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Five out: NBA entering era of 3-point-shooting centers

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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:

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Season 3P 3PA 3P/G 3PA/G 3P%
2017 1479 4183 1.20 3.40 35%
2016 544 1662 0.44 1.35 33%
2015 331 1020 0.27 0.83 32%
2014 429 1310 0.35 1.07 33%
2013 118 485 0.10 0.39 24%
2012 115 443 0.12 0.45 26%
2011 176 588 0.14 0.48 30%
2010 481 1463 0.39 1.19 33%
2009 368 1080 0.30 0.88 34%
2008 500 1519 0.41 1.23 33%
2007 305 945 0.25 0.77 32%
2006 64 301 0.05 0.24 21%
2005 253 785 0.21 0.64 32%
2004 150 559 0.13 0.47 27%
2003 150 497 0.13 0.42 30%
2002 317 896 0.27 0.75 35%
2001 86 364 0.07 0.31 24%
2000 100 382 0.08 0.32 26%
1999 44 199 0.06 0.27 22%
1998 128 535 0.11 0.45 24%
1997 219 686 0.18 0.58 32%
1996 148 528 0.12 0.44 28%
1995 247 799 0.22 0.72 31%
1994 74 339 0.07 0.31 22%
1993 91 353 0.08 0.32 26%
1992 101 396 0.09 0.36 26%
1991 117 504 0.11 0.46 23%
1990 197 677 0.18 0.61 29%
1989 170 607 0.17 0.59 28%
1988 34 191 0.04 0.20 18%
1987 12 101 0.01 0.11 12%
1986 16 129 0.02 0.14 12%
1985 11 129 0.01 0.14 9%
1984 21 147 0.02 0.16 14%
1983 18 139 0.02 0.15 13%
1982 22 112 0.02 0.12 20%
1981 14 88 0.01 0.09 16%
1980 10 95 0.01 0.11 11%

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:

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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.

Indiana’s Victor Oladipo: “There’s a strong possibility I might play”

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There are about three million reasons Victor Oladipo wants to play for the Pacers in the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

He told reporters on Wednesday he’s “definitely here trying to play” and not thinking about the money reasons. He says just wants to lace them up. Via J. Michael of the Indy Star.

There has been a dispute about Oladipo’s health and salary. After sitting out about a year with a ruptured quadriceps tendon above his right knee, Oladepo returned to play 13 games before the NBA season was shut down. When it came time to make a decision on playing in the restart, Oladipo announced he was sitting out due to increased injury risk during a quick ramp-up to play. However, the league saw the games played — and the fact Oladipo traveled with the team to Orlando and is practicing full speed, leading to increasing optimism he’ll play — and said he would be counted as a player not out due to injury. Which means Oladipo would not get paid for the games in Orlando — that’s $2.8 million if the Pacers got swept in the first round, and $3.2 million if they play at least six games.

After working out down in Orlando without restrictions, Victor Oladipo sounds like a guy ready to play.

Him feeling healthy no doubt factors into that decision, but in the NBA always follow the money. And there are $3 million reasons for Oladipo to lace them up.

Thunder’s Dennis Schroder will leave bubble next month for birth of child

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Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroderjust like Boston’s Gordon Hayward and Utah’s Mike Conley — has a pregnant wife due to give birth to his child while he is in the bubble.

Just like those guys, Schroder said he is leaving the bubble to put family first when it is time. Via Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman:

“I’m not gonna leave my wife by herself while she’s having a second baby,” Schroder said. “(Dennis) Jr. is still 17 months old, so I’m for sure gonna go there and support her and try as much as I can to be there for my family…

“For me it’s tough,” Schroder said. “I love my teammates, I love basketball, but family comes first all the time. I’ll try to make something happen with the organization. I sacrifice a lot for my team, but like I said, we still gotta get on the same page that I can see my family maybe when the baby is coming. We’re going to make it work.”

The baby is due in “3-4 weeks,” which is mid-August.

Schroder is absolutely doing the right thing prioritizing his family. Nobody should criticize his decision.

That said, if he is gone for some of the first round of the playoffs, which start Aug. 17, it would be a blow to the Thunder, who almost certainly will be in a difficult matchup in the middle of a crowded West (currently they would face Utah in a 4/5 matchup, but with the middle of the conference bunched together the seeding games likely change that).

Schroder is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaging 19 points per game while shooting 38.1% from three. The Thunder are at their most dangerous with a three-guard lineup where Schroder is paired with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rotation that can’t happen with Schroeder gone.

Schroder can return to the team. He has to get tested every day he is outside the bubble, but because this is an excused absence and the league has been notified, upon his return Schroeder will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). Players who leave the bubble without notifying teams face a 10-day quarantine.

Oklahoma City is going to need Schroder and his crafty game if they are going to be a playoff threat that moves beyond the first round in Orlando.

