Amid all the debate surrounding the relative values, virtues, and vices of Josh Smith and Greg Monroe, I've been pretty surprised with the amount of bafflement I've seen lately about the impact of having a perimeter-shooting capable big man, aka a "stretch 4" or "stretch big", in today's NBA.
Rather than re-do the ample amount of work done already on the subject, I've provided some articles that give a great overview of this. Some even highlight the impact Pistons like Bill Laimbeer, Terry Mills, and Rasheed Wallace have had in the evolution of the role.
To start, Zach Harper's excellently written and researched (but poorly copy edited) piece Stretch-4s in the NBA: The balance between stretching and defense sets the table for the discussion by illustrating the why behind this role's importance:
... [C]oaches started dedicating small ball lineups and sweet-shooting big men from downtown to their offensive game plans in order to make the defense uncomfortable. Going small is now the trend in the NBA and something a lot of coaches are trying to figure out how to utilize within the construct of their rotations. The tricky part is making sure you don't compromise your defense and make the entire venture a wash.
Though all sports have "trends" which go in and out of vogue ("Can I interest you in a West Coast offense to go with your Cover 2 scheme, ma'am?"), there are indications that this could be at the least a protracted phase with more to come - and perhaps a true evolution of how stars play the game.
Yes, we may indeed need a Josh Smith to compete for championships in the future. But, we may not necessarily need the Josh Smith - not unless he does a bit better in both areas that the most impactful stretch 4s help with. A great gif borrowed from the article suggests why:
Ah, Smoove - so close, but so far away.
With today's concerns in our minds, let's start at the beginning and truly understand the broad impact this evolution has right now. Phil Watson's thorough Ryan Anderson and the evolution of the 'stretch four' lays it all out on the table - in tables. This assessment of Dirk Nowitzki succinctly illustrates why these types of players are important:
Nowitzki is a player who has to be guarded everywhere on the offensive end. Put a traditional big on him and he steps out to the perimeter. Put a smaller, quicker defender on him and he sets up shop down on the block.
The stretch four can be an absolute matchup nightmare.
Notice the presence of Bill, "Three" Mills, and Rasheed in table 3; this is Detroit Pistons tradition.
Patrick Hayes's The 'Stretch 4s' of the '90s speak on today's perimeter-oriented big men explores this tradition further, noting how Laimbeer helped T-Mills develop the part of his game which help him positively impact the Pistons. It also explains how progressive coaches like Michigan's own Rudy Tomjanovich and former Pistons coach Doug Collins paved the way for the modern role of the stretch big through their coaching:
"I think Rudy T was way ahead of his time in his understanding of spacing and the benefit of the three-point shot," Bullard said. "Rudy used me to space the floor to give Hakeem, then later Charles Barkley, room to operate in the post. Rudy was also great at using me as a pick-and-pop guy. Rudy always encouraged me to shoot the three, and I give him all the credit for bringing the ‘stretch four' into vogue."
So, let's break down the versatile role that forwards play today. NBAdraft.net's Jonathan Wasserman's The evolution and anatomy of the combo-forward examines not only stretch bigs, but other combo forwards as well to indicate the positive - and negative - effects that current NBA players and soon-to-be draftees currently in college may bring in these roles. As the article states plainly:
If the player understands when and how to efficiently play each position, it creates a mismatch that could be difficult for defenses to solve.
Finally, check out Stretch 4s changing NBA dynamic by SFGate's Ron Kroichick to put it in context by seeing the situation through the Golden State Warriors's preparation for two of the best stretch bigs in the NBA, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. It gives an overview of what we've gone over so far, but then wraps it up with a great quote assessing the dilemma by David Lee, which is preceded by this observation:
Lee called Aldridge and Love the league's most challenging, outside-shooting power forwards to cover; Aldridge for his mid-range game and Love for the way he stretches the defense.
It's worth the read.