The Indicator from Planet Money - The Science of Hoops

The three-point shot has revolutionized basketball, but its unintended consequences could mean trouble for the sport's future.

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Hey one card of here. This is the indicator from Planet Money the playoffs for the National Basketball Association. The NBA are in full swing right now over those listeners who have not been watching. This year's games are a little bit different. Thanks to covid because all the teams are in Orlando playing with they call the bubble a big complex created just for these teams to compete in the middle of a pandemic and so far. It seems to be working. The playoffs have been really exciting so far have listeners who have been watching you might notice. The players are shooting more 3-point shots, and they used to the three-pointer is the shot that is changed the sport of basketball. Is there today on the show in the last of our summer school Friday series. We are going to re-air one of our favorite episodes that Stacy and I did last year.

Economics of the 3-point shot not only how it changed basketball but also have the unintended consequences of that change could mean trouble for the future of the sport.

This message comes from NPR sponsor Microsoft teams. Now. There are more ways to be a team with Microsoft teams. Bring everyone together in a virtual room collaborate life on the same page and see if the 49 people on screen learn more at teams. The three-point line was introduced into the National Basketball Association, then be a back in 1979 is a way to give shorter players a better chance to compete with the tall players the tall ones. We've been dominating the sport by standing close to the basket and shooting or dunking over the little guys and they adding the three-point option would incentivize players to take more long-range jump shots something even short players. Could you competitively and that would add variety to the game for the first year after it was introduced that 1979 season now many 3-pointers were actually tried only one out of every 33 shots taken was a 3-pointer, but after that almost every year that number of 3-pointers went up and it started Rising.

Really sharply earlier this decade Soap by last season more than one out of every three shots attempted was a 3-pointer and the game is now dominated by these three point shooting virtuosos, like Stephen Curry with Golden State Warriors and James Harden of the Houston Rockets.

Bad Santa Cruz laureus Michael breed reacting to love that why everyone gets so excited about three pointers and why they've had such a gargantuan effect on the sport of basketball. I called up Kirk Goldsberry Goldsberry is a basketball data analyst who led strategic research for the San Antonio Spurs, but he has kind of an unusual background. I got a PhD in geography and was a professor of geography for 6 years at Michigan State and Harvard and then start applying matte making a data visualization techniques to basketball data, which is the love of my life is the author of sprawl ball which tells the story of how the three-point shot came to take over the NBA this decade a big part of that story. Is it basketball teams had already been gradually embracing the new tools of analytics that Kirk is talking about and they started hiring more people like Kirk himself people who can analyze we're on the

Four players were making and taking the most shots how to position players on the court to maximize their chance of scoring and what these analysts pointed out was it taking more 3-point shots made mathematical sense if teams wanted to win and the reason for this is simple to three points is, you know, obviously more than two points, but it is actually a lot more than two points 3 points is 50% more than two points. So even if a player makes slightly fewer of his three-point shot attempts then of his 2-point shot attempts, he can still end up scoring more overall points by shooting more 3-pointers when he analyzed the data other than shots taken really close to the basket and almost always makes mathematical sense for a team to shoot a 3-pointer instead of a 2-pointer is that wild margin inefficiency that's driven sort of these cartoonish Trends in the rapid increase in 3-point shooting across the NBA analysis of

14 to win efficiency matters a team has to make good use of the finite resources that has debris definition of economics. In fact is the study of how choices are made in a world of finite resources for most organizations. That means making the best use of their workers are their equipment of their ideas before a basketball team. One of those finite resources is the number of shots that it's players can take em to State the obvious to win a lot of games a team wants to get the most possible points out of its limited number shot attempts what animals like crickets sound is it this means taking more 3-pointers but you know old traditions Die Hard specially in sports. So in addition to the rise of analytics something else had to happen for the 3-point shot to really take off and become so popular the sport had to develop the players make the 3-point shot consistently and this took a while because a new generation of players had to start practicing 3-pointers over and over again from an early age and a new generation of coaches had to let those players shoot more 3

Pointers during games and you know, maybe no player has embodied this change quite like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors times over and you know, it's it's been a remarkable demonstration of how a great shooter can win championships in women MVPs are the skills that will be rewarded making three-pointers used to be this kind of nice scale the specialty but now it's a requirement players who can't shoot the three three point shot already bigger risk of losing their jobs. So used to be maybe a dozen or two dozen NBA players could shoot threes. Now a dozen or two dozen NBA players can shoot threes and that took a generation for us to get to can have some unintended consequences. Just think about it since the most efficient shots in the game or either the shots taken right underneath the basket or very far away behind the 3-point line the value of all the

2 point shot in between those places has diminished the fade away the elbow jumpshot the player who takes his man off the dribble before pulling up from ten feet away. Don't worry. If you don't recognize the references I made it is enough to know that this was a beautiful and artistic part of the game those exact shots that we associate with Michael Jordan or virtually, you know, nonexistent. Just three pointers analytics is also shown that foul shots with a player gets to take when he gets fouled in the course of shooting are also very efficient shots to take so some players especially James Harden now try to beat their opponents into following them even without trying to make their actual shot. This is cynical unsportsmanlike Behavior, but it also works the result of this analytics is changing the Aesthetics of the Gamecocks as and not necessarily for the better. It basketball keeps going in the direction that analytics is pointed it the players might all start looking the same loitering behind the 3-point line. We need to shoot or

You know trying to get fouled there won't be as many players dribbling hard to the basket using your athletic Wizardry to get an open shot or you don't perfecting their mid-range shots. The game could become less varied less interesting a little boring maybe and you can't really blame the teams or the players for this by the way. They're just following the incentives provided by the rules of the NBA. That is economic lesson number for incentives matter. If you don't like how James Harden plays the game was Kirk says you really should hate the game not the player to stop these Trends and reinforce basketballs variety and dynamism. Kirk says the n d might consider changing these incentives changing the rules again, just like it did when it introduced the 3-pointer back in 1979. Maybe by moving the three-point line farther away making it, you know, what's going to happen in the next decade for analytics it particularly basketball is just that we're going to start 2 to look at this at the league level and try to optimize the support and encourage an incredible aesthetic.

By leveraging analytics, if it delete office the willingness to change the rules to keep basketball. Interesting is after all a big part of the NBA's Heritage. That's partly why basketball can be so fun to watch. It's a fluid game that involves overtime combining Art and Science Aesthetics and analytics and hotdogs and an understanding of economics and and understanding economics is everything.

This episode was produced by Rachel Cohn and Jamilla Huxtable fact check by Emily Lange and Brittany Cronin our editors Patty Hearst and the indicator is a production of NPR.
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