Three Company

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images via the New York Times

Alright, settle down. Have a seat, take a five. Can we just take a five, please? Put your feet up for a while and relax. Especially you, Kobe. You’ve had more than enough to last you a lifetime. Now that the NBA’s regular season has drawn to a close, we all have a moment to catch our collective breath and reflect on what has just happened, which: what has just happened?

The Golden State Warriors have reset our perceptions of what basketball is and what can be accomplished within its strict confines. In particular, Steph Curry has been a supernova among supernovas; along with seemingly every other forum featuring a human being, a pair of eyes, a computer and a relative understanding of the game of basketball, we have covered them both extensively here already. The single most emblematic action this team routinely commits is the very play setting the standard for the league as it is now, the three-point shot.

Among so many other things, breaking the regular season record for wins in an 82-game season certainly the most prominent, the Warriors have gone about disrupting and dismantling much of what basketball used to be. Being that basketball is a continuous work-in-progress, this came as no surprise, particularly for what was already a title-winning squad. An examination of the three-point shot itself seems a worthwhile way to pass the time before playoff games begin.

Once a frowned-upon gimmick sure to go the way of the Harlem Globetrotters and Sunday afternoon runs at the Rucker, the acceptance and implementation of the three-pointer has changed the shape of the league and pushed its boundaries beyond any of our wildest imaginations. Twenty years ago, even ten, Steph Curry would have been a small shooting specialist fit for particular situations, Steve Novak with quicker hands, a better pedigree and weaker ankles. Now, he’s on his way to an almost certainly-unanimous second league MVP. Strange days, indeed.

Pop quiz, hot shot: who was the NBA’s leader in three-point shooting percentage this season? You could be forgiven for thinking it was Curry, though based on sheer volume it would seem impossible, even if he did break his own league record for three-pointers made in a season, but Curry finished third. His streaky Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, is tied for sixth. Kyle Korver didn’t even finish in the top ten. The winner? Charlotte’s Troy Daniels, who finished percentage points ahead of JJ Redick. Daniels registered 122 three-point field goal attempts, a full 764 fewer than Curry, who led the league in attempts.°

As you probably knew, Curry went ahead and nailed 402 three-pointers this season, before anyone else in history has ever even gotten to 300. Thompson, the next-closest player in made three-pointers, had 276, or roughly 68.7% of Curry’s total. What Curry did to the three-point record is staggering theoretically and even more impressive visually. Below, I’ve compiled the league three-point leaders extending all the way back to the 1967-’68 ABA season¹, with highlights for when the record drastically changed – the number after the hyphen on the graph. The NBA, those crotchety old fogies, first implemented the three-point line prior to the 1979-’80 season.

Via Excel

As always, the devil is in the details. From the first point, the 1967-’68 season, through the 1978-’79 season’s data point, the data arrives from the ABA. After that, the chart reflects NBA leaders. A brief assessment of the highlighted data points, with some notes:

