Monday, January 12, 2015

The 4-Out Revolution

Through the first few months of the story, the three biggest stories (from a team POV) have been the Warriors, the Pistons and the Hawks. None of those teams made a bunch of personnel moves in the off-season - in fact the biggest change Detroit made was getting rid of a guy - but all three have made dramatic improvements. They all share one thing in common - they spread the floor with athletes who can shoot the ball and make defenses play in space.

They each have a variation on the formula, but the underlying principles are the same.

1) Golden State plays 4-out with a massive center in the middle. Bogut isn't a great shooter, but he's an excellent playmaker who can serve as the hub of a 4-out offense and he's a one-man wrecking crew on the glass and at the rim, allowing the Warriors to play smaller and more athletic guys around him who can swarm their man.

2) Detroit plays classic 4-out basketball, with an offense built around the high spread pick-and-roll and two devastating roll men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

3) Atlanta plays 5-out basketball, which I discussed in a lot of detail last week.

A system depends on the players that are running it - if you have Andre Drummond on your team, by definition, you are not running a 5-out system. Just as guys like Bogut and Drummond don't make sense in a 5-out world, guys like David Lee and Josh Smith, power forwards who can't consistently stretch the floor, have little use in a 4-out world. The Warriors didn't become one of the best teams in the NBA until David Lee got injured and the Pistons were one of the worst teams in the NBA when Smith was on the floor. Those two guys are living out a Twilight Zone episode - they woke up one morning and the world had totally changed. They were doing the same things they always did except those things were no longer considered valuable.

David Lee and Josh Smith aren't bad basketball players. They have each received max contracts and Lee has even made a few All-Star teams. None of that matters anymore, though, as they have both been tried and found guilty in the court of NBA basketball. There are still ways to win at a high level with a non-shooting PF, but they require a specific skill-set (i.e Z-Bo, David West) that neither Smith nor Lee have. Smith can no longer finish at a high level around the rim and Lee has never been able to play defense.

Just like that, their days of starting for a good team have come and gone. Lee is never starting for the Warriors again barring injury and Smith is going to have a tough time holding off Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones (a younger version of him) in Houston. If they start in the NBA, it's going to be in a situation like Carlos Boozer with the LA Lakers. If they are playing on a winner, it's in a much smaller role coming off the bench.

Any team trying to get better should be trying to improve in the same way that Atlanta, Detroit and Golden State did - by adding 3's, 4's and 5's who can shoot the ball and play defense. If you don't have guys like that, it won't matter how good your guards are. I would argue a huge portion of Klay Thompson's improvement this season is that he no longer has to share the floor with David Lee and he is able to play in much more space, where his ability to shoot makes him almost indefensible. This is why Kyle Korver is shooting at an all-time high in Houston and why it looks like everyone on Detroit suddenly remembered how to shoot over the last few weeks. Conversely, this is why I think Mike Conley has always been underrated - it's hard to rack up huge efficiency stats when Gasol, Z-Bo and their two defenders are camped out in the lane.

If you look around the NBA, there are a couple prime candidates to be the next stop in the 4-out revolution. No non-shooting PF should be too comfortable because the sands of time are shifting under their feet. David Lee and Josh Smith will not be the last casualties of the revolution. Like any revolution, it must have its bodies.

1) Sacramento - Jason Thompson

Objective A: Let DeMarcus Cousins play in space.
Objective B: Play a more uptempo style.
Objective C: Play a more entertaining offensive style with a lot of ball movement.
Objective D: Make Vivek Ranadive look like a genius.

The best way to accomplish Objective D would be to install the Grinnell offense like he did at the D-League level and swamp the rest of the league. In the world of reality, the best chance Vivek has of riding the paradigm is getting a stretch PF and running a 4-out offense through DeMarcus Cousins. I'm sure he's aware of what is going on down the road in Golden State. Installing Draymond Green in place of Jason Thompson is the obvious way to achieve Objectives A, B and C and a guy who can achieve all of those things is almost certainly worth a max contract.

2) Utah - Enes Kanter

Kanter's injury opened up playing time for Rudy Gobert, who has grabbed it with both hands. They are currently trying Derrick Favors at 4. If that works out, they are going to be a very serious team. Gobert/Favors is something I'm tracking very closely, although we may not see it pay off for another year, when Alec Burks and Dante Exum would presumably be their starting backcourt, not Trey Burke and Joe Ingles.

3) Denver - Kenneth Faried aka The Manimal

Faried fits the formula to a T. Like David Lee, he's not a great defensive player. Like Josh Smith, he's not a great outside shooter. Like both those guys, he has made a lot of money and put up a lot of stats but it hasn't always correlated with winning. Though, to be fair to Lee and Smith, Faried's best season in the NBA was 14/8 on a team that won 35 games.

You could see the writing on the wall for Faried all the way back in 2013, when the Warriors knocked the Nuggets out of the first round. After David Lee went down with an injury, Golden State went small with Harrison Barnes at the PF and ran Denver off the floor. Faried wasn't big enough to consistently punish Barnes on the block and he had no chance of guarding him on the perimeter. With Manimal trying to guard him, Barnes looked like the Black Falcon for a fortnight, dropping 20 points a game and looking like the star he was always projected to be.

Barnes vs. Faried was the evolution of the game in real time.

What this season should have made obvious to Denver, if it hasn't been obvious already, is that the Nuggets are going to need a full rebuild. The pieces they have now aren't good enough to make the playoffs in the ultra-competitive West. The question they will have to answer is whether they want to rebuild from the 8-13 spots in the draft or the 4-8 spots, since getting 1-3 is just a matter of luck. Either way will work and they are off to a good start in that department after they fleeced the Chicago Bulls for Jusuf Nurkic AND Gary Harris for the price of Doug McDermott.

Nurkic already looks like a real keeper and they just moved Timofey Mozgov so they could give him more minutes at the C position. If they are going to build around a low-post scorer at C, they are going to want more of a shooter at PF. And if they are going to start a 19-year old at C, they are going to want some guys who can play defense around him. Either way, if the question becomes Nurkic or Manimal, there's no question the current FO is going to go with the younger guy with more upside whom they drafted.

4) Indiana - David West

This is more of a long-term thing. It's not that West is a bad player, but that he's 34 years old and has played 11 seasons in the NBA and is putting up the worst stats of his career. At a certain point, Indiana has to start planning for their future at the PF position. That's what I would do with the lottery pick that the departures of Paul George and Lance Stephenson kind of dropped in their laps. George and Roy Hibbert are both locked into long-term deals - the next time they are an elite team, it might be with a stretch PF who allows them to play 4-out and covers up some of Hibbert's lack of speed and quickness.

There are a number of interesting shooting PF's in the college game and I'll have much more on them as the season goes on. The bigger story isn't about any one player, though. It's about the game itself. The era of revolution is upon us.

1) If I was a young team trying to improve really quickly, I would install the spread pick-and-roll and have a shooter at the PF position.

2) In a decade, there won't be more than a handful of non-shooters at the PF position. There won't be many non-shooters at any position outside of C.

3) The really interesting thing is what happens in 20 years - will even C's be shooting 3's at that point?

As fans of the game, we are living in some very interesting times.


  1. Thanks for the interesting article! I would like to know more about 5-out offense since I do not understand it well enough. Would it be possible to explain the basic mechanics in your next piece? For example what is the difference in high pick & roll between 4 and 5 out offenses.

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