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Goldilocks and the three-pointers

For the Celtics, how many threes are too many? How many are too few? How many are just right?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most common debates that swirls around the NBA centers on the 3-point revolution that has swept through the league, especially in the past decade. There are many statistics available to illustrate just how dramatically the league has shifted towards the 3-point shot, but the chart below captures the boom in 3 point volume nicely.

Comparing 2023 to 2013

Category 2012-13 Season 2022-23 Season
Category 2012-13 Season 2022-23 Season
Most 3PA per game Rockets (29.2) Warriors (43.5)
Least 3PA per game Grizzlies (13.7) Bulls (29.3)
Average 3PA per game (all teams) 20 34.2

The Rockets, who shot more 3 pointers than any other team in 2012-13, would rank dead last in 3 point attempts this year.

Fans of the style of the modern game usually point to the amount of points scored, the increased spacing generated by the high volume of 3 point attempts, and the driving lanes that open up when defenses are stretched to their breaking points trying to guard players 30 feet from the basket. Meanwhile, old heads frequently grumble about the death of the mid-range game, the increasing uniformity in teams’ offensive styles, and an unwillingness for players to adjust to a different strategy when the barrage of 3s is not falling on a given night.

Regardless of your personal view of the aesthetic value of the modern game, cold mathematical efficiency dictates that the 3 point revolution is here to stay for the foreseeable future, barring some type of rule change that would adjust the math.

Since we know three point attempts (and makes of course) will remain a major factor in the Celtics success moving forward, I wanted to explore how many three point attempts are an ideal target to shoot for. At times, the Celtics have overwhelmed teams with a firestorm of made 3s at high volume. During other games, the Celtics find themselves unable to put away inferior opponents as they continue to fire up 3s despite miss after miss. What is the sweet spot? There is no doubt the three pointer is a dangerous weapon for the Celtics offense to deploy, but how exactly should they deploy that weapon?

Boston Celtics vs LA Clippers Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

How Reliant are the Celtics on the Three-pointer?

The Celtics are 2nd in the league in 3PA per game at 41.8 behind the Warriors at 43.5. The Celtics are also 2nd in makes at 15.5 per game, and 8th in 3P% at .371. During the 2022-23 season, the Celtics ranked 9th in attempts, 8th in makes, and 11th in percentage, so, while the 3 still factored heavily into their offensive attack during their finals run a year ago, Coach Mazzulla has placed it front and center this year. Mazzula’s plan seems to have worked as the Celtics overall Offensive Rating sat at 9th last year (113.6) and currently sits 3rd at 117.3 this year just behind the Kings (117.7) and Nuggets (118).

Interestingly, the Nuggets are 29th in the league in 3PA per game (30.6), but they do lead the league in 3P% (39.8%). On the one hand, the Nuggets could be used as evidence that high-volume 3 point shooting is not necessary to produce a historically efficient offense. On the other hand, they do rely on truly elite 3 point accuracy to bolster their offensive efficiency.

When analyzing how the Celtics’ three point shooting impacts winning, the split stats are stark.

Wins and Losses Splits

Category Wins (35) Losses (12)
Category Wins (35) Losses (12)
3PFG A 41.7 41.9
3PFG M 16.4 12.8
3P% 0.394 0.306

The Celtics average almost the exact same amount of attempts in both wins and losses, but their accuracy falls off a cliff in losses. This data would seem to support the adage that “it’s a make-miss league”, and that the Celtics (and their fans) may have to live with the occasional nightmare shooting night as the price to pay for a historically efficient offensive attack.

Is there Room for the Celtics to Improve their 3 Point Approach?

Despite the fabulous statistical profile of the Celtics offense this year, a good coach or player is never satisfied, and I don’t think fans are interested in the team shrugging off bad shooting nights as a fait accompli, especially when a couple of off nights in a 7-game playoff matchup could cost them the series.

So, let’s explore one way in which the Celtics could potentially mitigate those cold shooting nights when they arrive. As so many other things do when it comes to the Celtics, the solution I have in mind focuses on Tatum and Brown making the necessary adjustment while allowing the role players to continue their approach regardless of how the team is shooting. If we isolate the 3 point shooting of Tatum and Brown this season within the larger unit, we get this data:

Isolating Threes from Tatum and Brown

Category 3PFG M 3PFG A 3P% Career 3P%
Category 3PFG M 3PFG A 3P% Career 3P%
Tatum 146 416 0.351 0.378
Brown 103 310 0.332 0.367
Tatum and Brown 249 726 0.343 0.373
All Celtics Other than Tatum and Brown 480 1237 0.388
Team Totals 729 1963 0.371

Tatum and Brown Threes - Deeper Dive

Category 3FGM% ASSISTED 3FGM% UNASSISTED Catch and Shoot 3FGM/A (%) Pull-Ups 3FGM/A (%)
Category 3FGM% ASSISTED 3FGM% UNASSISTED Catch and Shoot 3FGM/A (%) Pull-Ups 3FGM/A (%)
Tatum 69.90% 30.10% 1.9 / 4.7 (.410) 1.3 / 4.5 (.275)
Brown 74.80% 25.20% 1.6 / 4.9 (.330) 0.7 / 2.1 (.326)
Team Totals 84.40% 15.60%

Despite Tatum and Brown obviously being the best players on the Celtics, their 3 point accuracy is lagging this season. Both are shooting below their career averages for a combined 34.3% while the rest of the team is making 3s at a 38.8% clip. The Celtics can’t suddenly scrap their entire offensive system if they come out cold from 3 in a certain game. No one would suggest that. They need to space the floor, and their offense is heavily predicated on 5-out looks. However, Tatum and Brown need to take the burden on themselves to attack the rim even more voraciously than they normally do when they sense an off shooting night. They need to be mature enough to continue to empower the role players to fire up open 3 point looks with confidence. At the same time, they need to be mentally tough enough to shoulder the burden that their team needs them to force the issue getting to the rim and the free throw line on that night rather than settling for some of the 3s they can take with no problem when the whole operation is humming at full throttle.

Specifically, Coach Mazzulla can make the adjustment more concrete for Tatum and Brown by instructing them to severely limit their off the dribble pull-up 3s on cold shooting nights. The rest of the Celtics primarily shoot assisted, catch and shoot 3 pointers. Tatum and Brown shoot the vast majority of the unassisted, pull-up 3s attempted by the Celtics. Tatum’s accuracy, in particular, plummets when shooting off the dribble (.275) as opposed to off the catch (.410).

Alternatively, Tatum and Brown could just get hot from 3 themselves in the 2nd half of this season and bring their percentages back up towards their averages. If that happens? May God have mercy on the rest of the league.

*Note: All statistics as of January 23rd, 2023

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