Anatomy of a stretch four

The NBA’s favorite power forward is the stretch four. We are in a league that ultimately favors perimeter players, although there are a few exceptions. In basketball’s history, the most complex offenses have still been about getting easy buckets and layups, and the best complement to an efficient inside offense is deadly perimeter shooting.

In a basketball play, no one is necessarily a certain position – no one is a ‘center’ or a ‘shooting guard’, for example. But people play the roles of a screener, someone can play the role of a shooter, a cutter, the ball handler — and these roles can certainly change as a possession unfolds. This brings up something interesting with basketball stats, and maybe why we have struggled to have any breakthrough with basketball analytics.

The average NBA team has 98 possessions a game. While we remember all the amazing plays by star players, even the most prolific offensive threats account for less than half those possessions (I’m estimating based on field goal attempts, free throw attempts, assists, and passes to missed shots). And the rest of the possessions depend on fundamental basketball concepts like ball movement, exploiting mismatches, making the right screens and cuts. Anyone can score points or collect rebound in garbage minutes. It may make more sense to try and quantify boring basketball things instead.

But the shooter role is pretty defined in any given play. His role is to spread the floor and be an offensive option that defenses always have to look out for. Think about Steve Novak – if you put a man on him he’s a harmless NBA player. Leave him open, and is the most efficient offensive players ever.

Since perimeter players are usually the best ball handlers/facilitators, and centers are usually the screeners, by allocation, it makes sense for the stretch four to exist. The stretch four also serves another useful function, which is the chance of pulling the opposing team’s big man out the paint.

Another thing to consider is that no defense is perfectly balanced. Zone defenses are effective in protecting the basket, but zones are defeated by smart ball movement and perimeter shooting. The shots that most teams are most willing to give up is a long jump shot – the long two in particular. We saw one of the big differences in the Warriors’ resurgence was them going under on the pick and roll more, gambling on the long jump shot not going in and setting themselves up better for the defensive rebound. If there is a shot that the defense is willing to give you, then the best thing to do is the capitalize on it.

This breakdown will borrow from whatever tools I have available to me – Basketball-Reference’s shot finder has a lot of great options and splits that I can play with. I have been utilizing the NBA’s video box scores a lot too, as well as looking at their shot charts.

One common misconception on the stretch four is that it is a modern thing, and a result of the league ‘softening up’ or the extinction of the powerful big man that scores in the paint. This isn’t really true because guys like Barkley and Malone were considered their best when they added a consistent jump shot to their offensive repertoire.

What has been different though, is pulling the stretch four out to the 3-point line. In fact the whole NBA has changed the way they look at the 3-point line. They say that NBA players are truly great if they force a rule change, or change the landscape of the game. The Warriors backcourt have completely revolutionized 3-point shooting since they’ve shown that a a high usage, high efficiency 3-point attack is possible at an NBA level. The only knock against a power forward that shoots 3s is that there are so few of them that they tend to be rather one dimensional, although this is starting to change. Here are a few stats and visuals on how each of these players are used.

Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson Shotchart 2012-13

Ryan Anderson Shotchart 2012-13

Ryan Anderson Shotchart 2013-14

Ryan Anderson Shotchart 2013-14

My take on Ryan –  He is incredibly high usage and shoots as many threes as Curry and Klay. Anderson was assisted on 95.8% of his threes. Anderson gets a lot of these threes through starting along the baseline, then moving off the ball well, utilizing screens, and losing his big man defender who doesn’t guard the three often. He’s a black hole in the sense that he won’t hesitate to shoot, and on almost all his shot attempts, his field goal attempt was also his first touch of the possession. He shoots very few two point jump shots, which is completely reasonable given his shooting ability.

We also see that Anderson doesn’t shoot from the corner nearly as much. Ryan only gets that many makes and attempts a game because he works his butt off to get those looks, and not from camping in the corner like Battier.

Note the symmetry in Anderson’s shot distribution (count the attempts) compared to Kevin Love, whose shot chart is below. Love has more offensive dictatorship than Anderson and makes more of his own shots without the assist of a teammate. Love was assisted on 92.4% of his three point jump shots in the 2011-12 season, compared to only 52.9% on two point jump shots.

Kevin Love

Kevin Love Shotchart 2011-12

Kevin Love Shotchart 2011-12

Kevin Love Shotchart 2013-14

Kevin Love Shotchart 2013-14

It’s interesting to dissect what’s going on. When Love isn’t shooting jump shots, he plays with his back to the basket on the left block, either in the high post or low post. He loves to take the step back 3 because very few power forwards can close out on him effectively, so the left 3-pointer is the closest shot for him to take.

The next part is that Rubio favors the right side when he is handling the ball. As a top 5 passer/court vision guy in the league, he is one of those few guys who can recognize and make those efficient cross court passes leading to baskets (think LeBron + Ray Allen). So when Rubio is dribbling down the right side of the court and Kevin Love is trailing down the left, Rubio will hit Love cross court, and defenses don’t have time to recover because the other team’s power forward is supposed to be helping out near the paint.

Granted Bargnani is a terrible defender, this is still a shot that the Wolves look for against a lot of teams. It is an efficient look with a high reward, that is early in the shot clock. If the Love three is not there, you have one of the best passing big men in the league at a spot where he can see the floor and has plenty of options. Adelman is no stranger to big men passing from the high post, and Love has pulled out the high post to the three-point line because of his shooting ability. Pekovic is an entry pass away from a bucket down low, and Kevin Martin is an incredibly versatile scorer.

Sometimes change is a good thing, and we shouldn’t be resist change due to traditional basketball wisdom. The big man is moving away from the basket, and many teams have been successful with it. The Spurs have been able to keep playing at a high level by pulling Duncan further out from the basket. LeBron will be the first to claim that Chris Bosh is a focal point of the Heat offense. Part of the Blazers success has been due to Aldridge shooting more two point jumpers (41.5% of shots compared to 38.4% last year) and converting at a much higher rate (45.4% from the field this year compared to 41.9% last year). This year’s top power forward prospect Julius Randle has 3-point range, and we will definitely see more of it at the next level. Don’t be surprised to see Anthony Davis become a viable three-point threat in the next few seasons either.

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