A Brief History of the NBA Three Point Shot

Tall Men Need Not Apply, Unless They Can Splash it From 25 feet

Thanks in large part to the freewheeling success of the Golden State Warriors, small ball is all the rage in the copycat NBA. Every player is positionless now and centers are a dying or extinct breed. Where head coaches used to beg their GMs for size and more size, now they demand ball movement and spacing.

And they demand the three point shot too. Even a seven footer has to shoot threes now, unless he wants to play rim protector for the second unit. Teams take and make more three pointers than ever now, as coaches beg for shots that even the Showtime Lakers would be too bashful to take. But it wasn’t always this way. Let’s take a quick look at the history of the three point shot and how find out how we got here.

Slow Beginnings

Not so long ago, there was a time when the NBA didn’t even have a three point shot. It wasn’t instituted until the 1979-80 season, and even then coaches wouldn’t let anyone shoot it. Players and fans thought it was just a gimmick, something to sell a few seats to nostalgic ABA fans. That first year, teams took less than three a game.

The shot slowly gained popularity throughout the eighties and early nineties. Teams averaged a high of about 10 three point shots a game during this period. But fans and players both were starting to get a taste for the high excitement, low percentage shot. With players like Larry Bird, Dell Curry, and Reggie Miller weaponizing the three, coaches began to loosen the offensive reins.

The Crest of a Wild Wave

The first three point shot contest was held during All-Star Weekend in 1986. The contest soon became a highlight of the All-Star break. The popularity of Larry Bird, who won the first three contests, helped legitimate the three point shot as well.

Average three point attempts jumped off a ramp from 1994-97, climbing to 15 a game after the league adopted a shorter distance for the shot. By the time they pushed it back to its current 23 feet 9 inches in 1998, it was too late and the three point was a permanent part of every team’s arsenal.

A look at any kids’ pick up game will reveal one of the reasons the three point shot’s explosion. It’s become a glamor shot even on the playground. Nobody wants to post up anymore, and why would they? Young players come into the league itching to shoot it from deep. And in some ways it’s perhaps this, as much as anything else, that has led to the league’s reliance on the three and the small ball phenomenon itself.