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Not By a Long Shot

Dec. 13, 2004
Dec. 13, 2004

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Dec. 13, 2004

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Not By a Long Shot

Since its NBA advent 25 years ago, the three-pointer has won games and thrilled fans. But can it maintain its appeal amid rampant gunning by poor marksmen?

If anyone should know a three-point opportunity when he sees one, it's Philadelphia 76ers forward Kyle Korver--who knew instantly what Ray Allen was about to do. You could tell by the dread in Korver's eyes after he was a split second late getting around a screen, giving Allen, the Seattle SuperSonics' sharpshooter, the time and space to do what he does best. He prefers to catch the ball a foot or so behind the three-point stripe ("You don't want to be right up on it when you shoot," Allen says), take a quick look at the rim and let fly with the same flick of the wrist he uses to launch any other shot. Which is exactly what he did. Trey bien. ¶ Yes, the three's a charm for players like Allen, who was shooting 44.0% from beyond the arc through last Saturday, and second-year man Korver, whose career three-point percentage (40.9) exceeds his two-point percentage (35.8) by the biggest margin in league history. Both use the shot in the way it was intended to be used: as a tool for igniting the offense, spreading the opposing defense and keeping a team (as well as the crowd) in the game. With Allen and Korver combining to make 11 of 24 threes--and with the man who hit the NBA's first triple, 76ers scout Chris Ford, sitting courtside--the Sonics' 103--95 win on Nov. 16 in Philly showcased the three-point shot at its most sublime.

This is an article from the Dec. 13, 2004 issue

Alas, the three-point shot at its most ridiculous is far more prevalent in today's NBA. During an ugly 94--74 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 9, the Chicago Bulls hoisted 21 treys and missed 20. Suns swingman Quentin Richardson had attempted 102 three-pointers (6.4 per game) through last Saturday and made only 28, a percentage of 27.5%. Throughout his nine-year career, 6'9" Atlanta Hawks forward Antoine Walker has jacked enough three-pointers (3,138) to bring on bursitis; 32.6% of them have gone in. And so it goes. Players like Allen and Korver make the 23' 9" shot (22 feet in the corners) look like a 15-footer; many others make it look like a half-court heave.

It was 25 years ago that Ford, playing a bit part in a Boston Celtics game that featured the debut of a rookie named Larry Bird, took a swing pass and with a one-handed set shot launched the three-point era. ("Don't think Larry hasn't been pissed over the years that it wasn't him who made [the first one]," says Ford, laughing.) And like a lot of things that last 25 years--your beloved wing tips, that first set of dishes you got from your grandmother, the Volvo that used to purr like a kitten--the three-ball is starting to show wear and tear. It is thrown up (the appropriate term in all too many cases) with increasing frequency but not with a concomitant increase in accuracy, and has contributed to a widespread perception that the NBA game just doesn't look as good as it used to.

Stu Jackson, the league's director of operations, has taken note. This season the NBA implemented a rule change in its minor league, the National Basketball Development League: There will be no three-point shots until the final three minutes of each quarter (as well as throughout overtime). Jackson says the NBA has no plans to similarly curtail the three, and no one in his right mind believes the shot will go the way of tight shorts. But the NBA will monitor the NBDL results and gauge fan reaction. Adjustments are a distinct possibility.

Testing a possible rule change in the NBDL is something like testing a new federal statute in Mayberry. Some players are wary of Jackson's experiment ("I didn't know about it," says swingman Corey Maggette of the Los Angeles Clippers, "but it seems weird"); some doubt a minor league's efficacy as a laboratory ("With the talent [discrepancy], I don't know how you could quantify those results," says Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle); and others are upset that any tinkering is being done. Says Indiana guard Reggie Miller, the alltime leader in three-pointers made (2,468 through Sunday), "Stu Jackson hasn't come up with a single reason why this rule [change] is a good thing."

Well, Reg, here are 23,171 of them: That's the number of three-pointers missed in 2003--04, a total that's likely to be surpassed this season. The league has to get the three under control, and it needs to discover, through the NBDL test or other means, the right way to do it.

it's impossible to ignore the three-pointer's importance over the past 25 years, or the passion with which many embrace it. "The three-point shot is the best thing that ever happened to basketball," says Los Angeles Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who played nine of his 11 NBA seasons without the three. "I think it saved the game." One might conclude that Tomjanovich is a fan because the trifecta was a major weapon for the Houston Rockets teams he coached to titles in 1994 and '95; indeed, they are the only champions ever to lead the league in three-pointers made. But Rudy T is not alone. Sixers coach Jim O'Brien, a traditionalist in many ways, calls the three "a boost for the game, period." It was O'Brien who opened the cookie jar when Walker was a Celtic, never wincing when 'Toine fired 645 threes in 2001--02, only 222 of which went in. (Walker's volume that season is second only to the 678 by Dallas Mavericks swingman George McCloud in '95--96.)

