In June of 1979, in a vote so close that the Commissioner Larry O’Brien said “one straw could have turned it the other way,” the NBA Board of Governors voted to add the 3-point shot for one year, just as a trial. It’s clear when you look back at the stories of the time that the league’s power brokers did not want to add the 3-pointer but felt like they had to do something. Pro basketball was dying as a major American sport. The TV networks were uninterested. Attendance was stagnant. The American Basketball Association had folded.
The 3-point argument went like so, according to the Associated Press:
Proponents: “It will give the trailing team a chance to catch up quicker … it will open up the middle and reduce contact around the basket.”
Opponents: “A basket is a basket and distance should not enter into the equation.”
The opponent reasoning now seems, well, stupid. But traditionalists always have a lot of sway, and it was only over the loud protests of NBA giants like Red Auerbach that the league decided to try out this newfangled 3-point line for one year and one year only.
That first year, almost nobody shot 3-pointers. Chris Ford had the honor of making the first, but almost nobody followed him. World B. Free, a man known for firing up long shots from everywhere back when such shots were only worth two points, shot only 25 3-pointers all year. Calvin Murphy, widely regarded as one of the great shooters in the league, also tried just 25 3-pointers, and he made only one. Teams averaged fewer than three 3-point shots per game and made just 28 percent. The whole thing seemed like a dud.
The fans liked the 3-pointer (what little they saw), and the NBA decided to stick with it. But the players were still not interested. The next four years players shot even FEWER 3-pointers than they did the first year. And they hardly made any. From 1980-84, teams shot two 3-pointers a game and made fewer than 25 percent of those shots. In an era of free-wheeling, fast-breaking, light-defense basketball, the 3-point line was simply too far away.
Yes, there were a few so-called 3-point specialists like Darrell Griffith and Joe Hassett and Don Buse, who might shoot as many as three in a game. But even Larry Bird shot less than one 3 per game and over those four seasons he shot 25.7 percent from 3-point range. The 3 was a gimmick.
But, as time went on, teams slowly began to incorporate it into their offense. Bird was the key. Take a look at these 3-point numbers for Bird over a five-year span:
1982-83: 22 of 77, 28.6 percent
1983-84: 18 of 72, 24.6 percent
1984-85: 56 of 131, 42.7 percent
1985-86: 82 of 194, 42.3 percent
1986-87: 90 of 225, 40 percent
He led the league in 3s the last two years. Something changed for Larry Bird. It seems that in 1984, Bird realized just that the 3-point shot was an opportunity. And as a result, he (almost singlehandedly) turned the 3-point shot from a gimmick into a real weapon. Between 1984-94, the NBA 3-point usage quadrupled.
Then came the second big movement for the 3-pointer — the NBA shortened the 3-point line for the 1994-95 season. The league wanted more scoring and so made the line 22 feet all the way around rather than what it had always been: 22 feet in the corners stretching out to 23 feet, 6 inches, at the top.
Three-point percentages jumped up. Players started taking a lot more of them. Until 1994, only three players had taken 500 3-pointers in a season. In the next three years, 12 different players took 500 threes. John Starks became the first player to shoot 600 threes in a season. Then George McCloud smashed Starks’ record and fired up a staggering 678 threes. That record still stands. Dallas became the first team to attempt 2,000 3-pointers in a season — 25 per game. The shorter 3-point line was too tempting to pass up.
When the NBA moved the line back again — it’s again 22 feet in the corner stretch to 23 feet, 6 inches — players and coaches had seen the power of the 3-pointer. Teams like Phoenix, Orlando, Boston and the Knicks began shooting 3-pointers like no team ever before. Last season, almost half the teams in the NBA — 13 in total — shot 2,000 3-pointers. This season, inspired by the amazing success of Golden State, the league is shooting even more 3s.
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All of which is a prelude to this question: Who are the best shooters of the 3-point era? I asked my friend Bill James to help come up with a quick and easy statistic to give us an idea. I know there are much better shooting stats out there, but we came up with something basic we call “Shooting Points.” It’s a simple two-step process:
1. Take all 3-pointers made above 33 percent.
2. Add all free throws made above 75 percent.
So simple. If a player shoots exactly 33 percent from 3-point land and exactly 75 percent from the free-throw line, he gets exactly zero shooting points. Only the 3-pointers and free throws made above those basic percentages count as shooting points.
Here, by shooting points, are your 10 best shooters of the modern era.
Honorable mention: Larry Bird, Mark Price, Craig Hodges, Dale Ellis.
Bird is, I think, the pioneer of the 3-point shot, but he does not score in the top 10 because he played in a different Era. From the start of the 3-point line through 1994, the year the NBA shortened it, Bird led the NBA in shooter points with 844, ahead of Reggie Miller (795), Mark Price (705) and Dale Ellis (621). There is no question that Bird (and Price, for that matter) are two of 10 best shooters of the last 40 or so years. But they didn’t score enough shooting points. Craig Hodges deserves consideration, as does Dale Ellis. But I didn’t want to overcomplicate this system with period adjustments and so on.
