The Case for Moving the NBA 3-Point Arc to 15 Feet

The NBA, rightly or wrongly, is criticized as a league that is “nothing but 3-pointers and layups.” All the action takes place either right at the basket or way out 24 feet and beyond, the area in between largely reserved as a sort of no-man’s land where there may be plenty of Eurostepping and beating guys off the dribble (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul or Dwyane Wade in their primes come to mind respectively) but very little actual shooting.

Meanwhile, there is a very simple reason why that no-man’s land exists. As a matter of efficiency, any shot between 4 feet away and the 3-point arc is, statistically speaking, a monumentally bad idea.

Consider these percentages: 39.3, 41.5, and 40.5. Respectively, those are the shooting percentages in the NBA in 2019-20 from 3-10 feet away from the basket, 10-16, and 16 feet to the arc.

At two points per make, that’s approximately 80 points per 100 attempts, an absolute disaster and a sure sign that anyone taking one of those shots is doing the absolute worst possible thing to help his team win short of just turning the ball over and getting nothing.

Meanwhile, the league-average 3-point percentage was 35.7, good for 107.1 points per 100 attempts, and that number is depressed somewhat by a large volume of truly terrible gunners who nonetheless shoot a lot of threes because if they shot long twos, they’d really have shot themselves out of the league by now.

24 players qualified for the leaderboard while shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc. The best among them, George Hill (yes, really), shot 48 percent, a mind-bending 144 points per 100 FGA that not only is awesome on its face, it’s exactly as good as Giannis, Hill’s teammate in Milwaukee, has scored (on 72 percent shooting) from 3 feet and in for his career.

Granted, Giannis is better than ever from in that close (76.7 percent this year, good for 153.4 points per 100 FGA), but when you’re in the same stratosphere as the reigning MVP and the most freakish athlete on the planet, you begin to see why the NBA is a 3-and-layup league.

Hill, incidentally, is a fantastic rim finisher in his own right, shooting 75.5 percent this season and 65.8 percent for his career from layup-and-dunk range inside 3 feet.

As you go down that list, what you’re left with is 24 guys who don’t need an arbitrary arc on the floor to limit their shooting range, so they sensibly shoot the ball from further away from the basket, only exacerbating the NBA’s core problem (in the eyes of a certain vocal set of fans who insist that the 3-pointer ruined the sport) of only coming in two flavors and leading to a severe lack of variety in offensive approach.

What guys who argue for more midrange jump shots are ultimately advocating for is a more compressed game, something akin not just to the pre-1979 NBA where outside shooters (even all-time great outside shooters like Jerry West and Rick Barry) didn’t need to spread the floor like a college football offense spreads a football field.

If you watch West (a career 47.4 percent shooter), you see a guy who could probably be an elite 3-point shooter today, but he didn’t have to. He could venture out far enough to let teammates like Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor have the low post to themselves but didn’t need to be 30 feet away creating a complete dead zone in order to break down the spacing against a man-to-man defense.

Barry, a 45.6 percent shooter, did things exactly the same way for the 1975 title team in Golden State, while John Havlicek, after some dreadful-by-today’s-standards early years (as low as 39.9 percent in his first All-Star season in 1966, which should tell you something about what the NBA was like in those days), shot 44.9 percent or better in each of his last nine seasons.

And while we’re on the subject of fantastically efficient scorers who didn’t rely heavily on the 3-point shot to put up those numbers, how about a guy who shot 50.5 percent in Chicago while hitting only about a third of his triples between 1984 and 1998? (let’s leave the Wizards out of this). And Michael Jordan did it while spitting in the face of the conventional wisdom that high usage rate destroys scoring efficiency.

But you know what all of those guys I just named have in common? Even though they played during an era when the bulk of NBA basketball was played within 15 feet of the basket and there were plenty of long 2-point jump shots that would be cringeworthy to today’s stat nerds (your columnist included—I am by no means advocating any player shoot more long 2-pointers in 2020 and will call for the firing of any coach whose offensive strategy includes having players shoot a disproportionate number of such shots)…

…well, the game they played was wildly entertaining and they were the most fun-to-watch outside shooters of their respective eras (let’s leave the likes of Wilt and Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal out of this.)

So how do you fix this? How do you create a more varied NBA with different offensive schemes that don’t simply rely on distance from the basket to create the spacing they need to put up those massively efficient scoring numbers, all while cutting down on the volume of cringe-worthy 3-point chuckers (everyone from Cory Joseph to Russell Westbrook to 31.8-percent-shooter Luka Doncic) laying bricks while still managing to be more efficient simply by virtue of the idea that 3 is more than 2?

How about move the 3-point arc in such that it intersects the free throw line? Leave the line flat then draw an arc from the corners of the free throw lane (15 feet and some change from the basket because of the whole right-triangle geometry involved, close enough to make 16 feet and out an apples-to-apples statistical comparison) and make that the boundary between an “outside shot” and an “inside shot”, the former worth 3 and the latter worth 2.

After all, that’s what 3-point shooting has functionally become in today’s NBA, isn’t it? A line of demarcation between a jump shot and a layup or dunk (or aborted drive in the 3-16 foot range, which is more than worthy of its own statistical penalty even if such a dumb shot goes in?)

Teams used to make that calculation in old-school pre-1979 NBA basketball all the time. It was a center’s league because the center was closer to the basket, but having a guy who could make even Havlicek’s 45 percent while shooting mainly from further away could (and did, for the Celtics eight times in Hondo’s career) win you a title.

So we’re keeping a core statistical reality intact by making the “outside shot” worth 3 points instead of 2, acknowledging the difference in efficiency between a jump shot and a layup or dunk, making George Hill and Giannis Antetokounmpo statistically comparable for their differing role, while opening up the court such that now it becomes a more interesting strategic condition when the likes of Hill or Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard can make 3-point shots from not just 24 feet out but in Curry and Lillard’s case, more like 30 feet or more.

Teams that want to compress the game a bit can take their outside shots from 16 feet out. Teams that want to open the court wide and draw defenses out to create opportunities for players to play a wide-open drive-and-kick game that the current 3-point distance favors can do that too.

And ultimately, with teams playing different styles, games will become “styles make fights” both offensively and defensively. After all, if you’re playing a defense that has trouble closing out on super-long shots, you’re going to want to run them ragged with the ball pinging around closer to the sideline, right?

Let’s try it in the G-League. See what happens in practice when teams have to consider the maximum range of their shooters against the advantages of stretching the floor far beyond what the lines drawn on the court call for.

The 15-foot 3-point arc may just make basketball more fun in a way that the current gods-awful tendencies of some players to take woefully inefficient long 2-point shots fails to deliver.

Or the league may be just fine the way it is and all those nostalgia freaks who want midrange jump shots to come back should just take their 80 offensive ratings and sit down. But we can settle this on the floor.