Do Three-Point Attempts Actually Lead to Winning in the NBA?
It has become fairly obvious to anyone who has been following basketball for more than the past five years that there has been a change in the style of the game.
In the 1990s, the list of NBA superstars was full of dominant post-playing big men like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson.
The 2000s saw a slight changing of the guard, where more superstars played shooting guard and small forward, although those players still needed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal to be the most important piece of the championship puzzle.
Currently, we are seeing a complete overhaul in the way teams play, where guys like Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson are doing the most impressive thing on the court: efficiently knocking down threes. (Note: LeBron James was purposefully omitted from the prior sentence because he is a 34% career three-point shooter. This is the last time he will be mentioned by name in this article.)
This trend became mainstream during the 2013-14 NBA Finals, when the San Antonio Spurs throttled the Miami Heat in five games with a combination of great defense, ball movement, and three-point shooting.
Since then, we’ve seen the Golden State Warriors use this model to win the 2014-15 Finals and win 131 of 155 games (an .845 winning percentage). Golden State’s recent success begged the question: who else is playing this way, and is it nearly as successful?
Using historical team and opponent statistics from Basketball-Reference.com over the past five and a half NBA seasons, we’ll take a closer look.
For this exercise, team three-point shooting and three-point defense were taken into consideration. The main statistics I calculated and used are three-point differential, which is the per-game difference of points for and points allowed on three-point shots, and three-point percentage differential, which is the difference of three-point shooting percentage and opponent three-point shooting percentage.
Through 52 games this season, Golden State is boasting a plus-17.4 three-point differential, outscoring opponents on average 38-20 per game from beyond the arc. They are also plus-11 three-point percentage differential, shooting 42.4%, while allowing opponents to shoot 31.4%.
Since the 2010-11 season, no team in the league has come close to approaching numbers like this.
For the sake of comparison, last season Golden State finished 67-15 while being plus-10.7 in point differential and plus-6.1 in percentage differential. Only three other teams since 2010 have been plus-10 in terms of per-game differential: the 2011-12 Orlando Magic (+11.6), the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers (+10.4), and the 2014-15 Houston Rockets (+12.0).
During the same time period, the only team to be over plus-6 in terms of percentage differential is the 2015-16 Spurs (+6.8%).
Impact on the NBA
Golden State and San Antonio’s three-and-D blueprint has won the last two championships, but they are not the only teams trying to play this way.
This season, three-point attempts account for 28% of all shots in an NBA game, up from 22% in 2010-11. The average number of threes made per game has also increased by 33% since 2010-11.
The only three-point statistic not increasing is three-point shooting percentage, where the league average has plateaued between 35% and 36%. This being the case, most teams aren’t becoming more efficient three-point shooters; they are just doing it more often.
Does shooting more three-pointers alone correlate with winning? The graph below reveals the main point of this article.
The graph above shows the correlation between winning percentage and three variables: three-point differential (blue), three-point percentage differential (red), and three-point attempt differential (grey). Each point on the graph represents the correlation, ranging from -1 and 1, between that statistic and winning percentage for a given season.
Of the three statistics, three-point percentage difference is the best indicator that a team has regular season success. On the other side, three-point attempts is the worst indicator.
In the 2014-15 season, the year after the Spurs' championship, the correlation between all three stats and winning percentage were at their highest.
This season, now that the vast majority of teams have caught onto this trend, the numbers are coming back down.
Basically in 2014-15, only the cool kids, like the Warriors, were doing it, while in 2015-16, losers like the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns are trying to do it, and it’s not leading to wins. The constant exception to this is the Memphis Grizzlies , who makes the playoffs every year despite being bottom five in point differential and percentage differential.
It’s hard to tell when this increase in three-point shooting will peak.
As long as teams are seeing Golden State win while shooting and defending efficiently and fans are enjoying seeing final scores of 125-115, we will likely continue to see this brand of basketball.
Teams cannot be blamed for trying this because 71% of playoff teams over the past three seasons have had a positive three-point percentage differential.
That being said, before implementing this strategy, make sure players such as Wesley Matthews (34.8%) and Marco Belinelli (29.9%) aren’t leading your team in attempts. Kobe Bryant (28%) gets a pass because he’s Kobe, and we know the Lakers aren’t trying to win.
Overall, three-point shooting matters, but it's not the volume, necessarily, that leads to winning.