Bombs away: Players, teams embrace three-point line more than ever
The modernization of the NBA shares a concrete link to the rise of the three-pointer. Most of the league’s best offenses are geared toward creating open threes. Most of the top defenses make a point of taking those same shots away. The threat of the three-pointer made Stephen Curry the MVP and the Warriors champions, and it’s the inability to create, make, or prevent such shots that undercut even talented teams. For years the NBA revolved around the post, with eight of the 10 players on the court stuck in orbit. Now the game itself moves along an arc.
For five straight years the NBA has set new league-wide records in terms of three-point attempts. This season should make an easy sixth, as even some of the holdouts around the league are coming around on the utility of the long ball. Below are a selection of players—and teams—embracing the three and firing away like they never have before:
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Somewhere beyond complete abandon stands Bryant, who has apparently been given full authority to hunt whatever shot he pleases. His most decadent indulgence of late is the pull-up three-pointer. Never more than a reasonably effective component of Kobe’s game, the shot has now been stretched to absurd volume and sandbagged by dwindling efficiency. It’s as if Bryant misread the three-point revolution entirely. Rather than operate in a way that helps his team to create clean looks from beyond the arc, Bryant has outpaced all but Stephen Curry in taking 10.9 three-point attempts per 36 minutes.
Part of what has always separated Kobe is the distinction between reality and his reality. This is one of the most cerebral stars to ever play the game; he instinctively knows the optimal course through every play, be it to exercise patience or urgency. Bryant simply shrugs off that prudence for the sake of control, opting for the fadeaway three over two defenders rather than using his vision and gravity to find the open man. Those tendencies seem especially stark when set against the background of Kobe’s decline. There was a point at which he could justify his micromanagement of the Lakers’ offense with his output. Those days have long since passed, leaving behind a player who hasn’t yet caught on to the fact that his entire basketball worldview will need to change before he can again be a helpful NBA player. That starts with his shot selection, no matter what Byron Scott says.
Cousins attempted eight three-pointers all of last season. In three games thus far, he’s already taken 10. A little long-range shooting could be tremendous for Cousins, so long as it doesn’t distract from where the All-Star big man does his best work. The early signs are encouraging. Cousins has largely been popping out for three-pointers out of the two-man game when faced with a crowded lane or in trail position on the break:
Cousins possesses a remarkable athleticism in a certain sense, albeit one that doesn’t lend itself to hard rim-running in transition. The trail spot should come more naturally. Rather than have Cousins run for the sake of accessing one of the more awkward areas of his game, Cousins can settle in behind the action to snipe away at unsuspecting defenses. In his first game out, Cousins dropped four threes in five attempts against the Clippers. He followed that performance by going a combined 0–for–5 in his next two contests. That’s not exactly unexpected for a so-so shooter pushing out to the three-point arc, nor should it deter George Karl and the Kings from letting Cousins explore his options on the perimeter.
Atlanta already has a system that organically creates open three-pointers and one of the best midrange shooting bigs in the league. A single step back makes Horford’s shooting all the more deadly without doing anything to compromise the flow that makes the Hawks so special. Having the three-point option, too, helps to punish opponents who either drop back in their coverage of the pick-and-roll or try to control side pick-and-rolls too aggressively.
Many of Horford’s three-point attempts, though, are quite similar to Cousins’s:
Hawks guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder make quick pushes out in transition with their wing teammates in tow. Horford often trails behind—though where he’d formerly settle in at the top of the key, he now makes himself available at the three-point line.
Olynyk has played so few games (two) and minutes (30 in total) that this could well be a mirage, but thus far he’s more than doubled his number of three-point attempts per 36 minutes. Thus far it hasn’t paid off; Olynyk has made just one of his eight long-range attempts on the season. Still, the process behind those looks has been largely solid:
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The motion in Boston’s offense puts Olynyk on the move, often in cases where he has to catch cleanly, square up, and fire away in the moment before his defender can recover. That’s a lot to ask of a big man—even one who has had some success shooting three-pointers in his first two NBA seasons. Olynyk’s early shooting woes (more generally, he’s shooting 30.8% from the field) will settle. Boston’s offense, which has been messy to start the year, will find itself. Olynyk’s numbers will ultimately equalize accordingly, regardless of whether he continues to launch up threes at such a prolific rate.
In the modern NBA, few offensive influences are more destructive than a player who occupies space without posing a threat. Payton often fit that bill in his rookie season, as there was no reason to respect his jumper to the point of drawing a defender anywhere near him. Payton could be clever and explosive so long as he had the ball in his hands. Without it, he gave opposing teams a standing opportunity to cheat away for double teams, lane denial, and pre-rotation.
The only way to break that tendency is to make shots and the only way to make shots is to first take them. Even attempting three-pointers is half the battle for Payton, who on average only took a three in every other game he played last season. Through four games, he’s shooting threes at five times that frequency—often without hesitation:
The next order of business: Making more than 26.2% of his attempts.
The whiff of ‘tweener’ in Cunningham’s game stems from the limitations of his shooting range. Playing the wing in the NBA all but requires some capability on the court’s periphery. Most shoot, those who can’t handle the ball, and those without the quickness to handle do their best to facilitate through other means. Cunningham is in the awkward place of playing at small forward without the range, creative ability, or vision customary for his position. That leaves him as an idle threat on a team that, with its mounting injuries, can hardly afford it.
Fortunately, Cunningham has gone about the process of building out his jumper:
He was encouraged to take shots like these in training camp and the preseason; Cunningham’s midrange chops (he made 42.6% of his shots between 16–24 feet last season, per NBA.com) made him a natural candidate to stretch under Alvin Gentry, and the season’s early going has him attempting more threes per minute than Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, and Jeff Teague.
Charlotte, which ranked dead last in three-point percentage last season and 24th in three-point rate, currently outpaces the Golden State Warriors in terms of the percentage of its shot attempts derived from threes. This is a seismic change in the style of a team that has never really put Al Jefferson nor Kemba Walker in the best position to leverage their offensive strengths. Efficient post and pick-and-roll play are all but impossible without proper spacing. Until now, the Hornets never had the appropriate personnel to provide it:
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Over half of Charlotte’s three-point attempts thus far have come from players new to the roster this season. Nicolas Batum (8–for–21) and Jeremy Lamb (6–or–12) have brought considerable help in that specialty, and Jeremy Lin (7–for–15) has been a pleasant surprise on his catch-and-shoot tries. Of those returning to the Hornets, Marvin Williams (8–for–20) is playing dramatically better basketball and Kemba Walker (5–for–14) is hitting at a solid 36% clip. The composition of the wing rotation has turned over almost entirely; gone are Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (injury), Lance Stephenson (trade), and Gerald Henderson (trade), none of whom could hit threes reliably. In their place are competent spacers who give the Hornets a real chance to field a passable offense.
I wonder why that is?
A quickening pace is a rising tide. Washington is a team transformed, moving away from its two-big lineups almost completely in favor of grouping that can better run and space the floor. That shift has moved what was a bottom-three team in three-point rate last season just outside the top 10.
Both John Wall and Bradley Beal are clearly playing with different offensive directives. Some of the action designed to create midrange jumpers last season have been altered or alternated to create more efficient threes—whether for Washington’s ballhandlers or willing stretch fours. The way Jared Dudley, Drew Gooden, and Kris Humphries man the power forward spot gives Washington an entirely different tact:
The Wizards’ offense still isn’t perfect, but it’s so clearly trending upward behind an uptempo style (Washington ranks third in the league in transition possessions and fifth in pace) and adjusted shot distribution.