Watching how the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors battled their way to the NBA Finals on a furious blitz of long-range bombs, it’s clear there is no going back to the day when the three-point shot was a weapon reserved for occasional use. Knowledgeable fans will recall how the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy once played a significant role in elevating the role of the trey. His Orlando Magic teams of 2007-11, which relied on the three as a major part of their offensive arsenal, helped paved the way to its larger role in today’s game.
In Van Gundy’s first season in Orlando, the Magic led the league in made threes (9.8 per game) and were fourth in accuracy (.386). Throughout his tenure, they launched and made more threes than any other team, and they never shot worse than .366 percent. But while those squads attempted 26.1 threes per game during Van Gundy’s four years leading them, last season 11 NBA teams matched or topped that number.
A slow start from beyond the arc
One of those teams was Detroit, which averaged 26.2 three-point attempts in 2015-16. That figure was good for 10th best, but the accuracy rate of .345 was just 21st. This mark was a miniscule improvement over 2014-15, when the Pistons shot .344 from beyond the arc. (That squad was 11th in attempts at 24.9.) And if their accuracy last season was disappointing, then their rate before the All-Star Break was even worse – .337 percent.
If Detroit had continued to misfire at that level, they might well have missed the playoffs. For rather than outscoring opponents by .2 points per game over the last 28, they would have been bested by 1.6 ppg. Since the Pistons won six games by six or fewer points after the break, it’s easy to see how missing 17 more threes during that stretch could have negatively impacted their record. Instead, Van Gundy’s charges stepped up their three-point shooting to .359 percent, and actually drained .404 percent in their 17 wins (versus .288 in the 11 losses). For the season, Detroit hit .388 percent in its 44 wins and just .295 percent in its 38 defeats.
What caused the improved shooting?
What made the difference in the pre- and post-break performance? One clue could be better ball movement. Before the break the Pistons averaged 18.7 assists per game. Over the last 28 contests, their average bumped up to 20.9 apg. While this change could prompt a chicken or egg discussion, it still makes sense that greater success at getting the ball to open shooters will result in improved accuracy.
Perhaps the strongest indication in favor of improved ball movement being a factor is the dramatic turn-around in the three-point shooting of Marcus Morris. Before the break he hit .309 percent on 3.4 threes per game. After the break, he shot .444 percent on 4.3 per game. And for the season, .922 percent of Morris’ threes were assisted. (By comparison, he was assisted on only .360 percent of his two-point attempts.) Basically, he attempted – and made – one more three per game after the All-Star Break.
In fact, Morris was himself the single greatest contributor to the rise in Detroit’s three-point accuracy over the last third of the season. If he had continued to shoot threes as poorly after the break as he had before (.309 percent), the Pistons would had finished as they started at .337 percent. That rate would have been 26th in the league. (If they had been able to shoot .359 percent all season long, Detroit would have tied Sacramento for 10th.)
Threes were key in big victories
If we look at specific pivotal matches that were crucial to the Pistons return to the postseason, we also see the major role played by three-point shooting. On April 2nd, the night after a disappointing home loss to Dallas, Detroit travelled to Chicago. At 40-36 with six games left, it was essential to beat the 38-37 Bulls. The Pistons triumphed 94-90, and making 10 of their 20 threes was critically important.
Then on April 8th the 38-40 Wizards came to The Palace to face the 42-37 Pistons. Washington had won all three previous matches, the last one a 124-81 romp only three weeks earlier at the Verizon Center. If the Wizards had won on this night, too, they could have reached 42-40. And if Detroit had lost and continued to falter, the tiebreaker would have gone to John Wall’s team. But the Pistons spanked the visitors 112-99, helped in no small degree by hitting 14 of 32 shots from beyond the arc.
Morris made solid contributions in both of those victories, shooting 2-4 from three in each game. Then in the playoff series against Cleveland, his hot shooting continued, as 'Mook' made .389 percent of his three-pointers on his way to a team-leading 17.8 points per game. As a team Detroit shot .376 on threes versus the Cavaliers, which certainly helped keep those games competitive.
The last two teams standing this year are both in the top-three in three-point accuracy in the postseason. Conversely, of the first eight teams eliminated in this year’s playoffs, six were 10th or worse in postseason trey percentage. Going forward it will be crucial for the Pistons to continue to elevate their accuracy from beyond the arc if they are going to return to the playoffs and compete for a title.