  • Les Selvage, Anaheim Amigos (ABA), 1967-’68, 147 three-pointers made (3PM): Ah, the ABA, a notorious carnival of primarily experimental basketball made primarily for, of all things, fun. Selvage was a St. Louis native and graduate of Truman State University who, in leading the ABA in both three-pointers made and attempted during the influential league’s first season, took more shots from distance than every other team in the league but one. St. Louis: they didn’t invent the three-pointer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they claimed to have done so.
  • Brian Taylor, San Diego Clippers (NBA, as they will be from here on), 1979-’80, 90 3PM: Formerly of the Dr. J-era New York Nets and an ABA Rookie of the Year in 1973, led the NBA in three-pointers during the first season in which the league allowed them. A two-time ABA and one-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection, Taylor was the original 3-and-D specimen.
  • Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics, 1987-’88, 148 3PM: Before he was a conniving executive for the Celtics, Danny Ainge was a professional baseball player. But after that, he was a prominent member of some of the greatest Celtics teams ever assembled, a two-time champion as a player who is often lost in the shuffle of shooters due to the presence of one Larry Joe Bird. Ainge shot almost 38% from distance during his career and managed to push the NBA three-point record higher than anyone else in terms of percentage with relation to the previous record, his 148 in the ’87-’88 season representing a growth of 60.9% over Darrell Griffith’s 92 from the 1984-’85 season. Sorry, Darrell.
  • Dennis Scott, Orlando Magic, 1995-’96, 267 3PM: Perpetually underrated, Scott was a member of the Shaq/Penny Hardaway Orlando team that went to the Finals and lost to the Houston Rockets in 1995. Scott routinely shot around 40% from beyond the arc, though the ’95-’96 season marked his only time spent leading the league in total three-pointers made.
  • Ray Allen, Seattle SuperSonics, 2005-’06, 269 3PM: Jesus Shuttlesworth was the kind of guy whose sandal straps Dennis Scott would’ve felt unworthy to untie. Allen seemingly lives to shoot threes, having led the league in three-pointers made on three occasions. Now 40 going on 41, Allen still has yet to retire, his particular skill set appreciating in relevance like a fine wine or a boringly safe stock pick.
  • Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2015-’16, 402 3PM: You may have heard of this gentleman. Even Ainge has to blush at Curry’s 40.6% improvement over his own previous record from last season, particularly as teams are increasingly firing at will from unconscionable distances. Curry escapes description the way he does an otherwise reasonable zone defense: he is the only player who inspires confidence in a double-teamed jack from 35 feet with infinitesimal ticks remaining on the clock.

It seems worth noting that, despite having led or co-led the NBA in three-pointers made twice and being universally renowned as one of the all-time great shooters, Reggie Miller never held the single-season record and only broke 200 once, hitting 229 in the 1996-’97 season. Other people who have led the league include Peja Stojakovic (240 in 2003-’04), Raja Bell (205 with the SSoL Phoenix Suns in 2006-’07) and the Charlotte Bobcats version of Jason Richardson (243 in 2007-’08).

Ryan Anderson, then with the Orlando Magic, was the last person not named Steph Curry to lead the league in three-pointers made, having hit 166 during the lockout-shortened 2011-’12 season. Interestingly, the man who led the league before him was another Golden State Warrior, Dorell Wright, who hit 194 and who, unless something in the league drastically changes aside from uniform advertisement placement, figures to be the last person to lead with fewer than 200 three-pointers made.²

Perhaps more surprising even than the raw number of three-pointers Curry made this season is the fact that he is the first player in NBA history ever to lead the league in both points per game and three-pointers. Certainly, he won’t be the last. Below I’ve included another chart comparing the two statistics, which speaks to how far the distance shot has come in terms of influence on the league. Click on the “Microsoft Excel” hyperlink for a larger, clearer picture; Asterisks next to players’ names indicate members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Via Excel

A few more random points of interest before we wrap this thing up and head into the tunnel to prepare for the playoffs. The lowest single-season leader in NBA history, Mike Bratz, would have placed tied for 148th this season with Andrew Wiggins, each of whom nailed 57 threes in his respective season. JJ Redick hit 200 threes in both the 2014-’15 and 2015-’16 seasons; call him what you like, but make sure you include the word consistent.

Finally, pour one out for Louie Dampier, who hit 198 and 199 threes over two consecutive seasons from 1968-1970 with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels but whose transcendent shooting prowess never quite translated to the NBA, due to the fact that he retired from the San Antonio Spurs the season before the league instituted the three-point line. Don’t shed too many tears though: he’s a Basketball Hall of Famer.

The phrase “live by the three, die by the three” has entered the lexicon of basketball idioms that apply to certain teams, but increasingly, all teams must live by the three. No team is more representative, nor player more exploitive, of this shift in basketball philosophy than the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry, which is part of why they went 73-9 and remain favorites to capture a second consecutive NBA championship.

°As per Basketball Reference, the canonical internet holy book of basketball statistics, the minimum number of attempts required to win a 3P% title has been 82 since the 2013-’14 season.

¹Because we’re all-inclusive here at TwH, like a resort. We’re a resort blog. Enjoy your stay.

²Wright just signed with the Miami Heat, the team that drafted him, for the playoffs. Bombs away.


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