What Were the Odds of the Game?

On March 4th, 2020, the NBA suspended its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league has now established a new record for the most games ever postponed in a single season. In the wake of the pandemic, the NBA and other sports leagues have been forced to consider alternative ways of playing and recording games. However, while the rules of basketball may have changed, the odds of making a three-pointer still remain the same.

Three-Pointer Odds

Before the pandemic, the NBA had a three-point line painted on the floor at each end of the court. In reality, though, the line was more like a suggestion than a requirement. Teams rarely shot from downtown locations in the era before the pandemic, and those they did it rarely resulted in buckets. Naturally, as more teams started taking three-pointers seriously, the percentage of made threes increased.

Going back before the epidemic, here’s a look at how accurate NBA shooters were from downtown:

NBA Accuracy From Downtown

In 2018, the distance between the basket and the three-point line was 59.9 inches. That was the average distance from the center of the foul line to the front of the three-point line for all 29th Street-type baskets (also known as downtown baskets). On the whole, teams were more likely to shoot from near the free throw line than from downtown.

While the distance between the basket and the three-point line decreased by 2.4 inches from 2017 to 2018, the average percentage of successful three-pointers actually went up from 22.7% to 25.3%.

Change in Threes Per Game

In addition to the distance between the basket and the three-point line increasing, the percentage of threes taken also increased during that period. In 2018, there were 13.6 more threes per game than in 2017. Looking at the number of made threes, we can see that 2018 was the best year for three-pointers in NBA history, with 687 threes made compared to 564 in 2017. However, even during the height of the epidemic, NBA teams still took only 3.6 threes per game.

Since the NBA season was suspended, we can see just how much the game has changed. Going back to preseason projections, here’s a look at how many threes each team was expected to take compared to what they ended up doing in the post-pandemic world:

Expected Vs. Actual Threes

The Houston Rockets were one of the worst teams in terms of taking three-pointers – they were projected to take only 1.9 threes per game and ended up taking 2.7 – however, the percentage of made threes went up from 18.3% in the preseason to 35.5%. Since they are a shooting-first team, that seems logical. Similarly, the Utah Jazz were expected to take 3.4 threes per game and instead took 5.4 – that’s a 25.8% increase. As a team that features a lot of long-distance shooters, that seems also reasonable.

More Three-Pointers?

While there was a noticeable uptick in three-pointers during the season, there is still nowhere near the volume that there was in 2018. In fact, based on the average distance from the center of the foul line to the front of the three-point line, here’s a projection of the number of threes that teams would have taken if the season had continued:

The average distance from the center of the foul line to the front of the three-point line in 2021 is expected to be 59.9 inches. As a result, based on historical trends, we can assume that there will be around 540 threes taken per game.

To put that in perspective, as of April 14th, there have been 456 games played, and during that time, 5,520 threes have been made. Even before the pandemic, there were already a lot of three-pointers being made – which means that the odds of making a three-pointer were already extremely high, before the pandemic. Now that the volume is down, those odds will only increase.

Long-Distance Bonus

Whether it was the fear of the spread of COVID-19 or the desire to play as many games as possible, teams were more likely to shoot threes from downtown locations in the aftermath of the pandemic. Similarly, the bonus for hitting a three-pointer shot from downtown was also increased. From 2015-2018, for every percentage point that a team’s three-point shooting rose, they earned 0.7% in additional odds ($1.35 to $1.20). That was the case even before the pandemic, but with the odds of making a three more probable, the dollar value of that bonus increased by 23% in the season after the pandemic.

Looking at the dollar value of that bonus, here’s how much more teams are likely to make on average from downtown compared to before the pandemic:

Downtown Bonus In Addition To 3-Point Line

In the last season before the pandemic, teams were expected to take 3.1 threes per game on average, and that’s exactly what they did. However, since the start of the season, that number has risen to 4.5. Looking at that increase, here’s another projection of what teams would have done if the season continued:

Based on historical trends, we can assume that in the future, teams will continue taking more three-pointers – which means that the dollar value of that bonus will continue to increase, especially since the rule change allows for more threes to be taken. Naturally, the distance between the basket and the three-point line will also increase, so even more three-pointers will be made, and the dollar value of that bonus will continue to rise.