From The THN Season Preview: The Stretch Four

October 26th, 2009 by John Krolik

Moonlighting-3[1]

(Editor’s Note: The Following Is My Piece For the “League-Wide” Section of the TrueHoop 2009-10 Season Preview, so it is not Cavs-centric. I still think it’s worth reading and you guys are still my favorites, so here it is in all of its glory. Again, any slip-ups in formatting are from the transfer of the piece from the PDF-based and great-looking book to my very plain HTML blog. Also, the picture is not something included in the book at all-it is a web-exclusive feature. Hooray, or something. So anyways, enjoy.)

Ask most NBA historians for a list of the best NBA power forwards of all time,
and you’ll probably get one that looks something like this, in no particular order: Bob Pettit, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Elvin Hayes, Kevin Garnett, Kevin McHale,Charles Barkley. Leaving out Barkley, all the names on that list have made a combined 317 3-pointers over the duration of their NBA careers.

Rashard Lewis, the starting power forward on the Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic, made 220 3-pointers in the 2008-09 regular season alone, which led the entire league. With his lanky frame, quick-trigger slingshot release, and lack of post moves, Lewis’ game bears more resemblance to Michael Redd’s than it does to Kevin McHale’s. For much of his career, he had been considered a small forward, and not a particularly bruising one at that. And yet by the end of the season, the notion of anyone else playing power forward for the Magic seemed completely absurd.

Lewis’ opponent at power forward in the NBA finals, Lamar Odom, was equally removed from the classic power forward archetype. A superb ball handler with a Gumby-like build and an affinity for leading fast breaks after getting a defensive rebound, Odom does most of his work off the dribble from the perimeter and prefers making a serpentine drive or a graceful assist to backing his man down or owning the paint with physical play.

As odd as it may seem that Odom and Lewis were the starting power forwards
on the league’s conference champions, their success is indicative of a wider trend throughout the league. The increasing amount of big men with “little-man” skills, the increased athleticism of perimeter players, and most of all the advent of the hand-check rules, have transformed the game. As more offenses rely on drive-and-kick and pick-and-roll schemes, it’s more advantageous for power forwards to stretch the floor, thereby freeing up valuable real estate around the basket for the guards.

And the revelation of the stretch four hasn’t affected just the 4s themselves. As power forwards have become more perimeter-oriented, more and more starting centers are short-range specialists. To gauge which teams have embraced the increased separation in the roles of the power forward and the center, I used data from 82games.com to examine shooting numbers from the players who got the largest amounts of minutes at the two positions last season. I then added together the percentage of shots the center took from the “inside” (dunks, layups, close post shots, and tip-ins) and the percentage of shots the power forward took that 82games defined as “jump shots.” Those percentages added together, with the maximum possible being 200, became a number I call “stretch factor.” By looking at this simple number, we can get a sense of how dif-
ferent teams get production out of their front courts.

Please note: This metric does not separate 3s from mid-range jump shots, which is an important caveat — Rashard Lewis shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc would be the equivalent of an Antonio McDyess-type player shooting 60 percent from midrange.

“Stretch Factor”= ( percent of center’s shots taken from “inside”+ percent of
power forwards shot’s taken as jumpers.)

Stretch Factor Graph

GROUP 1: THE EXTREME STRETCH TEAMS (174-150)

Dallas led all teams in the NBA in “Stretch Factor” last season with a mark of 174. It should probably come as no surprise that the team that has embraced the stretch four as much as anybody employs Dirk Nowitzki as their franchise player. Dirk was the league’s “stretchiest” starting 4 last season, with 85 percent of his shots being jumpers. Dirk revolutionized the position in a lot of ways, but searches for “the next Dirk” have often been spectacular failures because his game is based as much on intelligence, toughness and all-around skill from the high post and above as it is on his height and a feathery shooting touch. At center, Eric Dampier is more than content to be the league’s best-paid garbage man, with a blue-collar game based around dunks, tips and offensive rebounds even though he gets paid like a superstar.

Orlando comes in second with a mark of 164, which is again no surprise, considering that Lewis is the league’s most potent frontcourt 3-point threat and Howard is its most dominant player in the immediate basket area.

New Orleans comes in third at 162, which is no surprise given that 90 percent of their offense comes out of Chris Paul pick-and-rolls; either the pass ended up going to Tyson Chandler at or above the rim or to David West for a kick-out 18-footer.

Portland comes in fourth, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge’s affinity for his high- release jumper, either in catch-and-shoot situations or as a turnaround from the mid-post. Also notable is the play of Joel Pryzbilla, who took a stunning 93 percent of his shots in the immediate basket area and finished third in the league in True Shooting percentage. While everyone in Portland is waiting for Greg Oden, Pryzbilla’s determination to work down low gave the Blazers extremely solid play at center.