Unlike any other shot, the three-pointer provides a delicious time delay. Reggie stops at the line ... releases ... and it's ... GOOD! Today's pros relish the triple, but then few of them have played without it. "The challenge of being able to step back and shoot the three," says Sixers swingman Aaron McKie, "there's nothing like it." Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, one of the league's more accurate long-range shooters, believes it's incumbent upon the NBA to leave the three-pointer unchanged because "it's an area where the little guy can compete with the big guy." Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom calls it "an art form," and Blazers guard Nick Van Exel holds that it does more to preserve the aesthetic of the "old days"--he means the ancient '80s--when the NBA was at its zenith. "Look at the those games on ESPN Classic, and you'll see guys going up and down, taking two dribbles and shooting," says Van Exel. Miller wholeheartedly agrees. "Hey, bring back the red, white and blue ball," he says. "Let's go all the way!"

No one--least of all New York Knicks superfan Spike Lee--will forget Miller's three-point artistry at Madison Square Garden. In Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semis, the Indiana Assassin hit a three, made a steal, then hit another three, all in the span of 3.1 seconds, to carry the Pacers to a 107--105 victory. And that isn't even Miller's supreme three-ball moment at the Garden. He remembers with more fondness the one he buried with 5.9 seconds left that forced overtime in Game 4 of a second-round series in '98; the Pacers went on to win 118--107, then closed out the Knicks at home. Do the right thing, indeed.

Any collection of Michael Jordan moments must include the barrage of six first-half three-pointers he made against Portland in Game 1 of the '92 Finals in Chicago, the last of which was followed by his Ican't-explain-it-either shrug to Magic Johnson at the broadcast table. Yet the most famous shot in Bulls history is not one of Jordan's--it's the three-pointer by John Paxson that gave Chicago a 99--98 Game 6 win over Phoenix and the '93 championship, capping the Bulls' first threepeat.

A highlight of more recent vintage is Robert Horry's buzzer-beating three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 100--99 Game 4 victory over the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals. The Lakers took the Game 7 clincher in Sacramento, then swept the New Jersey Nets in the Finals, while the Kings have never recovered from the Horry heartbreaker.

Horry argues that Bird's most famous three, which came at the third All-Star Long Distance Shootout, in '88, does not belong in the pantheon because "it's got to be in a game to count." But that shot must be included, if only because so many people remember it. Bird had won the contest the first two years and needed to sink his last shot, the striped money ball, to beat Seattle's Dale Ellis. He let fly from the left corner and, with the ball halfway to the basket, started to walk away as he raised "that gnarled [right] index finger," says San Antonio Spurs guard Brent Barry, who calls the shot "my quintessential three-point memory." In it went, and Bird retired from the competition with what remains his favorite self-designation: the three-point king.

The story is often told of Bird's strolling into the locker room before the first shootout, in Dallas, and announcing, "Who's playing for second?" Less familiar is the story of the practice earlier that morning, when Bird went up to Leon Wood, a noted bomber who was the favorite going into the competition. "Leon, you shooting it different lately?" Bird asked. "Your stroke looks off." Discombobulated by Larry Legend, Wood shot terribly. Bird won the competition going away.

yes, the three has given the game countless unforgettable moments, and no one is suggesting that it be eliminated. But the long, hard shot deserves the long, hard look it's going to get in the NBDL. Why?

•It's overused. It's not unexpected that three-point attempts should have increased over the years as players practiced the shot more and coaches became more accustomed to incorporating it into their offenses. But the extent of the increase is surprising. In that first three-point season, 1979--80, the 22 teams averaged 227 three-point shots. Last season 58 players hoisted more treys than that, led by New Orleans Hornets point guard Baron Davis with 582 (only 187 of which he made). In the same way that one designer coffee shop per block is great and more than that is overkill, the appeal of the shot has been diluted by overuse. "I like the three-pointer because of the impact it can have on a game," says Paxson, now Chicago's general manager. "But what I don't like is that the three-point line, and not the rim, is the first area that the players run to."

•The wrong guys are shooting it. "It's good when you have a team of players like the Mavericks or international teams that can knock it down," says Bulls guard Eric Piatkowski, a career 39.9% shooter from beyond the arc. "But there is a very small percentage of guys who can hit that shot on a consistent basis, and everybody wants to shoot it." Van Exel blames the coaches, not the shot or its inept practitioners. "They should just tell those guys not to shoot it," he says. But it's not that easy. All players have become so accustomed to three-balling that even when a coach lets a player know the shot was a poor choice, the player will invariably say, But I was open.

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy has an answer for them: "Yeah, but there was a reason you were open."

•It's taken away the midrange game. Players prefer either to take it to the hole and dunk (the better to get on SportsCenter) or to pull up and jack a three (the better to get on SportsCenter). The ability to ball-fake, take a couple of hard dribbles and stop on a dime for a jumper in the paint is all but gone. (Guards Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons and Sam Cassell of the Minnesota Timberwolves are notable exceptions.) "I know sometimes I get caught up in it in transition, hiding behind that line," admits Pacers swingman Stephen Jackson, an unabashed supporter of the trey (who, with his 30-game suspension, has some free time to practice it). "A lot of guys who really aren't great shooters have become three-point shooters because that's what they work on," says Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "But they can't make a 15-footer."

