Is barrage of 3-pointers making the NBA games boring?
NBA’s TV ratings are down. Experts are trying to find explanations as to why it’s happening. Progressive NBA commissioner Adam Silver already proposed an in-season tournament to sustain enthusiasm throughout the season. Super-rookie Zion Williamson is shouldering enormous amount of expectations to become the next superstar who can excite the entire country (and the world), not just basketball fans.
But changing the competition format or marketing the next superstar won’t really change how the game is played today. If the way the game is played was the real problem, what should the NBA do? Are there anything they can do if people who don’t follow the NBA on a regular basis are finding current games boring and are switching the channel from the games?
There will be no definitive answers to it, but one of the things I, who is not a devoted fan but love watching good sports games, do NOT appreciate is the fact that 3-pointers dominate the NBA basketball today. 3 pointers are exciting ONLY when it’s helping your team win. It’s dispiriting when you have to watch your opponent making ton of them, and it becomes boring when both teams start exchanging them without attacking the paint area.
If you think about it, basketball is very unique in that its court is very small. Other major professional team sports – soccer, football, baseball or ice hockey – use large fields throughout which players are scattered. Basketball is probably the only sports where fans can see very close contacts among players all the time. As they constantly play in colliding distances, offense/defense changes very quickly in a game of basketball, and the momentum changes very quickly. It’s not rare to see 10-0 run by one side that starts from one steal, and it’s not rare to see two teams swap leads 10 times during the course of 48 minutes of action as all players keep running the floor from one end to the other. And in such a sport whose identity is close contacts, probably the most exciting play would be slam-dunk. It is ecstatic to see players show off their ultimate athleticism, as they forcefully navigate through nasty defenders, rise above the rim and thrust the ball into the basket. The sequence is so intuitive that you don’t need to be explained all the technical details even if you don’t know basketball well. Slam-dunk has universal power to electrify people.
In order to make a successful dunk, you need to attack the paint. And the basketball paint area is probably the most congested battle field in all team sports! You often see 4 or 5 players piling on to each other under the rim when it happens. A dunk emerges from a very physical, combative environment. And that’s what makes “attacking the rim” so exciting. The best part of basketball comes from close combats.
But 3-pointers changed the landscape as it shifted the battle field to “beyond the arc.” Instead of fighting close combats, players are shooting the target from afar as if they were a long-range weapon themselves. Heavy reliance on 3-pointers also seems to be changing the priority of team management from building a balanced team to securing skilled individuals, as it seems that players’ shooting ability matters more than the chemistry of a team or the beauty of passing sequences.
Maybe the barrage of 3-pointers in modern basketball is bringing individual skill contest into team sports. It’s confusing because you no longer know if you should root for the most accurate/efficient players, not the most exciting ones to watch. What if every team keep focusing on long-range shots and basketball one day turn into a pure 3-point shooting contest? A game could look like 200-180 instead of 105-99 like we see today. Can we say more points, the better?
It’s time to remember that it’s not the numbers that excite us. It’s not the statistical efficiency that makes a win or a player great. (If that’s the case, we’d better replace humans with machine and let it play with 100% shooting efficiency.) As a matter of fact, we seek the opposite in sports – our all-time favorite sports story is the upset by underdogs. Nothing excites and inspires us more than seeing underdogs beat big teams, defying all statistical probabilities. We love seeing inefficiency beat efficiency.
Why is that? It’s because humans are born to be inefficient. We are all born with limitations and weaknesses. But we are also born with determination and aspiration to be better, stronger, to thrive and win. That’s why we try to embrace efficiency: it’s a means to achieve our goal. We love sports so much because it’s inspiring to see how supposedly “inefficient” humans can overcome challenges and make impossible possible. It takes unbelievable amount of creativity and efforts to achieve it, and that’s what people admire in great athletes.
But in today’s environment in which everything can be computed/analyzed, engineered and fine-tuned, people tend to rely on statistical efficiency to win sports. As 3-pointers are identified as the most efficient solution – if successful – that can negate all other efforts both offensively and defensively, every team focuses on it. But as efficiency started dominating the game of basketball, it is becoming more mechanical or automated. And surprisingly enough, efficient games can be monotonous and boring to watch.
Again, what people expect from sports is not statistical efficiency: we love surprises. We want to see players improvise as a team to turn difficult situations into opportunities, navigating through close combat.
Former Sacramento Kings coach Jerry Reynolds suggests abolishing 3-pointers from the corners (where the 3-point lines become straight) in order to increase the actions by the rim. It sounds like a great idea.