How the Three is Halving the Game of Basketball

How the NBA’s gunslinger era of the three is leaving defense in the dust.

Nothing stays the same. Almost every sport has grown and evolved as technology, tactics, and talent mandate. In the NBA, that meant a move away from defense into an era of unprecedented offensive explosion…even if it kills half the game.

Try as I might, my tongue can’t quite call what’s happening in the National Basketball Association (NBA) a renaissance. A renaissance implies a rebirth, a re-conjuring of something new and beautiful—a golden era of time where the best of what we have to offer rises to the top and shines. While the NBA is undergoing a variety of changes, and the offensive side of the game has grown leaps and bounds, I can’t help but feel something has been found increasingly lacking.

The evolution of the game isn’t a bad thing. Factors like better scouting, sports science, and advanced tactics based on increasingly advanced analytics have helped make the NBA more entertaining and more accessible. As offenses evolved and the three-point line helped spread the positioning of players on the floor, it opened up the action. This led to more breathtaking moments. Players could no longer pack the paint, leaving it unbridled for a sharp increase of thunderous, rim-rattling dunks.

The three-pointer has become its own attraction. Tune into SportsCenter and your highlight-reel dunks are sprinkled in with shots from snipers like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

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Although the three has changed the game, it has also been the most frequent recipient of the “old-man rant.” One of the league’s most decorated and renowned coaches, Gregg Popovich, has been railing against it for years.

Twenty years ago the league averaged 13.7 attempts per game from behind the three-point line. Stopping in transition to pull up from three or jacking it up four seconds into the shot clock would earn a player a spot on the bench. Now? Let it fly—and at an unprecedented rate of 31.3 attempts per game on average.

Compare that to a measly 2.8 attempts per game the year the three-pointer was introduced. The three has evolved so much we’re now seriously considering how to elevate the long-range game even further. The NBA’s sole focus seems to be bringing out the offensive talent, opening up the game, and providing shine for players like Curry and even Trae Young.

Most of the recent changes to most sports have favored the offense. While the NBA’s intentions may not have been to kill off the defensive side of the game or the diversity of offense., it was the inadvertent result. Removing the hand-check and the making the impeding of offensive players a point of emphasis didn’t make defense downright impossible. But it made it extremely difficult.

Still, it makes sense. Outside of the LeBron James’ block in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, what are the top five defensive plays you can think of in the next 10 seconds? Okay, now what about offensive moments? The NBA knows from where its money comes.

These changes have created a perfect environment for mega-talented players like Curry and James Harden to thrive. They also opened the door for literally anyone to walk in and drop 30 on a given night. If you stay in perpetual motion, there’s very little a defender can do to break someone’s stride and impact the offense that wouldn’t result in a foul. Even playing up body-to-body on a drive now results in a foul.

For mid- to low-level NBA talent, that just means more space to operate and the ability to be open anywhere on the court. For someone like Curry who moves without the ball as well as anyone in NBA history, it makes them downright unguardable. Anything you could have feasibly done throughout the game’s history to prevent that type of motion is now an almost automatic foul. So why even bother?

We see this now as players don’t rotate as aggressively on defense and are timid in their closeouts when the ball is in motion. The NBA made defenses so ineffective that most teams don’t even bother. For all the talk of better athletes and better talent, the average defensive rating in the 1996-97 season (the earliest available per was 104.9, with only four teams below 110. Today the league sits at 108.9 with a whopping eleven teams below the 110 rating. That’s almost half the league!

Perhaps offenses simply got better, as reflected in the offensive ratings (from 106.7 in 1996-97 to 110.2 today), resulting in a 13.7 points per game difference on average (from 96.9 to a record 110.6). But we’re also missing pace. Today’s NBA is played at a modest 99.5, which is not far off average. Per Basketball Reference, the league average pace has hovered around low- to mid-90s most of the last 20 years. That number hasn’t crossed 100 since the 1988-89 season (100.6). Every season before 1987 registered a pace above 100.

The eye test matches the numbers. NBA offense is better than ever, and any video game or YouTube video can demonstrate the holes in the defensive games of modern stars. A good offense can mask a bad defense, and no one cares as long as you out-shoot the other team. Nothing put the exclamation point on this evolution more than the Atlanta Hawks trading away the opportunity to draft one of the most touted and well-rounded prospects in recent draft history (Luka Doncic) for someone who put up 10.3 threes per game in college (Young).

NBA development now focuses heavily on the three, valuing players who can hit a long-range shot and rebound, which, with all due respect, are extremely teachable skills for a prospect. Three-point shooting in many ways comes down to pure repetition. Shooting coaches are making a living turning prospects into players who can just put it up in repetition and hit at a 35-percent clip.

To me, the beauty of basketball stands with the symbiosis between offense and defense. The beauty of Michael Jordan wasn’t just that he was a phenomenal athlete, but that he was able to take on four people in the lane and finish the most impossible shots through contact. The beauty of Phil Jackson was to scheme both offensively and defensively. To expose the other team’s weaknesses and isolate their best players versus Jordan or Scottie Pippen on one end while running them off on the other.

Teams used to be built around a variety of talent, and coaches experimented with styles to best fit their personnel. Now, the most dominant type of offense is the four-out spread that maximizes floor spacing, with one ball handler and four shooters. It puts maximum pressure on the defense, and the rule changes make meaningful adjustments and rotations extremely difficult. Players are harder to guard one-on-one because you can’t touch them. Now teammates are forced to help, which leaves everyone open on the perimeter to shoot ad nauseam.

This is not necessarily the fault of the players or the coaching staff. Teams are taking what’s given and the NBA has repeatedly shown what it wants to see: more offense, more open space, and more points on the board.

Even while we’re openly discussing a four-point line to give teams even more firepower, the NBA is implementing changes that would make defensive adjustments to the four-point line both flawed and untenable. 

And so, we have arrived at a game of basketball that only happens on one end of the floor and only in one particular way. So do we enlarge the floor and extend the three-point line? Do we eliminate the corner three, or eliminate the three-point line entirely? Honestly, I don’t know where we go from here.

Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk is a senior writer at Grandstand Central, number one Process devotee and nihilist Raptors fan who also does video production. You can send your complaints about any Celtics related articles to him directly on Twitter.


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