What Was Basketball Like Before The Three-Point Shot?

What Was Basketball Like Before The Three Point Shot

Watching an NBA game today, it’s almost impossible to imagine a version of basketball in which three-point shots don’t exist. However, for a large part of NBA’s early history, there was no three-point line at all, and even after it was introduced in the 1979-80 season, players and coaches took a while to warm up to it as something more than a novelty. Some of the greatest stars in NBA history, such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, played out their careers entirely without the three-pointer. How was basketball different then compared to how it is now? All field goals being worth two points significantly impacted offensive strategy. Basketball before the three-point shot was more physical, and height gave an even more significant offensive advantage than it does today. Keep reading to learn more about basketball before the three-pointer.

Physicality Before the Three-Pointer

Since there was no bonus for shooting the ball from far out, before the three-pointer was created, most baskets were scored extremely close to the rim, often on layups or hook shots that were hard to miss. Offenses were designed around the fast break: that is, getting down the court quickly enough so that the defense couldn’t stop them from an easy layup. Defense and offense were both very aggressive close to the basket, creating bedlam beneath the rim. The 1960s in the NBA were defined by physicality, where players would muscle their way through the opposing team in order to create or stop scoring chances from in tight.

It should be acknowledged that the lack of a three-point line wasn’t the only contributing factor to the early NBA’s physicality. The more lenient rulebook of the day allowed for more contact that today would be considered a foul. These rules didn’t even define the restricted area arc, four feet around the rim, to stop defensive players from waiting there to interfere with the offensive player’s charge to the net. Thus, while the lack of a three-point line impacted the physicality of the game, so too did the more primitive rules of the sport. These factors went hand-in-hand with each other, as a sport centered entirely on layups was more willing to let defensive players crowd the area around the rim without being penalized for it.

The Stars of the Pre-Three-Point Era

A present-day master of the three-pointer, such as Steph Curry, would likely have been scoffed at in the 1960s. Back then, the game was defined, both on and off the court, by “big men” like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

In particular, Chamberlain, at 7’1”, used his height and athleticism to dominate both on offense and on defense. Not only could the legendary center force his way into the paint and get off accurate layups from short range, he could also use his long reach to block shots and steal balls with relative ease. Wilt’s total control of the area right around the basket, in addition to encouraging a three-point line to diversify offense in the future, also caused the NBA to widen the free-throw lane from 12 to 16 inches, and prevent players from standing in the key for more than three seconds.

Bill Russell was another big man who defined the physicality of the pre-three-pointer era. At 6’10”, Russell dominated in the inner court, managing to be first in the NBA in both total rebounds and rebounds per game for multiple consecutive seasons between 1956 and 1965. Russell’s height and physicality made him an imposing defensive presence, as he was able to have the highest defensive win shares of any player in the league for every single season of his career, and remains the best player of all-time in terms of defensive win shares to this day. Russell is merely another example of how physicality and defensive skill mattered to a much greater degree in the pre-three-pointer NBA.