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Not By a Long Shot
Jack McCallum
December 13, 2004
Since its NBA advent 25 years ago, the three-pointer has won games and thrilled fans. But can it maintain its appeal amid rampant gunning by poor marksmen?
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December 13, 2004

Not By A Long Shot

Since its NBA advent 25 years ago, the three-pointer has won games and thrilled fans. But can it maintain its appeal amid rampant gunning by poor marksmen?

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A highlight of more recent vintage is Robert Horry's buzzer-beating three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 100--99 Game 4 victory over the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals. The Lakers took the Game 7 clincher in Sacramento, then swept the New Jersey Nets in the Finals, while the Kings have never recovered from the Horry heartbreaker.

Horry argues that Bird's most famous three, which came at the third All-Star Long Distance Shootout, in '88, does not belong in the pantheon because "it's got to be in a game to count." But that shot must be included, if only because so many people remember it. Bird had won the contest the first two years and needed to sink his last shot, the striped money ball, to beat Seattle's Dale Ellis. He let fly from the left corner and, with the ball halfway to the basket, started to walk away as he raised "that gnarled [right] index finger," says San Antonio Spurs guard Brent Barry, who calls the shot "my quintessential three-point memory." In it went, and Bird retired from the competition with what remains his favorite self-designation: the three-point king.

The story is often told of Bird's strolling into the locker room before the first shootout, in Dallas, and announcing, "Who's playing for second?" Less familiar is the story of the practice earlier that morning, when Bird went up to Leon Wood, a noted bomber who was the favorite going into the competition. "Leon, you shooting it different lately?" Bird asked. "Your stroke looks off." Discombobulated by Larry Legend, Wood shot terribly. Bird won the competition going away.

yes, the three has given the game countless unforgettable moments, and no one is suggesting that it be eliminated. But the long, hard shot deserves the long, hard look it's going to get in the NBDL. Why?

?It's overused. It's not unexpected that three-point attempts should have increased over the years as players practiced the shot more and coaches became more accustomed to incorporating it into their offenses. But the extent of the increase is surprising. In that first three-point season, 1979--80, the 22 teams averaged 227 three-point shots. Last season 58 players hoisted more treys than that, led by New Orleans Hornets point guard Baron Davis with 582 (only 187 of which he made). In the same way that one designer coffee shop per block is great and more than that is overkill, the appeal of the shot has been diluted by overuse. "I like the three-pointer because of the impact it can have on a game," says Paxson, now Chicago's general manager. "But what I don't like is that the three-point line, and not the rim, is the first area that the players run to."

?The wrong guys are shooting it. "It's good when you have a team of players like the Mavericks or international teams that can knock it down," says Bulls guard Eric Piatkowski, a career 39.9% shooter from beyond the arc. "But there is a very small percentage of guys who can hit that shot on a consistent basis, and everybody wants to shoot it." Van Exel blames the coaches, not the shot or its inept practitioners. "They should just tell those guys not to shoot it," he says. But it's not that easy. All players have become so accustomed to three-balling that even when a coach lets a player know the shot was a poor choice, the player will invariably say, But I was open.

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy has an answer for them: "Yeah, but there was a reason you were open."

?It's taken away the midrange game. Players prefer either to take it to the hole and dunk (the better to get on SportsCenter) or to pull up and jack a three (the better to get on SportsCenter). The ability to ball-fake, take a couple of hard dribbles and stop on a dime for a jumper in the paint is all but gone. (Guards Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons and Sam Cassell of the Minnesota Timberwolves are notable exceptions.) "I know sometimes I get caught up in it in transition, hiding behind that line," admits Pacers swingman Stephen Jackson, an unabashed supporter of the trey (who, with his 30-game suspension, has some free time to practice it). "A lot of guys who really aren't great shooters have become three-point shooters because that's what they work on," says Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "But they can't make a 15-footer."

It's only going to get worse, because the next generation can't resist the siren call of the three. "When I speak at basketball camps, I stress that the worst thing in the world is to shoot three-pointers," says Piatkowski. "Kids develop bad habits that stick with them." Piatkowski's backcourt mate Kurt Hinrich, who through Saturday had made 35.6% of his threes this season, says flatly that youth leagues should ban the three. But it probably won't happen because kids like to imitate the pros.

?It just doesn't look good. Supporters of the three say, Do the math. Making two of six three-pointers is the same as making three of six two-pointers. But it's not. "All I know is, it's not very appealing to watch so many missed shots," says broadcaster Steve Kerr, whose 52.4% three-point shooting with the Bulls in '94--95 is the best in NBA history. "Even if 33 percent is good statistically, it is pretty ugly to see two out of three shots clang off the rim." Then, too, it's a blight on the game when a player looks down to locate the three-point line (one of Walker's favorite moves) or steps out-of-bounds along the sideline before squaring up to shoot. Clippers assistant Jim Eyen feels that a three-pointer is the wrong percentage play in any case. "I'd rather make three two-pointers than two three-pointers," he says, "because I'd rather have the opposing team taking the ball out-of-bounds [rather than getting out on the break] that extra time."

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