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Does Taking More Three-Pointers Really Make for a Great NBA Offense?

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The Blazers want to take more threes, but is it a good idea?

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

As Dave Deckard mentioned in his article on preseason trends yesterday, one of the talking points that’s been bandied about during the Trail Blazers’ preseason and training camp has been their attempting to shoot more threes this season. Ever since three-point shooting and floor spacing became trendy around a decade ago, taking more threes has been a common message from coaches before the season begins. Teams want to shoot just like the Magic did in the late 2000’s, or the Warriors in the mid 2010’s, or as the Rockets did last year. But a lot of the time, the preseason chatter never makes it to regular season action. Are the Blazers truly committed to more three-pointers, and will it pan out?

Last year, the Blazers took 28.1 threes per game, placing them 19th in the NBA. However, only 11 teams took more than 30 threes per game. Only 2 attempted more than 35: the Nets and Rockets. The Blazers were in the wide middle field.

Looking at percentage of shots taken behind the arc, the Blazers landed in almost the exact same spot: 18th, with 32.4% of their shots coming from deep. A mere six teams took more than 36% of their shots from long range, and just two (Nets and Rockets again) took over 40%.

In short, the Blazers were not abnormal at all in their three-point shooting attempts last year.

How far have the Blazers risen up the three-point shooting ranks in preseason? Funnily enough, they haven’t moved much at all. When you remove two Australian teams (Perth and Melbourne) from NBA.com’s rankings, the Blazers place exactly 18th in percentage of shots taken from deep, at 33.5%. This is slightly higher, but is a minute difference even in a tiny sample size. The raw data backs this up, as the Blazers have taken 27.7 threes per game in preseason, ranking 20th aming NBA teams. It’s early, of course, but even the preseason trends don’t seem to indicate that the Blazers will really take more threes this season.

Is this really a bad thing, though?

Among the teams who took more than 36% of their shots from behind the arc last season were the Nets, Hawks, and Mavericks...three of the worst teams in the NBA, winning 28, 24, and 24 games respectively. To be fair, the other three teams in that mix - the Rockets, Raptors, and Cavaliers – were among the league’s best teams, but still, the correlation between three-point shooting attempts and winning doesn’t seem all that strong. The same holds true when looking at the bottom of the rankings. Sure, the Kings and Knicks didn’t take many threes, but neither did the Wolves, Spurs, Pacers, or Bucks, and they were all perfectly solid playoff teams last year. The Wolves ranked 4th in Offensive Rating last year, while the Bucks and Pacers came in at 10th and 11th. Last year’s numbers don’t suggest that attempting many threes leads to wins, or even to strong offenses.

The same trends (or lack thereof) hold relatively true going back the previous two years as well. Some offensive juggernauts led the league in three-pointers attempted, but horrible teams took plenty as well. The woeful 2015-2016 Sixers, who won 10 games, were 8th in the NBA that season in attempts from three, making a bad-but-not-horrid 33.9% of them (24th). They held by far the worst Offensive Rating in the NBA at 98.7. Taking threes did not save them. Even making threes didn’t help much.

The Rockets blitzed the NBA last season, putting together one of the most dominant offensive performances in recent memory, and they did so largely by bombing away from deep. However, they also had one of the best midrange shooters of all time in Chris Paul, and a terrific rim-runner in Clint Capela, plus the foul-drawing ability of James Harden. And while the Rockets did lose to the Warriors largely due to a bout of cold shooting from deep, they also missed the steady presence of Paul, whose ability to create open looks from the elbows was invaluable for them.

The Blazers have some great three-point shooters. There will be nights when Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Seth Curry are hot, and they rain threes on hapless opponents. Taking a few more threes a game might be beneficial, but three-pointers alone don’t make an offensive strategy. Forcing them for no reason is futile. Based on preseason it doesn’t seem like the Blazers are trending in that direction anyway, and it’s probably a good thing.

Note: All stats are from NBA.com, and did not take into consideration the Blazers’ game against the Suns last night. The Blazers took 32 threes out of 90 shots, for 35.5%. Again, slightly above where they were last year, but nothing crazy.