By Ross Benes
Records are made to be broken, but rarely do you see a player absolutely annihilate a mark the way the Warriors' Stephen Curry is destroying the NBA single-season 3-point record. And it's even more impressive when you consider that Curry already owned the record coming into the season.
But since the 3-point line has only been around the NBA since the 1979-80 season, and teams are increasingly shooting more threes each season, we wondered if Curry's numbers are really as impressive as they sound, or if his stats just reflect the era he plays in. To find out, we examined data from Basketball Reference.
As seen in the chart below, which shows how many threes NBA teams made on average per game, it took until the mid-1990s for 3-pointers to take off. For years after their introduction, threes were seen as a gimmick and many teams didn't really utilize them in their offensive strategies.
But 3-pointers have seen a steady uptick in the past two decades. In the 1994-95 season, the NBA decreased the distance of the 3-point line, which led to a significant bump in the number of threes teams shot each game. By '97-98, the NBA decided to extend the line back to its original length, which led to a reduction in threes. But other than for that short-term rule change, threes have been steadily rising.
This season, teams are making about double the number of threes that they made in the late '90s.
Since threes were introduced, the number of 3-pointers NBA teams have made per game has increased by 0.21 threes every season. In other words, every five years there's an increase of roughly one 3-pointer per team per game. That might seem like an imperceptibly slow change, but it really adds up over time. On average in 2000, NBA teams made about five threes per game. But now NBA teams are draining about eight threes per game. And when you consider that both teams in a given game are hitting more 3-pointers now, those three additional threes per team per game suddenly add up to a combined 18 points per game. And those extra 18 points have all come just since 2000.
So will this trend continue?
To see if Curry's wild stats will become more "common" in a future with more 3-point shooting, we projected the league-wide rate of increased threes made to 2030.
Between now and then, a million things can happen -- rule changes, shifts in officiating, teams emphasizing other efficient ways of scoring, etc. -- so these numbers are not necessarily a forecast of what we expect to happen. Rather, they project a current trend (an increase of 0.23 threes made per game each season) into the future to give us an idea of how the NBA might look one day. As seen in the table below, our projections show teams may be making more than 11 threes per game by 2030.
|Year||3-Pointers Made||3-Pointers Attempted|
That's 40 percent more threes made per game. While that is a big jump, Curry's numbers today would probably still stick out quite a bit in 2030 because Curry is outpacing other top 3-point shooters by much more than 40 percent. This season, Curry is making 5.1 threes per game. The next 10 players in 3-pointers made are averaging 2.62 per game. Curry is outshooting them by 94.7 percent. He's basically making double the number of threes that other top-tier shooters are making. He has more than a hundred more threes (318) than the next closest player (teammate Klay Thompson has 207).
Although this season has been an outlier, even by Curry's standards, he's been outshooting the NBA's best 3-point shooters for several seasons now. The graph below shows how many threes per game the NBA's top 10 3-point shooters have made since the 3-point line was moved back to its original distance. For years 2010-2016, the blue line includes the top 10 shooters who aren't Steph Curry.
What's arguably most impressive about Curry's shooting isn't just the high volume of outside shots he hits. It's how efficient he is at hitting those shots. Although NBA teams are definitely shooting more threes than ever before, 3-point percentage has mostly plateaued. As seen in the below chart, 3-point percentage has hovered around 35 percent for a solid 20 years now. Meanwhile, Curry has a career 3-point percentage mark of 44.4 percent, including 46 percent this season. Throughout his career, Curry's 3-point percentage has been 8 to 11 percentage points above the NBA average.
A few weeks ago, FiveThirtyEight put together a fun piece that aimed to capture the absurdity of Curry's 3-point shooting. Since Curry is on pace to break the old 3-point record by about 40 percent, FiveThirtyEight examined how other sports records would look if they saw an increase of 40 percent, and they came up with things like 102 home runs and 77 touchdown passes.
We decided to take a similar approach, but rather than look at historical records we looked at current statistical leaders to give the numbers a more modern context. For example, Clayton Kershaw struck out 301 batters this season. The next 10 strikeout leaders averaged 239 Ks. That means Kershaw outpaced them by 25.9 percent. If Kershaw were like Curry and outperformed the next ten players by 94.7 percent, however, we'd expect 465 strikeouts from Kershaw.
The table below shows how the stats of various pro sports stars would look if they outpaced their contemporaries like Curry does. This exercise is comparing apples to oranges in many ways, and should be interpreted with a grain of salt. But it at least gives us an appreciation of how much Curry is outshooting everyone else.
|Chris Davis||MLB||Home runs||47||40.7||15.5%||79.2|
|Dee Gordon||MLB||Stolen bases||58||34.5||68.1%||67.2|
|Tom Brady||NFL||Passing TDs||36||33.2||8.4%||64.6|
|Adrian Peterson||NFL||Rushing yards||1485||1055.0||40.8%||2053.6|
Curry certainly benefits from the era he plays in, and his style of play could influence the next generation of players and ultimately change the game. However, even if we continue to see significant increases in the number of threes teams take, it will probably be a long, long time before we see another player take so many while making such a high percentage of them.
* * *
Ross Benes is a Sports on Earth contributor who has written for Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Slate. He is also working on a book about indirect relationships between sex and society. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.