NBA Meta: The Evolution of The 4

The 1990s and 2000s were riddled with dominant power forwards. Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett represented the archetypal 4: a dominant big who could score in myriad ways and stall an offense with his impeccable defense.

However, another future Hall of Famer broke from this strain. Dirk Nowitzki, though not the first jump-shooting big man, was revolutionary for the position. His skill set and shooting prowess, combined with his height, opened new avenues of attack for offenses. Nowitzki’s consistent fallaway jumper, post-up moves and threatening three-point accuracy kept defenses on their heels. He was the kick-starter for the spread-basketball movement.

Nowitzki’s non-meta play style at power forward—click here to read the first article in this series if you need a refresher on the concept of the NBA Meta—allowed him to attack teams in ways few 4s could. To reduce his abilities to simply that of a power forward who could shoot would not be doing his offensive repertoire justice. However, the shooting aspect of his game demonstrated to the league the impact an elite three-point threat at the position could have for an offense. It opens up passing lanes and allows lesser teammates to operate more easily with the available space.

In the first of the two scoring clips above, Udonis Haslem is forced to overextend on the closeout to prevent a Nowitzki three-pointer. As he closes out too far, his assignment punishes him and blows by into the lane. He pump fakes, and Haslem jumps again in order to prevent the shot. Both contests by Haslem improve the quality of Nowitzki’s shot attempt, with the possession ending on an open free-throw-line jumper.

In the second, Nowitzki catches the ball just below the right high-post hash mark. He sees his defender is a little too far from him to contest his obnoxiously high-arcing jumper and notices three jerseys underneath the rim. If he were to drive to the rim, he would be moving into traffic. However, his reliable jumper makes the unenviable positioning of his teammates a non-factor.

Most teams see mid-range shots as the most ineffective attempts. However, this rule does not apply to elite mid-range shooters such as Nowitzki or Chris Paul (take note, Houston Rockets).

Other NBA teams have attempted to replicate Dallas and its utilization of Nowitzki at the 4 with other All-Star talents. The play styles of Chris Bosh and Kevin Love are homages to their Dallas-based predecessor in their ability to spread the floor and attack from the high post. However, these types of athletes are limited in supply. To compensate for the dearth of space-creating 6’10″ athletes, teams in the 2010s have adjusted by seeking players who do not resemble the archetypal power forward. Instead, they find players with the height of a power forward and three-point ability of a Nowitzki.

Unfortunately, most players with these traits have limited skill sets beyond their jump-shooting capabilities.

The Channing Fryes and Ryan Andersons of the NBA play power forward, but they do so in ways far different from the play styles of Duncan and Nowitzki. They act as three-point shooters around the arc or screeners in pick-and-pop motions, as opposed to options in the high or low post. Ben Falk, who has worked with both the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers has noted the expanding usage of these players across the league in his column Size Matters for Cleaning The Glass, dissecting different big-man lineup pairings used across the league during the 2016-17 season. He describes the old meta’s twin-big pairings as “big” lineups, while the use of Anderson-esque big men at the 4 are typified as “spread” lineups.

Once upon a time, spread 4s were used sparingly, as they typically lacked the offensive completeness of a regular power forward and were more likely to be defensive liabilities. Modern-day skill sets have adjusted.

More tall players are entering the league with jump-shooting capabilities out to the three-point line, directly at a time that the league is embracing the trey like never before. The change in supply of comfortably shooting big men and the advent of more three-heavy offenses has shifted the meta away from Duncan-type bigs. The meta now embraces a wider range at the 4, although each build comes with its own weaknesses.

NBA offenses today largely involve heavy doses of spread pick-and-roll actions. As the speed of the game increased, teams found switching was one of the most effective means for defending the offensive hallmark and deterring the ball-handler.

Golden State has crafted its team in a way that maximizes the number of players on the court who can adequately guard ball-handlers. As most on-ball screen-setters are big men, this strategy requires defensively versatile 4s.

Many spread 4s, however, are not adept at guarding on the perimeter or in the pick-and-roll. Ryan Anderson is caught in the middle ground because he’s not quick enough to step forward and switch onto ball-handler Patty Mills, nor is he aware enough to recover or sit back in anticipation of the pass to the roll man.

NBA teams have adjusted by going “small” and playing a small forward up a position.

This was a core principle for the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals; they moved Andre Iguodala onto LeBron James. When James acted as a screen-setter, Iguodala could harass him or switch onto the ball-handler. In the above clip, he fights through James and a Tristan Thompson screen to contest a three-point shot from Matthew Dellavedova. Iguodala, as a 3, was more laterally quick and adept at defending through screens on the perimeter.

