We all know that the Detroit Pistons were horrible at shooting threes last season. Only one team shot worse than their .321 percent. The Pistons were low in attempts (22nd) and makes (27th). In contrast, the best squad at making three-pointers in 2013-14 was the champion San Antonio Spurs, who connected on .397 percent. And of the top 16 squads, 11 made the playoffs.
We’ve all heard that new Head Coach Stan Van Gundy highly values the three-pointer as an offensive weapon. The fact that he signed four free agents who are adept at this particular shot is one sure clue that this is true.
And a closer look at how his teams in Miami and Orlando used the three is even more revealing. In both places he dramatically increased its usage. Then after he left each team made less effective use of this shot.
Van Gundy in Miami
In Miami, Van Gundy took over the reins for Pat Riley for the 2003-04 season. The previous year the Heat posted a 25-57 record and were 26th in three-point percentage at .316. Van Gundy immediately got them winning (42-40) and into the playoffs. They attempted over three more threes per game and made them at a .357 clip that was seventh best in the NBA. Shaquille O’Neal came to town the following year. There was a slight reduction in attempts, but almost none in makes, as Miami was third best in the league with .377 percent. That team lost to Detroit in the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals.
After an 11-10 start the next season, Riley replaced Van Gundy as head coach and led the Heat to their first NBA championship. Their three-point efficiency declined to .345 percent, and the following year it was just .343 (27th). Yet it remained an important weapon in their arsenal, as they were 12th in makes and attempts when they won the 2006 title.
Van Gundy in Orlando
In Orlando, Van Gundy replaced a Brian Hill coached team that went 40-42 in 2006-07. While they were average in accuracy (15th - .356 percent), they were low in makes (27th) and attempts (28th). Van Gundy dramatically reworked the Magic’s attack, improving their offensive rating from 22nd to seventh in 2007-08. They fired and made over twice as many threes, hitting the target at a .386 rate that was fourth best in the NBA. Their record improved to 52-30 and they made the playoffs, losing to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Over the next four years, which included a trip to the NBA Finals versus the Lakers, the Magic averaged over 26 three-point attempts per game. They led the league in both shots and makes Van Gundy’s last three seasons in Orlando. The worst accuracy mark they posted was in 2010-11, when their .366 percent shooting was tenth. After he left, it plummeted to .329 (29th).
Van Gundy's Hired Guns
Obviously the personnel he had available made a difference in the success of Van Gundy’s strategy to generously employ the three-point shot. His first year in charge in Miami, Rafer Alston and Eddie Jones both launched well over 400 threes, with both connecting at .370 percent or better. Next was Lamar Odom with 205 attempts (.298 percent).
The following year, when Odom left for Los Angeles in the O’Neal acquisition, Eddie Jones was joined by Damon Jones, who made .432 percent of his 521 threes. Rasual Butler also helped out by hitting .373 percent on his 153 threes. While other players also attempted some shots from behind the arc, an astounding .838 percent of their threes were taken by just their top three shooters, who together shot .402 percent.
In Orlando, Van Gundy was able to get more marksmen into the act. The key addition when he came onboard in 2007-08 was Rashard Lewis, who led the team in attempts (553) and made .409 percent. But he was joined by Jameer Nelson (.416), Hedo Turkoglu (.400), Maurice Evans (.396) and Keith Bogans (.362) in the shot fest.
In the ensuing years Van Gundy kept his roster well-stocked with gunners, as accuracy again governed attempts. In 2008-09, the Magic shot .381 percent on threes. Their top eight shooters took .873 percent of their threes, connecting at a .388 rate.
What can we expect in Detroit?
Looking at the Detroit roster last season, their most prolific (not necessarily most effective!) three-point shooters attempted .730 percent of the threes, and made .327 percent. Their two most accurate players (Jonas Jerebko and Josh Harrellson) accounted for only 105 shots, and their third best (Kyle Singler - .382) was also third in attempts behind Brandon Jennings (.337) and Josh Smith (.264).
Based on Van Gundy’s past performance, plus the new acquisitions, it seems plausible to expect a radical change in the offensive approach of this year’s Pistons. While precise predictions are not possible, it is possible to make a plausible projection of what we may see in 2014-15.
Based on his most recent work in Orlando, it seems reasonable to expect that the men from Motown will launch about 25 three-pointers a night – an increase of about six per game. If we subtract the threes shot last year (248) by players no longer with the team, we are left with 1,342. Then if we add the threes shot by the new additions (D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Cartier Martin and Jodie Meeks), which total 1,136, we get 2,478. That total would average out to over 30 per game, which is an unlikely target to reach.
But if we assume that 25 attempts per game is about right, and reduce the shots taken by everyone on our roster (both old and new to the team) across the board, then we can make a conservative projection. By computing the combined records for last year by the shooters now on this team, we get an aggregate three-point percentage of .358 percent. This means that if we took 25 threes per game, we would make nine baskets – an increase of about three more per night over last season.
While this projection posits that Van Gundy will make heavy use of his new players, it assumes neither accuracy improvements by existing personnel nor large reductions in their shot attempts. Based on his past coaching stops, we can expect him to significantly reduce the number of threes that Smith takes, but under this projected scenario he would still shoot too many (over 200). If Van Gundy can rein Smith in more drastically, Detroit’s three-point efficiency could skyrocket.
Last season’s Pistons excelled at scoring in the paint and were abysmal from behind the arc. While there is little reason to think the former will change, the latter almost certainly will. So if it starts raining threes in the Palace this year, don’t look at the roof. Look at the new coach on the sideline.