The Value of a Three-Point Attempt

We’ve all heard how important three-pointers are in today’s NBA. But the attempts are almost as important as the made shots

According to Basketball-Reference, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets (in that order) have the best offensive ratings in the NBA. Flip that metric over to SRS (a comprehensive statistic used to measure overall performance) and these teams rank first and third, respectively. These numbers also hold up in the standings, where Golden State boasts the first spot in the Western Conference, followed by the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets.

None of this is new information. Anyone who follows the game of basketball knows that these are three of the best teams in the entire league, due in large part to their offensive prowess. But there’s another, slightly deeper angle to this story. The Rockets have such an elite offense not because they’re the best shooting team in the league, but because they’re so good at maximizing their shot attempts.

That may sound confusing. But consider this: The Houston Rockets shoot a little over 36% on three-point attempts this year. That’s a perfectly respectable number, but it falls far short of teams like Golden State (38%) or Cleveland (39%). In fact, the Rockets are only around the middle of the league in three-point percentage, but still have a top-two offense. So by pure shooting skills alone, the Rockets aren’t even in the top five in the league.

The answer to this seeming discrepancy lies in Houston’s per-game statistics. Houston lofts up over 40 three-point attempts per game, which easily leads the league. The true significance of this number lies in how far ahead of every other team it is. Cleveland is in second-place with just under 34 attempts per game. This difference of roughly six shots per game, a number that is nothing short of astounding.

The story of Houston’s shot optimization this year is well-known, for good reason. Mike D’Antoni has turned the midrange into a wasteland, using his team’s talents to almost exclusively pursue either three-pointers or shots at the rim. D’Antoni might deserve the Coach of the Year Award based on this alone — he took a dysfunctional team from last season and turned it into a historically-great offensive juggernaut by playing to the strengths of his players.

Credit: StatMuse

The main takeaway here is that the Houston Rockets have demonstrated the value of three-point attempts. They’re an elite team at exploiting the three-point line not because they make an insane number of shots, but because they attempt more shots at this place than any other team in the league (by far). It’s clearly working, too. Houston boasts a historically-elite offense, one that is capable of matching the Warriors on its best nights.

The first few times I checked Houston’s three-point statistics, I was surprised. Given how many shots I’ve seen them loft, and the massive scoring totals the team has recorded, I expected a three-point percentage that would at least rival teams like Golden State and San Antonio. Shot for shot, Houston falls behind these teams. But they can keep up with them for the simple reason that James Harden, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon will loft up attempt after attempt, night after night, for the entire season.

When looking at any team not named Golden State or Cleveland, it’s tempting to end with the conclusion that the NBA Finals are still out of reach. And that may be true here — Houston’s defense needs to take another step forward once the playoffs start. To only focus on the absolute ceiling of this team would be foolish, though. Houston has taken a trend that captivated the whole league — three-point shooting—and taken it to its logical conclusion. If three-point shots are more valuable, then a team should make the maximum amount of attempts from that spot on the floor. It’s a simple math equation, and one that the Rockets have found success with.

All statistics from Basketball-Reference and StatMuse.

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