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Back to the future?

Grand experiment in D-League will have NBA watching closely

Posted: Monday October 18, 2004 11:34AM; Updated: Monday October 18, 2004 5:49PM
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Steve Kerr
Coaches don't mind the 3-pointer if they have someone like Kerr shooting it.
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Is this any way to celebrate an anniversary? The 3-pointer turns 25 this year, having been implemented for the 1979-80 season, but you won't see the NBA fêting it with the finest wines and cheeses. The league won't even set off a few bottle rockets in the backyard.  

Instead, David Stern and Co. have the gall to use the 3-pointer's silver anniversary as an opportunity to discuss its funeral plans. The NBDL -- the NBA's minor league -- approved a rule change last week that dispenses with the 3-point line until the final five minutes of the game, hoping to see what the game would look like without the familiar arc that has been part of the game for a quarter century. (Side note: How long do you think it will take before a D-League point guard stands 30 feet from the hoop and dribbles the clock down to 5:00 just so he can shoot a 3-pointer? I'm guessing it happens in the first week).

Certainly, times have changed. Watch an NBA game from 25 years ago and an NBA game today, and for a plethora of reasons you'll see two very different brands of basketball. Bigger players, zone defenses, more contact and the extinction of the jheri curl are a few of the differences, but the 3-point line may be the biggest.

The line's slow-motion impact has nonetheless been pervasive. Fast breaks have become an anachronism; teams instead look to work the ball around the perimeter for an open trifecta. When teams do run, players invariably fan out to the 3-point line looking for an extra point rather than going to the rim for a dunk.

Perhaps most insidious is that as teams have adjusted to playing with the line, they've increasingly depended on the long-range bomb for offense. Three-point attempts have risen steadily since '79-80. In '88-89, 10 years into the rule's existence, 3-pointers accounted for just 7.4 percent of all field-goal attempts. At that point the line had been around long enough that one might have expected the 3-point rate to level off. Instead it's more than doubled since then, and the increase shows no sign of abating. Even between '02-03 and '03-04, 3-pointers rose from 18.2 percent of all shot attempts to 18.7 percent.

Much of the punditry considers this a bad thing. For instance, Pistons coach Larry Brown said, "The 3-point shot, now, with the young kids, has really hurt our game." (Of course, two months ago in Athens he was decrying the absence of a 3-point shot with the young kids. You can't win with some people). A more credible detractor is Steve Kerr, the top 3-point marksman in NBA history, who added, "It's being shot way too often these days and it's hurting the game."

But the logic of shooting the 3-pointer is inescapable. Last season teams shot 36.4 percent on 3-pointers -- to get as many points from shooting 2-pointers, they'd have to cash in 54.6 percent of the time. Given that the league average last season was 45.7 percent on 2-point shots, the mystery isn't why attempts have gone up to nearly one shot in five -- it's why teams aren't taking the majority of their shots from downtown. And the better the shooter is, the worse the disparity. Kerr, for instance, made 45.4 percent on 3-points in his career. A 2-point shooter has to make 68.1 percent to make it a proposition equivalent to Kerr shooting a 3.

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However, partly because teams have slowed the pace to take advantage of the 3-point shot, scoring has taken a precipitous drop. There are several other reasons that scoring has declined, which I'll talk about much more extensively in another week or so, but for now just look at these two data points. In '79-80, when the NBA introduced the line, every team averaged at least 100 points. Last season, only two did.

Purists have squarely placed the blame -- unfairly so -- for this decline on the 3-pointer's impact. And that is why a quarter-century after it the shot was introduced, the D-League's new approach has arrived. Theoretically, the NBDL's change allows the one definitive improvement the line brought to the game -- making comebacks easier in the final minutes by legalizing the 3-pointer at that time -- without all the other negative baggage.

"The 3 has become a real focal point of offenses, and we would like to turn the clock back and see what the game is like without it," NBA Vice President Stu Jackson said. (And better yet, if it proves successful, the league can turn the clock back further and see what it's like with canvas sneakers and a jump ball after every basket.)

In all seriousness, what's interesting is watching the NBA talk out of both sides of its mouth on the issue. On the one hand, they're saying that they have no interest in changing the 3-point rule at the NBA level. On the other, Jackson talked about using the NBDL as a lab rat for changes that the league is contemplating. "We have a minor league that has proven successful in being a training ground for players, coaches and future administrative staffs, but until now we haven't utilized it as a potential laboratory for the game in general,'' he said.

Obviously, if the league is using the NBDL as a guinea pig, and this is the only rule they've implemented in the NBDL that's different from the NBA's ... well, you do the math. Somebody within the NBA has some serious misgivings about the 3-point shot, and they want to see what the net effect will be if they do away with it.

On the positive side, we should give the NBA kudos for taking this approach to rules changes. It's something other leagues should emulate -- trying out new ideas in the minors first to work out the kinks. In this case, some coaches think without the 3-point line to create spacing, the lane will turn into a mosh pit because players are so much bigger. Others feel that without the lure of setting up in the halfcourt for a 3-pointer, more teams would run and press. The only way to find out which point of view is correct is by playing with the revised statute.

At the same time, of all the rules to experiment with, why this one? The 3-point line is popular enough with fans that it would be poison for the league to get rid of it, regardless of what results the experiment produces. This is particularly true since every other basketball league in the universe is using it. Additionally, having a line that only goes into effect in the final five minutes is madness, not to mention all but unprecedented in sports. Most pro sports leagues have minor rules tweaks in the last minutes, but these generally regard timing issues, not the basic structure of the game. Can you imagine a rule that said teams got four outs in the ninth inning, or that the final set of a tennis match would be played sans net?

As you might have guessed, I'm disappointed that the league couldn't come up with a more worthwhile rule change to test. For instance, wouldn't it have made more sense to experiment with completely scrapping the illegal defense rules, or trying out the international goaltending guidelines that let players swipe a ball off the rim? They even could have tried something more daring, like making the hoop bigger or muting Bill Walton's microphone.

So while I applaud the general concept, I don't get why putting in the rule for the 3-pointer is the focal point of the NBA's newly discovered rules laboratory. It's disingenuous to blame the 3-pointer for the change in scoring since its inception. Scoring has been on a one-way downward trend since the early '60s, so that still leaves the 3-point bashers needing an explanation for two decades of plummeting point production that preceded the rule's introduction.

Like everyone else, I'll be interested in seeing how things shake out in the D-League this year without the 3-point line. Unlike some others, however, I greatly doubt it will produce a more compelling product. But if that stops purists from blaming the 3-point line for the demise of basketball and gets them focusing on other, more pertinent problems in today's NBA, maybe this grand experiment will do some good after all.