The NBA’s Three-point Field Goal turns a sprightly “Four-Oh”

With little if any fanfare – other than a through-the-roof usage rate – the 2018-19 campaign marks the 40th season during which the NBA has utilized the Three-Point Field Goal. Ironically, the adoption of this new wrinkle to the game coincided with the arrival of two dudes named Earvin and Larry Joe.

Commissioner Larry O’Brien’s 18-team Association had absorbed the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs three seasons earlier when the old ABA simply ran out of money – the rebel league’s innovations (30-second shot clock, 3FG, multi-colored ball) discarded.

Initially, the league’s old-schoolers frowned upon the long ball despite its inherent lure of a 50 percent increase in payoff. It was not until its sixth year (1984-85) that the average NBA team was even attempting three treys per game. It was not until Year 14 (1992-93) that the usage rate for the three-ball, or 3PAr, crept past 10 percent – that is, one out of 10 shots launched from behind the arc.

As Michael Jordan’s Bulls were wrapping up their initial three-peat in ’92-93, the league average for treys per game was 3.01 makes in 8.95 attempts. League-wide accuracy (which had bottomed out in Year 4 at .238; and hadn’t reached .300 until Year 8) had risen to an all-time high of .336.

Two seasons later, Commish David Stern and his minions decided to enhance the allure of the long-ball by flattening out the arc and shortening the distance to 22 feet. Predictably, both usage (9.89 to 15.30 attempts per game, an increase of over 60%) and accuracy (.333 to .359) were significantly elevated.

The experiment was abandoned after three years following the 1996-97 season, but its impact reverberates still today, over two decades later. Consider these seasonal averages:

1997-98: 3PAr - .159; 3FG% - .346; 2FG% - .470; overall FG% - .450
2007-08: 3PAr - .222; 3FG% - .362; 2FG% - .484; overall FG% - .457
2017-18: 3PAr - .337; 3FG% - .362; 2FG% - .510; overall FG% - .460
2018-19*: 3PAr - .354; 3FG% - .354; 2FG% - .518; overall FG% - .460

Since the turn of the century, the National Basketball Association as a whole shot worse than .350 from Three-point Land only once – during the labor-shortened, condensed 66-game schedule of 2011-12 – when it plummeted to .349. The usage rate for three-balls during that funky season was .226, the fifth consecutive season at 22 or 23 percent (about 18 attempts per game per team). Since then?

2012-13: 3PAr - .243 / 19.95 3FGA’s per game
2013-14: 3PAr - .259 / 21.54 3FGA’s per game
2014-15: 3PAr - .268 / 22.41 3FGA’s per game
2015-16: 3PAr - .285 / 24.09 3FGA’s per game
2016-17: 3PAr - .316 / 27.00 3FGA’s per game
2017-18: 3PAr - .337 / 29.00 3FGA’s per game
2018-19*: 3PAr - .354 / 31.39 3FGA’s per game

[2018-19* -- data through 16 weeks, as of Wed. Feb. 6]

The Impact of “Striping”

NBA 2015-16 will ever be remembered as the Year of the Warriors and Cavaliers – something about 73 regular-season victories and overcoming 1 – 3 playoff deficits.

It should also be noteworthy for a dubious distinction “achieved” by both the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves. These franchises are in danger of becoming the last two teams ever to accumulate more missed free throws than successful three-point shots over the course of an 82-game slate.

As recently as 2010-11, there were a dozen squads that fell into that “Negative Striping” category, four of whom qualified for post-season play – and it hadn’t been until the 2007-08 season (Year 28 of Three Ball) that the average NBA team tallied more treys than missed FT’s.

But 2018-19 seems as if it will become the third consecutive season in which all 30 teams end up with more treys than errant freebies.

The Most Deadly of the “Sniper Brigade”

The last time the NBA’s best three-point shooter was held below 40 percent marksmanship? The same year Moses Malone and Dr. J won their lone NBA title.

Since the league restored the 23’9” arc, the top shooting percentage of a qualified three-point shooter has ranged from a low of .441 (2002-03) to a high of .536 (2009-10). The average of those 21 years’ worth of top 3FG%’s is .476. (The average for all 39 years is .469.)

It’s not so much that today’s elite three-point shooters are so much better than the dead-eyes of the past … it’s just that the Manute Bol’s are now finding the range, too!!


Including last night’s nine games, the average NBA team has taken 1,745 3FGA’s out of 4,929 total FGA’s – a 3PAr of .35403. Team Average has made 619 treys for an accuracy rate of .35473.

The usage rate for the three-ball has never matched or exceeded league-wide accuracy … but the usage rate has increased by a full TWENTY-FIVE PRECENT just since the Splash Brothers etal’s iconic yet ultimately unsatisfying ’15-16 run.

Have these last three “bombs-away” seasons become the new NBA norm – Holy D’Antoni. Batman! – or is this recent rash of free-wheelin’ distance shooting merely a “blip” on the screen of hoops history and the Three-pointer will start acting its age?

Abacus Revelation for the Road

If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the three-point field goal or how it became set at such an odd distance of 23’9” – Hall of Famer Bob Lanier’s feet were still too big for him to legally attempt a corner trey – check out this little version of “The Odd Couple” from Abacus’ vault.