Hate the 3-Point Shot? Welcome to the Lottery

In their first preseason game of the new NBA season, the Miami Heat squared off against the Charlotte Hornets. They were the 24th and 30th ranked three point shooting teams last season, respectively. It seemed clear, though, that one team was sticking to last season’s interior-oriented gameplan while the other was exploring the boundaries of the three point line.

ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh remarked after the game:

“Early trend: Charlotte-the worst 3-point shooting team in NBA last year-is firing up 3’s at a Rocket-like frequency this postseason.”

Yup, in their three preseason games so far, the Hornets have hoisted 27 three pointers per game, a mark that would have ranked second only to the Houston Rockets in three pointers attempted last season.

The Rockets make for an interesting test-case in this new three point crazy NBA landscape. In the past three seasons, Houston has led the league in threes attempted, topping out at almost 32 threes per game last year. What’s more interesting, though, is that while attempting the most shots from outside, Houston converts their three pointers at a below-league average clip. However, they are able to compensate for this deficit by shooting a huge volume of three pointers (426 more than the Cavaliers, the team who shot the second most threes last year).

It’s a strange dichotomy currently taking place in the league. There are teams like the Rockets and Cavaliers who have wholeheartedly embraced the three point shot and the extra point it brings per make. Then there are teams like the Knicks and Lakers whose management not only fails to adjust to the new paradigm shift, but to stand squarely in its opposition. During the playoff’s last season, after his team finished with the league’s second worst record, New York Knicks President of Basketball Operations, Phil Jackson, sarcastically tweeted:

NBA Analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3-pt oriented teams  are faring these playoffs…seriously, how’s it goink?

Well, last season, thirteen of the fourteen top three point shooting teams made the playoffs and six of the eight semi-final teams were in the top 10 in the league average. Also, the Warriors and Cavaliers, last year’s NBA finalists, both ranked in the top four in the three points attempted. So to answer Jackson’s question, it’s goink and pretty well for three point oriented teams in last year’s playoffs.

While it certainly seems the league is trending toward high-volume three point shooting, there are some obvious anomalies, most specifically the Memphis Grizzlies.

Last year, Memphis ranked last in three pointers attempted and 22nd in 3 point field goal percentage, and yet they managed 55 wins in an ultra-competitive Western Conference. In a league that seems to have passed them by stylistically, Memphis has remained competitive by slowing down the pace of games, averaging fewer than 96 possessions per game (5th lowest in the league), and shooting the ball at the 9th best field goal rate last season. By controlling the pace of the game and allowing fewer possessions, Memphis is able to mitigate the effectiveness of volume three point shooting. That combined with their solid defense (10th best based on opponents’ field goal percentage), the Grizzlies aren’t hampered by their poor three point shooting like other teams because of their solid interior presence offensively and defensively with Marc Gasol and Zac Randolph in the middle.

While there will always be exceptions to the rule, it seems clear that the league is becoming far more perimeter-oriented, evidenced by the prevalence of three point shot making among last year’s playoff contenders. Is it impossible to win a championship with a more traditional, inside-scoring team? No, probably not. But it’s no coincidence that the last three NBA champions have all placed in the top-two in three point shooting. The three point shot is here to stay, and teams must either choose to embrace like the Warriors, Rockets, and Cavs, or else they may not be “goink” anywhere fast.

follower Ryan on Twitter: @rgthorner

photo via Wikimedia.org