The Three Ball

By the Elias Sports Bureau

More than one sports observer has pointed to the 1979-80 NBA season as the start of the league's grasp on a sports audience that has by now reached well-documented global dimensions. On the night that the season opened -- Friday, October 12 -- both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson appeared in their first professional games. Bird finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to help the Celtics to a 114-106 home win over Moses Malone's Rockets, while Johnson provided 26 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists as the Lakers eked out a 103-102 victory over the Clippers in San Diego. Little did anyone realize the impact that those two rookies would eventually play in the growth of their teams and in the growth of the sport as a whole.

But there was a debut of a different sort that same night of October 12, 1979. Any idea what it was? Someone in the back said, "ESPN"? Close, but no; the all-sports cable network went on the air on September 7 of that year. It was a debut that didn't have the immediate impact of Magic and Bird, that took a while to take hold, but which has, like those two greats did themselves, now reached levels unforeseen by anyone back in the fall of '79. For that was the night that the NBA introduced the first new scoring play in its then 34-year history; yes, that was the night that the three-point field goal made its way into the world's greatest basketball league.

To say it was a slow start would be an understatement ranking along with, "Bird and Magic turned out to be pretty good." Only eight of the 34 three-point attempts (23.5 percent) turned out to be successful. But let us stress: those 8-for-34 totals weren't the totals produced by one team, or by both teams in a single game. No, those were the collective totals produced by the eighteen NBA teams that appeared in the league's nine games that night.

That's right: On the first night of NBA games played using the three-point field goal, there were just eight shots made from behind the arc by 18 teams combined! That total of eight threes has since been matched or exceeded by a single player in a single NBA game 197 times (including nine times by Ray Allen alone). Kobe Bryant (in 2003) and Donyell Marshall (in 2005) now share the NBA record of 12 three-pointers in a single game.

Over the years, the league has had its share of three-point specialists, with Brian Taylor setting the league's first single-season record of 90 threes in 1979-80; Danny Ainge becoming the first player to knock down 100 in a season, in 1987-88; Dennis Scott lifting the bar at 267 in a season in 1995-96, during a three-season mini-era during which the three-point distance was brought closer to the basket; and Stephen Curry setting a mark of 272 last season.

But the difference in the game now is not only one of volume but one of distribution. It seems that now, everyone shoots the three-ball. And to observe how over-the-top the number of three-point field-goal attempts has become, just look at these statistics. There have been exactly 1000 games played in the NBA this season, with an average of 42.6 three-point attempts per game. This will certainly end up as the season with the highest such average in NBA history, breaking the mark of 39.9 set last season -- an average that broke the previous record of 36.8, set the previous season.

Looking at it even more granularly, there was an average of 42.42 three-point attempts per game in the 177 NBA games played during February. That was the second-highest such average in any month in NBA history, but even that figure pales in impact compared to what you'll read next. Since the NBA adopted the three-point field goal in 1979, there had been exactly 200 months, from October 1979 to February 2014, in which at least 100 NBA games were played (so as to exclude, for example, averages compiled over the few games generally played in October in a given year). If you rank those 200 months, top to bottom, in terms of the average of three-point attempts per game, the top four months on the list are the four months this season, and the top 10 months are the 10 months from this season and last season!

RankMonthAverage 3FGA Per Game
1.December 201343.47
2.February 201442.42
3.January 201442.29
4.November 201341.76
5.December 201241.03
6.April 201340.92
7.March 201340.82
8.January 201339.59
9.November 201239.17
10.February 201338.29

Oh, yes, the postscript. With two weeks of games remaining in the month of March, this month's average of three-point attempts per game is 43.67 -- poised to leap to the top of this list.