Stephen Curry set the NBA’s all-time record for 3-pointers made but who were early forefathers of the NBA’s current 3-point revolution?
Visit any basketball court anywhere in the world — a YMCA, a park anywhere in the country, any high school — and you’ll see clear as day the impact of Stephen Curry on the game of basketball.
Now that Curry has officially secured his spot atop the NBA’s all-time 3-point leaderboard, there’s no doubt about it: he’s the greatest 3-point shooter of all time.
Much has been written about Curry’s influence on the NBA game and how his other-worldly 3-point efficiency awoke the sleeping giant. It’s simple, they say, three is greater than two. It’s all seems so simple, so why did it take almost 35 years for NBA teams and players to finally adopt the 3-point shot as their primary offensive weapon?
To figure out why the revolution took so long to take off, we need to look at the NBA’s 3-point pioneers, the bold, risk-taking players and teams that decided to help launch the 3-pointer into what we see today.
The 3-point beginnings
The 3-point line was first tested in a college game between Columbia and Fordham (then a 21-foot line). In 1958, a 23-foot line was tested in a college game against St. Francis (NY) and Siena. In 1961, Boston University and Dartmouth played a single game where ALL (yes, all) field goals counted as three points. Huh.
Finally that same year, with the direction of Abe Saperstein, the American Basketball League adopted the 3-point line as a rule in the league: “We must have a weapon and this is ours,” said Abe Saperstein, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The ABL wasn’t long for the world nor was the Eastern Professional Basketball League which would adopt a line in 1963.
Finally, in 1967, the 3-point line caught its big break as the brand-new American Basketball Association led by the commissioner and NBA legend George Mikan instituted the 3-point line. Mikan, ironically, wanted to give smaller players a chance to score and thought the 3-point shot would open up defenses more.
Mikan was right and the 3-point shot became a powerful weapon almost immediately in the ABA with players such as Lester Selvage, Chico Vaughn and Darel Carrier taking advantage. In the ABA’s second season (-1968-1969), Kentucky Colonels point guard Louie Dampier shot an unprecedented 7.1 3-pointers per game en route to 199 total 3-pointers made during the season. Dampier was the leading scorer on a team that won 42 games becoming one of the first players to find on-court and team success with the long-distance shot.
The NBA gives 3-pointers a try
In June 1979, the NBA finally adopted the 3-point line. The June 22, 1979, Reading Eagle newspaper wondered: “Is the 3-point goal a gimmick whose only purpose is to capture the fans’ fancy or is it a sound refinement in the way the game of basketball is played?”
The word gimmick was used frequently in the early days of the 3- pointer. We were many, many years away from the “3>2, duh!” revolution we’re living in today. On October 12, 1979, Chris Ford would make the first very three-pointer in NBA history.
Oh, and Larry Bird made his debut on this night too — he went 0-1 from 3. What a bum.
The first year of the NBA 3-pointer was a mixed bag as some teams like the San Diego Clippers dove head-first attempting 6.6 3s per game led by the NBA’s 3-point leader in 1980: Brian Taylor.
Other franchises like the Atlanta Hawks decided they wanted no part in this gimmick and opted to shoot less than one 3-pointer per game.
Interestingly enough, Ford and Bird’s Boston Celtics were second in the league in 3-point attempts (5.1) en route to a 61-21 record. The Celtics ORTG of 109.4 was second in the league and a huge jump from the 101.6 they had the year prior. Sure, having, you know Larry freakin’ Bird helped but shooting a league-best 38.4 percent from 3 sure couldn’t have hurt.
The league as a whole clearly wasn’t as smitten with this new 3-point shot as league-wide totals dropped significantly in 1981. Obviously, teams averaging 28 percent on 3-point shot attempts didn’t raise confidence levels among coaches and franchises. Coaches in 1980 obviously knew that three was greater than two but was the juice worth the squeeze? Was a 3-point shot attempt that went in less than 30 percent of the time worth it?
League-wide 3-point attempts dropped from 5003 in 1980 to 3815 in 1981 (still a record-low for attempts in a season). Mike Bratz led the league with 57 3-pointers made in 1981. On December 3, 2021, the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics combined for 41 made 3-pointers in just a single game. Bratz made 57 the whole year… and he led the league. Bird went from taking 1.7 3s per game to just 0.9.
Who saved the NBA’s nascent 3-point revolution?
Was the revolution dead after just one year?
Luckily, Utah Jazz shooting guard Darrell Griffith got us back on track in 1984 when he beat Brian Taylor‘s four-year-old record making 91 3s that season. That Griffith also shot a league-leading 36.1 percent from distance certainly helped too.
