Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were rookies. Bill Walton’s move to the Clippers — the San Diego Clippers — was making headlines. Some N.B.A. finals games were still being broadcast on tape delay. And the league tried something new in the 1979-80 season: a 3-point shot.
Its debut was inauspicious. The New York Times’s season preview called the shot a “gimmick” twice in the first two paragraphs. “It may change our game at the end of the quarters,” Suns Coach John MacLeod allowed. “But I’m not going to set up plays for guys to bomb from 23 feet. I think that’s very boring basketball.”
“We don’t need it; I say leave our game alone,” the Celtics’ president, Red Auerbach, said, theorizing that the reason for the shot was that “TV panicked over the bad ratings.”
Oddly enough, a Celtic, Chris Ford, is credited with making the first official N.B.A. 3 on opening night against the Rockets. Each team wound up with one in the game. The shot soon settled in as a rarely used weapon. At the end of the first season, teams had averaged only three 3-point attempts per game.
Twenty-six years later, the 3-point shot has gone from a gimmick to a vital part of every team’s offense, and few would call it boring. This season, teams are taking 24 3-pointers each game, and making an average of eight of them. Both of those figures would be records, breaking the totals set last season.
It is not just desperate long-shot teams that use the 3 as a weapon, as some early critics feared. The Warriors, one of the best teams of recent times, are taking 30 a game.
There are many reasons for the rise of the 3-point shot, but one may simply be math. It took awhile, but coaches finally stopped listening to the traditionalist naysayers and realized that a shot that is worth 50 percent more pays off, even if it is a little harder to make. “Teams have all caught on to the whole points-per-possession argument,” Nets Coach Lawrence Frank said a few years ago as the 3 rate began to rapidly increase.
While the idea of a 3-point shot had been kicking around basketball for decades, it really took off with the founding of the American Basketball Association in 1967. But even the run-and-gun A.B.A.’ers shot the red, white and blue ball from distance only occasionally, five or six times per game on average.
Three-point shots gradually increased in popularity through the 1980s, then jumped to 15 per game, from 10, during a three-year experiment from 1994 to 1997 with a slightly shorter line. When the line reverted to its present distance, 23 feet 9 inches, the pace slowed only briefly. N.B.A. teams reached 18 3-point shots a game in 2008 and 20 in 2013.
Brian Taylor, a point guard for the Clippers out of Princeton, became the first 3-point specialist in the first year of the shot. “Gene Shue believed in it,” Taylor told NBA.com recently, referring to his coach. “So we had set plays for it. It was amazing.” His efforts were not always appreciated. “People were real critical, saying: ‘Aw, that’s not a good shot. They’re taking a lot of bad shots.’ ”
Taylor led the league in 3s that season with 90. Last season, 73 players reached that total.
Danny Ainge was the first to demonstrate that the 3-point shot could be a key element of an elite team’s offense, crushing the single-season record of 92 with 148 in 1987-88 for an outstanding Celtics team. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, 5-foot-10 Michael Adams of the Nuggets carved out a niche as a 3-point specialist, leading the league in attempts four years running. John Starks of the Knicks was the first to break 200 shots made — in 1994-95, he was 217 for 611 — and Jason Richardson of the Bobcats set a record of 243 in 2007-8.
Then along came Stephen Curry. A strong 3-point shooter at Davidson, Curry was among the league leaders from his rookie season with the Warriors in the N.B.A. But his breakthrough year came in 2012-13, when he shattered the record with 272. He broke it again last season with 286, more than all but five teams in the shot’s first season.
If Curry’s totals were amazing the last few seasons, this season’s are superhuman. Curry has 193 3s in 40 games (on 428 attempts). He should easily become the first player with 300 3s, and depending on how many games he plays down the stretch, he could well score 400.
Even in a world without Curry, the 3-point record would be tumbling. His teammate Klay Thompson, James Harden of the Rockets and Damian Lillard of the Trail Blazers are among the many players who have been pouring in 3s at rates that would have stunned the players and coaches of the early 1980s.
Despite the deluge, accuracy has not declined, but rather has risen. While the league’s 2-point field goal percentage has been more or less flat at around .490 for decades, 3-point shooting has gone from under .300 for the first seven years of the shot to over .350 in recent years.
The skeptics of the 1980s have been proven wrong. The 3 is far from a gimmick that is useful only late in a game when trailing big. Factor in the extra point it awards, and the 3 is one of the most effective shots on the floor. Teams have clearly figured this out, and the trend toward long-range shooting shows no sign of slowing.