Decoding NBA’s 3-point revolution

Understanding how the three-point shot changed the NBA.
Decoding NBA’s 3-point revolution
Masters of the three point shot.The Bridge Chronicle

The 2021-22 season marks the 75th anniversary of the NBA. Through these 75 years, the sport of basketball has immensely changed. From the first legends like George Mikan to modern-day greats like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the NBA has emerged as a cultural medium that can influence millions of lives. But this transformation must be credited to the evolution of the playing style of the sport that has pushed individuals to pick up basketball.

The Big Men dominated the paint in the early years of the NBA. Then came the 80s, where greats like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought flair to the sport. In the 90s, the legend of Michael Jordan was created. With a combination of athleticism, skill and swagger, Jordan helped the NBA become a global phenomenon.

But in the recent past, the 3-point shot has been the next step in the evolution of basketball. Starting in 2014, the Golden State Warriors built their entire offence around two-time league MVP Stephen Curry's three-point shooting and won three championships in five years.

Since then, countless other teams have adopted this philosophy by shooting more threes than ever. For reference, the Houston Rockets attempted over 45 3-point shots per game in the 2018-19 season, which is the most in league history. In the 2008-09 season, the New York Knicks attempted 27 3-pointers which were the highest. But when you go ten more years back, the number will shock you as the Seattle Supersonics attempted the highest number of three-pointers averaging just 19 3-point shots per game in the 1997-98 season.

To understand this revolution, let us use the Diffusion of Innovations Theory that talks about how, over time, an idea or product gains momentum and diffuses (or spreads) through a specific population or social system. The theory classifies innovators into five categories based on when they started using the specific product or idea.

Innovators:

According to the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, individuals in this group were the first to try out the innovation. With the 3-point shot, it was the American Basketball Association or ABA, a league that ran parallel to the NBA and introduced the 3-point line. In 1976, the ABA and NBA merged, with four teams joining the NBA - the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets. But the 3-point shot wasn't part of the package. NBA fans had to wait until 1979 for the introduction of the 3-point line.

Larry Bird shot 37.6% from the three-point line.
Larry Bird shot 37.6% from the three-point line.Steve Lipofsky / Wiki Commons

In the ABA, there were players like Tony Jackson, who was one of the first premier 3-point shooter. There were many anecdotes of Jackson attempting 12 3-point shots in one half. Another ABA sharpshooter was Louie Dampier, who made 794 3-point shots in his career. Then in 1979, players like Joe Hassett, Brian Taylor and 3-time MVP and five-time champion Larry Bird were the innovators in the NBA.

Interestingly, the NBA had shortened the 3-point line for encouraging high scoring games from 1994 to 1997. The Dallas Mavericks, with a record of just 20 wins and wanted to experiment. So their head coach Dick Motta implemented the ‘Small-Ball’ strategy to exploit the new rule changes, where all the five players on the court can shoot three-pointers.

Early Adopters:

After the innovators come, the early adopters, who are opinion leaders in the space. This includes the first players who predominantly used the 3-point shoot as their primary skill in the NBA. Players like Dell Curry, Dennis Scott and Steve Kerr were role players who were 3 point specialists. Then came the stars like Glen Rice, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki who started using the 3-point shot to become all-time greats.

Both Dirk Nowitzki (left) and Kobe Bryant (right) were both lethal 3-point shooters.
Both Dirk Nowitzki (left) and Kobe Bryant (right) were both lethal 3-point shooters.Dirk Nowitzki / Instagram

Despite the success of these stars, the 3-point shot was still considered a gimmick. But as time passed, the NBA went through many rule changes that allowed guards to dominate the game. This paved the way for players like Stephen Curry, James Harden and Klay Thompson, who perfected the 3-point shot, ushering in a new era of basketball.

Steph Curry is currently second on the all-time list of three-pointers made behind Ray Allen. He has made 2,730 three-pointers compared to Allen's 2,973. Curry has made 402 three-point shots in one regular season, which is an NBA record. His shooting prowess broke the stigma around the three-point shot, which gave birth to a new era in the NBA.

Steph Curry finished April 2021 with a new NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a single month with 96.
Steph Curry finished April 2021 with a new NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a single month with 96.Stephen Curry / Instagram

Early Majority - Late Majority

Individuals in this group make the innovation palatable to the average population. In this group, we could include players who were never touted as three-point shooters. But have improved to become average or above-average three-point shooters. These may be young players who caught up with the changing times or older veteran players who may even have revived their careers by improving their shooting ability.

Young players like Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Nikola Jokic have significantly improved three-point shooting ability, allowing them to take the next big step in their careers. All-time greats like LeBron James and Chris Paul have added the three-point shot in their never-ending arsenal of moves helping them dominate at an older age. Whereas players like Brook Lopez, PJ Tucker, Al Horford revived their careers using the three-point shot.

LeBron James (#23) has improved his 3 - point percentage from 29.0% to 36.5% through his career.
LeBron James (#23) has improved his 3 - point percentage from 29.0% to 36.5% through his career.LeBron James / Instagram

Laggards

As the name suggests, the individuals in this group are bound by tradition and are very conservative. They are very sceptical of change and don’t accept innovation. These players neither attempt three-point shots nor improve their three-point shoot ability. Currently, in the league, players like Ben Simmons, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetekoumpo, Josh Richardson haven’t improved their three-point shooting since their early years in the NBA. Out of the lot, players like Ben Simmons and DeMar DeRozan have suffered huge losses because of their inability of shooting three-pointers.

Ben Simmons has made only five three-pointers in his entire NBA career.
Ben Simmons has made only five three-pointers in his entire NBA career. Ben Simmons / Instagram

It is difficult for fans looking in from the outside to understand why these talented players can’t develop a three-point shot and handicap their team in clutch situations. This year, Ben Simmons struggled to shoot even mid-range shots against the Atlanta Hawks, costing his team, the Philadelphia 76rs the series in the second round of the playoffs.

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