As a basketball fan of a certain age—a fossil, in other words—I’m not a great fan of the modern NBA. Not that the players aren’t tremendously skilled, etc., but like other “traditionalists”—observers ranging from former Celtics’ great Dave Cowens to legendary coach Gregg Popovich—I believe that the (frantic) pace of the game and the (over)emphasis on the three-point shot have diminished pro basketball, and, in so doing, reduced its aesthetic appeal.
I’ve been writing about this in New York Sports Day and other venues for four or five years now, and recently a number of important voices, including Stan Van Gundy and Charles Barkley have gone public, voicing similar concerns. Most tellingly perhaps, Dell Curry, the great three-point artist and father of Steph, has stated that he is “taken aback” by the way the game is currently played.
In a piece in Slam Online in 2016 (August 12) I served up as a kind of thought experiment an overly complex scheme to limit the role of three-point shots by either reducing the value of made three-point shots to 2.5 points or by penalizing shooters for missed treys by subtracting a half point or three-quarters of a point from the team’s total. As I said, the piece was more an exercise designed to stimulate thinking on the role of the three than a practical action plan.
Now I return with another, arguably better and certainly simpler idea. Why not award three points for all made baskets within the current three-point line and two points for made baskets beyond it? This change would help to repopulate the desolate court area inside the three-point line, and maybe even act in a manner akin to the Homestead Act of 1862 by getting players to stake claims to fertile grounds that could feed plenty. The change, in addition, would rebalance the court, allow players with skill sets that don’t include the three-ball to see more action, and force teams to place greater emphasis on interior “D.”
Let me preempt some snap criticism by acknowledging that awarding three points for dunks or for made shots within the restricted area of the key (the arc within four feet of the of the rim) might be overly generous. That said, a very strong case can be made that it often takes far more athleticism—and certainly more courage—for a guard to take the rock to the rack than to set up like a surveyor and casually measure up for an open and usually uncontested three. Moreover, there are—at least in my view—few things in basketball more pleasing than watching a player with a great mid-range game (Kawhi Leonard today or Rip Hamilton a while back) work himself free for (and hit) a 17-foot jumper. And as an added bonus in the new scheme: it would encourage more big men to develop their low -post games.
How would the change affect overall scoring, particularly the high scores that modern fans seem to relish? It’s hard to say for sure because the game would likely slow down a bit as teams tried harder to work the ball closer to the basket for “threes,” and because more shots would be contested, which would likely mean more fouls.
Again, just as an experiment, for some clues I looked at the teams ranked 15th and 16th in scoring in the NBA this year (through Feb. 2)—the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz. The Wolves are averaging 111.5 points per game and the Jazz 111.1. They both average about 40 field goals a game, 13 from beyond the three-point line. Minnesota makes about 19 free throws a game on average and the Jazz 17.5. Under the scoring system proposed here, the scoring averages for each of the teams would rise to around 125-126 points per game, but, again, changes in offensive strategy and defensive pressure in response to the new system make it difficult to predict what would actually happen. In any case, it would be fun to try out the scheme in the pre-season or in the G League. What do you think?
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A mediocre point guard in high school, he writes fairly regularly about sports.