Forty years and many analytic debates after the first 3-pointer in NBA history, the league finally understands the power of that arc. Twenty-six of the 30 NBA teams have averaged more than 30 3-point attempts per game this season, and only one (the Knicks) has made fewer than 10 long balls a contest. The three hasn’t killed the midrange game, particularly for star players, but it has wreaked havoc on the long 2-point jumper. We saw an average of only 2.28 made 2-pointers from at least 19 feet per game this season. That’s less than half the number from an average game in 2015-16 and less than a third of a typical contest from the 2007-08 season.
The jump shot is older than the pro game itself, and sharpshooters have been hitting long jumpers ever since. The difference now is that players increasingly take one step further back to earn an extra point.
|Long TWOS made|
|Season||Total||Per game||Season leader|
|2014-15||6,315||5.13||Avery Bradley, LaMarcus Aldridge|
In fact, shooters almost always take that step back now. Twenty years ago, 43.9 percent of all jumpers made from 19 feet or further were two-pointers. Terrell Brandon, who led the league in long twos made that season, made 2.7 jumpers per game from at least 19 feet. Only 27 percent of those shots were 3-pointers. Twenty-seven percent!
The contrast to 2019-20 is stark. LaMarcus Aldridge, the NBA leader in long twos made per game, is behind the 3-point line on 61 percent of his jump shots made from at least 19 feet. And Aldridge is an outlier: On average, 91.4 percent of all shots made from at least 19 feet this season were threes.
So what about players like Brandon who made lots of jumpers before the NBA found religion with 3-pointers? How many points did they leave on the table? To find out, I looked on Basketball-Reference.com at every regular-season 2-point jumper made from at least 19 feet since the 1996-97 season.1 I filtered for players with at least 250 field-goal attempts and at least 5,000 career points total. I then converted all of those long twos to threes and recalculated each shooter’s scoring totals and true shooting percentages.2
Of course, this is just a thought experiment — there’s no way to know whether those shots would have actually gone in from the longer distance. But this does offer us some insight into who may have most benefited from ditching long-range twos for threes. Here are the 25 players with the greatest difference between their actual true shooting percentage and what it could have been if they had just stepped back.
|Career points||True Shooting %|
In general, role players saw the largest true shooting percentage gains, while stars got smaller efficiency bumps despite adding more points to their totals. That shouldn’t surprise anyone — role players are more likely to shoot the assisted perimeter jumpers that were once long twos and are now almost exclusively threes.
But there are two fascinating exceptions: Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady. Like most superstars, they both made a ton of long twos. Unlike most superstars, they got the scoring efficiency boost in this exercise more typical of role players. That’s because their games were made for today’s NBA, not the league in which they starred. The fact that they were near the top of their craft despite so many long twos that would have been discouraged today should be a major boost to their historical legacies.
Garnett and McGrady were prototypes of the two kinds of superstars taking over the league today. Garnett was what we now (ironically) call a “unicorn”: a long, mobile, skilled big man who could space the floor on offense and shut down all five positions on defense. McGrady was the platonic ideal of every top wing scorer today — more point guard than small forward, with shooting range, handles and a lanky core that allowed him to drive around and through his defender.
Put another way, KG was the precursor to Anthony Davis, while James Harden is just T-Mac 2.0. Like Davis, KG toiled on mediocre teams before a midcareer trade to a contender. Like Harden, T-Mac passed up being a sidekick and became the sun that his other teammates orbited around.
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Davis and Harden are fortunate enough to play in an era that properly values 3-point shots. Their shot profiles — Harden’s especially so — feature many more threes than long twos, so they appear to be far more efficient scorers than Garnett and McGrady. Based on that, it might be easy to think that Davis and Harden belong in a higher echelon in the NBA pantheon than Garnett and McGrady.
But the reality is far more complex. If you turn every long two made by those four players into made 3-pointers, the efficiency gap among each pair of superstars significantly shrinks. Davis and Harden still have an advantage over their prototypes, but not by as much.
|Career shots made||True Shooting %|
And that’s before considering that Garnett and McGrady had far less room to get their shots and drives than Davis and Harden see today, in an era of pristine spacing. KG would’ve been more open if he stood here:
Instead of here:
And you think T-Mac wouldn’t have relished attacking his man off the dribble with the floor spaced like this?
Instead of this?
Perhaps it’s assuming too much to say McGrady and (especially) Garnett would have shot as accurately from one step behind the 3-point line instead of one step inside it. But their reluctance to make that change has more to do with their era than their own qualities.
That’s worth keeping in mind when comparing the statistics of current superstars with past legends, especially amid the 3-point revolution. They may play alike, but they weren’t playing the same game.