytics, there is always the possibility that a new way of strategic thinking will emerge.

 

Perhaps teams will determine at some point that the ratio of treys to layups has gotten out of whack. Perhaps a team will win an NBA championship the old-fashioned way, by dumping it inside and getting easier shots. Perhaps teams will copy that formula and the days of 30 to 40 three-point shots in a game will become a thing of the past.

 

Perhaps, but don’t hold your breath.

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