Exploring the resurgence of the three-pointer

It was more than half a century ago when the three-point line first entered the game of basketball. The American Basketball League (ABL) implemented the new rule before quickly folding a year and a half later, along with the three-pointer, according to USAB.com.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) never seriously considered the rule change until a competing basketball league did. The American Basketball Association (ABA) differentiated itself from the NBA with its embrace of fan friendly experimentation. And with that, the three-pointer was back in business. In 1976 the ABA and the NBA merged, but the three-pointer was absent from the package. The NBA didn’t end up adopting the three-point line until 1979 — the rookie seasons of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and this change would end up reshaping the way the game was played through the next decades until today.

“Once [three-pointers] became mainstream, though, basketball would never be the same again,” Ryan Wood of iHoops.com said.

Fast-forward to present day and the use of the three-point line is still evolving and shifting the landscape of basketball. Shooters continue to improve, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has had to extend the distance of a three-point shot.

The line that used to stand at just 19-feet and nine-inches away from the basket is now a foot further in men’s college basketball. The landscape of professional basketball continues to evolve as well. This season, 25.6 percent of all NBA shots come from 3-point range and 22.8 percent of all points are scored from 3-point range, both all-time highs. In the 1979-80 season, the San Diego Clippers led the league with 543 three-point field goal attempts. A decade later the Cleveland Cavaliers led the league with 851. A decade after that the Sacramento Kings led it with 1,656 attempts and the 2012-13 New York Knicks led the league last year with 2,371 attempts.

The use of the shot continues to grow at a staggering rate, and with it comes the ever-growing strategy behind how to best utilize the shot.

“Now you’re seeing it on the fast break, whereas coaches from old school wouldn’t want you to take that shot on the break,” said American sportscaster Len Elmore, who played in both the ABA and NBA. “They’d want you to challenge the defense and get the highest percentage shot. Also, you’re seeing guys now driving to the basket, and even though they have an opportunity to take the layup or a much shorter shot, they’re more willing to kick it out to the wide-open 3-point shooter. I’m not sure the percentages work from that standpoint, but it’s a trend.”

It turns out the math behind the strategy is pretty simple. Making 50 percent of all two-point shots, a relatively good team shooting percentage in basketball, is the same as making 33 percent of three-pointers. The difference is that it is common for good shooting teams nowadays to shoot at a clip anywhere from 35 to 37 percent.

These numbers are behind the philosophy of Nevada Smith, the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA Developmental League. The average number of threes taken by a D-league team is 22.35. The Vipers shoot more than double that, at 45.1 per game, almost a three a minute. As a result, the Vipers on average make 16.03 threes per game compared to the D-league average of 8.7, according to a video by Grantland.

“One of the reasons to have a developmental league team is to try something in NBA-like game situations,” Vipers associate head coach Paul Mokeski told Grantland.

The Vipers hit on average 35.9 percent of their three-point shots, more than enough to break even on their strategy. This has allowed the team to lead the D-league in scoring at more than 123 points per game, win percentage at over 70 percent, and win two championships and go to the finals for the second time in only the last four years.

“That conveys over that how we’re playing is an efficient way to play,” Mokeski said.

The trend of using the three-point shot increasingly more has not just permeated the college and professional levels. It was used to an extent this past season by the Palo Alto High School girls’ varsity basketball team.

“This season we had an outstanding number of players who could all shoot which put an emphasis on shooting more threes this season,” senior forward Charlotte Alipate said. “In practice we did lots of shooting drills and in every game we worked hard to put up as many shots as possible. We knew that if we couldn’t work something inside the post, we could dish it out for a shot.”

Devastated by Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears to the only two seniors on the team, Alipate and Hope Crockett, the team of underclassmen was still able to secure a 5-7 league record and advance further in the post season than last year: all the way to the Central Coast Section (CCS) semi-finals.

“Three-point shooting definitely contributed to our success this season,” Alipate said. “During pre-season we put up so many shots that we won games by 20 [points] or more, and we were able to qualify for playoffs early. Into our league season we definitely put up lots of battles and with our three-point shooting we were able to make comebacks in some games.”

Senior guard Hope Crockett also agrees with Alipate on the role three-point shooting played in the season, even if at times it was relied on too much by the team.

“This year we had a lot of really good three-point shooters coming in to the season, so it naturally came to be a major part of our team’s strategy,” Crockett said. “As the season progressed we learned to incorporate three-point shooting into our overall offense. Having threes be a major part of one’s offense can be great when you’re shooting well; other teams couldn’t stop us when we had three or four people hitting threes. However, at times when we weren’t shooting well we lost sight of our offense and lived or died by our threes.”

The Vikings shot incredibly well from the three-point line on average throughout the season, however.

“I didn’t get to play this season, but I was amazed by the number of shooters on our team,” Alipate said. “At one point in our season we were second in the nation and first in the state for made three-pointers per game.”

For teams like Paly and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the three-point shot is a weapon that can be used efficiently and effectively. The three pointer has come a long way since its inception in 1961, and with talk of adding a new four-point shot, the strategies that dominate basketball could be as different in 20 years as they were 20 years ago.

Until that point in time, however, teams and coaches will continue to extend the boundaries of traditional basketball strategy and to move the game further along its ever-deviating path of evolution.

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