Are NBA Teams Overvaluing Stretch 4s in Free Agency?

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Are NBA Teams Overvaluing Stretch 4s in Free Agency?
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Forget LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—these few, frenzied weeks of free agency will heretofore be known as “the Summer of Stretch 4s…and Spencer Hawes.”

Between the four of them, Hawes, Channing Frye, Josh McRoberts and Patrick Patterson are poised to pull in a whopping $96 million over the next four years.

Has the NBA finally gone overboard in its love of sweet-shooting big men?

The answer is as complex as the newly signed slingers themselves.

In It 4 the Money
Player Team Years Total Salary
Josh McRoberts Miami Heat 4 $23 million
Channing Frye Orlando Magic 4 $32 million
Spencer Hawes L.A. Clippers 4 $23 million
Patrick Patterson Toronto Raptors 3 $18 million

SBNation.com

That the league has been trending toward more perimeter-oriented offenses isn’t exactly breaking news. Owing to the growth of analytics, more and more teams are eschewing mid-range jump shots in lieu of the more efficient long ball—particularly from the corners.

According to BestTickets.com’s Andrew Powell-Morse, NBA teams are shooting nearly 10 times as many threes (up from 2.77 to 21.25) as they were in 1980, the year the three-point line was officially introduced.

That, in turn, has helped put a premium not only on traditional perimeter marksmen, but big men capable of stepping out and stretching the defense as well.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Coupled with league rule changes designed to limit the amount of defensive contact a defender is afforded, you get the recipe for today’s drive-and-kick offenses, where speed and space reign supreme.

As point guards are afforded more range of movement, the logic of having two block-bound behemoths clogging up the lane becomes increasingly untenable.

Sure, you might want one your bigs hovering around the hoop to scoop up whatever lob or miss might come his way. But having the other be able to creep out to a wide-open wing or corner? Playmaking options abound.

That pretty much brings us to today, where the likes of Chris Bosh (Miami Heat), Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves), Ryan Anderson (New Orleans Pelicans) and the rest have changed the way we think about traditional power forwards.

Ron Turenne/Getty Images

That’s not to say the contracts of Frye, McRoberts, Hawes and Patterson can be completely explained in terms of rule changes and spatial metrics, however.

Indeed, it’s the nature of free agency that the signing of one particular player with one particular skill set will result in another player with a similar skill set fetching a similar tender—even if the financial realities of their respective teams couldn’t be more diffuse.

What are agents for, after all?

Still, it’s impossible not to wonder whether and how soon this particular positional paradigm shift might fall by the wayside.

Writing at Grantland, Kirk Goldsberry—using the NBA D-League’s three-happy Rio Grande Valley Vipers as an example—explains why we may be arriving at a triple tipping point:

One troubling issue with the Vipers’ strategy is that they are significantly reducing the size of the scoring area. Let’s go back to the 1,300-square-foot apartment metaphor — the Vipers hang out only in the kitchen and bedroom. They never use the living room. By forgoing midrange shots altogether, they are telling opponents that they don’t plan on using a giant swath of tactical space relatively close to the basket. As NBA defenses evolve, the smartest ones are already finding ways to counter the smart-guy shot-selection strategy. The Pacers, who have the league’s best defense, have a reputation for vigorously defending the restricted area and the 3-point area, while being less protective of the midrange. They are the Vipers’ antivenom.

FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris, who likewise cited Goldsberry’s screed, teased this logic out even further in a subsequent post:

But there’s an even bigger issue with the back-of-the-envelope efficiency calculation at the heart of the pro-3 argument: The fact that 3-pointers are more efficient than midrange shots overall doesn’t mean the marginal 3-pointer is necessarily more valuable than the marginal 2-pointer.

The point of Goldsberry and Morris’ analysis isn’t to somehow discount the value of stretch 4s—far from it.

Rather, they’re simply positing a pure and simple fact of sports strategy in the analytics age: As teams increasingly gain access to the same information, stopping your opponent from playing to his strength is just as obvious.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to our original question: Has this group of stretch 4s (…and Hawes) been overvalued?

The short answer: No, they haven’t.

The long answer? Let’s take them each in turn.

USA TODAY Sports

By signing McRoberts to the midlevel exception, Miami Heat president Pat Riley is essentially conceding his team will be over the salary cap one way or the other, whether it brings back LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade or not.

If signing McRoberts—along with Miami’s other offseason moves—prove enough to entice the Big Three back, wouldn’t it have been well worth the risk?

On the other hand, if the Heat find themselves starting from scratch, whether McRoberts lives up to the contract will depend on his actual production. Which, considering the resulting dearth of options, isn’t exactly an impossibility.

With Frye, the calculus is a little more cut and dried: Orlando has bundles of cap space to spend and could legitimately use the former Phoenix Sun’s brand of floor spacing.

If Frye maintains his steadfast production, it’s hard to imagine that deal being seen in hindsight as anything worse than a minor overpay.

USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors—having just re-signed Kyle Lowry and beginning to run up against the cap—had something of a decision to make: pick up Amir Johnson’s $7 million player option or roll the dice on the slightly younger, slightly less productive Patterson (Johnson is 27 years old to Patterson's 25).

That the former University of Kentucky standout has emerged as a legitimate three-point threat made the choice all the easier.

Finally, the signing of Hawes by the Los Angeles Clippers represents a neat nexus between a financially flush team, roster need and a player whose past productivity undoubtedly warranted such an offer.

Are stretch 4s being overvalued?

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As with any deal not involving the league’s elite, these four signings are bound to have their fair share of detractors. Lord Hindsight being chief among them.

We may well arrive at a point—perhaps sooner than later—when the value of the stretch 4 experiences a regression, either by dint of rule changes, strategy or something else entirely.

Until that day comes, however, expect to see more stretch 4s turn market inefficiencies into big paydays.

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