In 1985, the league shot a total of 5,917 3s, the most since the debut season in 1980. Bird started getting in the mix again himself as he would lead the league in both 1986 and 1987 in 3-pointers made (82 and 90 respectively).
In 1987, the NBA finally seemed to fully embrace the 3-pointer as league-wide attempts shot up 2,620 year-over-year to a then-record 8,913. In 1988, Boston Celtics guard Danny Ainge shot 4.4 3s per game to power himself to his first and only All-Star appearance. This season also marked the first time that any player had made triple-digit 3s in a year as three players (Dale Ellis, Michael Adams and Ainge) all made 100+.
Adams would become a frequent adopter of the shot on the high-powered Doug Moe-led Denver Nuggets of the era. Adams would lead the NBA in 3-pointers made in both 1989 and 1990.
The natural progression of the 3-pointer was slow but constant these years. Teams were learning of the benefit, players were more readily able to practice and perfect the shot. In 1989, the NBA saw a year-over-year increase of 4,010 shots for a total of 13,431. Remember just eight years ago the league was taking just 3,815 3s in a season.
League-wide 3-point attempts would never fall under 10,000 after 1989.
The 22-foot line
Vernon Maxwell led the league with 172 3s made in 1991, a new NBA record. Maxwell would hold the record for three years until Dan Majerle made 192 in 1994. In 1995, John Starks finally got us over the 200 made 3s mark with 217 for the year. League-wide 3-point attempts skyrocketed in the 1995 season up 11,982 from 1994.
Of course, Starks and the entire league benefitted from the NBA adoption of a shorter 3-point line as the league voted to shorten the distance from 23 feet and 9 inches to 22 feet.
Orlando Magic sharpshooter Dennis Scott took full advantage of this new line making an NBA-record 267 3s in 1996, a single-season record that would stand until 2006.
League-wide attempts continued to eclipse 30,000 over the next four years with players like Reggie Miller, Wesley Person, George McCloud, Mookie Blaylock and Mitch Richmond becoming regulars atop the leaderboard.
The NBA would vote to move the line back to its original distance before the 1999 season. This change created our first substantial decrease in year-over-year 3-point attempts as teams shot only 19,080 that year (a drop of 11,151 from 1998). This helped the NBA reach a modern scoring nadir as teams averaged just 91.6 points per game. The Chicago Bulls, fresh off three straight NBA titles but now with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and head coach Phil Jackson, scored just 81.9 points per game for a full season.
No, that’s not a typo.
An NBA team averaged 81.9 points per game for an entire season.
In 2001, Antoine Walker became the first player to make 200 3s in a season since Miller in 1997.
Ray Allen becomes 3-point king
The next year, the NBA’s soon-to-be 3-point king Ray Allen led the league for the first time with 229 made 3s. In 2006, Allen would break Scott’s long-held record as he’d make 269 that year. Allen’s record would hold until 2013 when (coming full circle) Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry hit 272 in a season.
Curry would break his own record in 2015 making 286 3s. Curry would go back-to-back record-breaking seasons when he would once again break his own record in 2016. This time though, he didn’t just break his and all previous records, he would obliterate them with 402 made 7s in 2016. 402. Or roughly seven times as many 3-pointers as Bratz made in 1981.
The 3-point revolution had fully arrived. The extent of which we hadn’t fully grasped at the time.
Last season, the NBA collectively shot 74,822 3s — a far cry from the meager 3,815 shot in 1981. League average percentages have made the 3-pointer not only an effective weapon but the most important one. Teams shot an average of 36.7 percent on 3s in 2020-21.
The early days of the 3-pointer saw teams struggle to make even 30 percent of the shots. In 1983, teams shot just 23.8 percent from distance making the shot much more of a risk than it is today.
In 1987, the year when it feels like the revolution had its first real momentum, teams finally eclipsed the 30 percent mark with league-wide averages of 30.1 percent. In 1996, with the shortened 3-point line, the league shot 36.7 percent … the same mark they did last season. The return of the original distance saw that mark drop to 33.9 percent in 1999. Teams wouldn’t shoot over 36 percent again until 2008.
The three-point revolution probably isn’t going away anytime soon. Three is greater than two after all! Curry broke Allen’s 3-point record in 511 fewer games. The all-time 3-point leaderboard is filling up with active players like James Harden (4th), Damian Lillard (10th) and LeBron James (11th).
On days like this though, as we celebrate a new king of the 3-pointer remember those who paved the way for the revolution to take hold. Remember your Louie Dampier, your Bill Keller, your Glen Combs, your Dale Ellis, your Peja Stojakovic, your Rashard Lewis, your Kyle Korver. These men and many more legitimized “the 3-point gimmick shot” and made it basketball’s most powerful weapon.