Three-point shots are the most efficient in basketball. They’re worth 50 percent more than 2s,don’t go in 50 percent less, and even when they’re off target, they lead to offensive rebounds at a better clip than mid-range misses. The league is shooting more 3s than ever before (25.3 percent of all shots taken are now triples), and, the numbers say, loudly and clearly, that this still isn’t enough: everyone should be chucking more of them. In the modern NBA, three is the magic number.
“The debate on this stuff is over. Math has won,” Zach Lowe wrote in Grantland on Tuesday in a piece that mapped out the rise of the 3 and captured in strange and vivid detail the discomfort with the changing game that exists in some very influential league circles. (That long jump shots are somehow morally superior to 3-pointers and dunks is a belief that’s deeply held by handful of very successful NBA coaches and executives. The lesson, as always: smart people are capable of believing manifestly crazy things.)
There is a problem with the 3, however. While a triple-heavy attack is, in game theory parlance, a dominant strategy, it’s also a high-variance one. 3s are worth more than other shots and they go in less frequently, reducing the predictability of individual games. This makes a 3-centric offense well-suited for an 82 game regular season, where, over six months, the variance is ironed out–you lose a game you shouldn’t have here, steal one there–but in, say, a seven game playoff series, it can be a risky way for a favorite to play.
And so an analytic tension has emerged: in the modern NBA, the most efficient offenses (i.e., the ones that shoot the most 3s) will also be the most prone to playoff upsets. What’s a contender to do?
Well, for starters, they can go much faster.
In a tremendous (and paywalled) article that ran last week on ESPN.com, Kevin Pelton profiled the Rio Grande Valley Vipers–the Rocket’s D-League affiliate–and the unusual brand of basketball they’re playing. The Vipers are not only taking nearly 50 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, which would blow away the NBA record, but they’re averaging 107.2 possessions per 48 minutes. This, according to Pelton, is faster than any NBA team has played in 20 years.
Why does this matter? Well, in addition to being a dominant strategy in its own right, playing at a fast pace reduces variance by increasing the number of samples. To crib a Tom Haberstroh analogy, if you’re a kid who’s playing his older brother in basketball, and you’re just playing to first bucket, you may well win. As soon as he checks it to you, you might bounce it off the backboard and in and take bragging rights. But if you’re playing to 10, or 20, you’re much less likely to get so lucky. Things get a little more complicated in the NBA, but the basic principle holds: the better team benefits from more possessions.
All of which makes fast-paced basketball a perfect complement to the 3: by increasing the size of the sample, it mitigates the variance inherent in 3-point shooting. (And the fact that both strategies are dominant doesn’t hurt either.) If they use enough possessions, contenders who are built on 3-point marksmanship can have their cake and eat it too.
The Vipers are already having success with this fast/3 approach. They started the season 9-0 and didn’t lose their first game until Friday night. Oh, and you may have heard about the team that’s second in the D-League in 3-point attempts: the Delaware 87ers.
Know hope, Sixers fans. Know hope.