It's only going to get worse, because the next generation can't resist the siren call of the three. "When I speak at basketball camps, I stress that the worst thing in the world is to shoot three-pointers," says Piatkowski. "Kids develop bad habits that stick with them." Piatkowski's backcourt mate Kurt Hinrich, who through Saturday had made 35.6% of his threes this season, says flatly that youth leagues should ban the three. But it probably won't happen because kids like to imitate the pros.

•It just doesn't look good. Supporters of the three say, Do the math. Making two of six three-pointers is the same as making three of six two-pointers. But it's not. "All I know is, it's not very appealing to watch so many missed shots," says broadcaster Steve Kerr, whose 52.4% three-point shooting with the Bulls in '94--95 is the best in NBA history. "Even if 33 percent is good statistically, it is pretty ugly to see two out of three shots clang off the rim." Then, too, it's a blight on the game when a player looks down to locate the three-point line (one of Walker's favorite moves) or steps out-of-bounds along the sideline before squaring up to shoot. Clippers assistant Jim Eyen feels that a three-pointer is the wrong percentage play in any case. "I'd rather make three two-pointers than two three-pointers," he says, "because I'd rather have the opposing team taking the ball out-of-bounds [rather than getting out on the break] that extra time."

True, imprudent or plain bad three-point shooting did not begin yesterday. Charles Barkley attempted 293 more threes than Bird, even though Bird (a career 37.6% three-point shooter) was a recognized marksman and Sir Charles (26.6%) a recognized bricklayer. Darrell Walker, a solid guard for five NBA teams in a 10-year career that ended in 1992--93, made just six of 102 career three-pointers (5.9%). Dennis Johnson, whom Bird always referred to as his favorite teammate, shot only 17.2% from behind the arc, and Lakers Hall of Fame forward James Worthy wasn't exactly money either (24.1%).

The difference, however, is this: They didn't keep shooting. DJ put up 464 over 14 years, and Worthy 486 over 12--a mere season's worth for the likes of Antoine Walker or Baron Davis. That alone justifies the NBDL experiment. It's a chance to see if the three--like German opera and Dr. Phil--is more palatable in small doses.

Long Rangers

Here's SI's Silver Anniversary three-point team, by position, based on both quantity and quality

View this article in the original magazine

POSITION PLAYER/CAREER

3'S MADE

3'S ATTEMPTED

3FG%

PG STEVE KERR (Right) 1988--2003

726

1,599

45.4

The alltime leader in three-point accuracy, but his most memorable shot, the '97 title-winner, was a two

SG REGGIE MILLER 1987--present

2,468*

6,194

39.8

He has 43% more attempts and 44% more makes from behind the arc than any other player

SF DALE ELLIS 1983--2000

1,719

4,266

40.3

The three-point king until he was passed by Miller; he edges out Glen Rice for starting spot

PF DIRK NOWITZKI 1999--present

687*

1,838

37.4

The only other 7-footers with as many as 100 makes are Arvydas Sabonis (136) and Vlade Divac (100)

C CLIFFORD ROBINSON 1989--present

1,108*

3,110

35.6

Robinson and Antoine Walker are the only players to sink 1,000 threes and snatch 5,000 rebounds

*current totals through last Saturday's games Compiled by David Sabino

 

The Long View
Banking heavily on threes, the Rockets won their second straight title in '95, touching off a barrage of long-range launches. Over the past three years about one third of field goal attempts have been treys. Alas, the rate of success is not rising

'79-80
Celtics' Chris Ford makes first three in NBA history

'83-84
Debut of Mavs' Dale Ellis, who will become first player to sink 1,000 threes

'87-88
Larry Bird wins third straight Long Distance Shootout on final shot

'91-92
Michael Jordan drains six three-pointers against Blazers in first half of Finals Game 1

'94-95
Arc redrawn from 23' 9" (and 22 feet in corners) to a uniform 22 feet

'95-96
Record streak of 89 games with a three ends for Boston's Dana Barros

'97-98
Three-point line returns to original distance

'01-02
Against Rockets, Bucks' Michael Redd hits record eight threes in a quarter

'02-03
Lakers' Kobe Bryant sets mark with 12 triples against Sonics

Paxson

 

Paxon likes the three's impact on the game but says, "what I don't like is that the three-point line, and NOT THE RIM, is the first area that players run to."

"A lot of guys who aren't great shooters have become three-point shooters because that's what they work on" Sloan says. "But they CAN'T MAKE A 15-FOOTER."

 

 

COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO LET THREEDOM RING   Korver has taken almost twice as many threes as twos--but his accuracy justifies that ratio. COLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (FORD)COLOR PHOTOANDY HAYT (BIRDCOLOR PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (JORDAN)COLOR PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES (BARROS)COLOR PHOTOGARY DINEEN/GETTY IMAGES (REED)COLOR PHOTONOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BRYANT)COLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLAN