How power forwards and centers shooting from the outside have become go-to options in the NBA
On June 25, 2009, as news of the shocking death of Michael Jackson flooded the airwaves and overtook coverage of the NBA Draft throughout the night, there were two major trades that went down in the hours leading up to the draft. One was Shaquille O’Neal being sent to Cleveland to try to win an NBA Championship with LeBron James in his last year under contract with the team. That move, as we all know now, was doomed to fail. There was also a trade between the mediocre New Jersey Nets and the Orlando Magic, who had just come off of an NBA Finals appearance after taking down the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. In that trade, the Magic acquired Vince Carter in exchange for Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, and Tony Battie, who had an expiring contract.
At the time, the talk of the town was all about Vinsanity coming to Orlando to try to bring in a title. There was much talk at the time that Carter’s arrival as a sidekick for Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis would be the move that pushed the Magic into championship glory. But along with Carter, the Nets threw an olive branch the Magic’s way and added in an intriguing second-year player to complete the trade. That player was a 6’10” power forward named Ryan Anderson. A born and bred California boy, Anderson was born in Sacramento where he watched Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic in their primes. He had a great high school career at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills and committed to play for Ben Braun at Cal-Berkeley. He made his name early on as a freshman by leading the team in scoring and rebounding and leading a stunning upset of the powerful UCLA Bruins in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament. His sophomore season improved on that when he led the Pac-10 in scoring, ahead of surefire NBA prospects Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, and Brook & Robin Lopez. His college years were forgotten by many, though, due to the fact that Cal did not make the NCAA Tournament in either season, which cost Braun his job after the 2007-08 season.
After two successful seasons and his coach gone from the Cal Bears program, Anderson declared for the NBA Draft in 2008. He was not as coveted in the loaded draft class like Love, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose were, but there were murmurs during workouts that Anderson was the best pure shooter most scouts had seen leading up to the draft. The Nets took that potential to heart and drafted him 21st overall. In his rookie year, the Nets were a forgettable team but Anderson started 30 games and showed what impressed GM’s at Cal and his workouts when he shot 36.5% from the three-point line. For the Magic, the main cog in the offseason trade turned out to be a false profit as Vince Carter flamed out in the Eastern Conference Finals when they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. By the early portion of the 2010-11 season, GM Otis Smith had already traded Carter and Lewis for Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson in another desperation move. But it turned out that Smith probably made his best move on that June day when Anderson came to Orlando.
Anderson’s first season with the Magic was about the same statistically as his rookie year, but he found a fan in head coach Stan Van Gundy. Before the 2010 season even started, Van Gundy convinced the Magic to pick up Anderson’s option for the next season. That year in 2011, after Carter and former starting power forward Lewis were shipped out of town, Anderson continued his steady improvement. The first guy off the bench in most games, Anderson posted career highs across the board and averaged more than 2 made three-pointers per game. Van Gundy was known in Orlando for running an unconventional style of offense that relied heavily on pick and roll with Howard down low and a bevy of three-point shooters settling behind the arc waiting for the shot. And there was no one more perfect to play that part in Van Gundy’s long-bomb-happy system than the nicknamed “Ryno,” as he started every game he played in his third season with the Magic. The lockout-shortened 2012 season was Anderson’s coming out party as he averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds, led the league in three’s made per game, and had a license to air it out, averaging nearly 7 three-point attempts per game. Come playoff time, Anderson was awarded the NBA’s Most Improved Player as the Magic fell in the first round to the Indiana Pacers and Van Gundy was fired.
Anderson used his option to explore free agency in the summer of 2012 and turned his skill as a standout shooter from the power forward position into quite the capital. He agreed to a sign-and-trade to the then-New Orleans Hornets for a four-year, $36-million contract. Under Monty Williams in New Orleans, Anderson’s ability to throw long daggers has been his most useful tool, as well. The only player last year who averaged more three-point attempts than Anderson did was Warriors guard Stephen Curry. This season, Anderson is only second to Curry in made three’s, and the only players 6’9” or taller in the top 20 outside of Anderson are the Pacers’ Paul George and the Timberwolves’ Kevin Love. In his sixth year in the league, thanks to his distinguished marksmanship, Ryan Anderson is on pace to having his first scoring average of more than 20 points with the Pelicans. It would be fanciful to think that Anderson’s steady success is an exception to the rules of NBA basketball, but in fact, he is simply the picture-perfect version of a strategy that has been consistently used in the NBA for many years.
