THERE IS only one sure thing in this spring’s NBA playoffs, and, despite everything you’ve read, it’s not a Golden State Warriors three-peat. It’d take an act of God for them to lose, yes—the Splash Brothers simultaneously blowing out their ACLs might do the trick—but, hey, you never know. The only true take-it-to-the-bank guarantee in these playoffs: It will be a brick-fest the likes of which pro basketball has never seen. Holy shit, it’s going to be brutal.
This isn’t a confident prediction or a James Harden subtweet—it’s a statistical inevitability. Over the next two months, the NBA will shatter its postseason record for three-point attempts, just as it has the past two years. This year’s total will top 5,000 for the first time, and though that may sound like a thrilling laser show, it also means that the NBA will shatter its postseason record for three-point misses. And these two months of clanks might pose the first real threat to the NBA’s current golden age.
Three-point shooting has been accelerating for a while now: Teams are taking 60 percent more threes than they did a decade ago, and nearly 140 percent more than two decades ago. But the league-wide avalanche didn’t really start until Steph Curry began banging threes from half-court and deep shots became the only way to beat him and the Warriors. This strategic evolution coincided with an overdue revelation: Fans like scoring, and they really like watching it happen in three-point increments.
The trouble is, though teams are taking more bombs, they aren’t much better at making them. League-wide, players are hitting only 3.2 percent more threes now than they did 20 years ago, resulting in a soaring number of bricks. Fans now have to endure an average of 20 deep misses per game, up from about nine.
Coaches and GMs argue that threes are the most effective way to win, and that may be true. But the trend reached new heights of ugliness this season. James Harden, one of the league’s best shooters, set a record by averaging 13 three-point attempts per game. But he missed more than eight. That’s one deep brick for every four minutes he’s on the court.
In January, his team, the Rockets, attempted a record 70 threes in a single game, missing 47 of them. Though, to be fair, every other serious title contender—Golden State, Boston, Toronto—shot, and missed, more three-pointers this season than they did last.
The crazy number of bricks will only go up in the postseason, because it always does, with playoff games contested longer and surrendered less easily. Last year, Harden’s three-point accuracy dropped 6.8 percent during the playoffs. During the Rockets’ nightmarish, and now-notorious, Game 7 against Golden State in the Western Conference finals, he missed 11 threes, and at one point, his team whiffed on 27 straight. But Harden wasn’t an outlier. Curry’s playoff three-point accuracy dropped 2.8 percent, Paul George’s fell 3.6 percent, and JJ Redick’s plummeted 7.3 percent.
Over the past decade, the NBA has exploded in terms of growth, popularity, and value, and the en masse turn toward mad bombing has surely contributed. But what if playoff games like that train-wreck Rockets–Warriors Game 7 become the norm? Consider baseball’s steroid era: Fans dug the long ball for years, until the novelty wore off when half the league began striking out three times a game. People don’t enjoy watching futility, even when, over a large sample size, it leads to a team’s success.
Lots of fans, and some players, already seem to be souring on the bombers who shoot threes just well enough to make every miss statistically justifiable. Just look at Harden this season. By the end of his incredible 32-game run of scoring 30-plus points, he was all but apologizing for taking so many shots, telling reporters, “They’re going to go in eventually.” Then there’s Russell Westbrook, another polarizing star who takes far more threes than his 28 percent accuracy warrants. Much was made about his poor shooting this season, but after he basically bricked the opposing team back into the All-Star Game, even some of his staunchest defenders started to turn on him.
The scourge could get so bad in the postseason that bolder coaches may start swimming against the tide. Will we see a swing back toward hyperefficient midrange demons like Dwyane Wade used to be, and scorers built to exploit a generation of kids who’ve been taught only to defend the three? Maybe. Not in the next two months, though. And not soon enough to stop the Warriors—because as long as they keep living off the three, the rest of the league will keep dying by it.
This story appears in the May 2019 print issue, with the headline “The NBA’s Three-Point Problem.”