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Three-point shooting in the NBA and the meritocracy

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This is a post about how big time professional sports can throw light on how a lot of assumptions about the supposedly rational reward structure of our society and general and economy in particular are shaky at best.

The great thing about BTPS for this purpose is that they feature far simpler and less problematic definitions of success and how to measure it than ordinary life generally does, so they produce all sorts of test cases in regard to questions of the extent to which people rationally maximize, reward merit, etc.

Consider the adoption of the three-point shot by the NBA in 1980. This is an example of a radical rule change that should have immediately produced enormous shifts in the way the game was played. Careful statistical analysis suggests that three-point baskets are 50% more valuable than their traditional two-point cousins. A 50% increase is a lot. All other things being equal, a player who makes one third of his three-point attempts is as valuable as a player who makes 50% of his two-point attempts. (50% has always been an excellent shooting percentage in the NBA. Michael Jordan’s career shooting percentage was .497).

But all things are far from equal, and in ways that make three-point baskets even more valuable than that. The threat of a three-point shot spreads the floor: the defense has much more territory it now has to guard, which in turn makes scoring on shots close to the basket easier than it would otherwise be. Indeed, a big reason for introducing the three-point shot was to open up the game, which was becoming increasingly dominated by gigantic players clogging the lane and making the sport less aesthetically appealing (Erik touched on this a couple of days ago. I was surprised that almost no one in that long thread noted that, while advanced analytics have hurt the aesthetics of baseball, they’ve been fantastic for the aesthetics of basketball, since it was analytics that finally convinced coaches that the three-point shot was being radically underemployed. These demonstrate that the expected point value of shots from three feet from the basket and 24 feet from the basket are pretty much the same).

Missed three-point attempts are also slightly more likely to produce offensive rebounds than missed two-pointers. All in all, the creation of the three-point shot should have immediately transformed the way the game was played. Again, this is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in which merit and success are defined and measured in the most straightforward way possible, unlike in most human endeavors.

So what happened? The answer is that for many years all the coaches in the most profitable and important basketball league in the world (basketball has become an extremely popular sport internationally over the past few decades) basically just ignored that the three-point shot even existed.

The statistics on this point are stunning: for most of the 1980s, NBA teams averaged two and three three-point shot attempts per game! What’s amazing about this is that, between long shots at the buzzer at the end of quarters and halves, and long jumpers beyond the arc forced by the expiration of the 24-second shot clock, I would have thought that teams would average more three-point attempts per game than that even if they literally never took a three-point shot as part of the normal flow of the offense.

What’s fair to say is that for the first decade of the three-point shot’s existence, the typical NBA team essentially never attempted any three-point shots as part of its standard offensive sets. This was just insane. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of players in the league at the time who were more than capable of nailing an open 23-foot jump shot — the names Larry Bird and Dell Curry leap immediately to mind. Furthermore, the introduction of the three-point shot should have immediately produced a huge shift in the talent distribution of the players in the league, since a massive premium should have been put on being able to hit a long jump shot. (Imagine if the NFL suddenly decided that any touchdown scored from more than 25 yards out was worth nine points instead of six. What sort of premium would/should that suddenly put on speed receivers, big-armed QBs, lockdown corners etc?).

But none of this happened. The shift toward taking advantage of the three-point shot has taken four full decades.

Average number of three-point shots attempted by team per game:

1980: 2.0

1985: 3.3

1990: 7.1 (Still an absurdly low number)

1995: 13.2

2000: 14.9

2005: 16.8

2010: 18.1

2015: 24.1

2020: 34.6

The only reason this took so long is because of the incredibly deep-seated nature of fundamentally reactionary thinking among the relevant decision-making authorities, even though, again, the most straightforward possible metrics should have made it clear to them decades earlier that not structuring their rosters and offenses to take advantage of the three-point shot meant foregoing what would have been a massive competitive advantage against their similarly clueless and reactionary opponents.

All of which sounds vaguely familiar.

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