Did the Three-Pointer Really “Kill Basketball”?

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

There has been plenty of complaining in NBA circles by the likes of Gregg Popovich that the 3-point shot “ruined basketball.”

And on some level, having a shot that is worth fully 50% more points than other shots on the court does threaten to over-value it.

After all, so far this season, teams are making 35 percent of their three-pointers, while 51.7 percent of two-pointers are going in. This means that per 100 attempts (and not counting and-ones, which we will eventually get to), teams score 105 points on threes and 103.4 points on twos.

And that’s not much of a disparity; indeed, that’s the closest things have been in awhile. Keeping this to per 100 attempts:

2017-18: 108.6 pts on threes, 102 pts on twos
2016-17: 107.4 threes, 100.6 twos
2015-16: 106.2 threes, 98.2 twos
2014-15: 105.0 threes, 97.0 twos
2013-14: 108.0 threes, 97.6 twos…

…hey, wait a minute! Two-pointers have been getting more efficient every year, and except for that blip five years ago and the dropoff early in the season this year, threes have as well. People are just making more shots.

What happened? Well, let’s roll out another set of numbers.

Attempts per game (average per team):

2018-19: 31.3 three-pointers per game, 57.6 two-pointers
2017-18: 29.0 threes, 57.1 twos
2016-17: 27.0 threes, 58.4 twos
2015-16: 24.1 threes, 60.5 twos
2014-15: 22.4 threes, 61.4 twos
2013-14: 21.5 threes, 61.5 twos

Well gee, that’s six straight years where three-pointers have been on the rise, and when adjusting for the much faster pace of today’s games, twos have been in consistent decline.

Yet two-point percentage has risen every year for the last five.

It should be obvious what happened here. Shots that used to be long midrange jump shots are now three-pointers.

How do we know this? Because people keep track. What follows is the percentage of overall team two shots from 16 feet and out, next to percentage of shots that were three-pointers.

2018-19: .100, .352
2017-18: .120, .337
2016-17: .142, .316
2015-16: .162, .285
2014-15: .175, .268
2013-14: .180, .259

So every single year for the last six, between 44 and 46 percent (approximately) of shots have been taken by more than 16 feet away from the basket.

The difference is that in 2013, 41 percent of such shots were two-pointers.

Today, just 22.1 percent are.

Are you seriously going to try and tell me that crappy midrange jump shots, which almost never draw a foul and go in at about 40 percent, generating 80 points per 100 possessions, are more entertaining than three-pointers, where they go in at about a 35-36 percent rate and generate 105-108 points as a result?

That tells me that you like basketball that sucks.

The simple fact remains that killing the midrange jump shot, and this is ultimately what this is about, no matter how much the “purists” couch it in terms like “it’s all just layups and threes, it’s boring”, makes basketball a better game. It increases scoring. It introduces variance into a game so “no 20-point lead is safe.” And that also means that fans can’t just turn the game off in the third quarter anymore.

And the very best part? You don’t even need to be a math geek to see why threes didn’t ruin the game. Basketball is the same game it’s always been. Teams are just better at scoring points.

And you know why two-pointers are going in more? It’s not just because nobody shoots those lousy midrange shots anymore.

When you shoot more shots from in close, that means more dunks. And dunks are fun!

It’s so simple that even Stevie Wonder can see it. Contrary to what Gregg Popovich whines about, the three-pointer is great for basketball.

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