Are NBA Centers Better When Playing With a Stretch Four?

Stretch fours make offenses as a whole more efficient, but how do they directly affect their fellow big men?

LeBron James and the Miami Heat revolutionized basketball with how they utilized small-ball lineups en route to four straight NBA Finals appearances. Chris Bosh went from a post player with a nice mid-range game to one of the best stretch fours in the league, culminating in last season’s 218 taken three-pointers.

Other bigs have followed suite, adding a three-point shot to their arsenal, and offenses have exploded as a result. Of the 12 best offensive lineups last year (with a 300 minute minimum), 8 of them had a stretch four – Kevin Love, Terrence Jones (twice), Channing Frye, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Marvin Williams, and Josh McRoberts. Two more of those have guys who are developing into that mold – LaMarcus Aldridge and Kenneth Faried, if you take anything from his USA play and reports.

Having these bigs that can hang out beyond the three-point line and still be a threat is immensely beneficial to the rest of the players on the court. It’s easier for a point guard to penetrate when there are only two players in the lane as opposed to four. It also discourages help defense – you can’t cheat down on Anthony Davis in the post when a lethal Ryan Anderson is lurking on the perimeter ready to launch a three.

Because of the spacing, we know that stretch fours make life easier for the guards. They have so much more room to operate and also have an extra player they can kick out to after penetration. But how do stretch fours affect their fellow big man? Does playing on the perimeter make a center more or less efficient? Is it more pressure being the only player down on the block to rebound?

Thanks to, we can look at a player’s efficiency and production when another player is either on or off the court. Here are the results for how some of the more well-known stretch fours affect the offense of their respective centers.

PPP = point per possession
PPS = point per shot
USG = percentage of team plays used by a player while on the floor

Al Jefferson without Josh McRoberts1.091.0549.7%31.2%
Al Jefferson with Josh McRoberts1.131.0751.4%28.2%
Nikola Pekovic without Kevin Love1.091.1051.1%25.3%
Nikola Pekovic with Kevin Love1.191.1854.7%23.5%
Anthony Davis without Ryan Anderson1.171.1450.6%26.3%
Anthony Davis with Ryan Anderson1.241.2861.7%23.7%
Samuel Dalembert without Dirk Nowitzki1.031.1553.6%14.8%
Samuel Dalembert with Dirk Nowitzki1.101.2056.9%15.6%
Brandan Wright without Dirk Nowitzki1.311.3664.5%21.0%
Brandan Wright with Dirk Nowitzki1.421.4371.2%16.5%

The centers listed above were not terrible on their own, but the data shows that they become elite from an efficiency perspective when paired with a stretch four. Just look at Anthony Davis with Ryan Anderson, since I discussed it above. Davis is a great player regardless of his teammates, but when you put Anderson with him, he suddenly becomes one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league.

The term "stretch four" implies position, but as we move more and more to a position-less NBA, perhaps "stretch big" might be more appropriate. There aren't many players who we would deem a center that have the stretch capability, but the same offensive increase happens in the few cases. Take a look at how Tristan Thompson performed with and without Spencer Hawes, once Hawes was traded from Philadelphia to Cleveland last year.

Tristan Thompson without Spencer Hawes1.021.0346.8%19.2%
Tristan Thompson with Spencer Hawes1.141.1250.9%15.9%

The effect is very real - big men are much more efficient when they are paired with a stretch big. And this is why every potential stretch big is being morphed into one. Kenneth Faried took 12 three-pointers total in his four years at Morehead State in college, but now is apparently on track to becoming a stretch four.

Rookie Julius Randle in Los Angeles was originally at the top of the draft boards coming out of college, mostly because of his ability to both play in the post and also step out and hit the three. When that didn't translate at Kentucky, he dropped to the seventh pick in the draft. If he had used that part of his game in college, he probably would've been in the top three.

The NBA is always trending. Advanced stats tell us that having two post players - unless they're elite and paired with elite guards (like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul) - isn't really the ideal way to build an efficient offense. We will continue to see big men learn to play like guards and guards play like big men.

That means players are becoming more identifiable by their skill set than their "position." And that's not a bad thing. When you know that Kevin Love is going to stretch a defense out to the perimeter with his shooting, that's a tangible offensive weapon you can build around. You can then fit all the pieces together. Find a guy who can run the pick and roll. Find a rim protector. Find another shooter.

Skill sets - not positions - are important. And if we're ranking the importance of skill sets, a long-range shooting big man is at the top of the list.