The three-point line made its debut in the NBA on Oct. 12, 1979, and nine games opened the season that night.
Across those games, the 18 teams made only eight threes. Some, like the San Diego Clippers or New Jersey Nets, didn’t bother attempting any.
Those numbers appear quaint when compared to the modern NBA, where a quarter might not go by without eight threes falling.
There was a lot of discussion in the early days of the three-point line that it might tarnish the game. That it wasn’t pure basketball.
But decades went by without teams fully embracing the game-changing potential of the three-point shot. For years, boxscores resembled that first night. That first season, teams averaged 0.8 makes and 2.8 attempts. It took eight seasons before they averaged more than one made three per game. It took 14 years — and a short-lived rule change to make the line closer — before teams started attempting more than 10 per game.
The drastic change to the game some feared when the three-point line was painted on NBA floors 40 seasons ago took a while to get here, but it came, and has warped into overdrive the past five.
“Ten years ago, anybody that said they saw this coming would be purely speculating and throwing a wild guess out there.”
It’s become an integral part of strategy and success in the modern NBA, and the start of the playoffs Monday will be a good reminder of that. Of the seven teams that made the most threes per game in the NBA this season, six made the postseason.
Whether it’s good for the game is a matter of personal taste. But with teams averaging about 34 attempts per game, there’s not likely to be a contraction to the old days. The game has changed forever.
“It’s a game I barely even recognize when I think about my time as a player about 75 years ago,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, 54.
This three-point revolution can certainly feel like a game from a different time period.
The three-point shot was more a feature of the game in the 1980s than the engine that drove it. Teams primarily used it as a method to catch up in a game, not one to try to build a lead. Kerr, who shot an all-time high 45% from three-point range for his career, said: “It was kind of an afterthought.”
Or as Thunder coach Billy Donovan said: “The feeling was that it was a terrible rule and it was going to ruin the game.”
But in conversations with Kerr, Donovan and other NBA coaches, one team from the 1980s came up repeatedly that stood out as a harbinger of how the game could look in future decades — Rick Pitino’s Knicks teams.
The Pitino revolution
Pitino coached New York for two seasons starting in 1987. In his first season, the Knicks averaged 6.9 threes attempted, tied for third-most in the league. The following season, they took a jump to 14 threes attempted per game, by far the most attempted by any team up to that point. Their percentage was .337, sixth-best. It led to a 52-30 record for the Knicks and an appearance in the second round of the playoffs.
Pitino had led Providence to the NCAA Final Four in 1987 with a three-point-oriented philosophy. The Friars took 19.6 per game.
“You had teams taking three and four three-point shots. We were just trying to take 30,” said Donovan, who took seven threes per game as the leading scorer for Providence that season. “The mentality was you always protected the basket, because the layup is the most highly efficient shot there is, but what happened was we were spraying it out. So we got a lot of really, really open looks from behind the three-point line.”
Pitino said his rivals in the Big East didn’t especially like the shot, so he saw a window of opportunity to outflank them.
“There were two trains of thought,” Pitino said. “My competitors — [Villanova’s] Rollie Massimino, [St. John’s] Lou Carnesecca, [Georgetown’s] John Thompson — people like that were going to fight it. They were against it. By adopting it I knew I could lead the country in three-point shooting, or at least the Big East, and have a huge advantage mathematically speaking because they wouldn’t deal with it.”
The same applied to the Knicks. He had players such as Trent Tucker or Johnny Newman who were good shooters but who weren’t accustomed to taking a lot of threes. They still made it work.
“We just made everybody a three-point shooter,” Pitino said. “That was our thinking because analytically we knew we could do great things when we stopped it and when we made it.”
Pitino returned to college ball after the 1989 season, and no NBA team surpassed the 14 threes per game the 1988-89 Knicks took until 1994. Perhaps it was no coincidence that team was the Houston Rockets, who won NBA titles two years in a row while also leading the league in three-point shots under coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
Wolves President Gersson Rosas, who grew up in Houston and spent most of his career working for the Rockets, said Tomjanovich helped revolutionize the game by transforming the 4, or power forward, position. By using shooter Robert Horry in that slot, Tomjanovich spaced the floor in an era when teams might otherwise have two post players on the court at the same time.
“That had rarely been done in the NBA. It was more European,” Rosas said. “It changes the floor and changes the spacing. The horizontal impact on the game — it went from two bigs in the post, maybe some pick-and-roll, execution action, to now you open up the floor.”
The Rockets were also taking advantage of a rule change the league enacted in the 1994-95 season to jump-start scoring, which had steadily decreased over the previous decade.
The league moved up the three-point line. Instead of being 23 feet, 9 inches above the break and 22 feet in the corners, the line became 22 feet all around the floor. Teams began bombing away, at least relatively speaking.
