Evolution of three-pointer

Basketball : Once dismissed as a gimmick, the shot has now become a game-changer

Evolution of three-pointer

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were rookies. Bill Walton’s move to the Clippers — the San Diego Clippers — was making headlines. Some NBA Finals games were still being broadcast on tape delay. And the league tried something new in the 1979-80 season: a 3-point shot.

Its debut was inauspicious. The New York Times’ season preview called the shot a “gimmick” in the headline and twice in the first two paragraphs.

“It may change our game at the end of the quarters,” Phoenix Suns coach John MacLeod told The Times. “But I’m not going to set up plays for guys to bomb from 23 feet. I think that’s very boring basketball.”

“We don’t need it; I say leave our game alone,” said the Boston Celtics’ president, Red Auerbach. He theorized that the reason behind creating the shot was that “TV panicked over the bad ratings.”

Oddly enough, a Celtic, Chris Ford, is credited with making the first official NBA 3 on opening night against the Houston Rockets. Each team wound up with one in the game. The shot soon settled in as a rarely used weapon. At the end of the first season, teams had averaged fewer than three 3-point attempts per game.

Thirty-six years later, the 3-point shot has gone from a gimmick to a vital part of every team’s offense, and few would call it boring. This season, teams were averaging 8.3 3-pointers — on 23.7 attempts — each game entering Wednesday. Both of those figures would be records, breaking marks set last season.

It is not just desperate long-shot teams that use the 3 as a weapon, as some early critics feared. The Golden State Warriors, one of the best teams of recent times, are averaging 30.2 shots a game.

There are many reasons for the rise of the 3-point shot, but one may simply be math. It took a while, but coaches finally stopped listening to the traditionalist naysayers and realized that a shot that is worth 50 percent more pays off, even if it is a little harder to make.

While the idea of a 3-point shot had been kicking around basketball for decades, it really took off with the founding of the American Basketball Association in 1967. But even the run-and-gun ABA’ers shot the red, white and blue ball from distance only occasionally, five or six times per game on average.

Three-point shots gradually increased in popularity through the 1980s, then jumped to 15 per game, from 10, during a three-year experiment from 1994 to 1997 with a slightly shorter line. When the line reverted to its present distance, 23 feet 9 inches, the pace slowed only briefly. NBA teams reached an average of 18 3-point shots a game in 2007-08 and 20 in 2012-13.

Brian Taylor, a point guard for the Clippers out of Princeton, became the first 3-point specialist in the first year of the shot.

“Gene Shue believed in it,” Taylor told NBA.com recently, referring to his coach. “So we had set plays for it. It was amazing.”

His efforts were not always appreciated.
“People were real critical, saying: ‘Aw, that’s not a good shot. They’re taking a lot of bad shots,’” said Taylor, who led the league in successful 3s that season with 90. Last season, 73 players reached that total.

Danny Ainge was the first to demonstrate that the 3-point shot could be a key element of an elite team’s offense, crushing the single-season record of 92 with 148 in 1987-88 for an outstanding Celtics team.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, 5-foot-10 Michael Adams of the Denver Nuggets carved out a niche as a 3-point specialist, leading the league in attempts four years running. John Starks of the New York Knicks was the first to break 200 shots made — in 1994-95, he was 217 for 611 — and Ray Allen of the Seattle SuperSonics set a record of 269 in 2005-06.

Then along came Stephen Curry. A strong 3-point shooter at Davidson, Curry was among the league leaders from his rookie season with the Warriors. But his breakthrough year came in 2012-13, when he shattered the record with 272. He broke it again last season with 286, more than all but five teams even attempted in the shot’s first season.

If Curry’s totals were amazing the past few seasons, they are superhuman this season. Curry has 196 3s in 41 games (on 437 attempts). He should easily become the first player with 300 3s, and depending on how many games he plays down the stretch, he could well score 400.

Despite the deluge, accuracy has not declined but rather has risen. While the league’s 2-point field-goal percentage has been more or less flat for decades, at around 49 percent, 3-point shooting has gone from below 30 percent for the first seven years of the shot to above 35 percent in recent years.

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