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The Evolution of the NBA

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 5/5/06


Chuck Klosterman is one of my favorite writers in the entire world, but aside from his inspired pre-Super Bowl blogging (now Insider only), I haven't gotten into his ESPN.com Page 2 work very much. This is probably not coincidental with the fact that he recently wrote in ESPN The Magazine that sabermetrics could only exist in baseball.

However, Klosterman's piece last week on the evolution of the 3-pointer in the NBA was a dramatic exception. How can you dislike a column that describes Dennis Scott as "cherubic"?

Here's how Klosterman describes the NBA's decision to briefly move the 3-point line in from 23-9 to 22 feet even:

"The 3-pointer became a viable shot for everyone, which was bad for the game. But this, in its own way, was the equivalent of prehistoric apes getting stoned and making art. This brave new world of indiscriminate 3-launching was way more interesting; the players loved it, and they were never going to return to the way things were. So they just kept shooting them, even when the line was moved back. And because this felt normal, it became normal. The game changed in order to reflect the way its participants perceived it."

This has always been my belief about the 3-point line, so I nodded in agreement as I read Klosterman's column. However, I found out a funny thing when I actually went to put some numbers in here: It's not true at all. Here's a graph of 3-point attempts as a percentage of all field-goal attempts since the league added the 3-pointer:

The three seasons where the line was moved in (1994-95 through 1996-97) are almost perfect outliers. When the line was moved back out, the league neither stayed at the 1996-97 level nor went back to the pre-shortened line level -- it went almost exactly where you would have expected based on the pattern of increased 3-point shooting before the line was moved in. This is an impressive statement about the power of incentives in basketball, because the league responded to the shorter line in such a clear and consistent manner, and an example of the kind of progressive evolution Klosterman rejects.

(Incidentally, if you're wondering, 3-point percentage did also go up when the line was moved in, from 33.3% to 35.9%. It went down to 34.6% when the line was moved back out, though this was not part of any long-term trend. Percentages have stayed relatively consistent since 1997-98 at about 35.5% or so. This seems to imply some sort of breakeven point for 3-point shooting at this percentage.)

Still, Klosterman may have an important point that has an application during this year's playoffs. Perhaps it is true that while evolution is often progressive, we only notice this kind of progression when there is an abrupt change. The best example I can think of is how children age. If you see them every day or every week, their development is not as obvious as if you only see them once a year. The gradual change is imperceptible, but the sum total of the change is visible to the naked eye.

What does this have to do with the playoffs? Smallball. All of a sudden, the league is abuzz with discussion of how the game has changed, increasing the value of quick perimeter players with the ability to penetrate and decreasing the value of lumbering big men. Of course, this effect is nothing new. The change in the league started during the summer of 2004, when the NBA enacted new rules interpretations limiting contact on the perimeter. There were some inferences drawn between the interpretations and the success of the up-tempo Phoenix Suns, but the Suns were considered something of a fluke and remember that last summer Phoenix seemed to be moving away from that style by trading Quentin Richardson for Kurt Thomas.

By this year, that the game had changed was impossible to ignore. I wrote about it for SI.com a couple of times midway through the season -- first looking at how guards are penetrating more and then at the increased prevalence of small backcourts. Do note that while I was planning to write the first column for some time, I chose to use a jarring example of the change (Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points and the Sonics and Suns combining for 301 in overtime on the same night) as the backdrop.

I think we got our jarring change that made everyone sit up and take notice of how the game has changed during the Western Conference Semifinals series between the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs. The Mavericks won the series in large part because their roster was better equipped to play the speed game than the Spurs roster, which suddenly looked ancient by comparison.

The San Antonio front office has been the league's best in recent years and remains way ahead of the rest of the NBA in terms of mining foreign talent, but the Spurs group missed how the game was turning to speed. Signing Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley last summer and Brent Barry the summer before gave San Antonio plenty of veteran savvy, but not enough quickness. So when the Mavericks paired point guards Devin Harris and Jason Terry in the backcourt, the Spurs never found a defensive answer. Only a transcendent series by Tim Duncan and San Antonio's "veteranism," to borrow a term from Flip Murray, took the series to seven games.

You would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that the new rules interpretations had much impact on how teams operated last summer. As mentioned earlier, even the Suns seemed to be moving towards a more traditional style. I expect something different this summer; while the point guard crop is not nearly as deep in the draft this year as last year, I think more teams will be looking for players who can penetrate -- and, almost as important, keep quick players out of the lane on the defensive end.

It is, simply, the evolution of the NBA.

Mailing List

Back in the old Hoopsworld days, I had a mailing list that notified readers when my columns were posted. Now that I'm writing several different places, it seems appropriate to bring it back. If you'd like to join, please e-mail me at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Also see Kevin's previous columns for 82games.com:
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
Comparing the 50 Greatest
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll
Every Play Counts: Antonio Daniels
Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio
The Value of Kobe Bryant
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Suns D
The Value of Steve Nash
The Curious Case of Darko Milicic
The 2005-06 Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams
Playoff Predictions
Playoff Thoughts
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant v. Raja Bell


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