In 1993-94, the league averaged 9.9 attempts per game. That spiked to 15.3, 16 and 16.8 when the shorter line was in play. When the league moved the line back to its previous parameters, the average slid back to 12.7. It wouldn’t surpass 16.8 until the 2006-07 season, when another team ushered in what is arguably the beginning of the modern three-point movement: the Phoenix Suns.
Current Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is the godfather of the recent three-point revolution. Houston has used the three-point shot as rocket fuel and became the first team ever to attempt more threes and than twos a season ago.
But D’Antoni began his renaissance in Phoenix when he took over in 2004-05. He was noted for his “seven seconds or less” style of fast-paced offense, with the perfect quarterback for it in point guard Steve Nash, the 2005 and ’06 NBA MVP.
That offense included a heavy dose of threes. The Suns went from averaging 14.7 threes per game the season before D’Antoni’s arrival to leading the league with 24.7 in his first season.
D’Antoni said he was tired of losing by doing “what everybody else did,” which was mainly playing slower and revolving the offense around the post-up game. So with the support of ownership and the front office, he applied his fast-paced, high-volume three-point philosophy.
“We didn’t have analytic stuff back then, and the analytics phenomenon came in and kind of backed up what I wanted,” D’Antoni said. “It made me go even bolder with certain things. The biggest thing is whatever philosophy it is, it doesn’t mean it’s right. But as long as your owner, your front office, your star players all agree we’re playing this way and they believe in it, that’s the way to do it, whatever that may be. But if they don’t you’ve got a problem.”
As with Pitino, the league reaction at first wasn’t kind toward D’Antoni.
“They started launching 30 threes per game,” Kerr said. “Everybody thought that was outrageous.”
But like the Rockets before them, the Suns started winning and made two consecutive trips to the conference finals.
D’Antoni’s only regret about that time: “I didn’t go far enough when I was there.”
He would later get the chance to amend that.
How did we get here?
Three-point attempts plateaued in the 2000s, but the shot has skyrocketed in importance the past 10 years. In the 2010-11 NBA season, the average was 18 attempts per game. This season it’s nearly twice as many.
When fans think of the three-point revolution that has overtaken the NBA, players such as the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and the Rockets’ James Harden likely pop into their heads. The Warriors, of course, have won three championships embracing shoot-it-from-anywhere attitudes of Curry and Thompson. It helped to have former MVP Kevin Durant mixing in for two of those titles.
“It’s a game I barely even recognize when I think about my time as a player about 75 years ago”
The Rockets have been among the league leaders every year of the decade and, under General Manager Daryl Morey, got the reputation for being one of the most forward-thinking, analytically minded organizations in the league. Spacing the floor and taking threes were a part of the Rockets’ DNA dating to Tomjanovich in the 1990s, and now Morey had the numbers to show that the philosophy worked.
“Before James’ maturation, we never had dominant teams,” Rosas said of his time in Houston. “We were never the favorites. So the three-point shot … added a layer of volatility we needed [to try and win]. Whenever we played teams that were favorites, if you played the same basic game, you’re going to get the same basic result. So it was the ability to bring volatility to a game as an underdog.”
But even with Harden playing at an MVP level, the Rockets have supercharged their three-point philosophy. Who better to run a system modeled after D’Antoni’s system than D’Antoni himself?
There’s a bit of chicken-and-egg discussion when it comes to how this happened. Are players just better at shooting than they were 30 and 40 years ago? Growing up and playing youth basketball with a three-point line probably had something to do with it. Or did the math and analytics drive teams to focus more on threes and the players adjusted their games accordingly?
D’Antoni is convinced of the former.
“Players just got so good at it and they’re getting better at it. We’ve got guys shooting almost at half-court now and that’s probably where it’ll go,” D’Antoni said. “Players usually, they’re trendsetters and they lead the way.”
Rosas, meanwhile, has brought the philosophy to the Wolves and is trying to get the personnel to match. He made wholesale changes to the roster and loves that the franchise centerpiece, Karl-Anthony Towns, is one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the league, let alone as a center. That’s something that seemed unfathomable decades ago.
“I’m fortunate to have that advantage here in Minnesota that we have maybe the best big for that style of play,” Rosas said.
The Wolves went from attempting 28.7 threes a season ago and ranking 26th in attempts to 39.7 (third) this season.
So what’s next?
Just like with Pitino’s Knicks and D’Antoni’s Suns, there have been doubters about the philosophies in play this decade and gripes that the Rockets and Warriors are ruining the game by taking too many threes.
But at every step those accusations have failed to stop the three-point revolution. NBA history suggests a decrease is unlikely, but will there be a point when players are chucking too many threes? Will the league move the line back, or roll with the times?
“Ten years ago,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, “anybody that said they saw this coming would be purely speculating and throwing a wild guess out there.”
And it’s anybody’s guess where it goes from here.