For the Love of 3: Columbia to Houston via China, Angola and Iowa

On February 7th, 1945, basketball was introduced to a new novelty that wouldn’t take hold for at least another 35 years: the three point line. In a game between Columbia University and Fordham University, Columbia head coach Howard Hobson, while on sabbatical from Oregon University (a couple years after winning the inaugural NCAA tournament), proposed using a three point line as an experiment in an effort to test the effects of making basketball a “more interesting and wide-open” game. For the uninitiated, Hobson is considered a pioneer of basketball and effectively basketball analytics; introducing the notions of tempo, spacing, and effective field goal percentagedespite not coining the terms. He instead used phrases such as increase the speed of the game for which his infamous 1939 Oregon “Webfeet” (pre-Ducks days) ran teams out of buildings; spread the court for wide-open shots in an effort to create spacing, and creating extra value for particular shots when discussing the three (albeit as an excitement factor in an attempt to speed up games). He even authored a book, called Scientific Basketball, primarily based on his one-year sabbatical research at Columbia, before returning back to Oregon.

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Scientific Basketball (1949)

In this game, with the use of a 21-foot three point line, Columbia defeated Fordham 73-58. Columbia managed to knock down 11 three point attempts to Fordham’s 9 makes. The 73 points marked a Columbia school record at the time. It was proposed that the actual score would have been 59-44 in favor of Columbia*. Despite the increased scoring, many fans were left confused and upset over the new rule. Even leading the New York Times to write that the three point line “experiment” had been “far from a howling success” and that the three point line would “die a natural death.”

*Math Doesn’t Add Up…

If you notice that the actual score was supposedly 59-44 despite only 11 and 9 threes for each team, respectively; then you are quick to realize that something else was being experimented in this game. If we were to subtract out the extra 11 and 9 points, respectively, the score would have been 62-49, leaving anther 3 points on the table for Columbia and 5 points for Fordham.

This is due to an extra experiment that has never caught on since where players had the option of shooting free throws from the foul line for 1 point or the top of the key for two points. On free throw trips with two or more free throw attempts, the player could only score a maximum of three points, as only one attempt could be selected as a two-point try.

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Box Score of the Columbia-Fordham game. Legend for types at the bottom of the box score.

Complaints

The three point play was seen as diminishing team play, as players would race to the three point line to shoot instead of passing the ball. In fact, according to the New York Times, several players were called for traveling as they forgot to dribble while sprinting to the three point line.

Similarly, there were complaints that the three point line ruined zone defenses and required less strategy for offensive teams. This complaint was exacerbated by a third rule change during that Columbia-Fordham game: the lane was widened to 12 feet from its original six feet to test spacing effects.

What is interesting about the Columbia-Fordham game is that of the 1000+ spectators present for the game, roughly 250 collegiate coaches and league representatives were present for the game. Shortly after the game, they submitted votes on whether the league should invest in possibly establishing the new rule changes. The votes were as follows:

  • 148 in favor of a three point line, 105 opposed
  • 152 in favor of widening the foul lane, 65 opposed
  • 133 in favor of the 2-point foul shot, 85 opposed

It would be a while before the NCAA accepted any changes.

A Few More Experiments

The collegiate ranks attempted the three point line a couple more times over the following two decades. On February 1st, 1959**, thirteen years after the previous experiment, Siena and Fordham used a 23′ three point line, where it was reported that each team scored once from that range and “then forgot all about it.”

** In an attempt to track down a source for this game, the January 4th game is not listed on any major media news outlet. The game between Siena and St. Francis on February 2nd, 1958 (the only other 1958 meeting between the two teams) is listed in the New York Times, and no three point field goals are mentioned while the box score accounts for all points as free throws and two-point field goals. Upon further research, the game was erroneously listed for 1958 in the Dartmouth magazine, as it actually happened on February 1, 1959.

In this game, St. Francis defeated Siena 67-50. In this game, St. Francis attempted 6 three-point tries while Siena attempted 9 of their own. Each team did indeed connect on one apiece, as indicated in the box score and summary:

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New York Times box score of the second recorded game with three point attempts.

The three point experiment would not be revisited again until 1961 in a game between Dartmouth and Boston in a wildly different three point plan: Every FGA counted as three points. Dartmouth’s head coach at the time, Alvin Julian, was growing infuriated with fouling and increased foul shooting. His response was to go to the Ivy League board and get permission to experiment for a game with three point field goals instead of two in an effort to incentivize scoring over foul shooting. Boston University, also mired in a dismal season, agreed to the experiment. The result did not do much to change the game, and it was the only time in the NCAA and NBA that the three point line was at zero feet for an official game. Take that for trivia.

