NBA fans seem to have fixated on the idea that Golden State’s world-historic offense was unlocked by the dangerous perimeter marksmanship of Draymond Green and, to a lesser extent, Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala sliding over to the PF spot and raining hellfire from deep. This is giving me angina, you motherfuckers. The next time I hear the term “stretch-4” I’m just going to lose it.
I hate, hate, hate to wade into the Neuromancer-ish digital hellscape of NBA stats to point your eyeballs towards something that is plainly evident if you, you know, actually have eyeballs: the “stretch” part of Green’s utility as a PF is very possibly the least important part of his value to the Warriors. This is ultimately a discussion of how goddamn crazy you’ve all become about tall men who shoot threes.
We’ll start here, with decidedly un-advanced stats: Green is not a particularly good 3-point shooter. For the 2014-15 NBA season, Green shot a shade under the league average on 3-pointers. Here’s the right way of thinking about this: a Green 3-pointer, shot at his 33.8 percent clip, is still a better outcome than a league-average 2-pointer (45 percent, give or take), but he is still a below average 3-point shooter (that is not the same thing as saying he should not be taking threes—he absolutely should be firing away from deep).
Now, OK, so, of Draymond Green’s 4.2 3-point attempts per game in the 2014-15 regular season (which, Jesus, will somebody please grab Randy Wittman by the lapels and force him to explain why Draymond Green attempted more threes per game than Bradley Beal), 4.0 of them came in catch-and-shoot situations, and a whopping 3.9 of them came in what NBA.com’s stats page considers open or wide-open space, meaning no defender within four feet of the shooter. This makes sense—Green plays alongside two of the most dangerous, gravitationally dominant perimeter players in the NBA, maybe ever, so of course he’s going to have a lot of clean looks.
Part of the reason those looks are so clean is because defenses are electing to pick their poison, and, all other things being equal, a clean Draymond Green 3-pointer is a far, far better outcome for the defense than even a tightly contested Steph Curry 3-pointer (shot at a brain-scrambling 43.7 percent). So, just as the Warriors are right to have Green fire away from the top of the arc when he gets a clean look, opposing defenses are right to cede that shot when it’s the cost of throwing as many limbs in Steph Curry’s face as possible.
Now. This calculus, on both sides, doesn’t change much if you swap out Draymond Green for, say, oh, Harrison Barnes (42 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, 41 percent when open or wide-open), or even Andre Iguodala, whose 3-point shooting has been considered a weakness, but who nonetheless was better at it than Draymond Green (35 percent overall, 36 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, roughly 36 percent on open or wide-open looks). For that matter, the calculus wouldn’t change much if you swapped in Drew Gooden, who banged home 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and better than 42 percent of his open or wide-open looks.
This is true because the role of Golden State’s supporting cast—and, for the purposes of this discussion, we’re referring to everyone not named Steph Curry or Klay Thompson on Golden State as part of the supporting cast, because, like, come on—is mostly to position themselves to best take advantage of the way defenses bend and scramble to keep Curry and Thompson from burning the goddamn house down, and then make good on a fair number of those chances. So, if you stuck old man Drew Gooden out there on the floor with Curry and Thompson, his stretch role would be roughly the same—slide to open spots around the arc and bomb away—and the Warriors would be wise to give him the green light, and defenses would be wise to cede his shots in order to take away Curry’s and Thompson’s. Gooden—who is a slightly better 3-point shooter than Green, if you can believe it—would be just a tad bit better in the stretch part of that job, because he is a better shooter. The same could be said, for that matter, of Mirza Teletovic or Ryan Anderson—at the stretch part of the “stretch-4” gig (the part that drags defenders away from the hoop and cashes in on open looks) there are any number of lumbering stiffs kicking around the NBA who would bang home more threes than Green.
Offensively, it’s Green’s prowess with the ball in his hands, his decision-making, and his bevy of floaters and crafty post scoring moves that make him a significant plus on the offensive end. Because of how teams overplay Curry and Thompson on screens, Green and Golden State’s backup singers are often playing in 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situations, after hedging defenders wind up behind the ball. A clumsy doofus with the ball probably still isn’t threatening an NBA defense too much in those situations, but Green, pounding down the lane with shooters arrayed around him or someone like Bogut occupying a defender near the restricted arc...that’s a strong, strong advantage for the offense. His stretch abilities matter, but what distinguishes Green on offense from Drew Gooden is everything he can do other than shoot threes.
So, most everyone agrees Draymond Green is close to a max player. He is now, in fact, a by-God max player, so we at least know Golden State agrees. Barnes may one day be a max player, too, but Teletovic and Gooden are nowhere close, and here’s why: because what really makes Golden State’s “small” lineups so devastating isn’t that Draymond Green can shoot threes at a below-average clip while identifying as a PF, nor that he can do some stuff with the ball in his hands—it’s that he can credibly defend every position on the floor.
