The Rise of the Stretch Center

Written by: John McCool (@desertrose28)

 

The NBA game is undergoing a major overhaul on the offensive side of the ball. Many teams are shooting more threes and generating more shots around rim while playing at a faster pace. In an effort to improve their offensive versatility, centers are also shooting more from beyond the arc this season, in part redefining the modern center position.

photo 1.png

Figure 1: Average three point attempts (3PA) by centers between 2009-10 through 2016-17 (statistics through April 5th, 2017).
Source: NBA.com

Through April 5th, NBA centers were averaging 0.635 three-point attempts per game (3PA) compared to 0.371 in 2015-2016. Twenty-five centers are averaging at least one three point attempt per game compared to just eleven centers in 2015-16.
The rise of three point shooting big men is creating the “stretch center” position, a combination of a center and power forward. Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins, and Frank Kaminsky fit this mold through their ability to knock down threes and remain physical in the interior. The trio combined for an average 5.0 3PA per game during the regular season.

 
With the advent of small ball lineups, NBA teams are overall playing a faster tempo game and increasing the number of offensive possessions per game. At the same time, teams are averaging nearly three additional three-point attempts per game than last season. [1]
Some faster paced teams including the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics are encouraging their centers to move out of the paint and attempt more threes. In turn, these teams are able to stack the perimeter with four or five players that can shoot threes. This allows guards and small forwards extra space to attack the rim or kick out to an open three-point shooter.

 
The Nets, Celtics, and Memphis Grizzlies lead the NBA in three point attempts from their centers. For example, the Celtics’ Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk averaged 3.6 and 2.6 3PA respectively. Their ability to create shots in the paint and beyond the arc creates space in part allows Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart to more easily penetrate the defense. [2]

 
The cluster of mid-range jumpers in the 2000s has given way to a three-point spike over the last two seasons. Since 2009-2010, the Celtics (0.86 3PA), Suns (0.84 3PA), and the Timberwolves (0.761 3PA) generated the most three point attempts from the center position. During this period, Kevin Love and Channing Frye recorded the most three point attempts with 6.6 and 5.7 in the 2013-14 and 2010-11 seasons respectively.
Traditional centers such as Andre Drummond and David Lee are giving way to more dynamic centers such as Kaminsky and Cousins. In fact, only Drummond and Hassan Whiteside averaged more than 10 FGA and less than 0.5 3PA per game this season (down from nine players in 2015-16). On the flip side, eleven centers averaged more than 1.0 3PA and at least 10 FGA per game this season.

stretch 2

Figure 2: Centers attempting over 1.0 3PA and at least 10 FGA per game in 2016-2017
(statistics through April 5th)
Source: NBA.com

 

Small Ball, Three Point Shooters
Alongside the rise of three pointers, teams are also adopting small ball lineups to match the up-tempo pace and offensive first mentality in the NBA. In a 2015 article about the rise of small ball lineups, Zach Lowe, a basketball writer for ESPN, noted, “We’re not even five years removed from haggling over whether (Paul) Millsap was a small forward or power forward. Now, it’s almost obvious he should see at least some spot minutes at center.” Small lineups are susceptible to losing rebounds and giving away points around the rim. At the same time, however, Lowe notes, “If a big-ball team crashes the glass and comes up empty, the small-ball enemy will be racing down the court on a 5-on-3.”

 
One early adopter of the small ball lineup was Milwaukee Bucks’ coach Jason Kidd, who at times uses the combination Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker with the confidence that the “Greek Freak” can guard most centers.[1] Along these lines, during the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors replaced center Andrew Bogut with the more mobile Andre Igoudala to limit Timothy Mozgov’s effectiveness in the paint. Last season, teams like the Nuggets and Celtics also used small lineups to bolster their offenses.

 
The Nuggets adopted a small lineup playing Wilson Chandler, Daniel Gallinari, Gary Harris Nikola Jokic, and Emmanuel Mudiay. Jokic’s ability to hit threes (1.9 3PA) made him the ideal big man for going small on the court. With this lineup, the Nuggets sacrificed points in the paint on the defensive end but benefited from having versatile scorers. Every player but Mudiay in this lineup finished with a positive Offensive Box Plus-Minus score. [2]

 
The Celtics similarly utilized a small ball and three-point oriented lineup with Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Al Horford, Amir Johnson, and Isaiah Thomas. This lineup produced a 1.4 plus-minus on the season. Horford’s ability to knock down threes and occasionally drive to the rim made him into a swiss army knife type of player. He also averaged 2.6 touches in the paint per game and owned 4.7% of the Celtics assists.[3]
For now, the rise in three point attempts from centers is another indicator that style of play in the NBA is rapidly changing. The traditional post-up center is now expected to be more mobile outside of the paint and shoot from the outside. With the advent of small ball lineups, centers that aren’t able to adjust their game and run the floor will likely suffer reduced playing time and be less of an offensive factor. Paying attention to the center’s role next season will offer a glimpse of the future style of play in the NBA.

References:
http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/14209124/is-small-ball-dominance-golden-state-blip-trend
http://stats.nba.com/
http://www.basketball-reference.com/

________________________________________
[1] Teams are averaging 27 3PA in 2016-2017 and 24.1 3PA in 2015-2016
[2] Thomas averages 12.8 drives per game
[3] Antetokounmpo can play small forward, shooting guard, and point guard
[4] A box score estimate of the number of offensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team
[5] The Celtics and Nuggets finished with 33.4 and 28.8 3PA per game this season

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