Monday Superlatives

We are living in the golden age of the NBA 3-pointer, and it is wonderful

November 5, 2018
Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game One
Noah Graham

I've been following the Golden State Warriors on NBA League Pass for the last four years because I am a shameless bandwagoner and also because Steph Curry is made of magic sun beams and pixie dust. At the start of each game, I have nursed the hope that this would be the night when either Curry or Klay Thompson broke the single-game NBA three-pointer record. Before 2016, Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall held the record at 12, and it didn't just seem inevitable that someone on Golden State would break it—it was inevitable. I knew it. They were too good not to get super hot one night, and my only concern was that I'd miss the game when it happened.

When Curry finally got 12, against the Thunder late in the 2015-16 season, I was there for the joyous display. And even though he needed an overtime session to reach the mark, it only added to the drama—his record-tying three came with one second on the clock, and it was the game-winner. It was also one of the most iconic moments of Curry's career:

Then, a few months later at the start of the 2016-17 season, he broke the three-way tie with 13 treys in a game, and I missed it. Which was pretty heartbreaking when I saw how he did it, with three straight clutch threes in a close game on three straight possessions in the fourth quarter:

Lucky for me, I didn't miss the game last week when Klay Thompson re-broke the record with 14 threes in a complete drubbing of the defenseless Bulls. Thompson needed more shots than Curry to one-up him, but he also got the job done in less than three quarters. If Steve Kerr wasn't such a classy guy, or if the game was closer, Thompson could have hit 20.

It just so happens that two of the greatest shooters in NBA history play on the same team, and yes, that team also includes Kevin Durant, and yes, that leads to some incredible feats. In fact, the Warriors would have broken the league record for team threes in a single game against the Bulls if their scrubs had just hit one more in the fourth quarter. But it's not just the Warriors. This three-point barrage sweeping the NBA goes way beyond one team—in beating the Milwaukee Bucks a few days later, for instance, Celtics boy genius coach Brad Stevens recognized weak perimeter defense in his opponents and gave the order: Bombs away. The Celtics hit 24 threes, just one shy of the single game team record—which was set not even a year ago by the Cavaliers. It will almost certainly be broken soon.

If you're into stats, the NBA's evolution in three-pointers attempted and made is incredible to see. Here's a quick taste: In 1979-80, when the three point shot was introduced, teams averaged 0.8 three-pointers made on 2.8 attempts, for a percentage of .280. That's wild! Steph Curry currently attempts about five times the number of threes an entire team attempted that year! Here's an even crazier fact: The entire league that first year made 1,408 threes, which was less than the amount made by Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, and Paul George in 2015-16. SIX GUYS!

Now compare those original stats (0.8 for 2.8 per game) to the 2017-18 totals, when teams had a per-game average of 10.5 threes made on 29 attempts, for a .362 percentage (third-best all-time). That's not just a 1,200% increase—it's an entirely different sport.

The change in three-point shooting volume was slow and steady for years and years—teams didn't even start averaging more than two threes made per game until 1989, ten years into the three-point era, and never hit more than 34 percent of their shots until the NBA moved the line closer in 1995 (it was moved back three years later). In other words, for all the talk about how the three would change the sport, it didn't for a very long time.

And then it did. It's hard to pinpoint an exact year, but for the sake of argument, let's call it 2015-16. That year, attempts per game rose from 22 to 24, and it seems like maybe that was the moment when teams finally started to realize that with the right personnel, three-point shooting percentages weren't dipping with more usage. In other words, there was no good reason to use the three-point shot sparingly.

In fact, "effective" field goal percentage, which accounts for the three-pointer being worth more, was rising. Speaking broadly, an offensive system that generated more good three point attempts was just better than one that didn't. That knowledge heralded an explosion, attempts shot up faster than ever before, and this year, for the first time in NBA history, teams are currently averaging more than 30 attempts per game...a far cry from '79-80, when they averaged less than three.

At this point, 15 of the 20 best individual three-point shooting seasons in NBA history (by threes made) have been accomplished by active players, and the list includes just two players from the '90s. This year's Milwaukee Bucks are averaging the most threes made per game by any team in NBA history, and if they hold their pace, they'll defeat last year's Houston Rockets, who themselves defeated the 2016-17 Rockets. And as I mentioned before, quantity begets quality: Because of the increase in threes across the league, the collective NBA set a single-season record for offensive efficiency last year, which is probably why the league is so much fun to watch right now.

In other words, we are living in the golden age of the NBA three-pointer, and it has ushered in a golden age of offense. This is glorious, because the three-pointer is the most exciting shot in basketball, and if you say I'm wrong—if you actually verbalize the heresy that the dunk is more exciting—it just proves you're a basketball philistine. Come to the light side, my friends. It is raining threes, life is beautiful, and the old phrase "live by the three, die by the three" has itself been murdered by the new class of immortal sharpshooters.

The only question left is, where will it stop? Are we edging closer and closer to a league where the majority of shots taken are threes? Will the NBA have to move the line back to restore sanity? Or will we see the evolution continue until we're living in three-point paradise? Either way...

[Kent Brockman voice]

I, for one, welcome our new three-point overlords.

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