There used to be a worn out cliche that warned, “Live by the three, die by the three.” But as we head into the third decade of the 21st Century, the NBA has become a league that not only lives by the three, it’s thriving by it.
But does that mean the game is better?
Kirk Goldsberry, an ESPN NBA analyst, author and former Spurs executive, gave us a visual on just how much basketball has changed this century when he posted a side-by-side shot charts of the top 200 field goals attempted for the 2000-01 season and the 2019-20 season.
The game has changed. pic.twitter.com/Bqh4swKxCN
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 14, 2020
It’s remarkable to see how the league in 2000-01 featured a game that used the three-point shot moderately — and mostly at the break and the corner — while the baseline and paint was the busiest area on the court. And 20 seasons later, the top of the key threes, from break-to-break have replaced the baseline and around the rim remained a hot spot.
The three-point shot, which Rick Pitino once employed with the Knicks well before its time in the late 1980s (back in the beloved Bomb Squad days), was shot 14.7 times per game on average by NBA teams in the 2000-01 season. Fast-forward to 2019-20, James Harden alone is almost attempting 14 threes a game (13.5). Six other players are taking more than 9 threes per game.
Teams this season are averaging more than double (33.6) the 2000-01 average from downtown. What has to be said here is while the threes have increased exponentially, the ability to shoot them hasn’t. In fact, the league average for three-point percentage in 2000-01 was 35.4%. In 2019-20, it’s 35.3%.
But what they means is the old “live by the three, die by the three” adage has been dispelled. Shooting more threes doesn’t hurt a team.
The death of the mid-range shot was also evident on Goldsberry’s shot chart analysis. According to basketball-reference.com, team’s took shots in the 16-23 foot range 23.2% of the time on average in 2000-01. And now, in 2019-20, teams shoot in the 16-23 foot range 8% of the time.
One last noteworthy comparison in this contrast is that in 2000-01, teams had, on average 212 dunks for the season. At the mid-point of the 2019-20 season, the average dunks per game is already at 186.
So the NBA has gone the way of baseball, where it’s all about home runs and strikeouts, the highlight plays. Baskeball is now all about the threes and dunks.
Is that for better or worse?
Some people think the amount of player movement we see, especially among stars, in today’s NBA is bad for the game. But, really, it is fitting in a league where almost half of the teams have moved from one city to another. And some with multiple stops between their original roots.
So it’s actually fitting to see the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wearing throwback Buffalo Braves uniforms while playing for the LA Clippers. Kawhi and PG are on their third teams while the Clippers are in their third city. And both are looking to finally put down some roots by securing a championship and, most importantly to owner Steve Ballmer, their own arena.
The Clippers have, since their inception in 1970, been an afterthought. They played at the Aud in Buffalo, but schedule-wise were often third-fiddle to the NHL’s Sabres and Canisuis College. They were sold and moved to San Diego in 1978 and lasted less than a decade there because there wasn’t enough interest.
So in 1984, off they went up to LA and played in the shadows of the Showtime Lakers. In 2000, they moved into Staple Center with the Lakers, which made gaining an identity even harder.
But thanks to the Lakers playoff drought and the arrival of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers and Ballmer, the Clippers have finally gained some traction in Hollywood. Now with Kawhi and PG, they’re legit contenders for a championship.
So now is about the right time to celebrate the crazy history of a franchise that was once one of the most hapless in sports.
For those who like sports nostalgia, a six-part documentary, “Buffalo Braves: Before the Clippers” will air starting Jan. 14 on BuffaloRising.com and other social media platforms. It will tell the story of a time the NBA was in Buffalo and had stars such as Bob McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio and Adrian Dantley, while being coached by the Hall of Famer, Dr. Jack Ramsay.
The NBA has stabilized since the 1960s and 70s, when most of the teams made moves. The last franchise to relocate was the Oklahoma City Thunder, which moved from Seattle in 2008.
That’s one city that desperately misses having an NBA team (and could in the near future). But while upstate New York has had three NBA franchises — the Braves, Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) and Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) — it’s hard to imagine the league will ever go back.
Here are your requisite mid-season awards for the 2019-20 season:
MVP — LeBron James, Lakers.
The greatest player of his generation is back on the throne. All the proof you need is that the Lakers are off to their best 40-game start (33-7) since the beginning of the century. LeBron doesn’t have the gaudy scoring numbers that the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetolounmpo has, but his league-leading 10.7 assists per game is a result of facilitating the greatness of superstar Anthony Davis. Bron, at 35, is setting himself up to win his 5th MVP. He would tie with Karl Malone as the oldest to win the MVP. Others in consideration: Antetokounmpo, Bucks; Luka Doncic, Mavericks.
Rookie of the Year — Ja Morant, Grizzlies.
Morant has acclimated quickly despite his age and slight frame. He’s been a highlight film and a wonderful mix of dazzling athleticism and savvy high-IQ play. Most importantly, his play has helped move the Grizzlies into the 8th playoff spot in the West. Memphis has won 7 of their last 9 games and five straight. Morant has averaged 16.4 points and 8.0 assists over that stretch with a red hot shooting slash line of 54/35/82. Here’s a question: with half of the season left, does Zion Williamson still have a chance to win Rookie of the Year? Others in consideration: Kendrick Nunn, Heat; RJ Barrett, Knicks.
Coach of the Year — Billy Donovan, Thunder.
This was supposed to be the end of the OKC run. The team traded Russell Westbrook for an aging, grouchy Chris Paul and flipped Paul George off to the Clippers for draft picks and some players. The moves felt like a rebuild, but Billy D didn’t coach like it was a rebuild. The Thunder are 7th in the West at 23-17 with a top 10 defense and he’s getting rising star production out of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.9 points per game), who was one of the players acquired in the PG trade. CP3 has been a revelation as a leader on and off the court and Danilo Gallinari has been a solid vet, as well. The Thunder are a fun team and Billy D has them playing hard and, most of all, believing. Others in consideration: Erik Spoelstra, Heat; Michael Malone, Nuggets.