The NBA’s Ongoing Three-Point Revolution

Brett Davis – USA TODAY Sports

For much of the NBA’s history, league-wide shooting efficiency has remained fairly consistent. This changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s when efficiency plummeted after a high point in the middle 1990s. The isolation game came into vogue and star players like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant wowed fans with their highlight reels consisting of contested mid range jumpers and little ball movement. Now, the opposite change is occurring league-wide. Efficiency has skyrocketed in recent years.

The shortening of the three-point line in 1995 and the two lockouts in 1998 and 2011 had anomalous effects on the average efficiency in the NBA, but for the most part, there is a clear trend. Consistency in the 1980s and vast majority of the 1990s, a huge decrease in efficiency in the early 2000s, and a huge increase in the late 2010s. So, what explains this phenomenon?

Are players just becoming more accurate shooters? An influx of talent, if you will. Let’s compare the league-average field goal percentages for different shot distances in the 2000-01 and 2018-19 seasons.

It does seem true that the league was more accurate on average last year than in the 2001 season. However, the difference is certainly not large enough to account for the difference in efficiency. League-wide eFG% in 2001 was just 47.3% compared to 52.4% last season. Players last season scored 1.246 points per shot (PPS) versus 1.176 in 2001. That’s a big difference. So, what’s the actual explanation for it? Exactly what you’re (probably) thinking: shot selection.

Note: The three-point line is between 22 (corner) and 23.75 (top of key) feet away from the basket, depending on the spot on the floor.

There’s definitely a significant difference here. Players in 2001 shot long two-pointers more than they shot three-pointers. In 2019, these mid-range jumpers were cut down on in exchange for more three-pointers. Also, it might initially look like more shots were taken at the rim in 2001 because of how many shots are classified as being zero feet from the basket, but this isn’t true. In 2001, 27.3% of all field goal attempts were within 0-3 feet from the basket. Last year, this rate went up to 29.2%. It’s not a huge difference, but it does demonstrate that teams aren’t electing to avoid two-pointers completely in favor of the three ball. It’s specifically the mid-range jumper that is inefficient. Shots near the rim and three-pointers are the two most efficient field goal attempts possible in the NBA. The league’s acknowledgement of this fact in today’s game is the number-one reason for the increase in efficiency.

Let’s visualize why exactly the mid-range jump shot is undesirable, though. I previously mentioned the idea of ‘points per shot.’ The concept is simple — total points divided by number of attempted shots. We can use this to quantify the efficiency of any given shot type in basketball.

Remember when I said the two most efficient shots are shots near the rim and three-pointers? Here’s why. It’s basic math. The league-average 3P% is around 35%, which is about 1.05 points per shot. You would need to hit a 52.5% rate on a two-point shot in order for it to have the same value. That’s very realistic for a layup, but not a long mid-range jumper.

The Houston Rockets are the team most well-known for embracing this “threes and layups” philosophy. Their superstar guard James Harden has particularly based his game around it (along with the efficient method of looking to draw fouls, but that won’t be discussed in this article). He’s probably the best scorer we’ve seen since Michael Jordan. Over the past two seasons (97 games), he’s averaging 36.7 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 62.1%. Here’s a chart of every shot he’s taken over this span:

“Threes and layups” indeed. Times have certainly changed. Compare Harden’s shot chart to Michael Jordan’s during two of his championship seasons.

Jordan’s chart appears to be inaccurate because an odd number of shots are classified as having been shot exactly underneath the basket (so all the points are on top of each other there). In any case, though, there’s a clear difference.

It’s worth mentioning that the general philosophy of avoiding mid-range jumpers doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever shoot them. Superstars like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are nigh unguardable with those shots. Plus, when it’s the end of the game and your team needs a bucket, you want to get that bucket in any way possible. However, an offense based around the long two-point jump shot is doomed to fail.

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