A Radical Proposal to Modify the NBA Three-Pointer

Connor Groel
Jan 31, 2019 · 5 min read
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Photo by Barna Bartis on Unsplash

It’s no secret that the NBA is undergoing a three-point revolution. Fueled by the analytics movement and sharpshooters like Stephen Curry, teams this season are shooting an average of 31.3 threes per game, an over 50% increase from just six seasons ago when teams fired 20 shots from behind the arc per contest.

In the modern NBA, more than one in three shots taken is a three-pointer. Last season, the Houston Rockets became the first team to ever take more threes than twos in a season, an astounding statistic for a shot that once seemed more like a gimmick than anything else. Just a couple weeks ago, the Rockets fired a record 70 threes in a single game against the Brooklyn Nets.

While expanded use of the three-point shot has led to a faster-paced, higher-scoring, and arguably more interesting game to the common fan, many traditionalists would argue the heavy emphasis on flashy three-point shooting is eroding fundamental basketball, and that the league should move back the three-point line to combat the distance shooting evolution.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to this idea that we need to move the line back; three-point shooting percentages league-wide have remained essentially the same over the past 20 years. However, I have recently heard a very intriguing proposal to add a new element of strategy to the three-ball.

That idea? Allow home teams to decide where to place the three-point line. You heard me right. Under this idea, a team could decide to paint the line 28 feet away from the basket or play with FIBA rules and set it at 22 feet 1 3/4 inches. There could potentially be 30 different arcs.

As a hypothetical, this idea is so much fun. It could completely change the game, and at a bare minimum, it’s a unique and highly creative concept. But before you rule it out as a serious change, there is some precedent for different playing field dimensions in major sports.

Just take a look at baseball, where each stadium has different home run distances. The MLB’s only rules are that newly built stadiums must have left and right-field foul poles at least 325 feet away from home plate and that center field measures at least 400 feet. In the MLS, pitches can measure from 110–120 yards long and 70–80 yards wide, leaving the largest fields with more than 16% more surface area than Yankee Stadium, home to New York City FC.

Although each court has the same dimensions, even the current NBA three-point line isn’t uniform, with a 23-foot 9-inch arc that goes down to 22 feet in the corners.

In this system, the NBA would likely set a minimum and maximum three-point distance and require teams to submit their chosen dimensions before the season. This is where we could see some interesting strategic decisions.

If you’re a poor shooting team, would you move the line back to try to take the three-point shot out of the game for your opponents, or bring it in closer to help your team make more threes? What if you’re a good shooting team?

This might seem paradoxical, but I think if you’re an above-average three-point shooting team, you should actually move the line closer, while poor shooting teams should move it further back.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the Golden State Warriors, leaders of the three-point explosion. Sure, guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are capable of hitting 30-footers, but these are not the most efficient shots possible. Moving the line back to that distance would essentially eliminate the three-pointer from your opponents’ arsenal, but it would also restrict your three-point offense to maybe a couple of Curry bombs per game.

If you have the best distance shooters in the league, you want to maximize your advantage by increasing the number of threes taken per game, which would mean moving the line closer to the basket. I think a distance of 20–22 feet would be optimal, as you wouldn’t want to move it so close that current mid-range shots become threes.

For poorer shooting teams, I would suggest moving the line back to at least 25 feet. That’s the distance where we start to see a noticeable drop in shooting percentages compared to shots from any other distance outside of three feet. More importantly, though, and this is really the benefit of a 25-foot three-point line, it eliminates the corner three, as a basketball court is only 50 feet wide.

Without the corner three, the three-point shot becomes way easier to defend — it’s now a less efficient shot solely from the backcourt. There’s less space to defend and less space for the offense to operate in to generate these shots. And because defenses wouldn’t be as worried about guarding the corners, we could see the zone defense come back into style.

Since we know the mid-range is the least efficient place to score, in an NBA with fewer threes, the emphasis would return to play out of the post and inside the paint, which should favor teams that don’t specialize in the three. At the very least, if every shot becomes worth two points, we’ll see decreases in scoring and tempo, increasing variance and helping bottom dwellers.

Of course, this all assumes the NBA sets specific rules for how short or long the three-point shot can be. But strict specification is boring, so let’s just go nuts with this idea.

Want to eliminate threes entirely? Make the three-point line 40 feet! Giannis and Ben Simmons become the most valuable players in the league! What if you could make the restricted area or just dunks worth three, and everything else worth two? Now that’s how you bring back the era of dominant centers! You could allow hotspots or unevenly drawn lines. Allow teams to tailor their line game-to-game to match their opponent. What if the three-point line was only in play for the fourth quarter or moved closer in the fourth to increase comeback potential? I don’t see any reason why the NBA would adopt these rules, but they would definitely spice things up and open the door for more court-specific rules.

Lastly, some secondary effects of allowing teams to choose their own three-point distance. It would make analytical comparisons more difficult, as the lack of three-point equivalency would inflate the stats of those playing in courts with shorter lines, similar to how shorter fences lead to inflated home run totals in the MLB.

The changes would also lead to stronger home-court advantages, unique draft and free agency strategies, and overall a bit more parity in the league, which I think are probably (?) good things.

I wouldn’t expect to see the NBA hurry to make any changes to the three-point line, seeing as the league is at an all-time high in popularity, but it’s certainly an enjoyable idea and one that could add another level of strategy into an increasingly complex league.

Originally published at http://toplevelsports.net on January 31, 2019.

Top Level Sports

Variety sports publication featuring opinions, analysis…

Connor Groel

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Sportswriter. Medill graduate student. Host of the Slept On Sports podcast. Relentlessly curious. My book: amzn.to/398nYk6.

Top Level Sports

Variety sports publication featuring opinions, analysis, and more

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