The “stretch four.” Almost every good team has one. The bad teams usually have one too. Many teams have more than one. Many of the league’s best power forwards are great for the simple fact that they can function as the stretch four, while still owning the midrange and the paint on the offensive end.
So what exactly is the stretch four, and why is it so important? In simple terms, the stretch four is the 3-point shooting big man. The power forward who can easily step out to 3-point range and knock down open threes, while still being able to guard opponent bigs on the defensive end. In today’s NBA, they are the ultimate x-factor.
Why is this so important? In a word, spacing. In the age of “pace and space,” the stretch four is the key. They pull the opponents interior defenders away from the paint which opens driving lanes, lanes for cuts, or give isolation players room to operate. If the interior defender is not comfortable operating away from the basket, the stretch four makes them pay by knocking down wide open threes. Simultaneously, they are able to guard opponent big men inside, and also comfortably guard opposing big men who can play on the perimeter.
Some of the players you consider stretch fours are specialists. Think guys like Channing Frye and Ryan Anderson. Guys who’s specific purpose is to stretch the floor. Other guys are All-Star power forwards with range, who can dominate from virtually anywhere on the floor, but can also step out to create spacing and mismatches as needed. Think All-Stars like Dirk Nowitski, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Paul Millsap.
These guys are vital come playoff time. Let me repeat that in all-caps for emphasis. THESE GUYS ARE VITAL COME PLAYOFF TIME. They give offenses a crucial added dimension to create mismatches and force PREDICTABLE adjustments that can be game planned. In the regular season, facing a different opponent every night, and with just a day or two between games, this game planning is minor. In a 7 game playoff series, where every win is crucial and adjustments are everything, this added dimension can be the difference between winning and losing a series. When you’re a legitimate contender, the stretch four can be the difference between winning and losing a championship (see Exhibit A: Diaw, Boris).
The focus on adding this dimension in today’s NBA can be clearly seen just by looking at player development. Just look at two of the NBA’s newest stretch fours, the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka and the Warriors’ Draymond Green, and their offensive adjustments made from last season to this season:
- Serge Ibaka:
3-point shooting last season: 0.7 attempts per game.
3-point shooting this season: 3.7 attempts per game (5x more than last season!!).
- Draymond Green:
3-point shooting last season: 2.0 attempts per game.
3-point shooting this season: 4.3 attempts per game (more than twice as many attempts).
These changes in style have one specific goal: To create space and mismatches on the offensive end without compromising defensive principles. Ibaka and Green are by no means Dirk Nowitski and Chris Bosh, but their development allows Durant to be Durant, and the Splash Brothers to be the Splash Brothers.
This all finally brings us to the Wizards big problem aka the problem for the Wizards’ bigs. The Wizards do not have a stretch four. The Wizards do not have the personnel to guard stretch fours. The Wizards employ the following centers and power forwards: Nene, Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries, Kevin Seraphin, Drew Gooden, and Dejuan Blair. Only the first four guys play. None of the six are options to step out to the 3-point line on either end of the floor.
This lack of roster versatility can be seen already, and threatens to become magnified during the playoffs. Take a look at the shooting from some of the stretch fours the Wizards could potentially face in the playoffs.* Pay special attention to the All-Star caliber guys (more on them momentarily).
Patrick Patterson, PF, Toronto Raptors: Season 3-pt FG: 42%, vs. Wizards 3-pt FG: 57%
Nikola Mirotic, PF, Chicago Bulls: Season 3-pt FG: 36%, vs. Wizards 3-pt FG: 50%
Pero Antic, PF, Atlanta Hawks: Season 3-pt FG: 31%, vs. Wizards 3-pt FG: 57%
All-Star caliber players:
Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks: Season 3-pt FG: 37%, vs. Wizards 3-pt FG: 33%
Chris Bosh, PF, Miami Heat: Season 3-pt FG: 37%, vs. Wizards 3-pt FG: 57%
Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers: Season 3-pt FG: 33%, vs. Wizards 3-pt FG:
Look at those percentages! With the exception of Millsap, every player shows a marked improvement in 3-point marksmanship against the Wizards. This is not a coincidence. With the Wizards personnel uncomfortable guarding far from the basket, these opponents get significantly better looks at the basket when compared to their looks against other teams, and their percentage increases accordingly.
But worse? (I know…I’m starting to get depressed too…I’m sorry). Even worse for the Wizards is the prospect of facing these All-Star level guys in a series. Look at those shot charts! Those guys can score from all over. Go small, they’ll go inside. Go big, they’ll take you outside. When the playoffs come around, adjustments are inevitable, and the Wizards are going to have to try SOMETHING to guard those guys on the perimeter, and to stretch the floor offensively themselves. Their best bet? Paul Pierce. That’s the Truth.
Pierce is a strong, smart player who could play the power forward spot in spurts, and create some added diversity for the Wizards offense, just enough to swing a single playoff game, or even a single playoff quarter. Sometimes that’s all it takes. But the risks of such a proposition are glaring. Wouldn’t Bosh or Millsap or Love immediately take Pierce down in the low-post? Wouldn’t giving up offensive rebounds become a major concern? And can’t these guys all play pretty decent perimeter defense themselves anyway?! Yes, yes, and yes!
Even a team like Chicago, who the Wizards have infuriated recently by completely neutralizing their interior size advantage, has Nikola Mirotic as an option to diversify when the playoffs come around.
In the playoffs, matchups and adjustments are paramount. With the stretch four, creating positive matchups and making adjustments becomes that much easier. With a team like Atlanta, Millsap might move back and forth from the 3-point line to the paint, or Antic might play more minutes, or not play at all, based on how their opponents try to handle them. The Bulls might pair Gasol and Mirotic 4th quarter lineups for offense one night, and roll out Noah and Gibson for the entire fourth quarter the next. The Cavs might get 30 from Kevin Love on ten threes. Or, he might get 30 by making nothing by lay-ups and free throws. (Note: The Cavs might also get 30 from LeBron playing guard, or forward, or center, while guarding the opponent’s guards or forwards or centers. God I hate LeBron!)
What will the Wizards do? That is the big question, and potentially the big problem. Do they have the positional versatility, both individually and as a team, to make the adjustments necessary to make a long playoff run? Only time will tell.
So as you watch the Wizards for the rest of the season, don’t just watch what they do, but watch their opponents. Watch what gives them trouble, and watch how they respond. There’s still a long way until the playoffs begin, but the Wizards are going to be in. And in some round or another, the Wizards are going to face a stretch four dilemma. And the best way to prepare for a looming problem is to start early on finding a potential solution.
*Shot charts from vorped.com