See, the flip side of having Steph Curry terrifying opposing defenses is you have to also use him at the other end, and, effort notwithstanding, he’s skinny and not physical and not particularly quick or fast and not much of a leaper. He is, in other words, a vulnerable defender. In order to compensate for this, and as a general ahead-of-their-time move to fluster and confound opposing offenses, the Warriors often eschew matchups and hide Curry on less dangerous offensive players, counting on communication and timely help and world-class teammates to make opponents pay for targeting mismatches.
The biggest part of this success, by far, by far by far by far, comes down to the positional versatility of Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala, Green, and even Shaun Livingston. Want to wear Curry out forcing him to chase his man around screens? Nope, the Warriors will happily switch those and dare the ball-handler to beat one of Golden State’s stable of freakishly long and athletic defenders in ISO-ball. Wanna play through the switch and make Curry defend on the low block? Better have an opposing center who can drag world-class defender Andrew Bogut away from the paint and a stable of shooters to keep the Inspector Gadget limbs of Golden State’s other defenders from snaking in there to swipe at the ball and disrupt play.
Golden State’s astonishingly dominant defense was based upon positional flexibility, and no one Dubs player exemplified that more than Draymond Green. The Warriors make you think of the shot clock. They have switched a big (Green) onto a guard. We must attack this mismatch by making Green defend in space. The play clock is ticking. One dribble move—nothing. Two-dribble moves—nothing. Time is running out. The Warriors don’t need Green to spend all night defending Alec Burks, they just need him to make life Burks’s life tough for eight to 10 seconds, and what will follow will be a desperate time-pressured foray into a sea of active arms and hands. Defending Alec Burks on the perimeter for 10 seconds is no small thing—Green might be one of maybe five interior players in the whole league who can consistently pull it off, and his ability to do so forces opposing offenses to rethink whether they should even bother using screens to force switches in the first place. It makes the blinking red number over the basket fucking HUGE.
And the reward for over and over again forcing teams to shoot over long defenders or battle their way through a briar patch of fun-house-mirror arms was the opportunity to play in transition, over and over again, where every team is more dangerous, and where the Warriors are certain death. Where guys like Green and Barnes can either fill a lane or trail the action and walk into open kick-out threes. The Finals were a startling demonstration of just how carefully and arduously opposing teams have to and will work in order to keep the Warriors from playing in transition—every grueling all-Lebron Cavs possession was at least as much about pinning Golden State’s defenders in place as it was about hunting for the best shot. And it wasn’t a stretch-4 that made it such a dismal chore, it was an assembly line of tough, long defenders capable of defending multiple positions for just long enough to force the offense into a fatal error.
Fans have gotten a little bit carried away with thinking that the key to unlocking wild team success is locating big men who can shoot threes. Big men who can shoot threes are useful! Of course they are! On the other hand, bumping their way around the league unspectacularly are silky-shooting bigs like Ryan Anderson who can’t defend any position outside of 15 feet. For that matter, there’s always Drew Gooden, who is a perfectly capable shooter and rebounder who is nonetheless a calamitous team defender who will never again work for more than a minimum salary in what’s left of his NBA career.
Going small, it turns out, isn’t the same as putting a bunch of guys who can shoot on the floor together and watching the world melt around them. Going small can also mean stuffing the floor with versatile defenders and confounding opposing offenses, so that your team can play in transition off of misses and turnovers. This is the playbook being run in Milwaukee—even before trading away Brandon Knight, the Bucks were running out minimally dangerous perimeter shooting lineups that were nonetheless terrorizing the opposition with interchangeable super-limbed athletes capable of swarming, impenetrable perimeter defense. And, lo, right before your eyes, the Golden State Warriors were doing the same thing. The difference between the two teams had less to do with Green being a perimeter marksman and much more to do with the fact that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are dangerous enough all on their own to create an eye-popping surplus of wildly advantageous opportunities for the players around them.
Having a fourth player on the floor who can stretch a defense out to the perimeter is useful. Wringing your hands because my God, who will play the stretch-4 position now that [insert marginal NBA player] is injured is ridiculous. The answer to that question is whatever versatile, athletic defender can keep the paint free of opposing ball-handlers. A credible defender who can knock down just 30 percent of his open or wide-open looks is a lot closer to the Draymond Green model than a defensive sieve like Ryan Anderson, or (worse-yet) Kris Humphries practicing his 3-point stroke.
Now, shut the hell up about stretch-4s. Honestly.