The Utah Jazz’s 3-point shooting is making NBA history. Here’s how it happened, and what it means for the future.

Coach Quin Snyder long wanted to play this way. Now he has the right collection of shooters to pull it off.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

The NBA game has changed — and the Utah Jazz are at the cutting edge.

The Jazz are currently the most prolific 3-point shooting team in NBA history. By averaging 16.8 3-point makes per game, they’re surpassing the record set by the Houston Rockets two years ago, who made 16.1 threes per game.

Yes, they’re making more than the Moreyball Rockets. Yes, they’re also making more than the famously 3-point profligate Golden State Warriors, who had three of the top shooters in NBA history — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant — on board.

Let’s put it one eye-popping way: The Jazz are the first team to score more than 50 points per game on 3-point shots alone.

It’s fair to say that this was unexpected for most. Last season, they made only 13.4 threes per game, good for seventh in the league — certainly not bad, but not especially close to the best performance ever. But after keeping the same roster intact, the Jazz’s approach changed this season in a major way to become the high-octane offense that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA standings.

So what happened here? Let’s investigate.

Utah’s spotty 3-point history

The Jazz haven’t historically been a 3-point shooting team — with one exception.

In the 1983-84 season, five years into the NBA’s experiment with the 3-pointer, the Jazz led the league in 3-point makes, making all of 101 threes in the 82-game year. (The 2020-21 version of the Jazz took just a week to make 116 threes, but still, 100 threes was an accomplishment at the time.)

Darrell Griffith made 92 of those 101 threes; in fact, Griffith made more threes than any other team in the NBA that season. And thanks to Griffith, the Jazz even led the league in 3-point percentage, shooting a blistering 31.9% from deep for the year.

But the ’90s and 2000s era Jazz, under the watchful eye of Jerry Sloan, were not known for their excitement to throw up the three ball; indeed, it was the opposite. In the NBA Finals years, the Jazz ranked just 26th in the NBA in 3-point makes, despite having a pretty talented array of 3-point shooters.

John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek were two of the best 3-point shooters of their era, Bryon Russell was very capable of knocking down looks from deep, and even Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson could hit the 3-ball. But the Jazz nearly kept the weapon holstered when compared to their opposition — Stockton’s three to send the Jazz to the Finals in 1997 notwithstanding.

One other league-leading shooter found his way to the Jazz a decade later, still with Sloan as coach. Kyle Korver briefly held the record for the league’s best ever 3-point shooting percentage in a season when he shot 53.6% from deep in 2009-10, albeit in an injury-shortened year and playing only 18 minutes per game behind Ronnie Brewer. He signed with the Chicago Bulls the next season.

The Jazz always ranked in the NBA’s bottom 10 in threes during the tenure of Sloan’s successor, Tyrone Corbin.

But during those 30 years, it was clear something was happening in the league as a whole. A three-year dalliance with a shorter 3-point line in the early ’90s juiced attempts somewhat, but over the entire three-decade stretch, there was a consistent trend upward in the number of 3-point attempts taken. By the time Quin Snyder joined the Jazz, the league’s flirtation with the long ball was ready to become something more.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quin Snyder as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 10, 2021.

The Quin Snyder era

When Snyder joined the Jazz he wanted to drastically re-envision Jazz basketball, looking to add significant juice to the stale Corbin offense. In particular, his time in coaching basketball around the U.S. and the world had led him to prefer a system in which his teams would play with an emphasis on spacing the floor and moving the ball.

In a myriad of ways, he worked tirelessly to put this stamp on his new team. His three-hour practices would become famous, though sometimes mocked by former players. Snyder held a hands-on training camp with Jazz media — hands-on in a very literal sense, as the coach would sometimes even move reporters to where they needed to be as they walked through elements of the new-look offense. And fans who attended that year’s preseason exhibition at the then-Energy Solutions Arena were treated to more X’s and O’s talk than they were used to, as Snyder took over the arena’s microphone.

Personnel sometimes limited how much he could accomplish, though. Two of the Jazz’s most promising players were Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, neither who had an ability to shoot from deep. Rudy Gobert’s emergence was just around the corner.

“We played with two bigs for my first three years, Rudy and Fav and Enes,” Joe Ingles remembered. “That’s already one less shooter out there. When I first got here, we were throwing it in the post to Enes every second or third play. It was a different style.”

It may not have been the quick change Snyder really wanted, but there’s no doubt: The Jazz moved steadily up the NBA’s 3-point ranks as Snyder got the players he needed to implement his system. They were 18th in threes in that first season, then 16th, then 13th twice, then ninth, then seventh.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

But getting to leading the league in threes? Well, that dream came about with two critical moments.

