By Kevin Quealy and Benjamin Hoffman
In the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals, the team that revolutionized professional basketball only a few years ago, the Warriors, is facing the team that has taken Golden State’s 3-point-bonanza style to an extreme: the Houston Rockets.
The story of both teams, who meet Tuesday in Game 2, is 3-pointers delivered in bulk. In 2015-16, the Warriors’ Stephen Curry attempted 886 3-pointers, an NBA record that seemed untouchable. This season, the Rockets’ James Harden crossed that threshold with three weeks remaining in the season, finishing with 1,028 3-point attempts.
The strategy may rankle older fans and coaches who still view the 3-point line as some sort of gimmick. But more than ever, NBA teams understand the probabilistic value of a 3-point shot. If a 24-foot shot has almost the same likelihood of going in as a midrange jumper, but it’s worth 3 points instead of 2, why bother with the 2-pointer at all?
In his new book, “Sprawlball,” Kirk Goldsberry, a former San Antonio Spurs executive, describes the strategy bluntly: “With the exception of layups and dunks, 2-point shots are simply dumb choices.”
Houston, behind Harden and under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni, has embraced “Sprawlball” like no other NBA team. More than half the Rockets’ field-goal attempts this season were 3-pointers.
Considering the success that Golden State and Houston have had, it is hard to argue with their strategy. But tradition can have a powerful hold. And some believe the game is losing its variety — similar to complaints that baseball has devolved into a game of home runs or strikeouts.
Goldsberry explores several possible rule changes in his book, including pushing back the 3-point line, narrowing the lane to encourage more post-up play, even letting teams draw 3-point arcs on their home court however they please.
Absent those changes, NBA shot selection, whether people like it or not, could eventually approach a stasis: a mostly even split between 3s and 2s.
If current trends continue, the NBA could be a majority 3-point league in the 2030s. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s already happening in lots of games right now. The Rockets shot more 3s than 2s in more than 80 percent of their games this year. At one point in the Houston Rockets-Utah Jazz first-round series, Utah’s Ricky Rubio guarded Harden from behind on the perimeter, essentially inviting him to drive into the lane with a 5-on-4 advantage rather than allowing him to take another 3-pointer.
No other team comes close to the Rockets, but the 3-point movement has come, in one way or another, to every team in the NBA. All but three teams set records this season for 3-point attempts.
In the past 20 years, the league average for made 3-pointers has hovered around 35 percent. Thanks in part to Dirk Nowitzki, who showed just how well a 7-footer could shoot from long range, the shot is no longer reserved mostly for guards and small forwards.
Even a lumbering center like Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez put in countless hours in the gym, pulling off the unlikely transition from back-to-the-basket post player to 3-point specialist. This season, Lopez took 512 3-pointers — twice as many as Larry Bird did at any point in his career. And power forwards, like the Detroit Pistons’ Blake Griffin, have drastically changed their shot selection in the past five years as the value of post-up play has diminished.
There are more clues, too, that the NBA is likely to stay on this path: Multiple players are already on pace to shoot more career 3s than Harden or Curry. In the future, shooting 1,000 3-point shots in a season might reflect the nature of the game more than the special quality of a player — just the way passing for 4,000 yards in a season has become common in today’s NFL.
Watching D’Antoni and Golden State coach Steve Kerr lock horns strategically — Golden State took a 1-0 lead in the series Sunday — is another chance to glimpse what most NBA games could look like in a few years.
To live by the 3-pointer is also to die by it — that’s the downside of the strategy, of course. And no team is more familiar with that reality than the Rockets: In one stretch of last year’s Game 7 in the Western Conference finals, the Rockets missed 27 3-pointers in a row. The winning team that day? That would be the Warriors, who made 41 percent of their 3s and went on to another NBA title.