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Three point shooting: The gift that keeps on giving

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Has Atlanta’s three-point shooting differential improved this season?

NBA: Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, we took a look at the team stat that most correlated to winning in the 2016-17 NBA season. That team stat was three point shooting differential.

Last season was the first under head coach Mike Budenholzer when the Atlanta Hawks were outscored at the three point line (-6.0 points per game). In the three previous seasons, the Hawks outscored their opponents at the three point line (+4.98 ppg in 2015-16, +3.59 ppg in 2014-15 and +4.17 ppg in 2013-14). This season, the Hawks have trended in the right direction, but are still being outscored by 2.64 ppg from behind the arc.

Let’s take a look at what has changed for the Hawks as well as how things might have changed around the league relative to this important team stat.

Is 3-point shooting differential the most important team stat this season?

To answer this question, we are looking purely at math. Let’s compare what happened in the NBA last season to what is happening in the NBA this season.

This season, NBA teams are again taking more threes (28.7 per game compared to 27.0 last season), making more threes (10.4 compared to 9.7) and shooting at a higher percentage (35.9% versus 35.3%). The question whether outshooting and outscoring your opponent at the three point line correlates to wins as strongly as it did last season.

The simple answer is yes, three-point shooting differential is still the team stat that most correlates to winning but the correlation is not as strong last season. A season ago, winning teams outperformed losing teams by roughly 20 percent at the three point line (looking at both three point makes and three point shooting percentage). This season, that number is abut 15 percent. As a result, two-point shooting and free throw volume are slightly more important.

What has not changed is that three point shooting volume is about the same for winners (28.5 per game) and losers (28.9 per game) but winning teams are shooting 39.1 percent compared to losing teams making 33.8 percent.

How are the Hawks performing this season?

Compared to last season, the Hawks are performing better than they did last season in this area (-2.6 ppg compared to -6.0 ppg) . The Hawks are much improved shooting from the three point line this season. Their attempts per game are up (from 26.1 to 28.5 per game) and their three-point percentage is up (34.1 percent to 38.3 percent). However, their opponents are performing better from the three point line as well.

Offensively, compared to a season ago, the Hawks are scoring 6.1 more points per game from the three point line, are taking more three point shots (+2.4 attempts per game) and shooting 38.3 percent compared to 34.1 percent a season ago. Surprising three point shooting from Dewayne Dedmon, improved three point shooting from Taurean Prince, in addition to the veteran work of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, have had a real impact.

Defensively, the story is not so good. After a season when Dwight Howard’s presence resulted in the Hawks’ defense against two point shots being stronger than their defense against three point shots, it is hard to understand the team’s defense of the three point line being worse this season. But it is. Opponents are scoring 2.6 more points per game from behind the arc. Compounding the problem, opponents are scoring 1.7 more points per game on two point shots.

The formula for defense in the NBA is to limit three point shooting for your opponents without giving up easy two point baskets. So far, the Hawks are struggling at both. The result is a team that ranks 29th in the league in Defensive Rating.

Yes, the Hawks are much younger than they were a season ago. But coming into the season, the roster seemed to present more challenges on offense than on defense. But the team has struggled much more defensively than offensively.

It will be most interesting to watch Atlanta’s performance on defense for the balance of the season. If the Hawks expect to be a better team in coming seasons, they must make significant strides on defense and those strides really need to start this season. So far, the defensive rating has not trended in a positive direction (October 105.0, November 110.2, December 109.3).

Moving the needle in the right direction will require the Hawks to significantly improve their defense at the three point line. If they can do that, they can capitalize on their improved three point shooting and perhaps have more positive results on the scoreboard.