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Is The NFL’s Two-Point Conversion The New NBA Three-Pointer?

Both were previously perceived as risky, but the numbers say otherwise

24Nov

The NBA’s Steve Kerr is coach to the most prolific three-point shooter - and team - in basketball history. Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ record-breaking shot making has made the team unofficially synonymous with the long ball game and it’s proving successful - the team has smashed records for the NBA’s best start to a season and the best road start. The Warriors’ 28-game regular-season win streak is the second longest in competition history and the team is now favorite to win the NBA championship.

For Kerr, though, the success off the back of the three-pointer must be something of a double-edged sword. In 2004, the former guard declared that he preferred the three-pointer ‘before every player on every team was a three-point shooter,’ and that he believes it’s shot ‘way too often these days, and it’s hurting the game.’ Some have called for the arc to be pushed back, like Mavericks owner Mark Cuban who believes six more inches would dampen the shot.

But the three-pointer is impossible for NBA coaches to avoid in today’s game. As player skill improves over time thanks to advanced training techniques and greater physical demands - and it almost always does, across all sports - the three-pointer has become less of an unlikely bonus and more of a strategy. Three-point makes have soared from just 0.5 per team per game in the early 1980s to 8.5 per team per game in the 2015-16 season. One of the downsides to the explosion of data within sports is that, when it becomes empirically provable that more three-point attempts are valuable enough to focus on - providing the team has the personnel - any team that neglects them will suffer against enlightened competition.

The NFL is facing a similar enlightenment - that two-point conversions are almost always worth taking. That’s what the numbers say, anyway. Despite the one-point kick being seen the obvious choice, with two-point attempts saved for desperate times, elementary data analysis supports the two-point attempt. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ‘In 2016, NFL teams are converting the 33-yard extra point kick at a 94.8 percent rate, which yields .948 points per attempt. They are converting two-point conversions at a 54 percent rate which yields 1.08 points per attempt.’

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is particularly persuaded by these numbers, and has had his team chasing two-point conversions for better or for worse. He does so more than any other coach in the NFL and, as with all new strategies based on statistics, the response is very much rooted in whether or not it’s successful. Armchair pundits will lambast analytically minded coaches when results don’t go their way. But if, like Billy Beane’s Oakland As, the numbers bring success, scepticism around the use of analytics is quickly muted.

NFL coaches are generally conservative, but the argument for going for the extra point is persuasive. Coaches with a progressive mentality are pulling the sport forward while some others stick with what they know. In the Seahawks 31-24 win over the Patriots in November, Pete Carroll took the unprecedented decision of going for two with a seven-point lead. A clip of a bemused Bill Belichick clearly mouthing ‘why would they go for two?’ has been circulating the internet, a condensed summary of the attitude to perhaps counterintuitive tactics made popular by data.

Time will tell if the numbers supporting the two-pointer are clear enough to change attitudes. It’s still a risky strategy - though data supports two pointers in the long run, a team could feasibly botch all of their attempts in a single game. Belichick might be right to question what is still considered an unnecessarily risky strategy. When the numbers are tallied at the end of the season, though, Tomlin and co. might just be vindicated. 

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