Throughout the NBA, debates continue to rage about whether the current era of three-pointers is good or bad for the game. It seems that, compared to other professional sports, the recent shift to focus on three-pointer shots has changed the game for good.
It started back in the 1960s (before the three-point line existed), when baseball fans started to obsess over the game’s stats. Baseball, by comparison, includes a huge amount of data. This helped contribute to the growth of fantasy leagues and, later on, sabermetrics. Fast forward a few more decades and MLB scouting director for the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, had a great idea.
Instead of using experience, he’d use stats alone to forecast promising recruits—and it worked. Fast forward another decade to the Houston Rockets front office where general manager Daryl Mory decided to use data to push his team ahead of its competitors. His great insight was this: teams that shoot more three-pointers have a statistical edge over those that shoot fewer.
The idea proved worthy. In fact, Morey will be remembered as the man who redefined the league. Along with changing how teams approach each game offensively, his efforts have even had effects on sports betting. For example, a free bet from DraftKings can be used on the NBA, where a team’s ability to either score or defend against three-pointers is a huge consideration. In other words, a team’s outlook on three points affects their odds in a given matchup.
With the second-highest three-pointer rate in the NBA, the Celtics are a team who have harnessed the power of Morey’s theories. But are they shooting enough threes? Or are they traveling down a risky path?
All-In on the 3-Pointer
The Celtics have gone all-in on three-pointers. Anyone who was following this season’s start would have been hard-pressed to argue with the results offered. Anytime the team shot above 40% on three-pointers, they won. Anytime their three-point percentage dropped below 40%, however, they lost.
Viewed in this way, the Celtics’ three-point percentage offers a snapshot of their success. But as the season has advanced, their ability to sink those threes has lessened. Jayson Tatum, for context, was shooting 40.8% in October. By December, that number slumped to 33%. Grant Williams made 66% of his three-pointers in October, then 42% in December.
With such volatility tacked on to the Celtics’ ability to sink three-pointers, it’s a high-risk and high-reward approach to the game. When it works, a team is almost unstoppable. And when it doesn’t… well, Celtics fans have the recent loss in New York City to remind them.
Enter the Shot Slump
A three-point approach on offense is a strong one, as it often lessens the pressure on the defense. The more a team scores, the more slip-ups defense can afford. But if an offense used to scoring threes can’t find the mark, then it looks disjointed and the defense is placed under even greater pressure.
In other words, a shot slump can lead to a serious losing streak. Viewed in this way, the three-pointer era includes plenty of cautionary tales. In the example of the recent 109-94 loss to the New York Knicks, the Celtics lost their momentum early on and couldn’t recover it. The game started off with a three-pointer from Al Horford—and then the team were unable to score on its next 25 attempts.
As the game progressed, the Celtics struggled to score hardly any points from outside the paint. In fact, at the end of the game, they walked away scoring only nine out of 42 attempts. Sure, some games are simply lost. However, in this case, the Celtics were unable to drive into the paint and find other ways to score. This marks yet another cautionary tale for teams that play the three: there should always be a backup plan. For every three-point shooter, there should be some counterbalance that can drive toward the basket and generate new opportunities.