The Best Things Come in Threes – the Role of the Three Pointer in the Modern NBA
If the NBA were ever to commission a Basketball equivalent of Mount Rushmore, for those who had the biggest influence on the game, three of the four faces picked would be pretty unanimous candidates. Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Magic Johnson. The fourth face would have a bit more debate. Many would call for Allen Iverson, who revolutionised the appearance of athletes off and on the court, with his cornrows and urban streetwear style to accompany his killer crossover. Some would call for Wilt Chamberlain, who, in his own words, had the NBA “changing the rules to stop him dominating,” a fair argument given the league widened the lane from 12 feet to 16 in order to combat his dominance in the paint.
However, the last spot should go to none other than Wardell Stephen Curry Jr, also known as Chef Curry, aka one half of the Splash Brothers. In 2012-13, Steph scored 272 3-point shots, over 50 more than his closest competitor. This was his first season being the most successful 3-point shooter in the league, and sparked the start of the trend. By 2014-15, NBA teams were more likely to shoot a 3 than a shot from within the arc, (according to shottracker.com) for the first time since the inception of the 3-point line in 1979.
The rise in 3-point shooting can be attributed also to the fact that it is a more valuable shot. Whilst the rate players score 3s at is obviously lower than for mid-range shots, the fact that a 3 is worth 1.5x more points is more than enough to offset such a difference – according to shottracker.com, 100 mid-range jumpers will provide 79 points on average, while 100 3s would provide 105 points (based on average scoring efficiency.) In the 90s, it was only guards expected to shoot from distance, but in the current game, the rise of point-forwards (like LA’s LeBron James) and stretch 4s (like Dallas’ 7 footer, Dirk Nowitzki) has led to an expectation that almost every player on the court will provide a threat from the perimeter.
What this means is, the 3 point shot is a key part of the modern day NBA. This leads us on to the curious case of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The back-to-back MVP and one-time DPOY is one of the best players in the league, arguably second only to LeBron James, a player considered by many to be the best of all time.
A monster interior force, able to muscle his way to the rim almost at will, his combination of athleticism and strength have led to a lengthy showreel of posterising dunks, leading to his apt nickname, the ‘Greek Freak’. In his two MVP seasons, he has averaged 27ppg and 29.5 ppg, almost entirely of shots from around the hoop – Giannis has scored points in the paint at a rate unseen since Shaquille O’Neal’s 2000’s dominance in the low post. Despite this, we have only seen him manage to reach one Eastern Conference Finals, and no NBA finals – a disappointing record for a player of his calibre. Whilst there are many factors for the Bucks’ playoff failures, a big factor is the regression of Antetokounmpo’s ability to score from the perimeter. In his rookie season, Antetokounmpo shot a career high of 34.7% from downtown, compared to only 15.9% in his second year. In the first of his two MVP seasons, 2018-19, he shot a meagre 25.6%, with a career average of 28.6%. To contrast, the average across the NBA the same year was 35.5%. Steph Curry was hitting 3s at a clip of 47.2%.
Giannis’ inability to shoot consistently from deep has led to him becoming a very stoppable force in the postseason. As teams are aware of his limitations, they will simply leave him open when deep, setting up a wall to guard the paint, and prevent him running through for a driving dunk, as demonstrated brilliantly by the 2019 champions, the Kawhi-led Toronto Raptors. Other 3-pointer averse players have been given similar treatment, such as Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. In his 79-game 2018-19 season, Simmons shot only six 3-point attempts, missing all six of them. Without the threat of a reliable 3-point shot in the playoffs, teams will continue to pack the paint against players like Antetokounmpo and Simmons, making it harder for them to play their natural game, and force their way to the hoop. Being able to shoot at even a 35%, below the league average, would force teams to have to guard them at the perimeter, allowing them more space when driving with the ball, alongside the opportunity to score from distance, and take their teams to a finals appearance.
Despite its prominence, the three point shot is not a necessity for an individual to be a great player, or even a superstar. However, it is a necessity for a player with championship aspirations – without a three point shot, a franchise player will not be able to drive their team to a chip. Modern defenses are too able to prepare for one and two-dimensional players in the postseason, and a perimeter threat is necessary both to score and to create space for teammates. Until Antetokounmpo manages to develop one, his individual success will not translate to a title, unless he manages to recruit a second star who is a shooter (or joins the Nets).
(All stats are from basketball-reference.com unless otherwise specified)