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What Happens If The Threes Stop Falling For Team USA?

Team USA continues to shoot three-pointers at completely unprecedented rates. It's great fun as long as the ball keeps going in, but what if the shots stop dropping?

Aug 8, 2012; London, United Kingdom; USA guard Kobe Bryant (10) reacts during the men's quarterfinal against Australia in the 2012 London Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena.   Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 8, 2012; London, United Kingdom; USA guard Kobe Bryant (10) reacts during the men's quarterfinal against Australia in the 2012 London Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After Team USA struggled to a five-point win over Lithuania in pool play of the Olympic men's basketball tournament, I pointed out that the team had been taking three-point shots at rates completely unprecedented in the history of organized basketball. Tom Ziller put a little visual perspective on the situation, comparing Team USA's percentage of threes to the most trigger-happy teams in the NBA. No matter how you look at it, this team is taking a crapload of threes.

Has the team toned it down since last week when they took 46 threes against Nigeria and then almost shot themselves out of the game against Lithuania? Hardly. Through four games, 42 percent of their field goal attempts were from behind the arc -- through six games, that ratio is up to 45 percent. They took 39 threes against Argentina in the final game of pool play and tied their own record with another 46 against Australia in their quarterfinal win on Wednesday. In the Australia game Team USA took more three-pointers (46) than two-pointers (40), the second time in six Olympic games that they've done that. In the history of the NBA, it has happened only four times.

This team has fallen head over heels in love with the three-pointer, and so far the three-pointer is loving them back. Team USA is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc, aided by several absolutely absurd individual shooting exhibitions along the way:

  • Carmelo Anthony -- 10 for 12 against Nigeria;
  • Chris Paul -- 5 for 6 against Argentina;
  • Kevin Durant -- 8 for 10 against Argentina, including five straight to break the game open;
  • Kobe Bryant -- 6 for 10 against Australia, including four straight to break the game open.

It's great fun when those shots are going in, but the hand-wringer in me can't help asking -- what happens if they stop going in? (Oh, and the cynic in me wonders about the sportsmanship of taking pull-up three-pointers four seconds into a shot clock with a 22-point lead and less than five minutes remaining in an Olympic game, but that's another story.) Team USA is undefeated in London, setting all kinds of records, and well on their way to what seems like another gold medal. But is this really the smart way for this team to play?

I've heard a lot of explanations for why this all makes perfect sense, why it's simply not a problem, why we should all just sit back and enjoy the ride. I remain unconvinced.

"Of course they shoot a historic number of threes, this is a historically great team." This one just doesn't fly. Obviously this is a supremely talented team; there's no debate about that. But we're discussing the STYLE of basketball they are playing, not the talent disparity between themselves and their opponents. Just because they have the talent to get open three-pointers doesn't mean they should take more of them than any team ever. The talent level of the team would dictate that they should be able to get any kind of good shot they want. Just as it is for any other team, a three-pointer early in the shot clock, even an open one, is just not a great shot. This team takes a lot of those. Besides, the talent advantage that Team USA enjoys over the rest of the world is primarily in quickness and athleticism. There are myriad manners in which to exploit that advantage, perimeter jump shots being one of the least effective.

"Of course they take a lot of threes, that's how you win in international basketball." I've never completely understood this particular trope. Basketball is basketball, and you can choose to play how you like to play, be it in the NBA or in FIBA. But for the sake of argument, let's go through the perceived differences that make the Olympics a shooter's game.

The three-point line is shorter. This much is true -- but the difference is less significant than in any prior major competition. FIBA actually moved their three-point line back after the 2010 World Championships, from 20 feet 6 inches to 22 feet 2 inches. The NBA three-point line is 23 feet 9 inches. So the shot in London is indeed a full 19 inches shorter than the NBA three. Of course, it's also 20 inches longer than the Beijing three, yet Team USA is taking far more threes per game in London than they did in Beijing.

It's worth noting that while coach Mike Krzyzewski clearly views the three as a potent weapon, the first three iterations of Coach K's Team's USA were pretty consistent and not nearly as three-happy. In 2006 they took 24.7 threes per game, in Beijing 25.5, in Turkey 26.5. Suddenly, they're taking 35.7 threes every game, about 10 more per game than Coach K's other international teams averaged. This after the line moved back.

Reasonable people can have different opinions on the impact of the shorter three-point line, but I will say this -- when I watch Team USA, I don't see them toeing right up to that line, squeezing every extra centimeter out of the FIBA rules. On most of their threes, they are pulling up well behind the line. When you think about it, doesn't that make sense? Kobe Bryant has taken more than 5,000 three-pointers in his NBA career; how many more thousands of three-pointers has he practiced? Does he practice shooting 19 inches inside the NBA three point line? If you're a basketball player, ask yourself this question: if the next time you played a game, the free throw line was at 14 feet instead of 15 feet, would it be easier or harder to make free throws? Wouldn't you move back to the spot you had practiced your entire adult life when it came time to shoot a free throw? The shorter three-point line is just not a big deal to these guys.

Of course, we actually have a historical analog for the impact of a shorter line on NBA players. The NBA experimented with a shorter three-point line for three seasons in the '90s. From the 1994-1995 season through the 1996-1997 the NBA three-pointer was 22 feet (just 2 inches shorter than the line in London). Teams did indeed take more threes (part of a general trend that has continued even with the longer line), and after a few seasons the NBA choose to move the line back. Did shooting percentages go through the roof? Hardly. The first season of the shorter line, NBA teams shot .359 from three and the final season they shot .360. Teams maxed out at .367 in the second season. The first season after the line moved back NBA teams shot .343 and the second full season they shot .353. So the shorter three-point line in the NBA in the '90s represented a little more than one extra three pointer made for every 100 attempts. Don't you just love data?

As for the other traditional explanations for why international basketball supposedly lends itself to more perimeter shooting, I'm even less convinced. There's no more trapezoidal lane, and it's not as if opponents have been playing a lot of zone against Team USA. Are teams packing the lane to cut down on driving? Sure. You know why? Because they want to keep Team USA on the perimeter and force them to take jump shots! It's called strategy and it's working -- except that Team USA happens to be shooting the lights out.

"What's the big deal? The team is undefeated! Scoreboard!" Sure they're winning, but the simple fact is that Team USA could win playing any number of ways. Against Australia the Americans were hoisting threes without conscience -- and Kevin Love would just get the misses and give them another chance. Team USA had 20 offensive rebounds against the Boomers, and Love had eight by himself in half a game.

Even so, the scoreboard didn't look so hot with six minutes remaining against Lithuania when the U.S. was trailing against a team that came in fifth in the European Championships last year. Truthfully, the scoreboard didn't look very good against Australia on Wednesday, when a team with one NBA player trailed by just 12 with eight minutes left.

The United States is by far the most talented team in the world, and is clearly the favorite in every game they play. But in a single-elimination tournament, one loss means no gold medal. Through six games, a ridiculous 45 percent of all of their field goal attempts have been three-pointers, and they're making a ridiculous 45 percent from out there. If that continues, of course they'll win. But if their shooting percentage falls off for a game (and the law of averages suggests it will) and they continue to insist on settling for threes, the team will be vulnerable. The next two games will be difficult, no matter who they face. A solid showing from Argentina or either Russia or Spain, coupled with a bad shooting night from Team USA, could easily equal defeat.

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