Karl-Anthony Towns, Demarcus Cousins, and the Future of the Stretch Five

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Minnesota Timberwolves

First, a word: I wrote this in June of 2016 and it’s been sitting on the ‘pending publish’ screen of this WordPress page for a little over a year now. I don’t know why I decided to start this “blog”, or why I decided to not post this after researching, making graphs, and writing 1,000 words. I guess Jacob from June of 2016 decided that this post was worth writing but not publishing. But Jacob from October of 2017 feels like this should be published as a method of motivating me to write more. It should be noted that a lot of the stuff in here will seem dated (16 months is decades in NBA time) but it’s worth a publish anyway. Maybe it’ll make sense, maybe it won’t. Either way, don’t hold Jacob from December of 2018 accountable.

P.S: Welcome to StretchFive.com.

Power forwards who can shoot threes (known as Stretch Fours) are one of the hottest commodities in today’s NBA. Teams are realizing that having four 3-point shooters on the floor increases spacing and leads to a higher offensive output. Power forwards who can’t shoot, despite being useful in other areas, are an endangered species, and this trend begs the question; is the Stretch Five the next step in the NBA’s evolution?

While the 3-point shooting center is not a new development, lately more and more bigs have been testing their range trying to spread the floor. 11 centers took one or more threes per game in the 2015-16 regular season, a feat that was only accomplished by six players in the entire 2000s. The majority of these players were power forwards who played some minutes at center, (See: Rasheed Wallace), whereas some of the bigs who are taking 3s today are more typical centers, like Demarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol. Though none of them are great three point shooters (most hover between 32 and 37 percent) even just the threat of shooting can space the floor and lead open up the offense.

Many teams are reaping the benefits of shooting bigs. The Cavaliers’ best offensive lineup consists of Channing Frye at Center with Kevin Love at Power Forward; having two bigs who can shoot from deep opens up the lane for LeBron to drive. The Warriors slaughter teams with their patented ‘Death Lineup’ consisting of Draymond Green at Center and Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes at the forward positions, a lineup that scored a staggering 1.4 points per possession in the regular season (per NBAwowy).

Perhaps the most interesting element of the rise of Stretch Fives is the growing pool of young talent. Of the 11 centers (or power forwards who often play center) who shot more than one three pointer per game, four are rookies and six are under 24 years of age. Two of the most interesting young prospects in this pool are Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Though Porzingis is considered a Power Forward, at 7’3”, he has plenty of height and rim protection abilities to play the center position. Porzingis has the ability to stretch the floor at the center position, though New York’s glut of big men is stifling that development. 

Towns, who was voted unanimous Rookie of the Year, is already a star in the NBA, as his rim protection, coupled with his inside-outside game, makes him one of the league’s most dominant centers at only 20 years of age. Porzingis and Towns represent the spectrum of young stretch 5s. Porzingis takes 2.4 more three pointers per game, but Towns’s rim protection and offensive rebounding is far above Porzingis’s level (more on offensive rebounding later).

Porzingis also needs to improve on his 3 point shooting percentage in order to be effective in that area long-term; 33% is not bad for a rookie, but if that number doesn’t rise, it won’t be his most efficient form of offense. If Towns is willing to take more 3s per game (right now he’s only at 1.1), he could develop into a multi-faceted offensive weapon the likes of which the NBA has never seen. Towns already has a well-developed post game, and shot an encouraging 51% on long two pointers, indicating that his range can extend a few feet to beyond the arc.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 8.18.06 PM(shot contest % courtesy of Nylon Calculus)

Demarcus Cousins joined this group of Stretch Fives seemingly overnight. Cousins went from taking 0.1 threes per game to 3.4 per game in one offseason, and shot a surprisingly high 33% on those shots. Cousins’s points per game and effective field goal percentage both increased, and led to a more productive offense all-around.

Cousins’s added long-range jumper doesn’t only create better looks for himself, it helps create open looks for teammates, as shown in an assist from a November game against Dallas.

Dc assist try a million.gif

Cousins’s man, Zaza Pachulia, briefly gets switched onto Rajon Rondo, leaving Cousins unguarded at the top of the key. Wesley Matthews notices this, and has to come off his man, Rudy Gay, enabling Cousins to make an easy pass to the open man.

Had Cousins, who attempted eight three-pointers in that game, not been willing to take that open look, Matthews would’ve rightfully stuck on Gay. But while Cousins’s jumper has certainly elevated his offensive game, it has hurt him on the glass, decreasing his offensive rebounds and total rebounds per game.

This is the biggest down side to the use of Stretch Fives. 204 of Cousins’s 210 threes came above the break, and that’s 204 more shots where he is out of position to get an offensive rebound. Teams often shoot their highest percentage on putbacks following offensive rebounds, and while Cousins’s offensive rebounding percentage dropping from 10.8% to 7.7% may not seem like much, the Kings are losing efficient putback opportunities and are often giving up high percentage looks in transition as a result.

Aside from the fact that there aren’t that many 7 footers who can shoot from deep, the offensive rebounding problem that Cousins demonstrates is exactly why some teams have hesitations with using 3-point shooting centers. It’s always nice to have an extra shooter on the floor, but having a center shoot tons of threes takes him away from the paint, the place where he’s most effective and efficient. In addition, players like Meyers Leonard and Frank Kaminsky present possible problems on the defensive end, and teams often have to compensate by coupling them with a power forward who can protect the rim.

Centers who can play good interior defense and alter shots at the rim will always be of value in the NBA, even with limited range. Deandre Jordan took 7 shots outside the paint in the last 2 seasons and signed a max deal last summer. He’ll likely live up to that contract on defense alone, because when it comes to centers, rim protection is a more valuable asset than shooting.

While the future of the stretch five is still uncertain, one should expect more and more bigs to come into the league shooting threes. As long as these bigs can knock down their shots at a high enough clip to negate the loss on the offensive boards, these players will have a place in an effective offense.

 

 

Jacob Mooallem (@jacobmoosf) is a sophomore student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team.