In what my kids would refer to as ancient history, even before my time, monster flicks were all the rage. It was the 1950s and films with titles like “The Colossal Cucumber that Destroyed Tokyo” attracted American movie-goers, especially children. The films often featured something small that, through radiation, grew to Godzilla-like proportions and took over the world.
Granted, we’re taking a giant analogical leap here, but a similar “turning into a monster” scenario is threatening the NBA. It’s the embracing of the three-point shot to the point of no return. And it’s taking over the sport.
Examples? The Houston Rockets are launching about 40 percent of their shots from three-point range. The percentage of shots from beyond the arc taken in the NBA has increased in each of the last seven years. It has climbed over 30 percent for the first time in league history. Half the teams are nailing at least 36 percent of their three-point attempts. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that they must make 54 percent of their two-pointers to score the same number of points.
Simply put, it has become too easy.
The progression is alarming. Only 16 percent of all shots were from three-point range during the 1997-98 season, the first with the current dimensions. That was down five percent from the previous year, when the NBA in its infinite wisdom had completed its three-year experiment with an all-too-close 22-foot range. After the initial decline, the percentage of long-distance shots has increased nearly every year.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the higher point totals, particularly this season, that has resulted from the nightly launch-fests. But the dependence on the three-pointer has weakened teamwork. It has resulted in less ball and player movement on the offensive end. It has especially devalued the mid-range game and prolific offensive big men. Not one center ranks among the top 12 in scoring this season. Only the brilliant up-and-comer Karl-Anthony Towns sits among the top 28.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban expressed his discontent during the playoffs a season ago while the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were bombing their way to the Finals. Cuban has been known to shoot from the hip, but his concern in this case was spot-on when asked if the three-point line should be moved back again:
“[It would] open up the court for more drives, more mid-range game,” Cuban said. “I think it’d open it up more so guys with different skills sets could play. … Guys with mid-range games would be rewarded and would stay in the game. There would be more diversity of offensive action in the game.”
The incremental annual increase in three-point attempts since the late-90s has turned into a tidal wave this season, with more teams following the leads of the Warriors and Cavaliers. The average number of shots taken from “downtown” per game has risen to 26.9 from 24.1 last season. The result has been an overwhelming decrease in mid-range shots—from 38 percent in 2000-01 to under 25 percent this season.
Though the number of drives to the basket in the halfcourt set remain at the same level, the strategy has changed dramatically. Those ventures to the hole have resulted in an increasing number of kick-outs to open three-point shooters in the corner. That has unfairly challenged defenses to cover a greater area more consistently, which is virtually impossible when they must send help from the weak side to halt freight trains like LeBron James or brilliant drivers such as Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and John Wall.
Most disturbing, however, is the lack of fundamentals in finishing fast breaks. Times have changed from the days in which players created lanes running down the court and made pass after pass to take advantage of 3-on-2 breaks for easy layups. Nowadays, one player will quite often peel off, plant himself beyond the arc, and it’s bombs away. Never mind that the sure bucket has been tossed out the window along with the offensive fundamentals.
It has been suggested that the NBA eliminate the sideline three, which in turn would make it quite difficult for slashers to find teammates for long-range shots. After all, they are not going to drive to the hole then suddenly pass the ball out beyond the top of the key. Nobody has eyes in the back of their heads. And the sideline three-point line cannot be pushed back because there is simply not enough room.
Though drastic, that is not a bad idea. It would force players to complete drives despite greater pressure and would improve interior defenses that have suffered due to the need to cover the entire court horizontally. (There are simply too many uncontested layups in the NBA today). It would also open up the game for dead-eye mid-range shooters, resulting in greater offensive variety.
The three-pointer must remain a viable option. But the sport suffers when it becomes the preferred option. And for those planning the future of the NBA, that is the Godzilla in the room.