The NBA game has changed. Very few would dispute this assertion. In the last 10-15 years, the game have moved from a superstar isolation style of game to a floor balance and ball movement style of game. The European style of basketball has invaded the NBA. Why? Because it works. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be invading.
In lock step, the NBA game has also moved to a game that is dominated by the three-point shot. During the 2016-17 season, NBA teams attempted 27.0 and made 9.7 three point shots per game, an increase of 60% in attempts and 59% in makes over the 2006-07 season which was ten years ago. Below is chart that shows the growth in three-point shooting since the league introduced the three point line for the 1979-80 season.
The impact on winning
The three-point shot has not only changed the way the game is played, it has changed the way the game is won. During the 2016-17 season, the strongest correlation between any team stat and winning was easily three-point shooting differential. As a disclaimer, yes, for the cynics and those who want to state the obvious, the most important stat is points scored versus points allowed, regardless of how points are scored. But in determining how the desired end result is most commonly achieved, three point shooting differential is the most common denominator.
Winning teams during the 2016-17 season, on a per possession basis, made 19% more 3-point shots though the number of attempts was almost exactly the same for winning and losing teams. As a result, winning teams shot 39.0% percent while losing teams shot 32.3% from the three-point line. Incrementally, the success rate on three-point attempts was 21% higher (39.% - 32.3% / 32.3%) for winning teams compared to losing teams.
When we combine quantity and efficiency from the three-point line, we can see that wining teams were essentially 20% better in this area than losing teams. The closest other statistical correlation came from assists (15% edge for winning teams) and defensive rebounding (12%). Of course makes and misses impact the opportunity for defensive rebounding making this specific stat dependent on others. Other statistical indicators had correlation, but not to the same degree (2-point shooting 8%, free throw makes 10%, free throw percentage 2%, total rebounding 9%, turnovers 5%).
When we look for teams that had the highest three-point shooting differential in the league, the top of the list is dominated by teams who also dominated the standings.
The evidence clearly shows that there is more than one path to achieving success when it comes to three-point shooting differential. Houston led the league in 3-point makes and three-point attempts but ranked 22nd in the league in 3-point makes allowed by opponents. Miami ranked 12th in the league in 3-point makes and 3-point percentage, but defended the three-point line very well by allowing the fewest three point makes by opponents.
It is no coincidence that Golden State was among the best in the league on both ends of the floor with regards to three-point shooting. On offense, they ranked 4th in 3-point makes and 3rd in three-point shooting percentage. On the defensive end, they were 8th best in 3-point makes allowed and ranked 1st in the league in 3-point percentage by opponents.
Case Study No. 1
During the 2016-17 NBA season, the Miami Heat had one of the most remarkable seasons in NBA history. They were an awful 10-31 during the first half of the season but a mirror image 31-10 during the second half of the season. Other than an injury to Justice Winslow, there was not much change to the roster nor to how coach Erik Spoelstra allocated playing time. They simply played better, much much better in the second half of the season. The improvement in play was most evident in their 3-point shooting differential.
During the first half of the season, the Heat made 8.6 three-point shots per game and allowed 8.3 makes per game by their opponent. They shot 33.8% from the three-point line while their opponents shot 35.7%. During the second half, those numbers changed drastically when the Heat averaged 11.1 makes per game on 39.0% percent shooting while their opponents made 7.3 per game on 32.8% shooting.
Case Study #2
At the end of February, the Portland Trail Blazers were sitting with a 24-35 record, well out of the playoff hunt in the Western conference. However, they managed to win 17 of their final 23 games to finish at 41-41 earning the 8th seed for the Western conference playoffs.
Like the Heat, the Blazers were better at both ends of the floor when it came to three point production. Down the stretch, the Blazers made more threes while taking fewer shots from behind the arc. On the other end of the floor, they allowed 2.2 fewer makes on 3.9 fewer attempts. Though he Blazers finished the season near the bottom of the league in 3-point defense, their improvement during the final 23 games were key to a dynamic finish resulting in a playoff appearance.
The Atlanta Hawks
During the 2016-17 season, the Hawks produced, by far, their worst of four seasons under Coach Mike Budenholzer with regards to three-point differential. During the first three seasons under Budenholzer, the Hawks attempted and made more three point shots than their opponents each season. In two of the three seasons, they shot for a higher percentage from the behind the arc with the lone exception being Budenholzer’s first season when the Hawks shot 36.3% while their opponents shot barely better at 36.5%.
Last season was drastically different as Hawks’ opponents made 2.0 and attempted 4.4 more 3-point shots per game. The addition of Dwight Howard gave the Hawks the rim-protection they lacked during Budenholzer’s first three seasons. But opponents were often able to use pick-and-roll action to force defensive switches. It was not unusual to see Dwight Howard end up defending a guard and Howard’s willingness to defend on the perimeter was inconsistent. The overall communication and execution on defense lacked the precision the Hawks were able to produce in prior seasons.