The benefits of 3s replacing 4s stem from having another wing player on the floor during spread pick-and-rolls. On defense, the small forward brings switchability and is more adept at guarding on the perimeter. On offense, the wing replacement is likely a better shooter and dribbler. When the goal is to create as much space as possible, a slashing, shooting 3 is more effective than a typical 4.

This adjustment of slotting players up a position in order to add shooting and spacing to the floor has extended to the 5, where players such as Nowitzki and Chris Bosh have been asked to draw opposing centers from the paint. The progression of coaches throwing out smaller lineups has resonated throughout the league and shifted the overall meta in favor of tall shooters and strong defensive wings.

Of course, each type of lineup has its weaknesses. While power forwards are typically less adept at perimeter defense and can be exposed on switches, teams that shift small can be exposed in rebounding battles, rim protection and post-ups—the last of which was a regular point of attack for players like Duncan and Nowitzki.

However, the number of skilled post scorers is down:

Top Post-Up Scorers in 2016-17

Effective post-up players have become more of a rarity at the bigger positions. Of the players who averaged more than one back-to-the-basket possession per game in 2016-17, Brandon Bass and Paul Millsap were the only ones among the top 20 in points per possession (PPP) who could be considered stereotypical power forwards. Granted, percentile isn’t the best measure of effectiveness, but it demonstrates what I’m talking about when I say there are few power forwards who are elite post-up threats.

Within the meta, skill in the post has gone by the wayside.

Like the last of the Jedi, renaissance men such as Millsap and Zach Randolph impact the game through their channeling of the post-up. Their valuable scoring talents from the blocks prevent opposing teams from shifting smaller. Teams may play a spread 4 or a small forward in an attempt to gain offensive flexibility and shooting, but they become liabilities on the defensive end, to the point that they may hurt their team defensively more than they help on offense. Post-up players are able to expose them, and that undermines the team’s success with smaller lineups.

If they can effectively score in these one-on-one situations, they force defenses to double-team them. And if a player is able to find open teammates as a result of the double and corresponding rotations, they can force the defense to scramble.

Teams that cannot handle a one-on-one post scorer are forced to either switch personnel or send the double and rotate to compensate for their weak post defender. A threat on the blocks truly influences the entirety of the game when he has the skill set that can expose the defense’s mistakes and rotations. In the ultimate game of NBA chess, post-up players who can pass and score effectively can operate as the queens on the board.

Conversely, key defensive players who can mitigate the influence of strong post-up threats—Harrison Barnes, who traditionally plays small forward but has the ability to effectively defend 4s around the hoop, for example—can impact the game to a similar degree.

Barnes is able to effectively defend Blake Griffin’s post move in the above clip, and if he’s unable to score or force defenses to rotate off his teammates, his impact is diminished.

Additionally, on the opposite side of the ball, Barnes is able to leverage his ability to score on the wing and provide spacing against the slower big. Playing at the 4 allows him to abuse slower players, force defensive rotations and, eventually, instigate an opposing team’s personnel or scheme change.

That combination of his ability to defend in the post and add spacing and provide scoring in a mismatch makes him supremely valuable. Barnes, much like Millsap, becomes that queen on the chessboard, but in a different way.

The next phase in Barnes’ evolution is to become the very player he has learned to guard: an overwhelming post-up threat.

Jabari Parker acts as an offensive model for him above. His ability to start on the perimeter but take a weaker player into the post with his size and strength helps him generate easy points. Barnes knows how to score against 4s, but he’ll be unstoppable once he can take advantage of 3s like Parker does so well.

The NBA meta ripples and dramatically shifts as play evolves.

The evolutionary byproduct of Nowitzki’s effect on the league and the advent of the pace-and-space era has redefined the roles and expectations for anyone listed between 6’6″ and 6’10”. They must shoot. They must post up. They must defend on the wing. They must defend in the post. Perimeter play is at the core of the meta, but post scorers can still impact the game from a niche non-meta role.

However, as Barnes and Millsap have shown, athletes with the raw talent and technical skill to straddle the perimeter and post are the ones thriving in the current NBA meta. The latter is a queen on the chess board because of his versatile offensive influence. The former, through his versatility in the post and on the wing, represents the defensive inverse—the rising star who can affect the game through his ability to adjust to his offensive counterpart and upend the gameplan. These men aren’t otherworldly athletes or superstars, but they represent the player archetypes that may come to define the position-shrinking meta.