Loved, loathed and everywhere: how the three-pointer came to dominate the NBA

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Stephen Curry’s three-pointer is one of the modern NBA’s signatures. Photograph: Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

As the new season approaches, it’s worth examining how shots from beyond the arc became one of the most important parts of modern basketball

hen the shot went up, so did the voice of ABC’s legendary broadcaster, Mike Breen. “Curry! Way downtown! BANG!” It all happened so fast. It was a regular season game in Oklahoma City on 27 February 2016. The Golden State Warriors were on a magical run that would see them break the single-season wins record, going 73-9, pre-playoffs. That year, Stephen Curry earned his second-straight MVP, unanimously. He achieved that feat because he’d turned the three-pointer into a weapon unlike anyone else in history.

The game-winner against the Thunder on that February night marked the beginning of a new chapter in the NBA. Not only did it clinch another win for the Warriors, but it cemented the three-pointer as a play en vogue in the NBA. A season later, after the Thunder’s Kevin Durant defected from the team and joined Golden State, he hit an unprecedented, walk-up three-pointer over LeBron James to all but clinch the 2017 NBA finals. Durant later told GQ, “That was the best moment I ever had.” The modern game was unfolding before our eyes.

But how exactly did we get here?

Dr James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts on an otherwise gloomy day in December 1891. From then on, for most of basketball’s history, the game has been dominated by big men, those 7ft giants, who, by virtue of their size, are closer to the 10ft rim and, thus, more capable of scoring with relative ease. From George Mikan in the 40s, to Wilt Chamberlain in the 60s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 70s, Moses Malone in the 80s and Shaquille O’Neal in the 90s, and beyond, big men largely ruled the roost. But now, though, thanks to players like the 6ft 2in Curry, the game’s focus has moved away from the hoop towards the three-point arc.

The history of the three-point shot is one of seemingly constant evolution, from its inception in the American Basketball League in 1961 to its adoption in the American Basketball Association in 1967 and later in the NBA in 1979 after the league and the ABA merged in 1976. Since then, it’s been spotlighted at times, ignored at others, moved in, moved out, mastered and, some say, abused. And with the likes of Curry, who is now the all-time leader in three-point makes, the shot can be so devastating that it can feel like it’s worth somehow more than even three points.

“I’d been practicing it even back in my high school days,” former 90s NBA sharp-shooter Terry Mills tells the Guardian. “But the thing was [back then], big guys at 6ft 9in or 6ft 10in, you weren’t really allowed to shoot the ball out there, just like you weren’t allowed to dribble the ball.”

Yet the 6ft 10in Mills, who played for five teams in the NBA over 11 years, later became so adept at shooting from distance that he earned the nickname, “Three Mills.” He boasts a career average of 38.4% from behind the arc, sinking 533 three-pointers. Mills started his college career at the University of Michigan, where he works today as a radio broadcaster for the men’s basketball team. There, however, he says he didn’t make a single three-pointer (he thinks he went 0-4). Shooting from distance wasn’t considered something a big man like Mills should do, nor was it part of his repertoire.

But when he played for the Detroit Pistons in the mid-90s, things began to change. His coach, Doug Collins, came to Detroit in 1995 and encouraged Mills, who was already testing his skills from long-range in seasons prior, to keep shooting. Suddenly Mills, who played power forward, was beginning to help define the concept of the “stretch-forward,” meaning a big player who can “stretch” the floor and create space on it given his prowess from distance (in the modern era, think of Dirk Nowitzki or Karl-Anthony Towns).

“When I first got to the Pistons, I was primarily a post-player,” he says. “When Doug Collins came in, he recognized I could shoot the basketball, and said I could be a specialist. Of course, I wasn’t buying it at first. But it became a niche of mine. I’d come off the bench, they ran plays for me. All of a sudden, it started working. I was a believer.”

In the 1980s, teams averaged just a few three-point makes per game. Bird, who boasts a 37.6% career percentage from distance, has long been considered the best shooter of all time. But throughout his 13 years in the NBA, he averaged fewer than two three-point attempts per game. In 2016, Curry averaged 11.2 attempts per game and two years ago it was 12.7. Like home runs in baseball and passing plays in football, there was a dearth of three-pointers in the early years of the game.

The three-point contest is one of the cornerstones of the NBA All-Star weekend
The three-point contest is one of the cornerstones of the NBA All-Star weekend. Photograph: David Maxwell/EPA

But with the advent of the three-point contest at the NBA All-Star game in 1986, the shot became cooler and more respected. Bird, of course, won the contest in its first three years. Soon, deadeye shooters became folk heroes. From Bird to Miller to Mark Price and Curry’s father Dell, to lesser-known players like Craig Hodges, Dale Ellis, Tim Legler and Steve Kerr, Curry’s current coach, who holds the all-time record for three-point percentage at 45.4%, NBA fans came to love long-distance marksmen.

“I practiced at it,” says Mills, who took part in the three-point contest in 1997, losing out head-to-head to the Sacramento Kings’ Walt Williams. “But it was just something totally different. I would consider myself more of an in-game-type of three-point shooter as opposed to stand still in front of a crowd and shoot.”

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