Is There an Optimal Number of Three-Pointers Made in an NBA Game?
With the rise of the Warriors and Hawks this year, as well as the Spurs and Heat of the last several years, there are few NBA analysts who can argue against the great importance of the three-point shot. There are so many good shooters in the league today, and it’s really difficult to have an efficient offense without utilizing the three-pointer -- and utilizing it often.
There are obviously extremes to this. Lakers head coach Byron Scott baffled all of us in the summer when he said he didn’t believe the three-pointer was important to an NBA offense. Meanwhile, James Harden and the Rockets are jacking up threes at a historic rate.
This led me to a question I’ve been wondering for awhile: what’s the optimal number of three-point attempts for a team in a game? Making zero threes obviously wouldn’t lead you to think of a good offensive night. But can you take too many of them?
To look at this question, I looked at every game last year and what each team’s win percentage was when they hit a specific number of three-pointers. Here’s what it looked like.
The results surprised me. I knew that three-pointers are up historically, but I didn’t realize how up the numbers were for the entire league. As you can see, it wasn’t until a team hit nine three-pointers when they won more games than they lost. This means that a lot of teams are taking a lot of threes.
To put this in historical perspective, I looked at the same data in the 2003-2004 and 1993-1994 seasons, so we can see a trend over the last 20 years. Here’s how those seasons came out.
The differences are pretty remarkable and easy to see right away. The three-point shot is definitely more important in today’s NBA, and the league as a whole is taking advantage of that. Just 20 years ago, a team that hit seven three-pointers won 65% of the time. Last season, a team that hit seven three-pointers lost more than it won. Crazy.
And 20 years ago, there were zero games with 13 or more three-pointers in a contest. All season. Last year, there 64 teams that hit 13, 53 that hit 14, 42 that hit 15, 16 that hit 16, 9 that hit 17, and even 3 teams that hit 21 three-pointers.
We’re definitely in a different era of NBA basketball.
As you can see, there were over 600 instances in the 1993-1994 season where a team only hit 2 or 3 three-pointers in a game. That's almost unheard of in today's NBA -- in fact, if it happens, you'll certainly read about it in the game recap about how it was such a deciding factor in the contest.
There's certainly an argument to be made for how many threes a team should shoot -- this article, after all, is looking at made three-pointers. The Timberwolves, for example, have rarely shot threes this season. And many analysts think that head coach Flip Saunders is justified in this strategy -- if you don't have the personnel to shoot three-pointers, then don't shoot three-pointers, right?
That's a question that a lot of smart minds are currently studying. How much value does just taking a three-pointer bring? Does the spacing that Kevin Love provides by just being a threat and shooting -- regardless of whether it goes in -- trump his actual three-point field goal percentage? Is there a break-even point for that?
These are all good questions and something perhaps we'll get answers to sooner rather than later, especially with the advancement of SportVU cameras and knowledge of offensive and defensive spacing at every second on an NBA floor. One thing we already have an answer for: modern NBA offenses are built around taking a lot of three-pointers.