Rounding out the top 5 is Milwakee, with Andrew Bogut determined to stay down low and the departed Charlie Villanueva content to hover on the perimeter.

GROUP 2: A GOOD DEAL OF ELASTICITY (STRETCH FACTOR OF 149-136)

Golden State had a mark of 149, with Andris Biedrins, perhaps the league’s worst shooter, staying as close to the basket as he possibly could and de facto power forward Corey Maggette doing his work off the bounce. Chicago also had a mark of 149; Joakim Noah is a bad shooter and knows it, taking a league-high 94 percent of his shots from the immediate basket area. Tyrus Thomas isn’t as aware of his limitations as a shooter, and 55 percent of his shots were jumpers despite the fact his effective field goal percentage on those shots was only 35 percent.

Boston came in with a mark of 143; Kendrick Perkins is an exquisite garbage man, and Kevin Garnett has slowly evolved from the low-to-mid post dynamo he once was to a player much more comfortable catching and shoot- ing from the 18-foot range. Indiana can thank Troy Murphy’s fine if extremely awkward 3-point shooting touch for its mark of 141.

New Jersey had a mark of 136, with promising young center Brook Lopez working inside and less promising young power forward Yi floating on the perimeter. Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks had a mark of 136, with David Lee dunking and tipping and Al Harrington doing whatever he felt like, which generally meant shooting 3s.

GROUP 3: A BIT OF BEND TO THEM (STRETCH FACTOR OF 129-112)

Oklahoma starts this group off with Jeff Green’s jumpers, giving them a mark of 129. Phoenix comes in next at 127, thanks to Shaq being Shaq down low and Amare Stoudemire’s vastly improved stroke from mid-range. San Antonio also had a mark of 127; tellingly, the Greatest Power Forward Of All Time™ has been playing for center for them the past few seasons, while 3-point specialist Matt Bonner started at the 4 last season. Larry Brown’s embracing of Boris Diaw at power forward gave Charlotte a mark of 122, while Nene’s doggedness inside offset the fundamental unstretchiness of K-Mart to give Denver a factor of 119.

Thaddeus Young’s growth into a perimeter player of sorts gave Philadelphia a 114, and Darrell Arthur and Marc Gasol put Memphis at 112.

GROUP 4: NOT SO STRETCHY AT ALL (STRETCH FACTOR OF 109-94)

The Clippers’ behemoth pair of Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby got them a mark of 109, with both veterans loving to shoot from midrange despite not being all that good at it. The Wizards’ low mark of 109 was mainly because Andray Blatche doesn’t really like playing inside. Houston was able to make twin towers work with a mark of 107, while the Lakers have a surprisingly low number of 105 due to Odom’s refusal to take bad shots on the perimeter.

Miami is at 102 because none of their carousel of centers really wanted to play down low, and Toronto also lacked anyone willing to mix it up inside, earning them a mark of 98. With Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson floating from inside to outside, Sacramento scored a paltry 94.

GROUP 5: NOT ONE BIT OF BEND Al Horford playing as a somewhat undersized center and Josh Smith completely defying the notion of position got Atlanta a 91. Kevin Love being a true bruiser at power forward put Minnesota at 88. In Detroit, starting center Rasheed Wallace took a stunning 89 percent of his shots from outside, which is a higher percentage than Anthony Morrow and killed Detroit’s number, giving them a mark of 86.

GROUP 6: MORE BEND THAN YOU’D THINK

Cleveland and Utah had the lowest “stretch factors” in the league at 76 and 66, respectively, but there’s a valid explanation. On both teams, the power forwards and centers on defense switch roles on offense. In Utah, Paul Milsap bangs in the paint while Okur prefers long jumpers, and in Cleveland, Anderson Varejao dives to the rim while Ilgauskas, a former point guard before a massive growth spurt, has an offensive game built around catch-and-shoot jumpers. When you treat the center as the power forward and vice versa for both teams — which I did in the final scatterplot — Utah actually goes to 13th in stretch factor and Cleveland goes to 17th.

Overall, when I put the scatterplot of “Stretch Factor” against each team’s offensive efficiency for last year, there’s a clearly positive correlation between role specialization in the frontcourt and efficient scoring. It certainly isn’t an end-all-be-all, and in fact the league’s best and next-to-worst offenses both had middle-of-the-pack “Strech Factors,” but that kind of upward trend is promising. So while Odom and Lewis may have looked strange starting at power forward in last year’s finals, they won’t look out of place for long.