By: Sam Esfandiari
One of the more interesting comments Steve Kerr made at his opening press conference was the Warriors need for a stretch 4. The ‘stretch 4’ (a power forward who can shoot 3 pointers) has been a growing trend in the NBA. Don Nelson regularly used it. Mike D’Antoni’s team took it a step further and popularized the concept of having four 3-point threats (or a 4 out system) attacking out of the pick and roll with drive and kicks.
Watching the NBA finals, it’s hard to not take notice to fact the Miami Heat start most offensive sets with 4 or 5 players outside the 3-point line or that the San Antonio Spurs regularly rotate a 3 point threat at the PF position, including inserting Boris Diaw into the lineup.
That’s all well and good, but the Warriors don’t have Lebron James who likes to attack open paint areas, nor do they have Tim Duncan, one of the best post up players the NBA has seen in the past 25 years. So why should the Warriors care so much about adding an additional outside shooter at PF? The Splash brothers set an NBA record for 3 point makes by a duo. How much shooting do they need? Isn’t the problem that they can’t score consistently inside?
Well for starters, the Warriors best player, 2nd team all-nba performer, Stephen Curry, thrives in systems with stretch 4. Ever since his rookie season under Don Nelson, in the famed “4 d-leaguers and Stephen Curry” line-ups, Curry has been a borderline un-guardable threat in the 4-out system. His 35-point triple-double game (a feat only 3 other players have ever accomplished as a rookie) came in said system.
Curry, not being the biggest, the strongest or the fleetest of foot, has relied on his combination of ball skill, intelligence and ultra quick release to create the room he needs to operate. Space the floor with one less defender patrolling inside to help, he has more room to operate. More room to break down his man and get into the lane, more room to make the deft pass to a cutter or shooter, and more room to square up his shot and bring opposing coaches off their seat.
By the numbers last season, the Warriors went 4-out with Stephen Curry 1184 minutes. This was 37.7% of Curry’s total minutes played between the regular season and playoffs. The Warriors didn’t have a traditional stretch 4 on the roster but were able to utilize Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes in the role. These lineups included everything from Bogut or Lee as the lone big, to 195 minutes with Speights as the only big. There was even 121 minutes of lineups with Draymond Green at C.
The results? Stephen Curry averaged 26.4 points per 36 minutes with 63.7 true shooting %. Of high volume players, only Lebron James scored more efficiently (Kevin Durant’s TS% was 63.5). Curry averaged 7.7 assists per 36 minutes, and 4.4 rebounds. 26/7/4 with second highest scoring efficiency in the NBA? Yeah I’d say that’s grounded for utilizing Stretch 4’s more often.
This is a stark contrast to when Stephen Curry played with 2 big traditional men. In lineups with 2 traditional bigs, Curry averaged 21.5 points per 36 with a 59.0 TS%, 8.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds per 36. All-star level production, but not near his production is with Stretch 4s.
It’s not just Curry’s shooting which benefits from the 4 out, it’s his ability to penetrate the paint. When the Warriors went 4 out, Curry would get to the free throw line 5.3 times per 36 minutes, with two big men 4.0.
The 4-out also becomes a problem when teams hedge hard and trap him like the Clippers tried. The first three games, the Warriors started O’Neal and Lee, and Curry would find himself trapped by one of the Clippers big men with the other one lurking in the paint. When the Warriors moved Draymond Green into the starting lineup, the Clippers had a harder time after trapping Curry because there was no big man around the paint looking to help. It’s hardly surprising after the lineup change, Curry averaged 26.8 points on 62.5TS% in the last 4 games of the series, after only averaging 18 points on 55.1TS% and struggling to get shots off.
In addition for Curry’s increased production in 4 out-lineups, the other main Warriors players see a rise in production. Lee, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Green, Bogut all saw increases in scoring efficiency when it involved Stephen Curry at PG and one traditional big man.
When utilized as the lone big man, Bogut’s true shooting % jumped from 61.0 regularly to 77.8. Lee’s rose from 56.6 to 63.3. The added spacing with out additional paint defenders allowed them easy lay ups off the 1-5 pick and roll or cutting when defenders flash to the perimeter.
Andre Iguodala also saw an increase in his overall numbers (over 12 points, 5 assists and 6 rebounds per 36) and more resembled the player the Warriors expected to get on offense.
Draymond Green averaged 11.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists (on 57.1TS%) in 565 minutes next to Bogut or Lee as the lone big. And the list goes on.
All the 4-out lineup combo’s with any variation of players (Jordan Crawford, David Lee, Steve Blake, Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights) produced 117 points per 100 possessions. This would rank as the #1 offense in the NBA. The Warriors actual offensive rating? 107.5 and a pedestrian 12th.
So the real question becomes why wouldn’t you use it more?
Conventional wisdom is defense and rebounding would drop off. The problem with that logic is it wasn’t exactly true. Only two combinations of 4 perimeter players had the Warriors out rebounded; when Jermaine O’Neal was the only big man and when Draymond Green played Center and they went ultra small. (Worth noting, when the Warriors went with Draymond at center they still outscored oppositions 123.3 to 110 points per 100 possessions). Every other line-up combo, Bogut, Lee or Speights at C saw the Warriors out-rebound their opposition.
Defensively the Warriors saw little drop off. When that big man was O’Neal or Speights they did allow more points per possessions than their season average (though they never allowed more points than they scored). When the big man was Bogut, there was zero drop-off whatsoever, no matter who played next to him.
Perhaps most surprising in these 4 out lineups was when David Lee played C. Lee will never be known for his defense, but in the 199 minutes they utilized Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and David Lee, they scored a whopping 124.2 points while allowing 97.9 points per 100 possessions (both would rank first in offense and defense if stretched over an entire season). In general, any-time 2 of Iguodala, Green and Bogut were on the floor, the defense saw little to no drop off. Strong ball perimeter defense, help and strong hands allows the Warriors to use Lee at center in this lineup without too much defensive impact.
And if Iguodala and Bogut are both in the lineup, they could get away with literally anyone at PF and have a stout defense.
From the day Curry was drafted, the comparisons to Steve Nash came out. Stephen Curry is not Steve Nash. While being a good passer and an underrated overall floor general, Curry’s game simple isn’t to rack up 12-13 assists per game and only shoot it 12-14 times. They do however have similarities in their athleticism and their skill level, and like Nash who jumped to MVP levels when D’Antoni went to Phoenix and introduced a faster system with more floor-spacing, Curry can also jump up to being an even more impactful player in a system with a PF who shoots 3’s and provides him additional room to operate.
Stephen Curry can catapult himself to one of the leagues 3 or 4 most impactful offensive players on a night-in night-out basis in this system. Short of acquiring another superstar, the Warriors can continue progressing as a team into a potential Western Conference power by utilizing stretch 4 to go with their current core.
*All data taken from nbawowy.com and basketball-reference.com