Orlando Magic Shooting Month: In the beginning, the three was not a weapon

Scott Skiles was the Orlando Magic's best 3-point shooter in the early years on a modest 3.1 attempts per game. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Scott Skiles was the Orlando Magic's best 3-point shooter in the early years on a modest 3.1 attempts per game. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

In the modern NBA, three-point shooting is like breathing. It is an essential feature of every offense and something integral to success.

The teams that cannot shoot — like the current version of the Orlando Magic — are the ones that sink to the bottom of the standings.

It has become a league of specialists.

Players who can hit 3-pointers off the bounce, against contests and in any other way imaginable are the ones valued above everyone else. They climb draft boards and find themselves on winning teams. While players who struggle to shoot even if they have other skills, struggle to find their place.

At the very least, every player is asked to become a better shooter.

If it feels like the league has become homogenous, it is usually people complaining about the amount of 3-point shooting going on in the league. But the reality is that this is the direction the NBA has headed and this is not seemingly going away any time soon.

It was not always this way though.

Three-point shooting has become the lifeblood of the NBA in recent years. But it was not always this way. When the Orlando Magic entered the league, the shot was a novelty. One the Magic helped evolve into a weapon.

When the 3-point shot was introduced in the 1980 season, it was seen as a novelty. Nobody really embraced it. And it took a long time for the 3-point shot to become accepted as a winning strategy (both the 1995 and 2009 Magic played a role in making reliance on the shot a viable strategy).

Even a decade into its existence, the 3-pointer was not unleashed to its fullest potential. The Magic entered a league that was still dominated by low-post players and hesitant to take 3-pointers or spread the floor out beyond that line. Everyone enjoyed their mid-range jumpers and clear-outs for space.

The Magic’s expansion team in 1990 took just 4.8 3-point attempts per game, 22nd in the league. Their 29.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc was good for 20th in the league. They gave up a whopping 6.8 3-point attempts per game, 15th in the league.

These are real numbers and shows just how much the league has changed in 30-plus years.

The league leader in 3-point attempts per game in the 1990 season was the Ron Harper and Mark Price-led Cleveland Cavaliers with 10.4 attempts per game. The Los Angeles Lakers were the only other team to take 10 3-point attempts per game that season.

Of note though, seven of the top eight teams in 3-point field goal attempts per game that season made the playoffs. The Western Conference champion Portland Trail Blazers finished 13th that season with a top 3-point shooter in Terry Porter who made 1.1 per game.

It was indeed a different world.

The top 3-point shooter in attempts per game that year was the Denver Nuggets’ Michael Adams. He made 158 of 432 attempts. His 432 attempts were nearly 60 more than the second-most frequent 3-point shooter (Mark Price was second and his teammate in Steve Kerr led the league in 3-point field goal percentage).

Orlando’s top 3-point shooter in that inaugural season was Scott Skiles, who took 132 3-pointers and shot 39.4 percent. It is easy to see why Scott Skiles, adding in his hard-nosed defense, quickly became a favorite and ultimately supplanted veteran Sam Vincent when injuries finally ended his season.

The way basketball was played in those days is almost unrecognizable now. Even if many of the same concepts exist.

Orlando was noted in those early years with playing a very fast-paced style too. The team was designing itself to play an entertaining style so they could sell tickets and sell basketball to the team.

The Magic finished their inaugural season playing at a pace of 104.1 possessions per 48 minutes, third in the league. That trailed only the Don Nelson-led Golden State Warriors and the Paul Westhead-led Denver Nuggets, two revolutionaries in pace and trying to invert the game to a guard-oriented run-fest.

That early Magic team was entertaining. They got off to one of the best starts for an expansion franchise, going 7-7 through November. But injuries at the team and they were unable to sustain much momentum.

Orlando finished that year at 18-64, still the worst record in franchise history. But they also finished fifth in the league in raw points per game.

The Magic played at a fast pace. But for most of the league, a fast pace just meant rushing to the other end of the floor before the defense could set up and either getting to the basket or taking a quick mid-range jumper.

This was simply the style of the league at the time. Nobody trusted the 3-pointer and nobody used it in the way modern offense have come to use it.

Except for a few teams.

The mixture of pace came to a surprising result in December 1990 during the Magic’s second season. Orlando took on Denver and Skiles would make history with 30 assists in a single game.

The Nuggets under Westhead were trying to revolutionize the league by playing at the fastest pace in the league. They got up and down and played little defense, aiming on wearing out teams especially when they played in Denver.

Magic fans still celebrate Skiles’ game as a record that seems like it will never be reached or surpassed. In a modern game such a game would inevitably lead to a ton of 3-pointers.

Not the case in 1990.

In a 155-114 Magic win, the Magic took only seven 3-pointers. They at least made four of them — Scott Skiles made two of three and rookie Dennis Scott made two of his four.

The 1990 season saw the Magic take 9.2 3-point attempts per game rising to sixth in the league. There were now four teams taking more than 10 3-point attempts per game with the run and gun Nuggets leading the way.

But the revolution was already underway. Not quite to the levels we see today. But things were beginning to shift. Teams were beginning to see the value of this shot. And the league would never be the same.

Scott was one of the true revolutionaries in basketball.

He was one of the first players to focus on taking 3-pointers at the collegiate level. He took an unthinkable 9.1 and 9.5 3-point attempts per game in his final two seasons at Georgia Tech. He was such a dangerous shooter, he convinced his coach, Bobby Cremins, to let him look for spot-up opportunities in transition.

The idea of a pull-up 3-pointer in transition was born.

Even Scott’s arrival need some time to take. Old school coaches like Matt Guokas and Brian Hill were slow to embrace what someone like Dennis Scott could do. But the evolution of the 3-point shot was already underway.

Orlando would not take more than 10 3-point attempts per game in a season until Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie season. Even then, they took only 10.8 per game (just 889 total for the whole season).

And this was with a seeming embarrassment of shooting riches with Scott Skiles, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson creating gravity around a generational center in Shaquille O’Neal.

Half the league would not take more than 10 3-point attempts per game until the 1995 season, when 26 teams passed 10 3-point attempts per game including the champion Houston Rockets with a league-high 21.4 per game and the Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic with 17.2 per game (seventh most).

The 3-point revolution was coming. It needed coaches with some imagination to give it a try and make it a central part of their strategy — teams like Mark Price’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the Run-TMC Golden State Warriors and the Westhead Denver Nuggets — and then the influx of talent that also valued the 3-pointer.

The Magic were at the center of this revolution. That is the next part of the story. But when they entered the league, the 3-pointer was not a key weapon. But there is no stopping progress and imagination. It just needs someone to perfect the idea.

Next. Playoff Lessons: Philadelphia 76ers think big with title window open. dark

We are on the hunt for the best shooters in Orlando Magic history. And we need your help! You can learn more about our Orlando Magic Shooting Month project and submit your ballot for the best shooters in Magic history. I will be collecting the results of our poll on Friday, August 5 at 11:59 p.m. ET.