The first: a midseason trade. “I think we envisioned this 12 to 18 months ago when we first had this group, then added [Jordan Clarkson],” Ingles said.

The second: a critical injury. When Bojan Bogdanovic’s wrist required surgery, the Jazz realized they’d need to replace his 3-point attempts everywhere throughout the roster. That pushed Snyder to dream up new ways to get his healthy players threes, in an effort to upset the Nuggets.

“I thought in the bubble with Bojan gone ... we had to absorb his threes a little bit,” Snyder said. “And I think with him back, you know, we’ve kind of kept some momentum with that.”

They certainly have. With the Jazz’s players keeping most of their bubble 3-point gains, and Bogdanovic back fully healthy, the team’s shot chart looks very different than the one they had in Snyder’s “rookie” season. So too does their place in the standings.

Where Jazz are getting more threes from

What exactly are the Jazz doing to get all these threes?

First, there’s a key truth to examine: Most of the NBA’s 3-point revolution has been about turning long midrange jumpers into 3-point shots. Teams are attacking the rim nearly as often; but when they do take deeper jump shots, they make sure they’re behind the arc. This graphic, with data from TrueHoop, shows just how the number of jumpers haven’t changed, but the number of threes has.

This graphic, from Truehoop, shows that teams are still shooting about the same number of jump shots as they have for the past decade. But increasingly, those shots have been threes, not long twos.

The Jazz are certainly doing that as well as any NBA team. In particular, they’re now taking about two more threes per game as a pick-and-roll pull-up three, rather than getting a little deeper in the arc. And they’re hitting that three at a much higher clip: 39% this year, compared to 32% last year. Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson have all shown an ability to hit that shot with regularity this year.

But that’s actually not the largest point of improvement for the Jazz this season. That comes in transition, where the Jazz take eight threes per game, significantly more than the 5.3 threes per game they took in transition situations last year. The Jazz are unafraid to fire away from deep, even early in the shot clock.

“If we can play defense, rebound, and get out, we’re going to get opportunities to shoot it,” Ingles said.

The Jazz are also just being more aggressive on the trigger in drive-and-kick situations. Last year, they took 15 threes per game in spot-up situations, this year they’re taking 17.8. That’s just about having the confidence to take open shots — something Jazz fans have sometimes begged about in the past, as players passed up open shots to make an adventurous foray inside the arc.

Finally, they’re just getting extra fractions of threes from a variety of lesser-used actions: running Bogdanovic, Clarkson, or Ingles around off-ball screens, or sometimes having one shooter set a screen for another.

It all adds up to an extra eight attempts per game — and of course, that record setting extra three makes. The formula does require giving up a couple of 2-point makes. They made 26.7 per game last year, 24.5 per game this year. (By the way, free throws, the third way to score points, remains unchanged at 17.8 per game.)

But it’s easy to do the math. The threes they’ve gained outweigh the twos they lost by about five points per game.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shares a laugh as they both chase a ball out of bounds, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers at Vivint Arena, on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

How far can this go?

With those 3-point rates skyrocketing into the stratosphere, it’s natural to wonder: How many more threes can be taken?

Snyder, already pushing the league to new 3-point heights, doesn’t think we’ve seen the end of the growth of the long ball in the NBA.

“I would guess that the trend could continue upward,” Snyder said. “We have Rudy, who is unique and he really creates a lot of those opportunities ... but I think maybe the key component there is as more teams put five shooters on the floor, there’s just a greater probability that you can get more shots.”

But in order to take more shots, you have to have more shooters. Snyder pointed out how the players of tomorrow are “on the playground, in the driveway, in the gym” practicing the 3-point shot, even from a young age. There’s no reason to think players will get worse at shooting threes — remember, that league-leading 1983-84 Jazz 3-point shooting team shot just 32%, a dismal number today.

And the players of today are developing, too. Damian Lillard and Steph Curry are comfortable shooting from 30 feet out or more; the Jazz’s star guard, Mitchell, isn’t far off. “There are some guys that can shoot it from half court and they think it’s going in, and it does. So that would indicate to you that there could be more shots,” Snyder said.

There’s a simple reason for that: “Because if you move back, you’re open,” he said.

So no, Snyder isn’t worried about taking more threes than anyone else, in the future or the present. He’s clearly thrilled with the growth he’s already shepherded.

“I hope that continues, because I think it fits the identity of our team,” he said. “For us to really maximize who we are, that’s a really important part of what we’re doing.”

The captain has given his orders: Bombs away.