Can a Team This Bad at Shooting Threes Really Win a Title?

The Los Angeles Lakers are not adept at what NBA insiders refer to as the "three point shot." With the regular season almost over, they've made 34.3% of their threes, good for 22nd in the league. That's down from a 36.1% mark last year. The causes of the decline are steep fall-offs from Kobe Bryant (likely due to his injured finger) and Derek Fisher (likely due to being a billion years old) and the redistribution of three-point attempts from the 2009 version of Sasha Vujacic, who made 36.3% of his longballs last year, to Shannon Brown, who's connecting on less than a third of his attempts. These factors have more than eaten up the benefits of increased accuracy from Jordan Farmar and the replacement of Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest. (Ron, even after his recent slump, is hitting threes at a materially better rate than Trevor did in the regular season last year.)

On I don't know how many occasions this season, when I've watched yet another Fisher three bonk off the side of the rim, I've thought to myself, "There's no way a team this terrible at shooting threes can win a championship." The three-point shot just seems too central to the modern game. Not only is it one of the most efficient shots on the floor, but when a team is bombing away from distance, it strains the opponents' defensive scheme and opens up the lane. An NBA offense in the three-point era, I've been repeating to myself and others, can't function at a title-winning level without good perimeter shooters.

That statement seems unproblematic. It got me to wondering, though, whether there's any historical precedent for what the Lakers are trying to do. Has ever a team this bad at shooting threes won a championship in spite of that shortcoming? To answer this question, I did some sexy numbersmath, examining the three-point prowess of every NBA titlist for the past couple decades. The results, if I do say so myself, are kind of fascinating. They reaffirmed my basic skepticism about the 2010 Lakers, but they also provide a small twinkle of hope.

First, some history. The NBA introduced the three-point line in the 1979-80 season. The original dimensions were 23'9" around the arc and 22'0" at the corners. In 1994, the line was brought in to a uniform 22 feet, but in 1997 it was moved back out.

It took some time for teams to adapt to the three-point line. For several years after its introduction, there were strikingly few three-point attempts. Not until the 1986-87 season did shots from distance account for even 5% of total FGAs. For that reason, in conducting my little historical study, I ignored results prior to that year. Any earlier than that, the three just wasn't an important part of the game. With attempts so few and far between, it wasn't terribly important whether teams were good at making them. It was a bit like being good at, say, winning jump balls.

Starting with 1987, I set out to establish a measure of each title winner's three-point performance. Unfortunately, it's not so simple as looking at raw three-point accuracy. The shooting environment has changed over the years, because of the dimensional changes I noted above, various tweaks to the rules governing illegal defense and the evolution of player ability. What we need is a way to capture how well (or poorly) each team exploited the three-point line to its competitive advantage, normalized over time so we can compare teams from different seasons.

To that end, I developed a metric I'm calling Longball Rating. For every team I looked at, its Longball Rating is simply the number of standard deviations separating its three-point accuracy from that of an average team that season. (If you're not familiar with the term, "standard deviation" is just a way to measure the dispersion, or variability, of data. Don't worry, this article isn't going to be like math class. Just think of it like this: the more standard deviations you have, the further you're getting away from average. The fewer you've got, the more you're clumped toward the middle.) A positive Longball Rating means a team's three-point accuracy was above average; a negative Longball Rating means it was below average.

Right now, the 2010 Lakers have a Longball Rating of -0.50. So, half a standard deviation below the league average. (I invented the phrase Longball Rating mostly so I wouldn't have to keep typing "standard deviation.") How does that compare to past NBA title winners? Here are the Longball Ratings for the 23 teams that hoisted a banner from 1987 to the present.

NBA Champion

Longball Rating

1996 Chicago Bulls

+1.67

1987 Los Angeles Lakers

+1.62

2007 San Antonio Spurs

+1.53

1991 Chicago Bulls

+1.35

1993 Chicago Bulls

+1.24

2008 Boston Celtics

+1.07

1997 Chicago Bulls

+0.60

2005 San Antonio Spurs

+0.55

1995 Houston Rockets

+0.42

2003 San Antonio Spurs

+0.30

1990 Detroit Pistons

+0.22

2002 Los Angeles Lakers

+0.10

1994 Houston Rockets

+0.08

2004 Detroit Pistons

-0.08

1999 San Antonio Spurs

-0.22

1988 Los Angeles Lakers

-0.22

2009 Los Angeles Lakers

-0.25

1989 Detroit Pistons

-0.26

2001 Los Angeles Lakers

-0.33

2006 Miami Heat

-0.60

1998 Chicago Bulls

-0.77

1992 Chicago Bulls

-0.78

2000 Los Angeles Lakers

-1.08

Average

+0.27

Interesting, no? What jumps out at me first is that 10 of the last 23 league champions were below average three-point shooting teams in the regular season. That surprises me. I would've guessed there to be a stronger correlation between making your threes during the regular season and winning rings. Still, an average Longball Rating of +0.27 validates the obvious point that yes, being able to make threes is indeed a good thing. And +0.27 is way better than the current Laker mark of -0.50.

