The WNBA Three-Point Revolution Is Here, And Teams Need To Adjust
By Justin Carter
Before 2016, here were the WNBA teams to average at least 20 three-point attempts per game:
2006 Phoenix Mercury
2007 Phoenix Mercury
2008 New York Liberty
2008 Phoenix Mercury
2009 San Antonio Silver Stars
2009 New York Liberty
2009 Minnesota Lynx
2010 Phoenix Mercury
2012 Tulsa Shock
2012 Seattle Storm
2013 Tulsa Shock
There was a kind of ebb and flow there, with 2009 representing a high point for the long ball before it shrunk back down in importance. No team shot over 20 per game in 2014 or 2015. In 2016, Dallas and Seattle did, and then in 2017 the Mystics joined those two to give us the second year in league history with three teams attempting that many.
Then, the 2018 season arrived, and things changed.
Last year, six teams attempted at least 20 threes per game, led by 24 attempts per game by the Storm. Only one team, the Aces, attempted fewer than 15 per game, with their 10.6 attempts per game sticking out in a league where the game had moved outside.
Five of those six teams to attempt at least 20 threes made the playoffs last season. The one that didn’t, New York, shot just 31.7% from three. Only one team shot worse from outside — the Dallas Wings, whose 30.5% mark from deep was the league’s worst, but who still made the playoffs because they had Liz Cambage in the middle.
So, what’s this all mean moving forward?
Three-Pointers are here to stay
We’ve come to an agreement, across all levels of basketball, that midrange shots are less efficient than three-pointers. Offenses that attack the rim and make plays out on the perimeter have the best chance of succeeding offensively.
Let’s look at some heat maps and shot charts from last season. (Thanks to Positive Residual for providing these!)
Last year’s champions really exemplify this inside-out game that basketball has become. Their field goal percentage was above league-average at the rim and all around the perimeter, and despite struggling on shots outside the paint and inside the arc, they won a title because the things that excelled at offensively were the things that make a good basketball team offensively.
Here’s the breakdown of Seattle’s shots by area vs. league average:
So, Seattle shot slightly fewer shots in the restricted area than league average (27.4% of shots to league average of 28.9% of shots), but they make up for that by attempting 33.1% of their shots from three and just 23.6% from midrange. That’s a higher percentage than the league average from deep, and a lower percentage from midrange. It’s not something ridiculous like the NBA’s Houston Rockets, who’ve pioneered the avoidance of the midrange and have taken over 50% of their shots from three and just 5.4 shots per game in between 10 and 19 feet, but it’s demonstrating some of the same principles as that, and it’s a big reason why the Storm took the championship.
Let’s contrast that with what the Las Vegas Aces did. After just barely missing the playoffs last season, everyone expects this team to make some noise in 2019, but their shot distribution is...interesting.
The first thing I notice here is that 44.5% of their shots came in the midrange, which is pretty wild. They were below league average in shot attempts from both the restricted area and three-point range. If the league is trending in Moneyball directions, Vegas is trending in, well...they’re literally going the opposite direction of the rest of the league.
Last season, WNBA Insidr’s Nick LeTourneau wrote this piece about some the early struggles of the Aces offense, which basically amounted to this: the team was shooting early in the shot clock, inside the three-point arc, and was relying too much on A’ja Wilson to create shots for herself. Wilson is a great player, but the Aces need to build a modern WNBA offense around her. I think the smart move for this team come draft time is to get someone who can operate above the arc and give the team more of a three-point shooting threat. The team shot decently from there last year (34.6%) and embracing the way the game is moving could be key to getting this team not just into the playoffs, but deep into them.
Maybe the team that would benefit the most from an increased volume of shots from deep is Chicago. The Sky already shot the league’s third-highest field goal percentage from deep last year, but they took just the seventh-most threes per game. They’ve got a pair of sharp-shooters who shot over 39 percent from deep in Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, and they could either use their first round pick to grab another shooter to pair with those two, or to beef up their inside game and go for a Storm-like shot distribution. Either way, the increased reliance on the three-ball feels like a thing Chicago can take full advantage of.
Is there a such thing as too many threes?
Does this new era of long-range shooting have a downside for WNBA teams? On the surface...not really. Of the top eight teams in three-point field goal percentage, six made the playoffs, and of the top eight teams in three-point attempts, six made the playoffs. Dallas, who had the league’s worst three-point percentage, made up for it with volume, finishing fourth in the league in attempts.
But New York took the fifth-most shots from three and finished with the second-worst three-point percentage, and they were bad last year. Volume didn’t help make up for their struggles. I think New York’s 2018 campaign gives some credence to the idea that while a team like Seattle used their long-range ability to win a title, they did so by leading the league in both attempts and percentage, and you can’t just fire your way to the playoffs.
Look at the NBA this year. The top nine teams in three-point percentage are either playoff teams or are in contention for the playoffs, but the field of teams is a lot weaker when you sort by three-point attempts. I think the Sky could benefit from more volume, for instance, but the Liberty or Fever might just look like a poorer-shooting version of last year’s teams if they fire away too much.
The lesson, then, is moderation. Three-point shooting is going up around the league because a lot of teams have adapted to the modern game, but we don’t need to see a team shoot 30 threes per game unless they have the personnel to do so. Teams should, though, pursue that kind of personnel, as stocking on high-percentage shooters pushes your team’s upside higher and can provide a non-playoff team with a chance to jump into the playoff picture. And while a team like the Aces should probably shoot more and their lack of volume could hurt them in their quest to jump into the postseason next year, they’ve got to make sure they have the right personnel to do so.