Ryan Anderson is the prototype for what we call the “stretch four.” For many basketball historians, the stretch four is considered a derivative or alternative definition for terms like “cornerman” or “tweener.” Those two terms describe a basketball player who is capable of playing either the small forward or power forward position depending on the match ups offered by the opponents. Some small forwards like LeBron James and Kevin Durant are strong enough to bully smaller forwards on the block while some power forwards like Kevin Love and Kevin Garnett are dangerous shooters who can drag big men out of the paint where they are most comfortable. A great example of a career” tweener” is Detroit’s Josh Smith, a 6’9” defensive hybrid who can fly to the rim but has been criticized for living around the perimeter. Some more historical examples of cornermen would be Laker legends Elgin Baylor and James Worthy, players who started as small forwards many times but were multi-skilled enough to go to work inside when placed in the power forward position. Some of these players like LeBron, Lamar Odom, and Oscar Robertson were talented enough to stretch their skills to the point guard position and run the offense as “point forwards.”
In the case of a stretch four, the designated advantage of using a two-way forward goes one way, and that is on the offensive end of the court. Instead of the normally associated traits for power forwards such as post play, boxing out for rebounds, and defending the basket, players in the 4 spot will differentiate by aiming their shots from 20 feet or further from the basket. A lot of these players get themselves open with pick and pop, which is when they give a screen to the guard with the ball, then plant at the elbow or corner, wait for the pass when they’re open, and fire away. It is fitting that Anderson found his calling as a model stretch four with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, because it was on the same team that the NBA had one of its most successful stretch fours ever in Rashard Lewis. A second rounder straight out of high school in 1998, Lewis made his name as a player who was ready to either drain 3’s or attack off the shot fake, averaging more than 6 attempts per game his last season with the Sonics. He turned that talent into a max contract with the Magic, where he was enabled by Van Gundy to take more 3’s, and it was at Orlando that Lewis had his only All-Star Game appearance in 2009. Even in his twilight years in Miami, you will sometimes see Lewis leak to the outside off of collapsing defenses and prepare to take the long shot. Anderson may have been a more refined model for Van Gundy to unleash his three-point offense on teams, but Rashard Lewis was the predecessor.
Lewis broke ground for the Magic in 2008 when it came to stretch fours, but if you look deeply into the history of these types of players in basketball, it goes a pretty long way. You can track one of the original stretch fours all the way back to the early 1970’s in the now-defunct ABA with a long-forgotten player named Stew Johnson. A 6’8” forward from Murray State, Johnson never played a minute in the NBA and played on nine different teams in the ABA, but it was during his nine seasons shooting the red, white, and blue ball that his legend grew. He was a lengthy power forward, but he was one of the first big men who had the distinctive ability to shoot from long distances along the baseline. Even in the ABA when the three-point line was merely considered a gimmick, Stew Johnson turned it into his own personal playground, attempting nearly 900 three-pointers in his ABA career. By the time he played for the San Diego Conquistadors and Memphis Sounds in 1974 and ’75, Johnson was a three-time ABA All-Star and finished second in the league all-time in shot attempts. One of his former coaches John McMahon used to joke that Johnson was so prepared to catch and shoot that he would often have his hands curled up to his chest the way Reggie Miller often did and players would mistakenly think that he had arthritis. While the NBA refused to implement a three-point line until the 1980’s, it was Stew Johnson and his remarkable baseline jumper that was the aspiration for shooting big men.
Although he was more than just a tall shooter, Larry Bird’s reputation as a deadly marksman at the enviable height of 6’9″ became an inspiration for many players in the 80’s and 90’s to stop worrying about the paint and learn to love the long bomb. One of the best big man shooters in the NBA at that time was ironically one of Larry’s most hated rivals, Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons. Laimbeer has been lambasted by history as a despicable goon for the rough-and-tumble Bad Boys in the late 80’s, but the former Notre Dame center was also a fantastic outside shooter who was always ready to take a three-pointer when asked by head coach Chuck Daly. In Game 2 of the 1990 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, Laimbeer made a then-record six three-pointers in an overtime loss. One of the members of that Blazers team that won that game was, statistically speaking, the most successful stretch forward of the 1990’s in the 6’10” Cliff Robinson. Some may remember him as the guy standing next to Michael Jordan when this happened, but “Uncle Cliffy” was a solid defender who had taken outside shots since he was a rookie out of UConn. He turned that into an All-Star Game appearance in 1994 and a Sixth Man of the Year award in 1993. Until Dirk Nowitzki broke the record, Robinson once stood as the only player 6’10” or taller to make more than 1,000 three-pointers.