If the Lakers were to rally and win the championship this year, they would slot into the above table fifth from the bottom. Does that sound bad? I actually find it a bit encouraging. Four teams that were even worse at making their threes have won NBA titles. That's exactly four more than I expected to discover. Each presents an interesting case study.

1992 Chicago Bulls (Longball Rating: -0.78)

Among the four bottom-feeders, this is maybe the strangest entry. The 1991 and 1993 versions of the Bulls are in the top five of our list, so how did this sandwich team fare so badly, especially with renowned marksmen Craig Hodges and John Paxson on the roster? Blame Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. After making 31% of his threes in 1991, MJ slumped to 27% from distance. Pippen went from 31% the year before to 20%. (Paxson's accuracy crashed as well, although he didn't take nearly as many threes as the team's two future Hall of Famers.)

Nonetheless the '92 Bulls had an amazing offense, leading the NBA in points per possession. They never turned the ball over, shot incredibly well on their two-pointers and were one of the league's best at offensive rebounding. Also, they minimized the effect of their crappy three-point shooting by hardly ever attempting them. Only 6% of their shot attempts were from beyond the arc. (Granted, the league average was a mere 9% at the time.) This year's Lakers have taken 23% of their shots from distance; the league as a whole is at 22%.

In the playoffs, the '92 Bulls outperformed their regular-season shooting mark. Thanks to strong performances from Jordan (39% from three in the postseason, including his six bombs in the first half against Portland in Game One of the Finals), Paxson (44%) and Hodges (45%), Chicago made 37% of its threes en route to the title, nearly 7% better than during the regular season.

1998 Chicago Bulls (Longball Rating: -0.77)

Another Phil Jackson-coached, Jordan-led Bulls team. This one was an entirely different animal, inasmuch as it wasn't really that good offensively, ranking "only" ninth in points per possession. About 14% of their shot attempts were threes (slightly below the league average of 16%), and of those they made 32.3%, sixth-worst in the league. Interestingly, they didn't shoot threeballs any better in the playoffs. In their 15 postseason wins they shot 32.4% from threes, same as in their six losses. High marks for consistency, I suppose.

This edition of the Bulls won with defense. During the regular season they were third in defensive efficiency, and in eight playoff games they held their opponents to less than a point per possession. They weren't bad on offense. After all, they had Michael Jordan. But their defense is what drove them to the title and allowed them to overcome their poor shooting from outside.

2000 Los Angeles Lakers (Longball Rating: -1.08)

Well well, another Phil Jackson team. This is encouraging. Like the '98 Bulls, the 2000 Lakers were good on offense (6th in the NBA in offensive efficiency) and great on defense (the league's best). Also like the '98 Bulls, they were terrible at making threes, ranking 25th in the NBA at 32.9%, and attempted them at a rate just below the league average.

Unlike the '98 Bulls, however, the 2000 Lakers found the range in the postseason. During their playoff run, they made 34.9% of their threes, and during their playoff wins that number jumped to 38.5%. Combine that with good team defense, solid production from Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal at the height of his powers, and there's your championship.

2006 Miami Heat (Longball Rating: -1.08)

Speaking of Shaq, here he is again. With both him and Dwyane Wade posting usage rates over 30% (hard to do on the same team), the Heat in the regular season were good but not great on offense (7th in the league in efficiency) and defense (9th). About 23% of their shot attempts were from distance, and they connected at a 34.5% accuracy rate. These are very similar numbers to those being posted by this year's Lakers.

In the playoffs the Heat didn't shoot threes much better than during the regular season. Overall they made 33.3% of their postseason threes; in wins they connected on 35.1%. They won a bunch of close games during their playoff run - seven of their wins were by five points or fewer - riding dominant performances from Wade and, less often, Shaq. They shot well on their twos and sprinkled in some defensive gems. I don't think this team will be remembered as one of the decade's great champions.

So What Are the Lessons Here?

Distilling these historical precedents into observations relevant to the 2010 Lakers, I see a few morals to this story:

1.  It's not easy to win a title when you're this bad at shooting threes, but it can be done. Three-point accuracy in the regular season is an important metric, but it's not destiny.

2.  In fact, you can even win the title without improved three-point accuracy in the postseason. The '98 Bulls and '06 Heat both did it.

3.  If you can't make threes, playing awesome defense is a good idea.

4.  It helps to have Phil Jackson as your coach. Three times he's lead a poor three point-shooting team to a title, albeit never without Shaquille O'Neal or Michael Jordan.

Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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