Fledgling Experiments into ABA Marketing

Despite the first three attempts gaining mixed reactions to outright discouragement, the three point line slowly began to take hold. The American Basketball League used a 25′-foot line in 1961. The Eastern Professional Basketball League adopted a similar rule in their 1964 season. Unfortunately, the ABL folded in December of 1962 after one and a half seasons, and the EPBL rebranded itself in 1971 as the Eastern Basketball Association (and eventually the Continental Basketball Association), a “feeder” system into the NBA and ABA.

Seeing the development of skilled shooters in the EBA, George Mikan, then Commissioner and Founder of the ABA, adopted the three point line in 1968 as a means to supposedly “give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans”. This is according to Wikipedia, as the Associated Press link is now defunct.

The three point shot was viewed as a gimmick, as the previous experiments had been decried by critics and other leagues that used them had folded so quickly. However, the ABA turned this into a marketing tool. The NBA was viewed as a slog with focus on small ball-handlers, dominant big-men, and repetitive high-paced dump and chase attack of 5-10 foot hook shots and rebounds. Instead the ABA had high flying dunks and three pointers. In fact, the ABA had not only adopted the three point line, they were embracing it with teams averaging over five 3PA a game from their first season!

For comparison, the NBA wouldn’t hit that mark until their tenth season (1989) using the three point line, when teams were finally attempting 6.6 3PA per game. It should be noted that the league scratched the 5.0 attempts mark in their ninth season, still less than the ABA rate.

NBA Finally Adopts

In 1979, twelve years after the ABA, the NBA had finally adopted the three point line. In its inaugural season, the three point line was used on average of 2.8 times per game, a far cry from the ABA’s 5.0 attempts. It took quite a while for teams to adapt to the three point line, as it was still seen as a gimmick. Shooters had not yet developed to effectively and consistently knock down three point attempts in the early 1980’s.

Even less, so, the three point offense was almost never used as the shot was seen as invaluable. Effective field goal percentage had been forgotten about since its inception in 1945.

FIBA Finally Adopts

In 1984, FIBA adopted the three point line, setting the stage for International teams to develop their skill set from beyond the arc. The line was slightly shorter than all previous attempts at 20.5′. And many teams still did not adopt offenses that could maximize its potential. It was still seen as a gimmick, but also leveraged as a means to spread the court and possibly give more value to smaller players.

NCAA Finally Adopts

In 1986, after five years of scattershot experimentation in conference play, the NCAA finally adopted the three point line. Like FIBA, the three point was shorter: this time being a mere 19.75′ from the basket. Despite still seen as a gimmick and as only a means of aiding smaller players against bigger, supposedly more-athletic, players, teams quickly adopted the three point line. Michigan attempted 11.4 3PA per game in its inaugural season, with 16.8% of FGA (366 of 2175 FGA). Duke also was taking over 11 3PA per game (11.2) at a rate of 18.9% of FGA being from three. Even, the famed Loyola Marymount team, who had received transfer (sitting the year) Bo Kimble only attempted 14.25 3PA per game with a rate of 21.2% of FGA resulting in a 3PA.

In fact, during the Loyola Marymount run-and-gun days, the Lions never crossed the 30% frequency mark despite posting scoring totals of upwards of 130+ points; the 1989-90 team averaged 122.4 points per game. In their final year with Kimble, Hank Gathers, and Jeff Fryer, the Lions would raise the bar to attempting 23 3PA per game (737 3PA over 32 games) but only as 26.2% of their FGA (737 of 2808 FGA).

The NCAA three point revolution may have started, but it hadn’t really taken hold for any team just yet.

China and Angola: Three Point Bombers

In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, international teams finally were able to test their abilities at three point shooting. Some teams were sheepish. For instance, the 1988 USA Men’s team attempted a whopping 14 3PA out of 181 FGA over their tournament play. That’s less than 5 3PA per game with only 7.7% of FGA being 3PA.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 1988 China Men’s basketball team attempted 40 3PA over their two classification games for 20 3PA per game! Of their 104 FGA, this was the first true team to start attempting a significant amount of three’s at the international level, with 38.5% of FGA being 3PA.

For all other teams in the 1988 Olympics, almost every other team settled in at between 13 and 17 attempts per game, all at roughly 20-25% of their FGA’s. This was on-par with traditional NCAA teams at the time; except for the bronze-medal NCAA all-star team that USA put out.

