Tip-Off Timer: Rise of the Three-Pointer Since '80
When the NBA completed in merger with the American Basketball Association in 1976, it borrowed a few great things: the slam dunk contest, Dr. J and -- most importantly -- the three-point line. Well, the NBA didn't grab the three-point line right away. It wasn't until the 1979-80 season that the NBA opened the arc for business.
In that premiere '80 season for downtown, the average NBA team took only 227 threes. Last year, Rashard Lewis himself took well more than twice that many (554). The league has come around on the importance of the trey, but it's taken a long time.
This chart shows how much more NBA offenses depend on the three-pointer today versus back closer to its '80 debut.
Back in '80, three-pointers made up only 3.1% of total NBA field goal attempts. Last season, the league set a record with 22.4% of FGAs coming from downtown.
It's been a slow, steady climb ... save for the unfortunate spell in which the league tried to juice offenses by moving the line up to 22 feet. It took no time for teams (and shooters) to realize what a boon the shorter three-point line was. Leaguewide three-point shooting went from 33% in 1994 to 36% in 1995 (the first year with the shorter arc). In just two years, the use of the three-point shot catapulted from 11% of all FGAs in 1994 to 20% in 1996. Fortunately, the league went back to the standard three-point line we see today in 1998.
Nonetheless, the fundamentals of NBA players -- in terms of shooting, at least -- are getting stronger.
Along with the rise of the three-pointer as a weapon, there has been a general increase in the efficiency of the tool. The leaguewide shooting percentage on threes last season (36.7%) equaled the previous high: 1996, one of those's short-arc seasons. In other words, players are shooting 24-footers as well today as they shot 22-footers in 1996. (Or something like that.)
It will be interesting to see whether shooters get so good at some point that the league will consider moving the line back to 24-1/2 or 25 feet. I doubt it (chicks dig the long ball, and viewers dig offense), but we could be heading toward a day when more offenses become undefendable thanks to supreme long-range efficacy.
As always, thanks to Basketball-Reference for the data.