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Big-men become sharp-shooters in three-pointer-happy NBA

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The three-point line has captured the hearts of coaches and general managers alike in the National Basketball Association. Ten years ago, the Golden State Warriors led the league in three-point attempts with 24.8 per game. Today, that number ranks 20th. The impetus for this three-point trend is basic mathematics—three points is more than two. In other words, high-volume perimeter shooting is more conducive to outscoring opponents than layups and dunks.

Adding higher efficiency to this idea resulted in championship wins for the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and the Warriors, who all finished either at or near the top of the league in three-point percentage since 2014. Their lethal range paired with decisive passing stretched opposing defenses thin, making way for easy buckets inside.

The Warriors introduced the small-ball system to create exploitable mismatches for Splash Brother Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Cavaliers countered this shortly after with Kevin Love and Channing Frye. Both over 6-foot-10-inch, the big men were able to space the floor with their deft shooting. The formula for how to crack small-ball was there, but nearly impossible to replicate.

Coaches have always distributed the scoring expectations among their roster based on talent. For years, 7-footers were perceived to be obelisks locked into the painted area. Their role was to rebound, contest shots at the rim and occasionally dunk the ball. But the dogmatic structure fans are accustomed to viewing has been crumbling ever since Dirk Nowitzki entered the league in 1998.

If Nowitzki is the Socrates of this big-man three-point renaissance, then Kristaps Porzingis is his Plato. The Latvian wunderkind entered the NBA lauded for his versatile skill-set at 7-foot-3-inches. Jeff Hornacek encouraged an up-tempo offense that flung the ball from deep during his tenure in Phoenix, and is looking to bring that mentality to the New York Knicks. Porzingis, the beneficiary, has doubled his three-point productivity while hitting 40 percent beyond the arc, which is 5 percent above league average. He is the posterchild of a growing number of gigantic marksmen entering the game. Joel Embiid, Frank Kaminsky, Domantas Sabonis and Karl-Anthony Towns all walked onto the court with long-range capability.

Forwards and centers who were already comfortable shooting long two-pointers are now reaping the rewards of taking one step back.

Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated talked to the Portland Trailblazers’ Meyers Leonard about  expanding his repertoire in order to stave off obsolescence. Leonard sat behind a number of veterans on the bench in 2015, but when his coaching staff noticed his smooth mechanics, they pushed the third-year center to new heights.

Head coach Terry Stots explained that the threat of leaving a sharpshooter unguarded dragged opposing centers away from the basket. This created lanes for slashers like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to attack the rim against lesser defenders. Pace and space offense has infiltrated the minds of coaches and general managers, allowing for the emergence of raw talent in Leonard.

Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey is known for his analytics-based approach to roster construction. Designed for maximum efficiency, the Rockets either launch from behind the three-point line or drive to the basket for layups, thus eliminating mid-range jump shots. The numbers show it is more than just talk; they rank last in two-point attempts and first in three-pointers since Morey was promoted to general manager in 2007.

When Morey hired coach Mike D’Antoni this summer, he seemed like a perfect fit. D’Antoni is often cited as the pioneer of modern basketball offense. His mid-2000s Phoenix Suns teams thrived under his “seven seconds or less” principle which emphasized sprinting up the court before the defense could get set, leading to easy points. No game better represents the blending of philosophies than the Sun’s 117-104 win against the Sacramento Kings in which the Rockets shot a record 50 three-pointers and drained 21 of them. With James Harden at the helm of this relentless offense, the Rockets are back in contention after a dismal end to last season.

Though the Brooklyn Nets still lurk near the bottom of the league, new head coach Kenny Atkinson liberated the team from the Triassic-era basketball Lionel Hollins preached in 2015. The Nets were tied for 20th in Pace, a statistic that estimates the number of possessions a team has per 48 minutes. The quicker the pace, the greater number of chances a team has to score. Under Atkinson, they are up to second in the NBA.

As an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks, he groomed center Al Horford to rise up from the perimeter and has passed that along to Nets’ center Brook Lopez. In his previous eight seasons, Lopez shot three for 31 from deep. Fourteen games into this season, he has already hit 28 of 76 three-point attempts.

Veterans like Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol are all evolving to keep up with the three-point revolution. Survival of the fittest forced a number of teams and players to adapt to the landscape. In today’s league, the largest athletes are utilizing a small-ball mentality. Detractors have claimed this is a trend that values finesse over strength and softens the league. Until two points becomes worth more than three, this style is here to stay.

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