Shooting more threes makes sense for Sixers

Shooting more threes makes sense for Sixers
December 4, 2013, 9:30 am
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Spencer Hawes is averaging 4.2 three-point attempts per game. (USA Today Images)

Treat it like a “barbed wire fence.” That’s what Thaddeus Young said Doug Collins would tell him about the three-point line.
“[Collins] would say, ‘I don’t want you taking any threes,’” Young said before the Sixers' dramatic double-overtime win against the Magic at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. “As opposed to Coach Brett [Brown] coming in and saying, ‘I want you to step back and take threes. It makes no sense to take a long two.’”
If it was a barbed wire fence for Young and so many other Sixers last season, it’s become something far more welcoming this year -- a demilitarized zone where players are invited to set up camp and get comfortable. That’s what’s happened all season. That’s what happened Tuesday evening, when the Sixers shot 29 three-pointers.
Young -- who went 3 for 6 from three against the Magic -- is taking 2.1 three-pointers per game this season. That’s close to his output in 2008-09 season when he took a career-high 2.2 threes per outing. Young is hitting a career-best 41.2 percent from three.
This season’s long-range numbers are a huge leap from what Young was asked to do over the last three years –- or, rather, asked not to do. A year ago, he took just 0.1 threes per game. Two years ago, he took just 0.1 threes per game. And three years ago he took just 0.3 threes per game (that, after averaging 2.1 threes per game in 2009-10).
The same is true for Spencer Hawes, who is taking 4.2 three-point attempts per game. (He fired eight against the Magic and made three.) That’s more than double what he attempted during the 2008-09 season when he took 1.5 threes per game, his previous career high. And his 4.2 three-point attempts per game are close to four times what he averaged last season (1.1).
Hawes is making 45.1 percent from distance, by far a career-high. A year ago, he shot 35.6 percent, which represented his best career effort at that point.
You’ll remember, of course, who coached the team the last three seasons. And you’ll notice who no longer does.
Under Doug Collins, the Sixers attempted 17.5 three-pointers per game a year ago. Only five teams took fewer. Two seasons ago they attempted 14.6 three-pointers per game. Only five teams took fewer. And three years ago they attempted 15.2 three-pointers per game. Only six teams took fewer.
Interestingly, the Sixers weren’t bad long-range shooters under Collins, despite –- or perhaps because of -- the limited attempts. They shot 35.5 percent from three-point range in 2010-11 (15th in the NBA), 36.2 percent in 2011-12 (eighth) and 36 percent in 2012-13 (13th). But it was clear from the beginning of Collins’ tenure that his teams wouldn’t launch threes with abandon. Only a few players had the clearance to bomb the ball from the outside with regularity. Almost everyone else (like Hawes and Young) was ostensibly asked to forget about the three and shoot from inside the arc.
While higher percentage shots make sense, there’s a no-man’s land between the area outside the paint and the area inside the three-point line. The general consensus among those who favor effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage as a way to gauge shooting is simple: You want players who attack the basket and take high-percentage attempts at the rim and/or players that step behind the arc and shoot the three, which is obviously more valuable than a two. Long-range twos are generally unwanted because they’re not much easier to make than threes.
A year ago, the Sixers took 1,575 long-range two-point attempts. They made 600. That’s 38 percent, or slightly better than what they shot from three-point range. So why not take the extra steps back, when possible, and shoot the three-pointer? The math is plain enough.
Which brings us back to this season’s Sixers. If you’re searching for the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s iteration, it’s shot selection.
The Sixers are shooting 33 percent from three this season (23rd in the league), but it isn’t for a lack of trying. They attempt 22.6 three-pointers per game, 10th most. If they took just 1½ more threes per game, they’d be among the top-five teams in three-pointers attempted. That’s the kind of volume we’re talking about. They shoot it from three. A lot.
And those long-range twos the Sixers favored last season? They’ve been shaved by a significant factor. A year ago, the Sixers took 7.3 long twos per game. This year, they entered Tuesday’s game attempting just 4.1 shots from the same range.
Brown said shooting more threes can be a “dangerous, double-edged sword.” He talked about the “unintended consequences that you can’t relate to stats,” about how  “deflating” it can be when players take and miss quick and/or bad shots from distance. And while all of that is true, it’s also true that these Sixers endorse the three, and it’s hard to argue with the numbers.
“My opinion is, when you are open, with [Young and Hawes] especially, I want them shooting [threes],” Brown said. “We don’t like ridiculously early in the clock. We don’t like dribble-ups where there are people around. On a swing, when those two guys are open, I encourage it. I would rather have Thad take two steps back and shoot a three than take a long two.
“Forget my opinion. Just look at the percentages and math and it would confirm that we’re pretty close with that opinion.”
Forget about the win-loss record and the results for the moment. Think about it in terms of the shift in organizational philosophy. These Sixers wanted to increase their pace (see story) -- they average more offensive possessions per 48 minutes than any team in the league -- they wanted to take high-percentage shots at the rim, and they wanted to take three-pointers rather than long (and less valuable) two-pointers.
Again, the math makes sense. So does the strategy. The next part is getting players who can optimize the strategy. But for now, the strategy alone will do.