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The three-pointer: A long shot comes in with a big payoff for NBA

The three-point shot, considered a novelty and shunned by purists when adopted in 1979, is now a basketball staple, a key factor in strategy and personnel decisions.

February 15, 2013|By Sam Farmer
  • Kobe Bryant reacts after hitting a three-point shot against Philadelphia in January.
Kobe Bryant reacts after hitting a three-point shot against Philadelphia… (Paul Buck / EPA )

Steve Kerr vividly recalls being a 10-year-old kid, with a basketball tucked under his arm, staring up at the rim from behind an imaginary three-point line he had paced off in the driveway.

The basket looked a block away.

"I remember thinking, 'How does anybody ever make one of these?'" said Kerr, 47, who never could have dreamed he would end a 15-year NBA career as the league's most accurate three-point shooter.

That long shot — once dismissed as a publicity stunt — has fundamentally changed professional basketball. It has reshaped offensive and defensive philosophies at all levels, and significantly enhanced the value of players who can make shots from long range.

"You always want to have a knock-down three-point shooter or somebody who can actually have the ability to create a three-point shot for anybody else," said guard Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, one of six competitors Saturday in the Three-Point Shootout, a highlight of NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston.

The three-pointer, first used by the NBA on a trial basis in the 1979-80 season, has morphed from a lightly used gadget to a cornerstone of the game. In that first season, teams averaged fewer than one three-point basket per game. Thursday night, for example, the Clippers made 16 three-pointers in a romp over the Lakers.

Three-point shooters were once specialists parked at the end of the bench who typically made brief appearances late in games. Occasionally, if they got hot at the right time, those sharpshooters might bring their team back from the brink of defeat.

These days, a player who can hit shots from downtown has undeniable upward mobility.

The NBA has a slew of power forwards in the 6-foot-10 range who can consistently drain long shots, thereby stretching defenses to their limits. That outside threat draws big defenders to the perimeter, and creates more room for guards to drive to the basket.

The NBA three-point line measures 23 feet 9 inches from the basket at the top of the free-throw circle and 22 feet at the corners, the spot most shooters prefer. To bump up scoring in the mid-1990s, the league briefly tried moving the line to a uniform 22 feet before returning to the current configuration. The three-point arcs in college (20-9) and high school (19-9) are closer to the basket.

"Where big players 30 years ago were confined to the low block, a lot of guys can shoot that shot now," said Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the Lakers. "Look at Pau Gasol. He's taken more threes in the last year or two than he took in the first eight or nine years of his career."

In the last 11/2 seasons with the Lakers, Gasol has made 15 of 53 three-point attempts. That approaches the total of his previous 11 seasons, in which he made 19 of 85.

The once-fluid pro game that was predicated on spacing and flow and movement is now more dominated by two groups of players: those clogging the middle and those sharking outside the arc and waiting to take their shot. Many experts believe that has had an impact on how well players perform in the area inside the arc but outside the key — the jump shot that once was a staple of the league.

"Very few players now can take one or two dribbles, pull up at 15 or 17 feet, and make shots," Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person said. Perhaps 15 or 20 players out of roughly 450 in the league, Person added, excel at the mid-range jump shot. "Teams just don't work on it anymore."

Jrue Holiday, an All-Star guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, said he gets frequent reminders to work on his mid-range game from his father, Shawn, a former Arizona State player.

"All he talks about to me is, 'You've got to shoot your mid-range, you've got to shoot your mid-range,'" Holiday said. "Just like you see LeBron [James], his mid-range game has been pretty nice over the last couple of weeks. You see how important that really is."

Players who could operate in that mid-range were plentiful in the 1980s. Long, low-percentage shots were more of a last resort.

For the first few years after the NBA adopted it, the three-point shot was largely an afterthought. In the 1979-80 season, the team average was 227 three-point shots attempted and 64 made.

"The spacing was totally different," said Kerr, now a TNT analyst who will be calling the All-Star game.

Playing for six NBA teams, Kerr made 45.4% of his three-point attempts. "There was much more movement. And if a guy ever did take a three it was kind of a shock, like, 'Wow, that guy just took a three-pointer!'"

In 27 of the 30 full seasons that followed, the number of three-pointers attempted and/or made inched upward. By 1996-97, teams were averaging 496 baskets in 1,377 attempts — six successful three-pointers per game.

In 2010-11, the NBA's most recent full season, the league average was 530 makes in 1,477 attempts, with teams such as the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns scoring more than a quarter of their points from behind the arc.

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