Monday, April 19, 2021

How to Fix the NBA’s Three-Point Problem

By Ross Lancaster

It may not seem like it with a slightly abbreviated season, but the NBA is now in the stretch run. Less than a month of regular season games remain before the play-in tournaments in both conferences, and each team has about 15 games left.

At this point in most seasons, the last month of games before playoffs seems like thumb-twiddling time before the rush of games in the first round of the playoffs and the titanic duels of later playoff rounds that we've been waiting months for.

This year, that wait seems a bit more exciting due to some compelling seeding battles and the race to avoid the white-knuckle play-in round in each conference. And once we do get to the playoffs, there's a strong possibility we'll get a great matchup (or two) in round one in the West due to better-than-expected seasons from Phoenix and Utah and the Lakers' injuries.

But while great basketball is being played, I haven't been watching quite as many regular season games as I usually do. Some of that is availability — Sinclair Broadcasting's takeover of most regional sports networks and them being pulled from most cable-adjacent streaming platforms has meant I can't watch the in-market Mavericks unless they're on ESPN or TNT.

Another factor I realized a couple months into the season is that I'm not loving the amount of three-pointers being taken on a game-to-game basis, which wasn't an opinion I ever imagined having 10 or even five years ago. Mind you, I'm someone who's always considered the irrelevance of a 20-foot long two and has been following per-possession statistics and analytics since they became widely available in the 2000s.

If I can sour on the three-pointer, anyone can.

Of course, the fact of three points being 50% more than two points is the main "analytic" that everything else points out from. And currently, league average on twos is 52.9% and 36.7% on threes, meaning that a three-point shot is currently "worth" about 1.1 points while a two is worth 1.06 points.

When you consider all the possible outcomes on a basketball court, that breakdown is a bit of an oversimplification, but it's also not surprising when you add up thousands and thousands of shots to find out that the team that shoots the highest percentage of its shots from behind the three-point line (Utah) currently has the league's best record.

Now, you may be so analytically focused that you think efficient basketball is good basketball, and a shot that averages you more should be encouraged.

But in actually watching the games and not boiling basketball down to a Basketball-Reference page, that equation can result in ugly shots and a lack of ball movement. After all, if the shot clock is winding down and the other team is playing good defense, why not try to get an extra point out of the possession when you probably have to take a difficult shot anyway? Worst of all, this many threes is beginning to homogenize the game to an uncomfortable degree.

This season, nearly 4 out of 10 shot attempts (39.2%) are threes. Five years ago, it was 28%. Ten years ago, it was 22%. I hate the thought of the NBA becoming a league where the majority of the shots are behind the arc, but that's the path we're going down if something doesn't change. Even Daryl Morey, whose last three Rockets teams attempted more threes than twos — the only three teams in NBA history to do so — has admitted that the three is becoming too important to the game and that the league will probably end up changing the three-point rules in some way in the near future.

Let's look at some options that the NBA has:

Cap the number of threes a team can take, after which they become twos

When Kevin Arnovitz brought up this idea in an otherwise fantastic article about the critical mass of threes this season, I think I immediately reacted by re-creating the Michael Scott "NO! GOD! PLEASE NO! NOOOOOO!" GIF while reading it in my living room.

I don't even want to give this radical of a proposal attention, but telling a basketball player that the three-pointer he made is worth two points because his team attempted too many to that point in the game is some double-think garbage. It would be like telling Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers that they can only throw 20 yards past the line of scrimmage five times a game, but then their yards on those kinds of throws count half afterwards.

Widen the court to make the corner three consistent with wing and above-the-break threes at 23 feet, 9 inches

This feels like a non-starter, too, because it creates more space that defenses have to account for — and defense is already at all-time worst levels per possession. Yes, it would make the easiest three harder, but I'm not sure how much it would really take away that shot.

Too much more speculation on this one feels moot. I don't know when courtside seats will come back as we move further into what feels like permanent pandemic normality, but owners won't want to give up the high-price seats that widening the court would entail.

Loosen the strict hand-checking rules when guarding the ball

I think this idea has promise, but I don't love the idea of going back in the direction of things that made mid/late-'90s and early-2000s NBA games low-scoring and borderline unwatchable at times. There's probably a happy medium between the freedom of movement allowed now and 1997 Knicks/Heat-era bully ball, but I can see referees developing a more laissez faire attitude than intended for on-ball defense after rules are changed.

And I'm not sure it would actually change the rate of attempts from the behind the line. Pace and scoring would likely be the first things to decline.

Eliminate the corner three entirely

This is my favorite by far. The corner three is basically a cheat code. Except for shots at the rim inside the restricted area, it's the most efficient shot in the sport because it's almost two feet shorter than other threes. And in today's game where 200 players attempt multiple threes per 36 minutes, it's too easy of a shot. So let's dump it and make every three attempt at least 23 feet, 9 inches.

Think about how many possessions of NBA basketball you've watched over the past 10-15 years where two guys on offense hang out in the corners waiting for a kick out or swing pass when the defense collapses on a ball handler or misses a rotation. It's a whole, whole lot. That's 40% of your team on offense that's effectively defaulting to a certain location. Eliminate the bonus for that corner position, and you introduce a huge element of offensive strategy and variance back into the sport.

Offensive spacing for guards and other ball handlers would take a hit, but teams would eventually adapt and attack defenses differently. Some shooting specialists might get run out of the league, but there would still be ample three-point opportunities, and pros continue to shoot the 23'9" distance better than they did a generation ago.

In the early 2000s, defenses got too good and the game wasn't compelling enough to produce anything close to the type of TV ratings that the Jordan era garnered if the Kobe/Shaq Lakers weren't playing. Rules changed to open play up and make the game more watchable.

In my opinion, the game is in a much stronger place than it was circa 2003, but it still runs the risk of becoming too standardized because of three-pointers. It's time to change the rules and make things more interesting.

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