The Real Answer to the NBA 4-Point Line Debate

The NBA has gently flirted with the idea of a four-point line for a few seasons. Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about it on more than one occasion, and the decision to use it in the All-Star Celebrity Game only furthered the conversation. But what's the real answer to "fixing" the chaos of teams shooting 50% of their attempts from the current three-point line?

The NBA is changing. As the three-point rate continues to rise, NBA teams have to figure out new ways to defend space on the court. It's no longer necessary to just defend within 24-feet of the rim (the three-point line sits at 23'9''). This season, 15 players are attempting 5+ three-pointers from beyond 25-feet. If you go back to the 2000-2001 season, only one player attempted more than 3.5 shots from that distance. James Harden alone is taking 10 of these shots per game. One result of defending this extra space is added strain on defenses, allowing more usable court for offenses. 

This trend bothers some people. As the game continues to open up, teams have realized that you can just shoot more three-pointers (even if they're not a great shooting team) and thus score more points. There is a belief that to solve this a 4-point line will change the geometry again. Since players are already shooting from 30-feet out, why not reward that behavior instead of having a far more difficult shot count for the same amount of points. It's the same principle that brought the three-point line about: Shouldn't a 23-foot shot be worth more than a 2-foot shot?

In December, Malika Andrews of ESPN wrote a piece about how teams have implemented 4-point lines in their practice facilities. After All-Star weekend, SB Nation considered ways to make the 4-point line work in the league. Three weeks ago, the idea was floated in a piece in the Deseret News as a possible alteration to the league's rules. Just over a week ago it came up again when The Ringer's Zach Kram wrote about how the 3-point revolution is still on its way in, not out. This prompted a discussion of the 4-point line on a Ringer NBA podcast later in the week.

With all of this talk (and because plenty of NBA fans weren't born yet), it's easy to forget that the three-point line was met with skepticism and hesitance when it was introduced in 1979.

Find that hard to believe? Consider this: The average NBA team attempted 2.8 three-pointers in the 1979-80 season -- the first year the line existed. In a backlash to this new fad, the league average dipped to 2.0 three-pointers per game (PER TEAM) the following season.

To put that into perspective, 187 players are averaging at least 2.8 three-point attempts per game in the 2018-19 season, and 267 players are averaging at least 2.0. (The San Antonio Spurs as a team have the lowest team 3PA/game right now at about 25.)

So the game is changing. Certain teams -- notably the Houston Rockets -- have adapted in profound ways, taking a staggering number of three-pointers and sacrificing almost everything else. And it's working.

The solution when something is being used effectively by certain teams is to talk about changing the rules to level the playing field. For whatever reason, the "solution" that keeps being floated to solve the "problem" of three-pointers is to add a four-point line deeper on the court. Ultimately, any decision on this would come down to commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA owners. Silver has hinted at the idea in the past -- and even sounded like he would favor it at various points -- but the owners have summarily squashed the idea when it has come up.

All of that is to reach this point: If the NBA is concerned about three-pointers taking over the game and how it could hurt the product to have teams taking upwards of 50 three-pointers per game, there's a surprisingly easy fix.

Change the scoring system

Three-pointers are overly incentivized. The risk of missing a three-pointer is not equal to the reward of making one. There's no reason to take an 18-foot jump shot when you can take a 24-foot jump shot that adds 50% to the reward. In fact, there's no reason to take any two-point shot that carries a sub-50% chance of going in because that's a lower reward than the 33% chance of making a three-pointer.

The math is simple: To score 100 points on 100 two-pointers, you have to make 50 of them. To score 100 points on 100 three-pointers, you have to make 34 (giving you 102 points, but you get the idea).

Difficult two-pointers, as a result, are treated like the plague. The move away from huge swaths of the floor -- the dreaded mid-range -- bothers a lot of people because it removes an element of the game.

The answer to this is that, yes, there ought to be a 4-point line, but not where you think. The logical answer (from a mathematical standpoint anyway) is to make the current 3-point line a 4-point line, and all shots from inside the arc would now be worth three.

Hear me out.

The risk of taking a 4-point shot would go up. Instead of receiving 50% more points for a made shot, you're only getting 33% more, devaluing the payoff but also allowing more intricacies into the offense. Now, a team that shoots 50% on the new 3-pointers would need to shoot 37.5% on 4-pointers to get the same payoff. Not only does this make teams think twice about whether they can make the shot, but it also incentivizes the best shooters to take them while other guys have to be smarter about shot selection.

Another angle: 33% from beyond the arc is currently 2% below league-average. Guys who don't shoot very well can still hang out and shoot from deep in the current NBA and be rewarded for it because it's better than shooting 50% in the paint. By changing to a 3-4 point system, guys who can't shoot well have to evolve because 33% from deep is going to mathematically hurt the team.

That subtle difference is huge. Teams are scrambling to get just a couple of points here or there to make the difference between wins and losses, between the playoffs and the lottery. Suddenly, a guy who can confidently hit from 17-feet has a different value because it's not such a low-value proposition with 3s and 4s.

The Problems

This is not bulletproof. There would be fallout. However, there's fallout from the three-point line; it just took us a long time to find it. The biggest issue with this change would likely be the over-valuation of getting to the rim. It could have the exact opposite effect of the current three-point trend, with players maniacally driving into the paint, hoping to draw fouls and get three shots. This would slow the game down and presumably be less fun to watch.

Another issue would be in the re-litigation of greatness. When a guy comes into the league now and averages 25 points per game, he'd very likely be averaging 35-40 with the new scoring system. All-time records would be broken and legacies would be changed due to the bizarre hindsight of the changing math of the game. LeBron James currently has over 32,000 career points and may score 40,000 points by the time all is said and done. If each of his field goals carried an extra point, he would already be at 44,000 without considering that he'd have a few thousand extra free throws as well.

A final concern is that this is a death-blow to guys who are good mid-range shooters and bad three-point shooters. The first rebuttal to this is that these players are already disappearing and have almost no place in the current NBA. The second rebuttal is that, like anyone else who enters the league at a time of flux (like now), these players have to adjust. Brook Lopez used to be effective as a short-range pick-and-pop guy, but as the league has evolved, he has too. If a four-year veteran can't shoot from outside of 15-feet, he either needs to learn to make those shots or get really good at scoring inside.

There are surely problems with this suggestion, and it would take some serious thought to figure out the full range of consequences. But that doesn't make it a bad idea. A 4-point line that sits well beyond the current arc is, in my opinion, a terrible idea. It would encourage far more chucking and discourage nuance in what can be a beautiful sport.

If management is concerned about the changing spatial reality of the game and the reliance on long-range shots (at the expense of nearly everything else), extending another line is a bad idea. If they really want to encourage teams to use the whole court, simply changing twos to threes and threes to fours could be the answer.

Oh, and let's not forget that scoring would skyrocket. Everyone loves points!

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