 

Orlando’s James Ennis admits he had COVID-19, is now recovered and practicing

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Add James Ennis — who has started most games at the three for Orlando since being traded there at the deadline — to the list of players who had COVID-19.

Ennis is recovered and Wednesday returned to practice but admitted to reporters in a zoom he was one of the players who had tested positive for the disease. From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.

James Ennis is an example of why the NBA started its testing in the home markets of teams back on June 23: find the players who had the virus, get them treatment as needed, help them recover, and keep the virus itself out of the NBA campus/bubble in Orlando. How well that ultimately works remains an unanswered question, but the Ennis is an example of the concept working.

Ennis’ move into the starting lineup in Orlando not-so-coincidentally timed out with when the Magic offense took off (a 117.8 offensive rating after the All-Star break, best in the NBA). Ennis, the lone Long Beach State player in the NBA now, provides shooting to space the floor on the wing (career 35.4% from three), and that opened up driving lanes for Aaron Gordon and room for others to operate. He quickly became a critical piece of the Magic offense. Ennis was traded to Orlando from Philadephia at the deadline for a second-round pick.

Orlando enters the NBA restart as the eighth seed in the East, but with a realistic shot to pass a depleted Brooklyn team for the seven seed. Healthy, with an explosive offense and balanced roster, the Magic will not be an easy out in the first round of the playoffs.

Coaches, players compare NBA Orlando restart to USA Basketball experience

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Formulating a plan to get a team ready for the restart of the NBA season wasn’t as difficult as one might expect for Indiana coach Nate McMillan.

Turns out, he’s been through something similar to this before.

Spending an extended stretch away from home during the summer, while unprecedented as part of an NBA season, isn’t exactly a foreign concept for those with USA Basketball experience like the Olympics and the World Cup. Plenty of players and coaches at Walt Disney World see parallels between those experiences and this challenge.

“I had that opportunity to work with the Olympic team and preparation was very similar to what we’re going through here,” said McMillan, who was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski on the USA Basketball staff from 2006 through 2012. “Having a training camp, basically, at a hotel and getting ready for a 45- to 60-day season. … We’re going to have three scrimmage games, eight so-called regular season games and then we’re in the playoffs so it’s very similar to preparing to play for the gold medal.”

Players who have been through the World Cup or Olympic grinds agree that there’s a level of familiarity with this sort of schedule and situation.

“It helps tremendously,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who was part of the U.S. gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in 2016. “In Rio it was a lot more strict and tighter because we were living on a boat. That experience was pretty awesome. … But living on a boat, to be in a smaller room and not have as many amenities it really kind of prepared me for this.”

Even players who have been part of USA Basketball’s events for younger players, like Under-18 or Under-19 tournaments internationally, know the drill when it comes to living in a hotel for a few weeks and not having a lot of latitude when it comes to being free to roam. Players at Disney cannot leave the campus because of coronavirus protocols, though the league has made plenty of entertainment options — fishing, golf, boating, table tennis and more — available to them.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said he would follow much of the same policies that the U.S. program used when he was an assistant on those national-team staffs, such as a heavy reliance on medical personnel to determine what days to have a hard practice and what days to take it a bit easier. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said he also refreshed his memory on national-team days when putting together a plan for his team’s stay at Disney.

“It has forced me to dig into the archives of that time with USA Basketball,” said Williams, another former national team assistant under Krzyzewski. “I’ve heard a lot of the players say that it reminds them of AAU, but for me it reminds me so much of my time in Spain at the World Cup. It’s a bit longer than the Olympics … and you have a lot of free time.”

Pacers center Myles Turner was with the U.S. team that competed in China last summer at the World Cup, a group that spent more than seven weeks together between training camp, exhibition games in the U.S. and Australia, and then the tournament itself.

The Pacers have clinched a playoff spot, so they’re assured of spending at least seven weeks at Disney this summer. It’s another long summer for Turner, and he’s not complaining.

“There is a lot of similarity in how it’s set up, but for me personally, I just think that it’s a great time for everybody to kind of stay focused,” Turner said. “There’s no distractions. Everybody’s locked in and focused. So, there’s really not a lot that can go wrong in a basketball sense.”

One difference at Disney is that nobody has family members with them until at least the second round of the playoffs. At an Olympics, it’s typical for family and friends to make the trip — and at last year’s World Cup, a small number of players also made arrangements for family to join them in China.

“This is a little bit different than that, but certainly the timing is similar and the timing for us as far as preparation is probably more like a FIBA-type schedule than it is like a training camp,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re practicing for a couple weeks and then you’re playing a few games and then it really, really counts.”

NOTES: San Antonio assistant Tim Duncan is not with the Spurs at Disney; the team said he has remained home to help LaMarcus Aldridge with his rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery. … Of the 22 teams in the restart, eight opted to take Tuesday off from practice.