Once Upon a Time, 3-Point Shooters Were the NBA’s Version of Kickers

The NBA recently celebrated Stephen Curry’s ground-breaking achievement. The Golden State Warriors legend became the NBA’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers when he roared past Ray Allen’s mark of 2,973 in just over half as many games. The 3-point shot is a staple of the modern game; almost everyone takes them.

The NBA is on pace to break the record for deep attempts for the 11th consecutive season, with teams firing up an average of 35.5 long bombs per game.

The triple debuted in the short-lived American Basketball League, which operated for only two seasons from 1961–63. The American Basketball Association revived the long ball in 1967, but the 3-pointer disappeared when that league folded in 1976. The NBA instituted the shot in 1979. However, it was several years before it became a weapon of choice.

The NBA took few 3-point shots before the mid-1990s

Considered a gimmick rather than a weapon, the NBA ignored the 3-point line as a destination for shooters in the arc’s early years.

Teams averaged 2.8 attempts per game in 1979–80, the first season of the 3-ball. After the novelty wore off, attempts fell off. Teams didn’t top three shots per game until 1984–85. The average didn’t top double digits until the line was shortened to a uniform 22 feet in 1994–95.

After the NBA put the 3-point arc back to its original distance in 1997, attempts didn’t reach the level from the short-line era for a decade.

But in 2012–13, teams averaged 20 attempts a game for the first time. The league average per team climbed from 20.0 in 2012–13 to a record 34.6 last season. Along with the increase in attempts, the NBA tied a league record by making 36.7% from deep last season. That matched the accuracy from 2008–09 when teams attempted only 18.1 triples a night.

Why didn’t the NBA embrace the long ball from the beginning? There are several factors.

Players didn’t routinely practice shots from 3-point distance

In the old days, closer was better when every basket was two points regardless of length. Coaches wanted their teams to pound the ball deep into the paint and shoot from in close.

When the 3-point line came to the NBA, the league didn’t have the skills or coaching styles necessary to maximize it. Instead, it was a desperation strategy. Teams trailing late in games would deploy a shooter off the bench to hunt for 3s. Defenses knew what was coming. Sometimes it worked. More often, it didn’t.

In the first year of the 3-point shot, the San Diego Clippers attempted 543 and hit 32.6%. The Atlanta Hawks didn’t even average one deep try per game. They were 13-of-75 for the season, a woeful 17.3% mark. So it was probably a good thing they showed discretion. The league average from 3-point range in 1979–80 was 28.0%.

Brian Taylor of the Clippers, a veteran of the ABA, made 90 3-pointers in 1979–80, a single-season record that stood for four years. No one topped 100 until 1987–88 when Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics canned 148.

Curry set the current record of 402 in 2015-16. Curry would have had a vastly different role a couple of generations ago.

NBA 3-point shooters were specialists

Brian Taylor of the San Diego Clippers was the NBA's first 3-point shooting king.
Brian Taylor of the San Diego Clippers was the NBA’s first 3-point shooting king. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

A handful of players in the NBA in the early 1980s hung onto roster spots because of their long-range shooting.

These players weren’t rotation players as much as they were the NBA’s equivalent to placekickers in the National Football League. Joe Hassett bounced around from the Indiana Pacers to the expansion Dallas Mavericks and the Warriors because of his shooting range.

These specialists tended to play for the weaker teams. Poor clubs were behind more often and needed to play catch-up more frequently. Among the top 10 in 3-point attempts in 1979–80, only three were on playoff teams.

The leaders in 3-point percentage reflected the lack of players entrusted to fire away from deep. Only 15 players made the requisite 25 3-pointers to qualify for the league lead in 1979–80. That number fell to eight the following season. In 1982–83, there were four, led by Mike Dunleavy at 34.5%.

The NBA didn’t hit 20 qualifiers until 1984–85. Since 2013–14, the standard has been 82, an average of one per team game. Last season, 156 players qualified for the league lead.

Besides Hassett and Dunleavy, other players survived as 3-point specialists for a few years. Mike Bratz, Chris Ford, Freeman Williams, Kevin Grevey, and Kyle Macy were similar players.

Today, players without the 3-point shot are considered a liability. Everybody is firing it from behind the arc. But in the early days of the 3-pointer, only a few specialists dared fire from the great beyond. It took a generation for the shot to find its way into coaching game plans.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Stathead.

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