The Chinese Men’s basketball team was the third smallest team in the field, with a mean height of 6’4″ and a median height of 6’5″, only one player standing more than 6’7″ on the team. Comparatively, the fourth shortest team Egypt boasted only a slightly higher average height (still only) 6’4″ with a median height of 6’5″ as well. The shortest team in the tournament? South Korea with a mean height of 6’2″ and a median height of 6’2″ as well. The second shortest team? Central African Republic with a mean height of 6’4″ and median height of 6’3″. It was no surprise that these four teams finished at the bottom of the classification. And, with exception of Australia, these teams had taken the most amount of three’s per game, as South Korea had one high game of 30 3PA out of 70 FGA.

From the 1988 Olympics, the old tale of the three point line trying to aid unskilled short players in a big-man’s game still rang true. It was still a gimmick, and teams that used the three point line could only hope to keep games close in an otherwise “should-be-routed” game.

Interesting Side-Note: The United States had the fifth smallest team in the tournament with an average and median height of 6’6″. Only two players were taller than 6’10” for that team: Charles Smith and David Robinson.

Unfortunately, footage from the 1988 games is relatively sparse and there exists no play-by-play from those games to measure the amount of impact China had with their three point shooting.

In 1992, the Barcelona Summer Olympics had two milestone achievements in basketball: the Dream Team of the United States and the second Olympics with a three point line. Angola flipped the script and took an excessive amount of three’s.

In 1992, the Dream Team came to fruition and took the Barcelona Olympics by storm. Not only had the United States brought in much more skilled players, as they finally were able to leverage their professional system, but they also had much more size on their roster. With an average and median height of 6’9″, the Dream Team instilled fear of attacking the rim onto their opponents. With Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley being the two shortest players (Stockton was listed, but sidelined with a knee injury) at 6’6″, teams reverted back to using perimeter offense as a means to survive.

First victim? Angola.

Angola became the first team to try such an offense: the three point and rim offense. Of their 68 FGA, Angola attempted 37 3PA for a rate of 54.4% of FGA attempted as 3PA. Over half of their field goal attempts were threes! Similarly, the Angolans attempted to get shots at the rim with 11 of their 31 FGA within three feet of the rim.It was a short lived plan, as Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, and especially an elbow-happy Charles Barkley denied interior shots as the game wore on, forcing Angolan players to settle for the mid-range.

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Shot chart between Angola (Red) and the United States (Blue) in their 1992 match-up.

And with a terrible efficiency from Angola, the United States settled after a shaky first seven minutes to route Angola 116 – 48. Angola had finally tried something that hadn’t been done before: layups and threes. It was still viewed as an inferior team trying to get equalization against a far superior team, but the table was set for high-percentage three point teams. It only needed more skilled shooters.

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Advanced box score from the Angola – United States game, corrected by video and ensuing play-by-play

NCAA’s Three-Point Juggernaut

In the 1993 season, head coach David Arseneault of Grinnell College identified that the Pioneers were not having fun playing basketball. Before his arrival in 1989, the Pioneers had 25 consecutive losing seasons; and in his first couple years, players that were not receiving enough playing time were quitting after their first year. In response, he decided to make the game “more fun” and developed elements from the fairly tame Loyola-Marymount up-tempo offense. A team, I personally became familiar with in college spending two of my four years of collegiate basketball playing at a small Division III school.

The Grinnell System is an unorthodox offense that focuses on full-court pressing, quick shooting, crashing for rebounds, and giving up uncontested layups. Yes you read that right. In my first game against Grinnell, I had been warned that the Pioneers will abandon the defense if the shot clock drops to 25 seconds. In my first possession against Grinnell, we set into the Princeton 4-out offense, one pass was made, two cuts, and three Grinnell defenders sprinted back to their half of the court. This left a lane open for our wing to drive in to the hoop. As he drove in, one Grinnell defender went underneath the basket to collect the make as the other defender ran to the sideline for an outlet pass.

We didn’t recover well enough as four of our players crashed. Grinnell sent the ball down the sideline, took a three and missed. The two other cherry-picking players crashed and kicked the ball right back out for a second chance, this time making it. Score: 3-2 Grinnell.

Prior to our game, our assistant coach told us about the System. They try to attempt 100 FGA in a game with a minimum of 50 3PA. They also attempt to grab 33% of their missed FGA’s. This would equate to hopefully 1 point per possession if they miss. And they refuse to let the clock stop. The aim was that long defensive possessions and free throws will stall their offense. To avoid both, if a team is able to break their press, which presses result in layups, they rewarded the team with a free layup. And, boy did they run: every two minutes a wholesale change would occur as five new players would come in for their five players on the court. Hot hands stayed on.

