When Magic Johnson couldn’t get along with Paul Westhead at the start of the 1981-82 season, the Lakers bumped out Westhead and promoted assistant Pat Riley to take his job. Riley led an immensely talented Los Angeles team — with young Magic, prime Kareem, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, and 30-year-old Bob McAdoo — to a title six months later.
Back then, the three-point shot was both an underused weapon and an underdeveloped skill. Magic Johnson led the Lakers that season with 29 three-point attempts. He made six. Michael Cooper tried 17 and made two. Under Riley’s guidance, the Lakers attempted 92 threes and made 13 of them (13.8%).
Thirty years later as the team president of the Miami Heat, Riley had to figure out how to tweak his roster as his team prepared to defend the first title of the LeBron Era. His solution? To add more three-pointers. He finagled free agent Ray Allen from the Celtics, adding the league’s all-time greatest marksman to a deep group of shooters. The Heat took 1809 three-pointers and (rounding to the nearest percent) hit 40% of them. In Game 6 of the Finals, Allen hit the three that resuscitated their title hopes from the dead.
Seven times during the regular season, Riley’s Heat had more threes in a single game than Riley’s Lakers accumulated over the course of an entire season.
Of course, the single most important ingredient to the Heat’s second championship was the presence of an uber-superstar: James. But sitting not far behind that, perhaps even second, was their long-distance prowess.
The three-point shot factors more heavily into NBA success than ever. Pat Riley knows that. And if his offseason moves are any indication, Bucks general manager John Hammond recognizes it too.
John Schuhmann made some keen observations on the connections between three-point offense and overall offense in a terrific blog post over at NBA.com. Inspired upon reading it, I wanted to do a similar study with a couple of minor adjustments. First, I wanted to factor in three-point defense, which figures to be equally important as the offense. Second, I wanted to look at wins and losses — in both the regular season and postseason.
Both making AND taking three-point shots is important. Based on 2012-13 shooting percentages, the average two-point shot scores 0.96 points, and the average three-point shot scores 1.08 points. So across the league as a whole (and Monta Ellis, you are not allowed to use this to defend your shot selection), threes are more valuable shots than twos. But taking threes and being accurate at them is even better.
Below is a crude metric devised to measure teams effectiveness or impotence on three-point shots for the past season. For each team, take the three-point percentage on offense and subtract the percentage yielded on defense. Then rank the 30 teams from 1st to 30th. Then do the same with the number of threes taken — offense minus defense. Similarly rank the teams from 1 to 30.
Being accurate is more important than being voluminous. It’s nice to take more three-pointers because they’re more valuable on average, but if you’re not making them, they’re useless. (I know this fact from my weekly failed exploits at pickup basketball.) Therefore, count accuracy three times as much as volume: multiply the ordinal for 3FG% times three, then add the one for 3FGA.
The result is a weighted overall score for the effectiveness of a teams’ three-point game on both ends. Ties go to the more accurate team. Because it’s based on ordinals, smaller is better. For example, the Heat had the second-best accuracy mark and the 12th-best volume, so their score is 3(2) + 12 = 18.
The trend is staggering: Good teams rise to the top, with best teams at the very top almost in perfect pecking order. Bad teams at the bottom. Of course, there are exceptions: the Bucks are high at #11 and they weren’t the 11th-best team. Ditto for Washington. Denver won 57 games, but they sit in the bottom five.
Overall, though, here’s a stat that predicts the various degrees of success of the league’s 30 teams reasonably well despite largely ignoring rebounds, blocks, assists, free throws, steals, and turnovers. It’s completely based on the three-point game and that alone.
Interestingly, these regular season numbers were also a remarkable predictor of playoff success. Of this year’s 15 postseason series, the higher-ranked team in this index won 13 of those series. The two exceptions? The Pacers over the Knicks and the Grizzlies over Thunder. Oklahoma City built up strong regular season numbers with Westbrook, then lost him to injury. The Knicks held a small edge over the Pacers from three in the regular season, but that margin evaporated when Jason Kidd disintegrated to the tune of 12.0% FG shooting in the playoffs.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then to see the results of the same process applied to two-point shooting. If you find a team ranked high in twos but not threes, you’ve likely stumbled across a regular-season tiger destined to get a spanking in the playoffs when defenses become hyperaware of limiting easy opportunities. Denver Nuggets? Los Angeles Clippers? Memphis Grizzlies? Check. Check. Check.
While the Bucks were nicely proficient at the three-pointer last season, Hammond faced a huge chore this past offseason. In a league where the shot’s importance rises yearly, he was faced with a roster overhaul where only his only reliable shooter under contract for 2013-14 was Ersan Ilyasova. Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, J.J. Redick, Marquis Daniels, and Beno Udrih were all leaving or already gone, and Brandon Jennings’ restricted free agent status left his return up in the air.
Despite the pending changes, he restocked the cupboard and then some. While opting for players whose personalities would result in a more stable locker room situation, he managed to add six competent shooters to the roster — all of whom shot better than Ellis did last season.
Amazingly, there are now five players on the Bucks who attempted more three-pointers last season than Ilyasova and a sixth who was only two behind him. (For more on the Bucks’ new shooters, see this article by Alex Boeder.) They may not all get the same minutes that they did last season — expect Ridnour to take the biggest hit here — but they will certainly get close and they’ll be shooting in the process.
Question marks remain. Do the Bucks have a point guard who can slash and kick the ball out to a shooter? When will Delfino be healthy? Can Butler maintain his improved shooting of the past three seasons at age 33?
But here’s one aspect the Bucks’ offense that should undoubtedly improve: floor spacing. The Bucks devoted a lot of minutes at small forward to Luc Mbah a Moute and Daniels. Not only did those two post bad shooting numbers, but they put them up with defenses virtually begging them to take jump shots. Delfino and Butler are their polar opposites. Take a look at Ersan Ilyasova’s numbers with and without part-time starter Daniels on the floor with him. Ersan’s greatest asset is obviously his skill at being a shooting power forward, a stretch-4, but that edge is negated when the small forward next to him isn’t a stretch-3. That won’t happen this season.
The theme of this offseason has been the future. Additions of Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the vaulting to the forefront of John Henson and Larry Sanders have made that immensely clear. But the Bucks are never a team without a focus on success in the present as well. As Milwaukee waits for the fruits of its youth movement to ripen, the organization has taken steps this summer to finding a way to compete on an uneven playing field. Without a superstar, the Bucks will have to find another way to prove wrong prognosticators.
Last year the Bucks bet on the development of Jennings and Ellis. This year, the Bucks are attempting to smarten up and play the outside shot, where the odds may be a bit friendlier.