PER Diem: March 27, 2009
Want to exceed expectations? There's a simple formula: Shoot the 3
"Live by the 3, die by the 3" is a common basketball adage, and certainly we all have seen cases in which teams have opted to do the latter.
But in the big picture, a different theme emerges: Live by the 3 or perish. Because if you look at today's NBA, 3-point shooting becomes a more important part of teams' attacks every year, and the teams that don't do it well don't win.
Our first exhibit is the inexorable progression toward more 3-point shots. Obviously, there is some limit to how big a chunk of the league's shots can come from downtown, but it doesn't seem we've approached it. According to the ESPN Stats and Analysis group, this season we're up 22.4 percent of the league's shots have been 3-pointers, up from 20.2 percent three years ago, and it's a number that has risen virtually every year since the league instituted the shot nearly three decades ago.
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Practice makes perfect, apparently, because teams also are shooting more accurately. Either that or coaches are tilting the playing time toward better shooters. This season's 36.6 percent accuracy mark from downtown improves on last season's 36.2 percent mark, which itself was one of the best marks in league history (the league hit 36.7 percent with a shorter line in 1996-97).
And the reason teams shoot more often from out there (and perhaps employ players who do it better) is a simple one: It works.
In fact, few stats correlate better with winning than 3-point attempts. If you tell me only how many 3-pointers a team has chucked up this season and provide no other information, I can tell you whether it is a winning team and be right eight times out of 10.
Check this out: The teams in the top 10 in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt have a combined winning percentage of .593 and those in the bottom 10 have a combined winning percentage of .400.
That's no accident. Three-point attempts have correlated highly with winning for the past several years.
Nine of the top 10 teams in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt also are above the league average in offensive efficiency, the lone exception being 20th-place Indiana. Similarly, only two teams , Utah and Golden State, have had below-average rates of 3-point attempts and still rank in the league's upper half in offensive efficiency.
Here's the really weird part: Preventing 3-point attempts does not convey any similar advantage. The bottom 10 teams in this category are a combined .501, while the top 10 are .509 -- an insignificant difference, especially considering that the teams in the middle 10 are worse than both the top and bottom groups.
Let me throw in another paradox: It doesn't appear to matter much how well these teams shoot the 3. Remember, I was looking only at 3-point attempts above, making no distinction as to whether the teams actually made the shots.
It turns out that sorting teams by 3-point accuracy, rather than attempts, isn't any more telling as to their quality. This season, for instance, the top 10 teams are winning at a .611 clip, the bottom 10 teams at a .404 pace.
Oddly enough, last year's two finalists haven't participated in the trend. Both Boston and the Lakers are in the league's middle 10 in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt, so they aren't skewing the averages at the top.
Instead, the top 10 is a list of the league's overachievers; Orlando, New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, Atlanta and Portland all have won more games than most expected, while one could argue that Indiana has, too, given all its injuries. And the other three teams up there -- San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans -- aren't exactly chopped liver.
Similarly, the bottom 10 is disappointment alley. Detroit, Toronto and Philadelphia all were considered potential 50-win teams before the season started; Washington and Golden State also have underperformed, and one can argue Utah has, too. Only Chicago, Memphis and Oklahoma City have met expectations, and for the latter two teams, that isn't a good thing.
So apparently, there's a simple formula for success in the NBA these days. If you want to exceed expectations, start bombing away from downtown. And if you want to disappoint everyone, stop. With incentives like that, it's no wonder the rate of 3-pointers goes up ever season and why it's likely to keep heading in that direction for some time.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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