Can Three-Point Shooting Teams Really Win the NBA Finals?
The Houston Rockets shoot too many threes to be serious NBA Finals contenders.
The Splash Brothers are entertaining, but that approach doesn't fly in the NBA playoffs.
Live by the three and die by the three.
Are these really true though? We hear them often enough, but do teams that rely on the three-point shot during the regular season fall short of the NBA Championship?
Let's take a look and try to find out.
The Past Decade
In the past 10 years, only one team -- the 2011 Dallas Mavericks -- both won the NBA Finals and ranked inside the top five in regular season three-point attempts. Case closed, right?
Well, not quite. On the other hand, only one team -- the 2012 Miami Heat -- ranked outside the top 16 in regular season three-point attempts. In fact, the eventual NBA Champs attempted more threes, made more threes, and shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc, on average, than the runner-ups in the past decade.
Now, I know this isn't overly scientific, but that's by design. Genuinely seeing how three-point attempts (and secondarily both three-point makes and three-point percentage) reflected upon a season's "best" two teams was the goal. Gauging whether we can look at a team's three-point attempts per game and saying, "Yep. They're doomed," or, "Nah, they can still win it," was the intent.
Based on the last decade, there really probably shouldn't be the stigma that teams that shoot a lot of three-pointers can't win the title. After all, four of the past 10 champions ranked inside the top 10 in attempts -- regardless of efficiency. If you factor out the 2012 Heat entirely, then the "average" championship team ranked basically 10th across the board in makes, attempts, and percentage.
So, coasting by on regular season threes is okay. Maybe these teams are just good enough to shoot the three during the season but bear down during the playoffs. Is that true?
A Playoff Shift?
If championship teams rank, roughly, in the top third across the board during the regular season, how do their playoff ranks look?
Well, it's fairly varied, although it's pretty telling to look at the ranks of made shots and percentage. Only two championship teams were below average (in terms of ranking) in three-point percentage in the playoffs in the last decade. All were inside the top half in makes.
This isn't totally groundbreaking. Three-point efficiency can help get a team over the top and ultimately take home a title, but championship squads have been closer to the top quarter than the top third when it comes to the playoffs.
Of course, three-point attempts are nearly just above average among the 16 playoff squads, and only three of the last 10 champions finished inside the top five in playoff attempts per game.
So, no, the teams most reliant on the three aren't sweeping up titles, of course, but it's fairly clear that the teams who attempt (or make) the fewest shots from behind the arc surely aren't winning the title, either.
In truth, I was inspired to examine the past three-point attempts for NBA champions because, of the top 10 in three-point attempts so far this year, eight are playoff-bound teams. Further, seven of the top 10 teams in three-point attempts per game are in the top 10 in championship odds, according to our algorithms.
The best teams this year are shooting a lot of threes, and teams that rely on the three -- at least in terms of shooting them at an above-average rate -- have fared well enough in the past.
I don't think there's any reason to conclude that teams must shoot the three at a high rate to win a title. That's not it at all.
What's most important is that there's really no evidence to suggest that teams that swear off -- and rank near the bottom of the league in either playoff or regular season attempts -- are best-suited for championship success.
Fire away, Steph.