10. Paul Pierce, 1,155 shooting points
— For years now, I’ve thought of Paul Pierce less like a basketball player and more as a Jedi Knight. I’m talking about the old Obi Wan Kenobi kind of Jedi Knight, you know, worn down, tired, a bit grumpy, wearing some weird hooded cloak, but he’s lethal because he’s seen it all, and he just knows stuff that nobody else knows. Paul Pierce knows. Nobody seems to think of Pierce as a pure shooter — he has never LOOKED like a pure shooter — but he’s fourth all-time in 3-pointers made, and he’s hit some of the most memorable big shots in memory.
9. Glen Rice, 1,185 shooting points
— Rice loved it when the NBA moved that 3-point line in. Those three years, Rice shot 44 percent from 3-point range and in 1996-97 shot 440 threes and made almost half of them (207). He also won a 3-point shooting contest. The rest of his career, he was a 38 percent 3-point shooter, which is still terrific but obviously not the same.
8. Peja Stojakovic, 1,294 shooting points
— A friend of mine used to tell the story about watching Stojakovic practice. She said that he would routinely make 30 or 40 3-pointers in a row, and then when he finally missed one, he stared at the rim for a second as if he was thinking, “Who turned on the air conditioning while that ball was in the air?” What a shooter. He averaged 40 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the line over his career — one of only three players in NBA history to do that (minimum 500 games). The other two are Steve Nash and Mark Price, who were a lot smaller than Stojakovic.
7. Stephen Curry, 1,353 shooting points
— This is a career ranking, which is the only reason Curry ranks this low. It’s easy to forget, he has not even played 500 NBA games yet. Game by game, Curry is far and away the greatest shooter in NBA history. Nobody is even close. Here are shooting points broken down per game:
1. Curry, 2.91
2. Klay Thompson, 1.91
3. Kevin Durant, 1.77
4. Ray Allen, 1.75
5. Peja Stojakovic, 1.61
Curry is like the Wayne Gretzky of shooting. That is to say, he isn’t just the best, he has redefined what it means to be the best.
6. Kyle Korver, 1,431 shooting points
Korver holds the NBA record for most consecutive games with a 3 (127), and he owns the official record for highest 3-point percentage in a season (53.6 percent) when he made 59 of 110 in 2009-10. He played in his first All-Star Game last year and made the most of it, nailing seven 3-pointers in 15 minutes.
One of my favorite little bits of trivia is that by NBA Reference similarity scores, the player most similar in value to Kyle Korver is power forward Armen (Hammer) Gilliam. I love this because it is not possible for two players to be more different than Korver and Gilliam. Get this: Gilliam played 929 games in the 3-point era and NEVER MADE A 3-POINTER. He was 0-for-17.
Just as a side note to that side note: Michael Cage was 0-for-25 from 3-point range in his career.
5. Chauncey Billups, 1,537 shooting points
Will Billups get elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame? I don’t know enough about the inner workings of that Hall of Fame to know, but it seems to me he was the best player on the Detroit team that won the NBA title and the Pistons team that lost to the Spurs in seven games the next year. He’s top 50 all-time in Win Shares (though I’m not sure what basketball players think of Win Shares) and top 50 in assists, and just everybody in his neighborhood the Hall of Fame Probability Chart seems to be in the Hall (Adrian Dantley, Dave DeBusschere, Joe Dumars, etc.). Billups only averaged 15 points per game, and he spent the last few years of his career bouncing around from team to team. I think he has to get elected to Springfield.
4. Steve Nash, 1,677 shooting points
Nash was such a good passer — and gained so much notice for leading the league in assists six times — that it’s easy to miss his brilliance as a shooter. Nash in another system might have had seasons where he averaged 25-30 points a game. You might know that Nash grew up with hockey — his babysitter was future NHL All-Star Russ Courtnall. He didn’t start playing basketball until he was 13. But he practiced so passionately and intently that even by the time he got to Santa Clara University, he became one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.
3. Dirk Nowitzki, 1,700 shooting points
You probably have heard the story about how former German basketball star Holger Geschwindner saw the raw potential of Nowitzki when Dirk was a gangly and uncomfortably tall boy. I have always loved this quote Geschwindner gave about Nowitzki way back in 1998: “He had no basketball technique, but he instinctively knew what to do.” Geschwindner put Nowitzki through all sorts of crazy shooting drills — sort of German Mr. Miyagi — but what struck me was that he also made sure Nowitzki was doing other artistic things like playing a musical instrument. Nowitzki’s jump shot does seem musical.
2. Reggie Miller, 2,226 shooting points
Reggie Miller never won the 3-point shooting contest. He twice lost by a point in the final — first to Craig Hodges and then later to Glen Rice. I’ve always thought it was right that Miller never won. What made him such a great shooter was not the purity of his stroke. Who cares how many shots he made when no one covered him? Miller’s magic was the way he wiggled loose, made ridiculous shots with hands in his face and Knicks dragging him to the ground and Spike Lee shouting at him. If you wanted someone to make a 3-pointer during a hailstorm (and Steph Curry wasn’t available) you would get Reggie Miller.
1. Ray Allen, 2,272 shooting points
The Henry Aaron of the 3-point shot, his career was built on class and impeccable consistency. Allen’s form and rhythm were so perfectly synced that he simply was incapable of having a down year. He shot exactly 40 percent for his career, and he was basically the same shooting star as a 21-year old for a dreadful Milwaukee team and as a 38-year-old for NBA Champion Miami. His amazing record of 2,973 3-pointers will probably last for another five or six years, until Steph Curry goes racing by.