Some of you may not be old enough to remember it beyond the most visceral, fuzzy impressions, but Shaquille O’Neal was once the most dominant player I have ever seen. More dominant than I’ve ever seen LeBron James be, and even more devastating than Michael Jordan was in the mid-90’s—I, myself, was not old enough to watch Jordan’s greatness unfold with any appreciable consciousness until he returned from baseball in 1995 to win three more titles. But unlike Jordan, who always won with incredible bravura and grace, frequently warping your sense of what was possible, Shaq was an actually, literally unstoppable man in the early aughts. He was like if a subway train had opposable limbs. If you were four years old when his Los Angeles Lakers won three straight championships, then your analysis at the time—“look at that really big guy who no one could dream of hurting”—was as good as that of any NBA coach or scout.
Watching this sucked so much, and was such a violent departure from the artistry of Jordan, that it seemed as though the rules of the league needed to be fixed. Surely, the whole landscape had been calibrated incorrectly if anyone’s conquest could be this inevitable. If this is what you thought—instead of that Shaq’s combination of size and coordination was merely a historical aberration to be waited out—you were in harmony with the top legislative and strategic forces of the NBA, which since then has changed both its rules and its culture so severely that this decade’s most “unfair” player, Steph Curry, is essentially the antithesis of Shaq. Posting up near the rim is an almost niche offensive tactic in 2019, with every team taking about twice as many three-pointers as they did 15 years ago.
I hope that I am not alone, or just too nostalgic or transparently, quakingly washed up and afraid of the future, when I say the following: this has gone too far. The Houston Rockets took a record 70 three-pointers in a game against the Brooklyn Nets this week, making 23 of them. This is not fun to watch! The team that currently averages the least three-point attempts in a game, the San Antonio Spurs, is taking more than the league-leading team from 2004 (that was Ray Allen’s Seattle SuperSonics, by the way). There is an obvious mathematical truth behind this trend—three is more than two, you know—constantly wielded by self-important basketball modernists as if it were a complex physics theorem that only they could understand. It is, tragically, a strategically smart thing for the Rockets to keep clanging 47 of these things in a single game, even if they lost that game. The numbers favor it, and Houston has been one of the NBA’s very best teams through its near-decade of increased three-point deluges.
The combination of the emphasis on three-pointers and rule changes that free up jump-shooters, while also allowing defenses to be more collapsible and swarming in the post, has wrought a stylistic hegemony far wider than the ass that Shaq once used to terrorize the sport. The standards for player effectiveness have shifted so remarkably that entire typologies of the game are fading from existence, with a floor-spreading specialist seeming more valuable than a player who can’t stroke from beyond the arc, but who nonetheless does everything else well. Three is, really and truly, that much more than two.
Ben Simmons, one of the most visionary and gifted 22-year-old players this century has seen, is a legitimately confusing and difficult-to-utilize talent solely because of his reticence to participate in the three-point boom. Much of the hysteria around Simmons’ unique disposition is of course made up of people simply being wrong: his single skill deficit is greatly exacerbated by a cockamamie Philadelphia 76ers’ roster that can’t field a five-man lineup worthy of the second round of the playoffs, and his ability to defend, rebound, and create shots for others at such a high level still makes him one of the most tantalizing young stars we’ve seen this side of LeBron. But there is also the stinging reality, still, that the sport has objectively moved to favor marksmen over everything else, and that this is stifling him.
What’s the solution? I’m not exactly the basketball brain-genius required to answer such a question. I just know when I see something lopsided. When the standard for players who can rule a game without a three-point shot becomes “nothing short of Giannis Antetokounmpo,” a series of things have clearly gone awry. Re-incentivizing the space within the arc seems like an obvious, if partial cure to the austerity of everything that isn’t three pointers. Many have suggested eliminating the offensive foul, a play that’s often dangerous anyway, which would certainly make for liberated slashing lanes to the rim. The flip-side here, though, is that it would be absurd to add yet another encumbrance to the years and years of them that defenders have had to adjust to. But three is more than two so much that the problem of diminishing variety is difficult to address, but also one that will grow larger, not smaller, if it isn’t tackled somehow.