Heave-Ho: A Necessary (?) Tweak to the NBA Three-Point Shot

Guest post by Abacus Reveals

The clock’s final seconds elapse, horn and colored lights engaging as the ball, unaffected, continues its arced path towards the rim. A room, however big or small, holds its collective breath as time – at 0:00 – literally stands still, defeat or victory (even if only the opportunity to fight on) hanging in the balance.

Nothing better … we love the game for moments like this.

Jerry West sent Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals to an overtime period with a desperation 60’ heave from the backcourt that more resembles a two-hand chest pass than any jump or set shot I’ve ever seen. West’s Lakers went on to lose that game as well as the series in seven games, cementing the Icon’s legacy as the game’s greatest hard-luck loser.

It’s curious that the exact same scenario in today’s game produces an entirely different outcome. A tie-breaking shot in the waning seconds leaves a team no option but to in-bound and get the ball moving in the direction of the basket before time expires. Now, if such a prayer be answered, we’re all going home, if not to the nearest place of worship.

Was the three-point field goal introduced to the game in order to create such finishes? I’m not for sure, but I doubt it – no more than it was introduced to boost church attendance.

Initially, most teams and coaches viewed the new three-point gimmick as a specialized tool, primarily suitable to one and only one situation – reducing a deficit in minimal possessions, almost exclusively in late-game situations.

Doug Moe's teams thought outside the box
Down by two with a final possession? The only professional coach back then who would have given any thought to running a play to get an open “three” was Doug Moe, an ABA guy through and through as well as certifiably “nuts.” For anybody else, opting for a long ball in that situation was tantamount to acknowledging the opponent’s superiority – “We can’t beat ‘em in OT, so may as well go for it now!”

But even Doug’s innovative, wide-open trickery didn’t include any shooting from the backcourt.

During that first NBA season of “Three Ball” (1979-80), the average NBA squad took 91 shots per game, of which fewer than three were from beyond the arc. This past season, slightly over one-fourth of NBA field goal attempts (22 per game out of 83 shots) were three-pointers.

Roughly, the number of per-game three point attempts has increased by six or seven every ten years or so.

Now, even with all the strategical nuance this increased usage of that li’l ol’ stripe to the floor has wrought upon the playing and coaching of basketball at all levels, the offensive arsenal of NO coach – no Moe disciples, not even a confirmed contrarian like Don Nelson – has ever included a play designed to free up an open shooter in the backcourt.

Until that happens – until shooting from such a distance becomes a not-extraordinary component of play – the awarding of three points to any shot from beyond mid-court will not sit quite right with my “hoop sensibilities” (ya know, that part of your brain that makes you just blurt out “Ball Don’t Lie” sometimes), particularly when it alters the outcome – remember the crazy ending to that high-school playoff game in New York state from a couple of seasons back?

A similar “malfeasance” can occur as the shot clock wanes during a possession. An occasional off-balance toss rim-ward goes in, receiving three points if sufficiently lengthy. (Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, huh?)

And luck will/can never be entirely eliminated from the equation. Just one year prior to West’s miracle shot, in the closing minute of the season, a foul-line jumper by that Nelson guy had caromed off the back rim about three feet or so into the air before dropping straight through the goal – and ensuring yet another bitter disappointment for ol’ Zeke from Cabin Creek.

Short of assigning some game official the duty of determining whether any particular field goal is truly worthy of a bonus point, it’s going to be tough not to award three points to some 35’, back-to-the-basket shot-clock-beater.

But when it comes to a shot like West’s or that of the high-schooler, I do have a proposal – there is an easy way to mandate that such a field goal be awarded only two points. Simply require that the offense legally advance the ball past mid-court in order to activate the three-point rule. Until such advancement is accomplished (or unless a team assumes possession in its frontcourt), no threes – period.

Not only would this little adjustment scratch an irritating itch for this old curmudgeon, it would require players and coaches to alter their strategy for certain end-game situations – and maybe even recondition some instincts.

I can think of no other context of play that might be affected by adding this little codicil to the rulebook … or am I overlooking something obvious?

That moment when the ball’s in the air, time is holding its breath too, and everything seems to be happening slo-mo even in real time …

Such a moment is just too sweet and too special ever to be tainted by the scourge of undeserved reward.

For all their entertainment value, our games remain a meritocracy of genuine competition on a level playing field.

Maintaining these components of sport seems a worthy endeavor.