There were plenty of other lengthy forwards in the 80’s and 90’s who were routinely labeled by fans as white guys who couldn’t handle the pounding down low because so many stretch fours back then were, in fact, white players. There were All-Stars like Bird, Laimbeer, Jack Sikma, and Tom Chambers to go with lesser-known players like Brad Lohaus, Danny Ferry, Keith Van Horn, and Matt Bullard. Bullard is a fascinating example because he originally played at Colorado before transferring to Iowa in 1988, a year after the NCAA instituted the three-point line. After a history of knee surgeries, Bullard found solace with his shooting skills at 6’10” and was used often by Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Bullard was a key bench player to stray defenders away from double-teaming Hakeem Olajuwon. One of Bullard’s teammates in Houston during their 1994 title run that Rudy T. used often was Robert Horry, whose flair for making clutch shots from long-range is pretty well documented. Had it not been for Tomjanovich’s foresight with Horry’s outside shooting abilities in Houston, it is possible that neither the Rockets nor Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers would have won any NBA titles.
Horry and Bullard were floor-stretching teammates in Houston, but there were plenty of others to go around even in an era where the league was littered with beastly centers and rebound-devouring power forwards. What was once considered by many as a “slow white guy” role evolved into a fervent weapon for teams, a wild card that sneaks out of a team’s sleeve. One of the most surprising names when you look up the history of stretch fours is Terry Mills, who was known more at Michigan for his post play alongside Loy Vaught when they won a national championship in 1989. After two forgettable seasons with the Nuggets and Nets, he signed with his hometown Pistons where he played for a year alongside fellow big Laimbeer. The following season, head coach Doug Collins realized at practice that Mills had an unseen weapon in his three-point shooting. It was a short-term solution by Collins to free up space on pick-and-rolls to his superstar player Grant Hill, but it turned out to be a saving grace for Mills’ then-middling career. After only attempting 63 three-pointers in his first three seasons, Mills took 73 attempts in 1995 and a whopping 285 in 1996. By the late ‘90’s, this unlikely power forward became one of the most dangerous shooters in the league, earning the nickname “Three Mills” from the local media.
One big man who was not one to launch three-pointers but was very comfortable shooting right below the arc was Sam Perkins, who etched himself a great career with the Mavericks, Lakers, Sonics, and Pacers. It was in his last season as a player when he helped bring the Pacers to their only NBA Finals that he brought along another 6’10” forward with outside shooting skills in Austin Croshere. Who better to use two stretch forwards as a head coach than the modern inspiration for shooting forwards, Larry Bird? Bird even used a draft pick in 1998 (the same year Rashard Lewis was picked) to get a high-schooler who eventually became a stretch four of his own, the mercurial Al Harrington. Although he played on mostly average teams throughout his career, the wide-eyed Donyell Marshall was, like Cliff Robinson, a star at UConn who spent his entire NBA career making use of his quick release from deep. One night in 2005 as a Raptor, Marshall tied the record for most three-pointers in a single game against the Sixers with 12. In one playoff game as a Cavalier in 2007, he made six in a series-clinching game.
Leading up to the year 2000, only 12 different players 6’9” or taller averaged 3 or more three-point attempts per game. This past season alone, there were more than 15 different players who hit the same milestone. The number of forwards 6’9” or taller who took their liberties to roam outside of the paint and shoot from the outside grows more and more as the years have gone along, from Peja Stojakovic to Mehmet Okur to Tim Thomas to Walter McCarty to Brian Cardinal to Raef LaFrentz to Antawn Jamison to Pat Garrity to the late Rodney Rogers, and that was just the ‘00’s! Although he has become more known for doing the shimmy then losing his millions on bad investments, remember that the extremely talented power forward Antoine Walker led the league in three-pointers made for three consecutive seasons from 2001 to 2003. Lest we forget about the All-Stars and future Hall of Fame players who did not solely rely on their outside shooting but were more than capable to launch from the arc such as Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Toni Kukoc, Larry Johnson, and last but not least, Dirk Nowitzki. Even after he developed a masterful post game with that one-legged turnaround fadeaway, Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks were one of the only teams along with Tomjanovich’s Rockets to utilize stretch four play to an NBA title. As the Mavs used a lot of pick-and-roll action between J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler, Nowitzki would often get freed up to either take an open three or pin down his man and go to work in the post, mostly to winning success. By the time he reached the peak of his career, Dirk had outgrown his presumed role as strictly a stretch four, but he was able to tap into that specific talent perfectly en route to the promise land in Dallas.
