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The Rise of the Three Pointer

Prior to the 1994-95 NBA season, the NBA's competition committee decided, in an effort to increase league-wide scoring, to decrease the three-point field goal line to a uniform 22 feet around. However, this change proved to be unsuccessful from a scoring standpoint as the average points scored on a per game basis fell from 197.7 to 196.7.

The NBA continued with the shortened 3-point line experiment for two additional seasons where scoring continued to fall further to 196.6 (1995-96) then 186.3 (1996-97). The experiment was ended for the 1997-98 season when the league reinstituted the traditional and now standard three-point line at 23 ft. 9 in. at the top and 22 ft. at the sides.

One consolation to the competition committee is that teams did attempt more threes, a lot more: the average number of three-point attempts per game rose from 19.8 in 1993-94 to 30.6 attempts per game in (1994-95) and peaking in the last season of the experiment at 33.6 attempts per game. Interestingly, the record for most 3-point attempts in a season is held by George McCloud with 678 during the 1995-96 season.

And while the experiment didn’t pan out in the way of increased scoring, it does seem to have started the league down a path of more three-pointers - during the four seasons prior to the experiment an average of 16.8 threes were attempted per game while the four seasons after the experiment saw this average jump to 26.6 attempts per game. But it was a trend that would continue.

For the 16 seasons following the experiment, there has been a continual rise in the number of 3-point attempts. In fact, during the 2012 NBA season we saw the largest number of three-point attempts in a single season as the 30 teams attempted 49,067 threes (39.9 per game), which also included a new record for most 3-pointers made in a season at 272 by Stephen Curry.

Importance of the Three

During the 2012-13 season, the average three-pointer went in the basket 35.9% of the time, which means that on average it’s worth 1.08 points per shot (35.9% x 3 points). Three-point production peaks at the corners, where the distance is the shortest at 22 feet and the average success is 0.393 (1.18 points) on the right side and 0.386 (1.16 points) on the left side.

Points -per -shot -location

The average mid-range shot goes in an of 39.4% of the time, which makes it worth an average of 0.79 point per shot (39.4% x 2 points). The average shot around the basket goes in around 55.6% of the time making it worth around 1.11 points per shot (55.6% x 2 points).

Based on field goal percentages, the optimal strategy is to mix in shots from 3-point range with shots in the paint and avoid the mid-range jumper as this will maximize points per attempt. This has started to be ingrained into the game and optimized in team strategies as illustrated by the continual rise in 3-point attempts per game.

One of the greatest basketball bettors and basketball analytics guru Haralabos Voulgaris said, when asked about the best coaches in the game and the corner 3, said:

“The best 3 coaches in the NBA - Stan Van Gundy, Scott Skiles, Gregg Popovich. I think SVG and Skiles do a better job of managing the end game than any other coaches in the league and its not even close. These 3 coaches have one thing in common, they look to take a lot of corner 3s, and they do a great job of defending the corner 3, if you do nothing else as a coach but focus on the above - you'll be ahead of the curve.”

In fact, the two of the top three teams in corner 3 attempts over the 2012-13 season were the Miami Heat (1st - 8.7/game) and the San Antonio Spurs (3rd - 8.4/game), who of course were the NBA finalists.

Looking ahead, it is unlikely that teams will shift to only taking only corner 3’s as teams will start to defend harder against it but there is likely still more to squeeze from the 3-point lemon. It makes sense that we will see the attempts rise and records around the three-pointer fall over the coming years.

Three-pointer Stats (1990-Present)


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