It was bizarre. However, it was the first time in NCAA and NBA where a team specifically dictated 50% of their FGA should be from 3-point range.

We fortunately won our first match-up 116 – 92 as the Pioneers were a measly 19-55 from beyond the arc. In fact, I still have our hot-wash report, which included their shot-chart:

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Bombs away: Grinnell’s 2000 shot chart against Carroll University. Lots and lots of threes and layups.

As we can see, once again the Angola methodology was used: layups and threes. However, the corner was not being exploited and the layups were almost all exclusively off of turnovers and put-backs.

Later, in 2001, we got a peek behind the scenes, thanks to USA today. The numbers were almost on par with what our coach had told us. But we now had a clearly defined gameplan:

  • Take 94 or more FGA
  • Ensure 50% of FGA are 3PA
  • Force 32 turnovers
  • Get offensive rebounds on 33% of missed shots
  • Take 25 or more FGA than your opponent

It would be years before any other team would adopt the 50% three point strategy.

Houston Building the Road Map

As the NBA was reluctant to adopt the three point line, it didn’t take until 29 seasons later in the 2017-18 season before the Houston Rockets finally crossed the 50% of FGA being 3PA threshold. And it worked to success: Houston finished first in the Western Conference, thanks to a polar vortex crashing down on them in the 4th quarter of Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals, almost an NBA Finals appearance. That season, Houston provided a road map for teams to fully weaponize the three point line.

It was no secret that the three point line was being embraced by the league more and more over the years. We’ve all seen the same plot of 3PA per game over the course of a season:

3pfgPerTeam

Average number of three point field goal attempts per game over the course of the season. There’s a reason why the spike occurs in the Mid-90’s.

Back in 1990, Paul Westhead attempted to bring over his run-and-gun offense to the NBA through the Denver Nuggets. They went on to put up eye-popping numbers on offense, with 119.2 points per game. But they suffered on defense, giving up 130 points per game. And their three point attempts were rather pedestrian with only 12.9 3PA per game, at a lowly 11.9% of FGA as 3PA. There was no revolution happening.

However with Houston, they took a look at effective field goal percentage, or more importantly, true shooting percentage, taking a page of out Hobson’s 1945 analysis from Columbia and making it intelligence in today’s game; which is now household knowledge for any NBA analyst. If effectively adopted the Angola offense, but used players capable of playing at an NBA level. That is, attack the rim and knock down three’s. Increase the frequency of both, to almost Grinnell levels, and we should have a recipe for success.

And success it was.

Just fourteen years prior, the NBA was still mired in mid-range purgatory. By performing a non-negative matrix factorization on the shot locations in the 2005 NBA season, we find that there are a couple three point ranges as preferred shot locations, but there were two mid-range preferences that had dominance over the distribution of field goal attempts.

Feel free to thumb through the different types of FGA here:

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Now compare this to the current 2019 NBA season:

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Notice the severe difference? That’s Houston’s influence on the league. Notice we use the Milwaukee Bucks court as the backdrop for this current season. That’s because the Bucks have adopted the Houston strategy and has ridden it to a league leading 37-13 record as of today.

The big difference with the Houston system has been mobile bigs and highly skilled guard play, with bigs capable of attacking the rim and knocking down the three and the guards slicing up a switching defense. The emergence of positionless basketball has also helped develop the 6’7″-6’11” point-forward; seen as an anomaly with Magic Johnson but is now common with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and Kevin Durant. It has also developed the skilled scorers such as Stephen Curry and James Harden as today there are now 3-4 knock-down shooters per team on the court at any given moment; a rare thought in 1990.

And despite this emergence, only a couple years ago former players were still calling this a gimmick; growing up professionally in a “live by the three, die by the three” era. However, elbow-throwing Charles Barkley had to eventually eat crow as the Warriors showed that the three point ball could drastically alter opponents game plans.

It only took seventy years to get to this point… From Columbia via Angola and Iowa to Houston. It leaves to beg one question:

What’s the next 70 year revolution going to be?

 

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2 thoughts on “For the Love of 3: Columbia to Houston via China, Angola and Iowa

  1. Pingback: Weekly Sports Analytics News Roundup - February 5th, 2019 - StatSheetStuffer

  2. Pingback: The Action Network | Squared Statistics: Understanding Basketball Analytics

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