Early in the final quarter of the final game of the NBA season, Jrue Holiday took a shot that was unremarkable in 2021 but would have driven a coach apoplectic a decade earlier: Holiday raced up the court in transition and flung up a triple without appearing to think of passing. But his audacity gave the Bucks a 3-point lead, and they would, of course, go on to win the game and the title.
Such shots are now routine, emblematic of a revolution of the pull-up three. Steph Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard each pushed the usage of the shot beyond what had been its logical boundaries in previous eras, and those three remain some of the best pull-up shooters in the NBA. But as often takes place in revolutions, the action has spread beyond the originators; the pull-up three has become the norm throughout the league. Year after year, teams are pushing the envelope in how many pull-up threes are attempted.
But even as the league tilts further toward the homogeneity of 3-point pull-up shooting, there’s little evidence to suggest that shooting more pull-up threes actually helps teams in their title pursuit. Regardless, pull-up threes are increasingly a staple of the modern NBA offensive diet.
Leaguewide usage of the pull-up three was not consistent from start to finish last season.1 Teams used the shot far more often in the playoffs than in the regular season; in fact, every team that made the playoffs but the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards attempted more pull-up threes per 100 possessions compared to their regular-season average, and the league rate increased by 24.0 percent, per Second Spectrum.2
|Points per Chance||Shots Per 100 Poss.|
|Team||Reg. Season||Playoffs||Change||Reg. Season||Playoffs||Change|
There may be many reasons for the explosion of pull-up threes during the postseason, but increased defensive pressure in the playoffs could be a factor. As defenses tighten and script hyper-specific gameplans for opponents, offensive players are forced to turn away from their preferences and toward plans B through … the rest of the alphabet. That teams face generally stingier defenses in the playoffs could also contribute to the proliferation of pull-up triples. Pull-up triples are an offensive concession, in that they can be attempted after zero offensive actions, while creating other shots generally requires passes, screens or other stuff to take place.
Since the 2012-2013 season, the leaguewide rate of pull-up three attempts during each postseason has been, on average, 23.9 percent higher than in its respective regular season. However, such shots have generated 1.2 percent fewer points per chance in the postseason than in the regular season. Given that increased frequency in the playoffs, you might assume that shooting more pull-up threes in a single game, either at the individual or team level, gives a team a better chance of winning. But that was not the case in the 2021 playoffs.
Across the 2021 playoffs, there was a relatively nonexistent correlation between pull-up shooting and margin of victory, whether tracked by makes, attempts or even shooting percentage. Catch-and-shoot 3-point shooting had a slightly greater impact, meaning that pull-up shooting isn’t even the form of shooting that most drives winning.
If teamwide pull-up 3-point shooting correlated little with final score margins in the 2021 playoffs, then why has it been trending higher year over year, and then so much higher in the playoffs? It’s possible that the league is overcorrecting past the ideal intersection between pull-up 3-point frequency and actually winning basketball games. Even though pull-up 3-pointers are increasingly popular, the average pull-up trey in the playoffs last season generated 1.022 points per chance, less than the 1.042 points per chance on such shots in the regular season.
To that point, the two teams that reached the Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, ranked ninth and 12th in pull-up 3-point frequency during the playoffs. While the Suns were about as efficient on that shot in the playoffs as they were in the regular season, the champion Bucks suffered the largest total efficiency drop of any playoff team on pull-up threes. The highest-frequency pull-up 3-point shooter for each team ranked 42nd and 47th in the regular season.3 As a point of comparison, the Bucks and Suns ranked first and third in playoff defense.
In fact, since 2013-14, champions have been as likely to finish among the top five takers of playoff pull-up threes as not, per Second Spectrum. While the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 led the postseason in pull-up three frequency and the Warriors never finished lower than fifth (2015, 2017, 2018), the Los Angeles Lakers (16th in 2020), Toronto Raptors (eighth in 2019) and San Antonio Spurs (11th in 2014) used such shots less often. Yet as with Middleton for the Bucks, even the champions that attempted relatively fewer pull-up threes rostered an individual player who used the shot often and successfully in the playoffs.4
The top 10 highest frequency pull-up shooters in the 2020-21 regular season5 who made the playoffs attempted 4.0 percent more pull-up threes in the postseason, and they generated 8.2 percent more points per chance with the shot. But of those 10, six saw their on/off differential per 100 possessions worsen in the playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass.6 The pull-up 3-point shooters with the highest rates in the regular season attempted such shots slightly more frequently in the playoffs, and they actually made them more efficiently, but they were not correspondingly more valuable to their respective teams.
So then what is driving the pull-up three rate in the postseason? Are pull-up threes on the rise because offenses are chasing them? Or are defenses choosing to concede them?
Across the entire NBA, slightly more pull-up threes were attempted after zero- or one-pass possessions (36.4 percent) than all field goals (30.5 percent) during 2020-21, regular season and postseason. Both pull-up threes and all field goals were split relatively equally between the front half and back half of the shot clock. This would indicate that pull-up threes are not, as a rule, a desperation option from offenses but a conscious choice.
Perhaps that’s because teams don’t have to work as hard to find pull-up threes, and they don’t need their stars on the floor to create them — simply their shooting specialists.
And as it turns out, pull-up threes may be among the most difficult shots in basketball, but taking them is not exclusive to the rare superstar. Non-stars like Jordan Clarkson, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Mike James were all top 20 in the league last season for most shots per 100 possessions. But despite the diffusion of the pull-up three, no one has yet surpassed the marks set by the originators of the revolution. In 2018-19, Harden shot 968 pull-up threes, per Second Spectrum. No one has ever taken more — total or on a per-possession basis — in the eight seasons the shot has been tracked. In Curry’s unanimous MVP season, 2015-16, the Golden State Warriors scored 1.329 points per chance when he attempted such shots. That mark is still the highest in the eight seasons the shot has been tracked.7
Shooting a pull-up triple may be a requirement for success in the NBA, in that every team needs at least one player who can do it well. But it’s not enough in itself to guarantee playoff success. Take, for example, this past year’s Utah Jazz: all three of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Clarkson ranked in the top 13 for frequency of attempts in the regular season, and yet their top-seeded team flamed out in dramatic fashion to the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals.
The factors behind victory in the league have not changed as much as you might think. Pull-up distance shooting has become omnipresent in the NBA, but if this past postseason was any indication, a traditional factor like defensive rating remains perhaps more important to winning.
Based on the last several years, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see more and more pull-up 3-point attempts each season, with an even larger jump in the playoffs, barring structural change that may come in the form of rule change. But it seems like any potential increase would not offer teams a competitive advantage. The NBA is a copycat league. If Curry and the Warriors heralded the start of the pull-up 3-point era, then the NBA still resides firmly in the shadow of 2014. But there are other possible models for NBA offenses to emulate — ones that don’t rely as heavily on pull-up threes. Until the next NBA zeitgeist takes hold, expect players to keep pulling up from long distance — even if it doesn’t tangibly increase their teams’ chances of winning basketball games.