Perhaps the most versatile position in modern basketball is the Stretch Four. Many teams have Power Forwards that can get down and dirty, as size and strength are primary qualities of the standard PF, but few have big men that can significantly impact a game outside the paint. The Power Forward with superior mid/long range shooting is instrumental in spreading the defense. This can either create an open shot for the PF or an open driving lane for his teammates. Here are some of the most notable Stretch Fours in the NBA to demonstrate by example.
Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge: LMA’s game is simultaneously beneficial and detrimental to the Blazers’ offense. He is not especially powerful down low as he prefers to go to work outside the key. This is where we see his mid-range post up come in handy. If you’ve watched LaMarcus play, you’ve probably seen him back down his opponents little by little and finish about 10 ft out with a turnaround jumper. This is a staple of Aldridge’s game, but here’s the part where his mid-range jumper really comes in handy; the pick and pop. It’s a standard play that Portland runs time and time again, with great success. LaMarcus moves up to the top of the key to set a screen for Lillard, who then drives and kicks it back to LaMarcus. Portland now has an open shot from an undefended shooter because the defense squeezed the lane to stop the drive. For most teams, this shot is ill-advised, or even plain not available, because they have no Stretch Four. What LaMarcus lacks in aggression, he more than makes up for with accuracy. If the defense shifts to Aldridge, Lillard simply keeps the ball and drives with a high likelihood of being fouled in the poorly defended paint. If the defense collapses, they better be prepared for a sting from the LaMarcus. Although I want to see more power in the paint from LMA, I can’t argue with what he brings outside of it.
Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk is probably the best Stretch Four in the game right now. He has the inside game LaMarcus lacks, and the outside game envied by his peers. It’s equally rare as it is advantageous to be a 7’0 tall jump shooter. The defense MUST guard Dirk; no exceptions. He is a threat from anywhere on the floor. But I haven’t put him on the short list because he’s the best, I put him here because the 2011 Mavericks are a perfect example of using the Stretch Four in the pick and roll offense. It starts the same way as Portland’s pick and pop; a big comes up to set a pick for the Point Guard. But it is not Dirk. Center, Tyson Chandler, sets the screen. If Tyson rolls to the basket, the defense must shift. If JJ Barea gets free to drive, the defense must shift. This play is designed to draw defenders off of Dirk Nowitzki. In either scenario, Dirk is waiting at the 3 point line to punish the opposing team. All Barea/Chandler have to do is wait for the defense to shift, then swing the ball. If it doesn’t happen, then they keep it and get the bucket. The defense is “stretched” in a way that is designed to expose weak spots. This is how a Power Forward with range benefits his team; by spacing the defense. Of course, Dirk is no stranger to setting the pick either, in which case he is just as deadly as from up top.
New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson: Anderson surprised me this year. In Orlando, he was able to benefit from the Dwight Howard pick and roll the same way Dirk benefitted from Tyson Chandler. When Howard comes barreling through the paint, no one’s thinking about the three year man sitting in the corner. But that is a luxury not afforded to Anderson in New Orleans. I guess that’s why I find him so interesting. Pouring through footage, it seems the Hornets rarely run plays designed to free him up; they just pass him the ball and watch. The amazing thing is that he doesn’t need to be open to drain a 3. How many Power Forwards boast that gift? Ryan is leading the league in treys for the 2nd straight year, and this time he’s creating most of his shots on his own. In fact, a good deal of them seem well contested. Anderson may be the best outside shooting PF in the league right now. That’s what you want in a Stretch Four; someone that pulls the defense all the way out. It opens up the court for everyone else. Anderson is intriguing because the court does not open to him, he just opens it for others, but he can still knock one down with a hand in his face.
More and more teams are implementing some variety of the stretch. The Raptors have Andrea Bargnani, the Heat have Chris Bosh, the Wolves have Kevin Love, the Knicks have Carmelo Anthony, even Serge Ibaka of the Thunder is expanding his game. The position provides a serious advantage for a team’s offense. Watch the way players like these create opportunities for their teammates and themselves. They are becoming a ‘must have’ commodity for successful NBA teams.