The NBA has changed enormously over the last decade with the proliferation of the 3-point shot. No one does it with the combination of volume and efficiency than Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. It seems appropriate to emphasize that because we’re approaching a significant anniversary of the 3-pointer.
Curry is the top practitioner of a shot created decades ago. But the origin story of the 3-pointer is not the one most often told. The old American Basketball Association used the 3-point shot for its entire nine-year existence from 1967–76. In 1979, three years after the ABA and NBA merged, the NBA added the 3-point shot. However, the 3-ball only became a real weapon years after its introduction to the NBA.
But the history of the long bomb goes back even further than the ABA.
The ABA popularized the 3-pointer and got it noticed
The 3-pointer was unique to the ABA when it debuted in 1967, along with an oft-criticized red, white, and blue ball. That was especially true in the NBA. A prominent NBA coach of that era made no bones about what he thought about the ball, according to Terry Pluto’s narrative history of the ABA, Loose Balls.
“They should put that ball back on the nose of a seal where it belongs.”Philadelphia 76ers coach Alex Hannum, 1967
Louie Dampier spent his entire ABA career with the Kentucky Colonels and was the ABA’s all-time leader in 3-point shots with 2,217 and made 3s with 794. Not surprisingly, Dampier holds the single-season records in those categories with 552 and 199, respectively.
The long ball changed much of what coaches and players did strategically. Hubie Brown coached in both the NBA and ABA. Brown claimed teaching players not to abandon shooters 25 feet away from the basket was a difficult transition. Players spent their entire career learning to concede that shot. None of them grew up having to account for shooters like Stephen Curry.
Coaches also had to trust shooters with that kind of range to have the freedom to let it go. That was difficult because the entire game revolved around one thing: get the ball inside and pound the paint.
The actual birth of the 3-pointer
The ABA often gets the credit as the birthplace of the 3-point shot. But it was the American Basketball League, born in March 1961, that introduced the 3-ball. But that league lasted less than two full seasons, folding on Dec. 31, 1962. For perspective, Dell Curry wasn’t born until 1964. The 3-pointer predates Stephen Curry — that’s how old it is.
In its lone complete season, Tony Jackson of the Chicago Majors was the league’s busiest shooter from the great beyond. He was 141-of-383, a respectable 36.8%. Jackson later resurfaced in the ABA.
The only other player to make more than 100 3-pointers was a small guard from West Virginia named Marvin Bolyard. He was 104-of-309, hitting 33.7% while playing for the Pittsburgh Rens. He did not hang around to see the 3-ball come back in the ABA.
The evolution of the 3-pointer up to the time of Stephen Curry
In its first season after adoption by the NBA, the 3-pointer was more of a curiosity than a weapon. NBA teams averaged only 2.8 attempts per game, led by the San Diego Clippers. They launched 6.6 3s per game.
At the other end of the scale were the Atlanta Hawks, coached coincidentally enough by Hubie Brown. The NBA single-game record for 3-pointers is 14 by Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors in October 2018. Brown’s Hawks made 13 3s over the entire 82-game schedule. That isn’t even the low-water mark. Atlanta set the record low with 10 3-pointers in 1980–81, a standard tied by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982–83.
Fast forward to the Stephen Curry era. In 12 seasons, he has 2,832 career 3-pointers. That is second on the all-time list and trails leader Ray Allen by only 141. Allen played 18 seasons and 1,300 games. Curry has played more than half that many games with 762. Curry also holds the single-season record for made 3s with 402 in 2015-16. However, it’s James Harden who has taken the most in one year. The Beard fired up 1,028 attempts in 2018-19.
In 2020–21, teams averaged 34.6 3-point attempts per game. It’s the 10th consecutive season the NBA has set a new record. That streak began in 2011–12 when the average climbed to 18.4 deep tries a night. It’s a long way from a 60-year-old gimmick from a league that failed in less than two years to a league where Stephen Curry and dozens more players launch with impunity.