Just as that 2011 Mavericks team relied heavily on three-point shooting and offensive flurries to win many of their games that postseason, the growing popularity of small ball has been one of the main reasons why stretch fours have become so en vogue in the NBA today. Now that it has become customary for NBA teams to abandon post play and twin tower lineups in favor of quick-hit offenses that rely on high ball-screens and dribble penetration, it has become more and more acceptable for teams to sacrifice the presence of their power forwards for the sake of spacing out the floor and forcing open lanes. In the previous three decades, the stretch four was not as unconventional as small ball was perceived back then, but a shooting big man was purely a weapon of choice. Now, thanks to the continued focus on outside shooting and smaller lineups in the league, stretch fours are no longer a weapon of choice, but seemingly a weapon of necessity.
It has been dissected by many that the truest weakness of playing small ball is the fact that keeping a smaller lineup on the court can leave your team prone to bad, uneven defense if the other team throws bigger guys at you. But in the case of stretch fours today, the teams are getting smarter and the players are, too. Kevin Love lives on the perimeter in many of his games (like he did in this dazzling performance against the San Antonio Spurs in December), but what makes Love even more maddening is the fact that he is a beast on the boards, easily out-rebounding whatever center is in front of him. Many coaches make sure to free up their stretch fours by complementing them with burly centers or garbage men who keep the turbulence in the paint while the forward quickly hops out of the fray. The Pelicans did this for Ryan Anderson last season by hiring Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis to clean up inside. Ersan Ilyasova of the Bucks gets in his free shots while Larry Sanders, John Henson, and Zaza Pachulia patrol the paint. Paul George, like LeBron and Durant, is an overgrown small forward at 6’9”, but thanks to the traditional inside prowess of David West at the elbow and Roy Hibbert in the post, it frees up George to become one of the best three-point shooters in the league while constantly picking on mismatches. Some teams have even taken it another step to use “stretch fives,” centers at 6’10” or taller whose greatest strength is outside shooting, such as Channing Frye for the Phoenix Suns and Andrea Bargnani for the New York Knicks.
The results for many of these teams with their stretch fours, stretch fives, and cornermen all vary depending on what offense the coach decides to implement and how involved they actually are in the primary functions of that offense. Ryan Anderson is undoubtedly one of the best three-point shooters in the entire NBA, but under Monty Williams, the Pelicans are at the bottom of the league in three-point attempts, leaving Anderson as the team’s sole outside option at times. The 6’10” Matt Bonner of the Spurs remains one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the league, but over the past three seasons, his production under Gregg Popovich has slowly waned because he is a defensive liability and he was rarely used in the playoffs last year. Chris Bosh is mocked on a daily basis by fans for being a distant third banana behind LeBron and Dwyane Wade for the Miami Heat, but the truth is that Bosh’s unique role as a power forward who prefers to stretch the floor with 15 to 20 foot jump shots is pivotal to the small ball style of play that Erik Spoelstra has recently fallen in love with. It is no surprise that last season, under what Spoelstra infamously called a “positionless offense,” Bosh doubled his total number of three-point attempts from the previous year and is on pace to breaking that mark this season. If Channing Frye had never wound up with the Suns and played with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire in the Seven Seconds or Less offense, there is no way that Frye would have mastered his talent for shooting 3’s at Phoenix, where he currently averages 364 attempts per season.
The still-unfilled void of traditional NBA centers in the post, the emphasis on smaller lineups that can create space and provide mismatches, and the dedication by today’s players to develop multiple levels of skills have all been determining factors in these new takes on older tricks. The stretch four has stayed alive in the NBA for many seasons to various amounts of success, but thanks to the development of players like Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love, and Channing Frye, the stretch four is currently alive and kicking. For those who want to contest that using such players are automatic death knells to winning NBA titles, the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and Miami Heat have the hardware to prove that this is not exactly the case. The more the number of three-point attempts and outside shots in the league overall continue to rise, so will the usage of power forwards whose primary skill (or, in some cases, only skill) is to catch and fire from long-range.
Where the evolution of the stretch four goes from here as certain trends rise and fall is still yet to be determined. But with so many talented small forwards and finesse power forwards entering the league and improving at a frightening rate, it seems like the luxury of expanding a team’s outside shooting beyond the limits of guard play will be too enticing for people to merely abandon. Remember that when you stare at the top three-point shooters in NBA this year, and right at the top of the list is a 6’10” California kid. Who knows? Maybe in five years, we’ll have five Ryan Anderson’s on that list. The only people who would complain about that are opposing coaches watching game tape as they try to track down that roaming big man on sleepless nights.