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The Stretch Four is Dead - Long Live the Switch Four


By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The NBA Finals are a Funeral for the No-D Stretch Four

Whoever ends up winning in Sunday's Game 7 of the NBA Finals, there's one lesson to be taken from these Finals. Slow-footed, three-point shooting big men who are minuses on defense, like the Cavaliers' Kevin Love and Channing Frye, might be exciting floor-spacing options who can help run up the score against bad teams in the regular season. But against good teams like Golden State, they become a non-factor (at best) because they can't add enough on offense to make up for their defense. It's ironic, but the Warriors, a team most famous for embracing the power of the three point shot in stretching the floor, might be responsible for killing off the concept of the traditional slow-footed, floor-spacing stretch four.

Consider the way the Warriors have built their team -- there's not a slow-footed big stretch four in sight. The closest thing they have to one is Marreese Speights (who never met a shot he didn't like) and he's basically exclusively used at center by the Warriors and has been buried on the bench in the playoffs in favor of more traditional defense/rebounding big men like Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, and Anderson Varejao (if the Warriors even play a big man at all).

Meanwhile, consider the opposition. The Cavaliers stocked up on guys to use as stretch fours, because they thought that would be the answer to the Warriors. But Channing Frye has turned into a nightly DNP-CD even as Kevin Love continues to be a running punchline. It turns out the answer to the Warriors has actually been a combination of playing old man Richard Jefferson and having LeBron James transform from the mild-mannered Bruce Banner of the first four games into the Incredible Hulk he's been in games five and six (you won't like him when he's angry).

 

Who is the Modern Four?

So if slow stretch fours are starting to lose their place in the NBA, who is taking their place? I just mentioned the 35-year-old Jefferson, who has been enjoying a career renaissance in these Finals. He's a bigger wing (6'7", 233) who can rebound well, plausibly defend power forwards and wings, and shoot and pass well enough not to bog up the offense. With him on the floor instead of Love, the Cavs have clearly been a much better team, and it really says a lot that even the old and busted version of this sort of player has been more relevant than the best possible version of the stretch four in Love.

The Warriors employ rich man's version of that sort of versatility on both sides of the ball in Draymond Green. When the Warriors play Green at center in their small-ball lineups, Harrison Barnes brings a younger version of what Jefferson does. Before he lost the ability to make a basket, Barnes was having himself a nice Finals in that role. But the best possible answer at the four in this series has been LeBron, who can combine the ability to defend multiple positions and provide rim protection alongside his myriad of offensive contributions to allow the rest of the team to play smaller and get away with it.

What do all of those "fours" have in common? None of them can be classified as pure power forwards. They can all play and defend different positions, allowing them to switch on defense and making it easier for other players to fit around them. Players like these -- "tweener" big men with the speed and skills to defend 1-5 like LeBron or Draymond and larger wings who can plausibly guard power forwards like Barnes and Jefferson -- are something I've decided to call "switch fours."  They allow you to space the offense with a combination of their general skills as passers and shooters, while they don't give up defense like stretch fours because they can make up for some size-mismatches with their athleticism and versatility.

The fact that these are the guys having success at the four in the Finals while guys like Love and Frye so visibly fail is something to consider as we try to project the NBA going forward. Other teams are sure to be noticing the same things. It's going to be interesting to watch what happens in the trade market (where Love's value has hit an all-time low), in free agency (where Ryan Anderson will be testing the market value of the all-offense, no-defense stretch four), and in the NBA draft (where Marquette's Henry Ellenson is projected to go somewhere in the lottery with a game that highly resembles that of Kevin Love).

This isn't to say the power forward position will be completely killed off and everyone will go small. But it's going to affect the type of guys who are going to get reliable minutes in the league. If you're not an all-timer like Dirk Nowitzki, you're going to need to be to do more than stretch the floor to play at the four in this league, especially as big men who can shoot become less and less rare. You'll need to be able to protect the rim like Serge Ibaka or Kristaps Porzingis, or be able to chase guys around on the perimeter (a skill that, along with his rebounding, has single-handedly kept Tristan Thompson on the floor for the Cavs).  Scouts see the potential for both of those defensive skills in international draft prospect Dragan Bender. This is why he's talked about as a stretch four who could go 3rd overall in the draft despite barely seeing the court as an 18 year old for Maccabi Tel Aviv over the past year.

 

What Does This Mean in the Fantasy Game?

When you're planning out your fantasy draft this season, keep this in the back of your head when considering a shooting big man. The cat's out of the bag. These bad defense guys are only going to get more and more exposed as the league plays faster and takes more threes. There's considerable downside for them to get played off the court at times. Don't overrate the value of rookies with this skillset coming out of the draft. Don't get your hopes up about the upside of guys like Ryan Anderson getting a ton of minutes unless he ends up on another terrible team that doesn't care about defense like New Orleans. And while Kevin Love's value will increase if he can into a situation where he can play more of a primary role, don't assume he'll return to being full-on Minnesota Kevin Love.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for the types of "switch fours" who might be able to make a difference in the right role. Jae Crowder is an example of the kind of guy who came out of nowhere into NBA prominence because he could take on this kind of role. When you're trying to find a true sleeper in fantasy leagues for next season, you should be looking for guys like Crowder who can be the next great switch four. An example of a lesser-known guy I like in that role is James Ennis of the Pelicans -- he's always been a great athlete, he's a bigger wing (6'7", 210) who can chase guys around on the perimeter but is still strong enough to hang with bigger guys, and he's started to show he's developed a decent long range shot, hitting 48% from three in a cup of coffee as a starter down the stretch with the Pelicans. With Ryan Anderson an unrestricted free agent and a dearth of decent wings in New Orleans, Ennis seems primed to take on a solid role in New Orleans as a SF who can play some small ball four.

As for dynasty and keeper league owners eying next week's NBA draft, think about guys in the draft who could conceivably be switch fours. At the top of the draft, Brandon Ingram certainly fits the bill. While I threw some cold water on Marquese Chriss in a prior piece, I can see what NBA teams see in him, and why teams would see him as worth taking a chance on in the lottery.  If he can learn how to play basketball, he could fit the role of being the type of big guy who could both passably shoot threes and be able to chase guys around the perimeter. Baylor's Taurean Prince is another guy who'll go in the first round as an athletic 6'8" wing who can guard bigger players. I think he'll go a lot higher than most draft boards currently show, as teams covet a player who can fill exactly this role.

It's time to switch your mindset when it comes to the PF position in the NBA. Sell on stretch fours before the market crashes and start buying stock in the switch four.