By Max Weisberg
With the fairly recent infusion of data and quantitative analysis into the strategy involved in putting a basketball through a hoop in the most efficient manner possible, we’ve seen the stretch four grow increasingly common in basketball lineups throughout the upper levels of the game today.
For those unaware, the stretch four is typically a power forward who is an effective shooter from beyond the three-point line. The reasoning behind its increasing commonality? Pretty simple: the more players a defense has to cover beyond the three-point line, the more space there is for an offense to operate inside the three-point line. In addition, we’ve learned — through analytics and intuition — that having as many effective three-point shooters on the court as possible will only stand to increase an offense’s ability to be efficient.
Though we can analyze the effects of a stretch four on a team’s offense from a myriad of different quantitative perspectives, it’s important to understand how and why teams use stretch fours to stretch the defense out and create more efficient shots for their offense (uncontested, catch and shoot).
This clip below is a possession from a recent preseason game between the Detroit Pistons and the Brooklyn Nets. As written about in this space before, the Pistons replaced a non-stretch four (Greg Monroe) with a stretch four (Ersan Ilyasova, #23 in this clip) this summer. Below is a simple motion set that head coach Stan Van Gundy has implemented in order to maximize the effects that Ilyasova’s shooting ability can have on his team’s offense this season.
Before the set really gets into full swing, we can immediately see how just having Ilyasova on the floor can impact spacing and impact the defense’s positioning. As point guard Reggie Jackson brings the ball up the floor to initiate the offense, Nets’ power forward Thaddeus Young must already be aware of Ilyasova’s range:
To initiate the set, Jackson will move the ball to Ilaysova at the opposite wing. Next, Jackson will receive a back-screen from Andre Drummond at the weak side elbow. As Jackson comes off the screen, Nets’ guard Shane Larkin decides to “trail” as Jackson basket cuts. Once under the hoop, Jackson will now receive “staggered” down screens from both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (weak side block) and Ilyasova (weak side elbow).
Just as Jackson comes off of Ilyasova’s down screen, Thaddeus Young must make a decision: 1) drop back off of Ilyasova to contain Jackson and the possibility of a catch and drive to the hoop or 2) stick close to Ilyasova knowing that he’ll likely “pop” to the three-point line. If he chooses option 1, he leaves Ilyasova open on the perimeter for a three-point shot. If he chooses option 2, he allows Jackson a driving lane to the basket with the Nets’ best rim protector (Brook Lopez) away from the hoop (guarding Drummond).
Young chooses to drop back slightly in order to help Larkin and predictably, Ilyasova back peddles to the three-point line. Instead of driving to the hoop after Ilyasova’s screen, Jackson receives a pass from Drummond and proceeds to come off of a ball-screen set by Drummond. As Jackson comes off, both Lopez and Larkin are forced to contain the ball together. Drummond then rolls to the hoop forcing Young to help once again:
With Young having the responsibility of preventing a “naked roll” to the hoop from Drummond, Ilyasova is left unguarded. Note that Van Gundy meticulously places his two wing shooters (Marcus Morris and Caldwell-Pope) on the strong side in order to eliminate the possibility of another Nets’ defender being available to “stunt” to Ilyasova.
Like clock work, Jackson knows this and finds an open Ilyasova on the perimeter. After a hard “help and recover” closeout from Young, Ilyasova decides to drive it past Young and kick it to an open Jackson who has just alluded his man at the top of the key:
Due to the problems that Ilyasova creates for opposing defense’s (and some slight inattention from Larkin), Detroit manufactures a very efficient shot.
With the numbers and data suggesting that three-point shooting is paramount to a good offense, having a stretch four has become something that nearly every team at the upper levels of basketball should aim to acquire and utilize in their offensive strategy.