Opponents’ shooting volume from the 3-point line alone is not always a problem. During the Hawks’ 60-win 2014-15 season, the Hawks allowed the most 3-point attempts and the second most 3-point makes in the league. However, their opponents shot just 34.1% from behind the arc as the Hawks were 7th best in the league in 3P% allowed. Without a true rim protector in the rotation, the Hawks often would give ample help on defense in the paint forcing the ball back to the perimeter for the three point shot. The key was that the communication and decision-making was excellent as the veteran group chose wisely in terms of which opposing shooters to abandon in order to give help defense.
Looking ahead for Atlanta
Without a doubt, the departure of Dwight Howard gives the Hawks ample opportunity to improve their defense of the 3-point line. While the Hawks certainly lose the rebounding and rim protection that Howard provided, rotational bigs Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala and Ersan Ilyasova are all very comfortable in the switch/help/rotate style of defense that Coach Budenholzer prefers while rookie John Collins will have to adapt to the NBA game and learn quickly.
Still, if the Hawks are going to improve their 3-point differential, they will have to improve in many areas.
- Motion and ball movement on offense must be much better than last season when the Hawks struggled with floor spacing. Again, the departure of Dwight Howard will improve the spacing on the offensive end. But even when Howard was off the floor last season, the Hawks’ ball movement and pace often lagged.
- Dennis Schröder must be better than a league-average 3-point shooter and Kent Bazemore will need to be the shooter he was in prior seasons instead of the shooter he was in the early portion last season. Schröder does not need to be an elite 3-point shooter, but he has been a below league average 3-point shooter for the last two seasons, and that must get better.
- Malcolm Delaney needs to be the shooter that everyone knows he can be. He should be a plus plus shooter. The better he shoots, the more Coach Budenholzer can trust him to be on the floor without the offense stalling and will allow Schroeder’s minutes to be better managed. Schröder struggles with his shot as his minutes increase and when playing on short rest. Delaney’s performance can improve the production from the point guard position for all 48 minutes.
- The bigs have to execute in every phase of the offense. They have to make excellent decisions in the pick-and-roll and dribble-hand-off actions. They need to make shots from the perimeter. And they cannot be the speed bump in the offense as bigs can sometimes be. Muscala and Ilysasova are very comfortable in the Hawks offense. Dedmon and Collins will need to be as well.
- The Hawks have to be more aggressive in transition. Some of the highest-percentage three point shots in the NBA come from transition, particularly secondary transition. The Hawks need to force turnovers and be solid in the long-rebound game on the defensive end and then capitalize on transition opportunities.
- Coach Budenholzer will have to be savvy in his use of veterans Marco Belinelli and Luke Babbitt. Both are terrific shooters. Belinelli is an elite shooter when he is on the floor with strong offensive players who break down the defense creating space for perimeter shooters. But he struggles working off the dribble and playing in traffic. Babbitt can be a liability on the defensive end, but in the right match-ups, he can manage within the team unit on defense and yield rewards with his shooting prowess on the offensive end.
- On the defensive, a team does not need superstars to defend the three-point-line. A team can even overcome not having defensive stoppers. Defense in the NBA is about playing as a unit, communicating, decision making and executing. These traits marked the Hawks as team during the 2014-15 and the 2015-16 NBA seasons but were missing this past season. A new season is a new opportunity to bring the defense back to that level.
- Dennis Schröder and Malcolm Delaney must be strong on the ball defenders early in defensive possessions. If they can execute this, the Hawks can limit opponents from running their preferred actions on offense and create situations where opponents have less time on the shot clock to get things done.
- The Hawks must be relentless on defense. Good NBA defenses defend or even take away the first option and sometimes second option. Great NBA defenses defend every option. They exert maximum effort in help and recovery to challenge the third, fourth, fifth shooting option. Every time the ball moves, the defense rotates and this continues to the end of the shot clock on every possession.
- The Hawks will sometimes have to pick their poison and be content with allowing a contested two over a made three. Discretion can be the better part of NBA defense too.
Last season’s Miami Heat can be an example to the 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks. The Heat entered the season expected by many to perform near the bottom of the league. Vegas odds makers agreed. There was a perception the Heat were tanking. This seasons’ Hawks are in a similar position.
Further, the Heat’s roster leaned more on depth and versatility than top-end talent. This season’s Hawks are much the same.
While its certain that Pat Riley and Eric Spoelstra would have preferred the Heat found their groove earlier in the season, they indeed did find it and exceeded all expectations by performing at or near the top of the league during the second half. They paired improved, balanced 3-point shooting on the offensive end with a tenacious team effort on the defensive end. In this formula, superstars are not required,
If they can play with the same mindset and effort, perhaps the 2017-2018 Atlanta Hawks can exceed expectations as well.