More and more when I watch basketball, particularly the NBA, I find myself thinking about how it feels like nobody shoots twos. Every shot seems to either be a three or a dunk/layup. So, I went in search of the data. Between Basketball Reference and NBA Miner I was able to get data on three-point-shooting all the way back to when the three-point-line was introduced in 1978 as well as data about what percentage of shots were layups and dunks, respectively (although NBA Miner only has this data going back to 1996). Here’s what I found:
For years after the three-point-line was introduced teams were hesitant to use it. Why take a more difficult, longer shot when you could take easier shorter ones? Naturally, shooting a high percentage from 2 is better than shooting a low percentage from 3. Clearly, though, teams slowly began to warm to the three-pointer up until 1995.
What happened in 1995? The line got moved closer. The NBA moved the line to the college distance (22 feet) in an attempt to increase scoring. It worked, but clearly too well for the NBA’s liking, who must have realized they’d made it too easy and didn’t want teams shooting so many threes. So, they changed the line back and the percentage of shots that were three-pointers dipped accordingly. From there, however, the three continued to becoming steadily, increasingly more popular.
The slope is pretty constant until 2012 when it takes an upward turn. So what happened this time? Although there were probably several factors (which people who know a lot more about basketball than I do could better explain), the answer most rests with one man: Wardell Stephen Curry. Of the top ten of most three pointers made by a player in a single NBA season, Steph Curry has five of those seasons including the top three. Those five seasons are, of course, the last five starting in, you guessed it, 2012. The Warriors as they’ve been built around Curry have changed basketball, and it’s worked. Over the past three seasons the Warriors have won two championships and set the record for most wins in the regular season (obligatory reminder that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead).
Naturally, the rest of the league has tried to replicate the Warriors’ success, to the point that Golden State is now fairly average in terms of how many threes they shoot. Last season they ranked 12th in three-pointers attempted per game, with the Houston Rockets leading the way and setting an NBA record in the process.
While shooting more threes makes sense from the standpoint of maximizing offense, just because you shoot more threes doesn’t mean you’re going to win more. Just ask the Brooklyn Nets who attempted the second most three-pointers behind Houston but went 20-62 last season.
That said, in recent years it does seem NBA player must have gotten better at shooting threes. As the number of threes is going up so is overall shooting percentage (for everyone except the Nets, I assume).
NBA shooting percentage had been declining for years before an improvement through the first decade of the 21st century, and there has also been a slight increase during what I would call the “Steph Curry Era.” Simply, teams are shooting more threes and have started to get better at it.
Looking at the first chart, it’s a safe bet that within the next three seasons a plurality of shots in the NBA will be threes. Now, I’m not interested in discussing if this is good/bad for basketball or the NBA (although such comments are certainly welcome in the comments) but I always find it gratifying when an observation I make as fan (nobody shoots 2s anymore) is backed up by the data.
One final thought: as much as I think Steph Curry deserves more than three points for this, I think the NBA should leave the lines as they are so the NBA doesn’t turn into a 60-minute game of half-court knockout.