NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - The 3-pointer has been a part of the NBA for 34 years, growing steadily from what was once a gimmick to a weapon that's elevated more than a few otherwise-ordinary talents from barely employable to practically untouchable.
At this point, it's hard to imagine that trend plateauing any time soon.
Teams are attempting an astounding 39.7 3s per game in 2012-13, easily the most since the NBA implemented the line for the 1979-80 season. While it's not a surprise that teams are taking more 3-pointers than ever, it is startling to see just how many more. Those 39.7 attempts are 2.9 more than teams took a year ago, a number that, assuming it doesn't go south over the season's final six weeks, will be the largest increase since a whopping 10.8-per-game jump in 1994-95.
That jolt, however, had a pretty reasonable explanation - the line was temporarily shortened from its peak of 23 feet, 9 inches, at the top of the key to a uniform 22 feet all around.
This one? Perhaps it's nothing more than a majority of the league stressing the significance of a shot that's more valuable than any other. When Boston's Chris Ford hit the league's first 3-pointer on Oct 12, 1979, it was one of two 3s in a game that ended 114-106. And that total was hardly an outlier. For the first seven years of the shot's existence, there was never more than an average of 1.9 made. In its first season, 3s accounted for just over 3 percent of the shots taken in an NBA game.
This season, it's at 24.2 percent. And the league is converting them at the fifth-best rate - 35.9 percent - in history.
Two teams in particular are firing it up from beyond the arc at a much greater rate. The Knicks are taking what's on pace to be an NBA-record 29.2 3s a game - 35.6 percent of their total shots - while the Rockets aren't far behind, launching 28.8, or 34.7 percent of their offensive attempts.
These two long-range lovers also happen to be two of the 15 NBA teams that subscribe to STATS' revolutionary SportVU cameras, which hover high above the court and utilize 3-D tracking technology to record player movements 25 times per second.
What the cameras tell us is that New York and Houston aren't just firing up any 3 they can find. Eighty-four percent of the Knicks' 3-point attempts come when there's no defender within four feet, and - wouldn't you know it? - there's a big difference in success rate when it comes to defender proximity.
In 42 games played in SportVU-equipped arenas, New York has made 38.6 percent of its 3s when there's no one within four feet. On the flip side, when there's a defender within 48 inches of the shooter, the Knicks are shooting just 28.4 percent from beyond the arc.
The numbers are even more jarring for New York's two most frequent shooters. Carmelo Anthony is a 41.3 percent shooter from 3 with no defender close, but his success rate drops to 26.2 percent with a hand in his face. J.R. Smith? Just stay within arm's length and let him fire away. The Knicks' sixth man is hitting 39.7 percent from 3 in SportVU games on those open looks and an unsightly 17.9 percent with someone within four feet.
Long-range specialist Steve Novak, who has taken exactly five of his 305 shots this season from inside 16 feet, is a rare exception. Novak shoots 44.4 percent when left alone and 52.8 when he has company.
To stress the importance of staying on top of the Knicks' perimeter players, simply making them put it on the floor can often neutralize the threat of a 25-foot dagger. When Anthony, Smith and Novak get the ball and put it up before dribbling, they shoot a combined 43.4 percent from 3-point range. Get one of those three to put the ball on the deck before pulling up and their collective percentage plummets to 24.7.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Knicks are last in the league in points in the paint per game at 33.6, but they're often not working the ball into the lane even when they have numbers. New York has pulled up from 3 on the fast-break a league-leading 53 percent of the time in SportVU-tracked contests. Only four other teams attempt fast-break 3s more than a third of the time.
Houston leads the league in 3-point attempts, but is only pulling up from behind the arc on 19 percent of its fast breaks. It's actually the NBA's second-highest scoring team in the paint and many of those points are coming in transition. Of the Rockets' 337 fast-breaks in their 45 SportVU-tracked games, they've attempted a layup 55.5 percent of the time. None of the other 15 teams to subscribe to the SportVU cameras approach the 50-percent mark.
Many of those transition attempts are courtesy of James Harden, whose revolutionary offensive season has seen him take 49.1 percent of his shots in the paint and another 33.9 percent from beyond the arc. That leaves just 17.0 percent of his shots from mid-range - the least-effective area in basketball. He also leads the league in free-throw attempts by a wide margin.
Harden's philosophy of putting value in where his shots come from is hardly an individual preference. As a team, a league-low 15.5 percent of the Rockets' field-goal attempts are mid-range jumpers, according to NBA.com. On the other end of the spectrum is Philadelphia, which settles for mid-range shots 34.9 percent of the time. That makes it pretty easy to see why the Rockets lead the league with 107.0 points per game, while the 76ers are second-to-last at 92.2.
But Houston is even playing it smart when it comes to the type of 3s it attempts. Nearly 31 percent of the Rockets' 3s come from the corners - remember, it's still at a low point of 22 feet there - which is not only the highest percentage in the league, but puts them on pace to take more corner 3s than any team since NBA.com began tracking the data in 2003-04.
One look at the leaders in corner 3 attempts makes the value of the shot look even better. The top nine are the Rockets, Heat, Spurs, Nets, Clippers, Knicks, Nuggets, Lakers and Hawks. That's half the playoff field, and with 14 wins in their last 20 games, the Lakers seem primed to make that group 9 for 9.
Those nine teams have a collective winning percentage of 63.0 percent this season, though clearly the talent of the bunch - and not just a propensity for corner 3s - has a lot to do with it. But with the way the league is headed, building a team from the arc in might become more rule than exception.
None of the eight NBA finalists from 2003 to 2006 finished in the top 10 in 3-point attempts that season, but one top-10 club has played for the title in four of the last six seasons. And with a loaded top third in 2012-13 that includes the Spurs, Clippers and Heat - along with New York and Houston - we may very well see a pair of teams raining 3s as they battle for the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June.