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3-Pointer NBA Teams Change The Game

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you've been watching the NBA playoff series between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, chances are you've been hearing a lot of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Curry for three, puts it in.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Harden with a three.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Off to Curry, who hits another three.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Nobody picks up Harden at the three-point line. I don't know why.

CHANG: These two teams are at the forefront of a revolution in basketball. Simply put, it's all about the three-point shot. Superstars like Steph Curry and James Harden are regularly launching shots from 25, even 35 feet from the basket. The crowd goes wild. Scores go through the roof. And it's not just the two of them. The whole league is going three-point crazy. But not everyone's happy about it.

Zach Kram writes for the sports and cultural website The Ringer. And he joins me now to talk about it. Hey, Zach.

ZACH KRAM: Hello.

CHANG: So the three-point shot, it wasn't always such a big deal, right? I mean, there was this time when this shot didn't even exist. Can you just take us back to 1979, when the three-point line was just born? How did people first react to it?

KRAM: It was mixed. A lot of people were upset about it, first off. It's funny that the Warriors are now the team most connected with the three-pointer because at the time, their owner said that he thought it would ruin the sport and ruin the history of basketball. But at the time, it was viewed kind of as only a last resort. If a team was down by three points at the end of the game, they'd try a three-pointer. But it wasn't part of the offensive strategy. And the very first NBA Finals that featured a three-point line, the two teams combined to make just one three-pointer.

CHANG: Wow.

KRAM: Now you have teams making 20 a game. So it wasn't used very much for 15 years. And then it kind of ticked up a little bit more. But it didn't become a staple of offenses really until this decade.

CHANG: Is it just essentially a math game? Is that the entire strategy? The three-point shot is more points, so let's do more shots.

KRAM: Yeah. And you'd think if it were that simple, teams would have recognized it before now. But it...

CHANG: Yeah.

KRAM: ...Took them a while.

CHANG: Why?

KRAM: And...

CHANG: The math seems so obvious.

KRAM: I think a lot of people thought that the farther away you get from the basket, the worse you're going to shoot. So sure, it's worth one more point. But it's less likely to go in. And then analysts started realizing that's actually not true. Unless you're dunking it or laying it in right next to the basket, you're probably going to shoot about the same from 5 feet away as from 25 feet away. So when you consider that you get the extra point if you go back to 25 feet, it makes a lot of sense to stand back there instead.

CHANG: So as we just said, not everyone is happy with this new three-pointer focused strategy. Here's a quote from Gregg Popovich, the coach for the San Antonio Spurs - "there's no basketball anymore. There's no beauty in it. It's pretty boring." Does he have a point?

KRAM: To some extent. I think if you look at the popularity of the sport, people love it. Kids love it. There's a reason that Steph Curry, who's the most prominent three-point shooter, is also the most popular player in the game. But I think basketball has lost to some of the diversity of style and the aesthetic choices teams can make. It's become kind of homogenous because teams see that the math makes sense and all have flocked toward the same strategy. So you don't have that diversity as much anymore when all the teams are trying for the exact same thing.

CHANG: So do you think we've hit peak three-pointer now?

KRAM: I don't. I think it has continued to rise. And I don't know where the end point is. But the fact that it has risen every single season and hasn't even slowed - the pace seems to be accelerating just over the last few years - I think teams are still trying to catch up to teams like the Rockets and Warriors. So maybe the Rockets are at the high end, but the whole rest of the league is still trying to catch up, too.

CHANG: Zach Kram writes about sports and culture for the website The Ringer. Thank you so much for joining us today.

KRAM: Thank you so much. Have a nice weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.