In 2014, the Atlanta Hawks snuck into the playoffs with a 38-44 record. Their reward? A matchup with the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, who boasted the NBA’s best defense.
Roy Hibbert, a mountain of a center, anchored Indiana’s defense by using his 7-foot-2, 270-pound frame to wall off the paint.
On the other hand, Atlanta’s starting center, Al Horford, suffered a season-ending injury in December. The Hawks rotated three replacements: Pero Antic, Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon. Ayon suffered his own season-ending injury in February, leaving Atlanta to choose between a past-his-prime, but veteran, Brand and Antic, a 31-year-old rookie who liked to shoot 3-pointers but converted them at a below-average clip.
The Hawks started Antic – and told him to bomb away.
"Even though Pero wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, we told him to shoot it, because we needed Hibbert out of there," said Kenny Atkinson, who was then a Hawks assistant coach. "That was the only way we were going to score.
"We had to take some risk."
Antic hoisted 42 3s in 170 minutes – the highest rate ever in a postseason by someone who started all his team’s games at center. But he made just 7-of-42, a dreary 17%.
Yet, the scheme worked anyway.
Antic pulled Hibbert from the paint, scrambling the Pacers. Hibbert was lost on the perimeter, and his teammates didn’t know how to play without an elite rim protector behind them. Indiana was on tilt, and its offense collapsed as everyone bore the weight of new defensive challenges.
Atlanta outscored the Pacers by 30 with Antic on the court and got outscored by 37 otherwise. Though the Hawks lost the series in seven games, they pushed the Pacers far more than anyone anticipated.
"That was kind of a little bit of an epiphany," Atkinson said. "This can help. This can help draw a great rim protector away from the rim."
The stretch-five revolution was underway.
Atkinson and the Hawks, coached by Mike Budenholzer, had become full believers. The next year, Horford shot and made more 3-pointers than he did in his first seven years combined. The following year, he again trumped his growing career totals – and he wasn’t alone. The shift spread beyond Atlanta by then.
Anthony Davis also shot and made more 3-pointers last season than he had in the rest of his career combined. So did DeMarcus Cousins, who topped his new career totals again this year. Marc Gasol and Nikola Vucevic did it this year, too.
But perhaps the biggest domino to fall was Brook Lopez.
Atkinson became the Nets’ head coach this season and inherited Lopez, an archetypical center who made just 3-of-31 3-pointers in his first eight seasons. In his first year under Atkinson, Lopez has made 134-of-386 3-pointers (35%).
If Lopez can shoot 3s, what is the limit?
We’re progressing toward finding out.
Centers made 1,479 3-pointers this season – more than double any other year, more than the last four years combined, more than the first 17 years of the 3-point arc combined.
Here are number the of 3-pointers made (orange) and attempted (blue) per game by centers, as classified by Basketball-Reference:
For the first time in history, the average NBA game featured a center making a 3-pointer. But the opening weekend of the playoffs sent the trend into overdrive.
In eight Game 1s, centers combined to shoot 12-for-16 on 3-pointers (75%).
That doesn’t even count all the time teams used players listed at forward, like Serge Ibaka and Draymond Green, at center – a strategy that becomes much more popular this time of year. Teams have embraced small ball more quickly than positional designations can keep up.
"A stretch five," said Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who implored Marc Gasol to become one, "is a serious luxury."
Enjoy it while it lasts.
It wasn’t long ago that stretch fours were a novelty. Teams had to create special game plans to defend them, because they popped up on the schedule so irregularly. Now, it’s a change of pace when a team starts two traditional interior bigs.
Stretch fives are the new frontier.
Coaches are quick to point out how much trouble opposing 3-point-shooting centers cause, but not every team has developed its own. As long as the former remains true, the latter will change.
The current crop of high-volume stretch fives all have their own origin stories. Davis started shooting 3s under Alvin Gentry, who saw the value of a playmaking center while coaching Draymond Green with the Warriors. Cousins didn’t like being labeled a center and wanted to expand his game. Gasol listened to Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant when Miami – due to injury – learned the value of small ball and then turned Chris Bosh into a center. Vucevic played for Frank Vogel, who coached that Pacers team torched by Antic.
Eventually, there won’t be anything special about a center who shoots 3-pointers. It’ll be the norm.
To be fair, it was hardly unpresented pre-Antic. Mehmet Okur, who retired in 2012 is the all-time leader in 3-pointers by a center (460). Channing Frye set the single-season record for 3-pointers per game by a center (2.1) in 2010, when he played for Gentry’s Suns. That broke the record by Al Harrington for the 2008 Warriors (1.9).*
*Counting only seasons players were listed as centers by Basketball-Reference
That 2010 Phoenix team, coached by Gentry, was still running Mike D’Antoni’s spread scheme. Harrington was primarily a forward during his career, but then-Golden State coach Don Nelson frequently used him at center.
D’Antoni and Nelson were seen as mad scientists, bending basketball into an unholy style. But they were actually visionaries not appreciated in their time.
Stretch fives have not become conventional, but they’re no longer such a rarity. Nine centers made more than one 3-pointer per game this season. No more than three had done that in any other year.
Here’s every center ever to average more than one 3-pointer per game:
Other players could join their ranks next season.
Big forwards who already shoot plenty of 3s, like Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis, could soon be primarily centers. Young stretch fives like Myles Turner could take more 3s in bigger roles. Centers with established mid-range games – like Robin Lopez, Brook’s twin brother – could venture beyond the arc.
There’s so much incentive to experiment.
It’s not just the added value of a more efficient shot than a long two. It’s not even just the value of generally spacing the floor.
It’s that centers are often the best rim protectors, so there’s exponentially more value in a stretch five pulling an opposing center from the paint than a stretch four pulling an opposing power forward from the paint.
Stretching the floor has enhanced existing skills for these centers, too. Getting the ball on the perimeter with the threat of shooting has made Brook Lopez an even more effective driver. Gasol can survey the floor from beyond the arc, with a defender pressed closed to him rather than disrupting the passing lanes, and zip dimes from even more angles.
Lopez has embraced his new skill dutifully, though he didn’t want to talk much about himself late in Brooklyn’s awful season. Gasol has unleashed his 3-point shooting with joyous flair – at least once he got going.
"He laughed at first because I told him I want him shooting four a game, and he thought I was joking," Fizdale said. "But as you can see it’s not a joke."
Gasol came close, finishing with 3.6 3-point attempts per game. But there’s always next year.
The stretch-five revolution has just begun.