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Clifford and the Hornets embracing the "stretch big" movement

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At the Hornets' media day, head coach Steve Clifford spoke often about this roster having more shooting than it did a year ago. Josh McRoberts was utilized as Al Jefferson's stretch-four counterpart last year, and Clifford is trying to stretch out Cody Zeller and rookie Noah Vonleh in addition to their free agent big man shooter, Marvin Williams.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Stan Van Gundy’s teams in Orlando built around Dwight Howard and four shooters, and more recently the small-ball lineups of Erik Spoelstra’s Heat, the secret of stretch bigs has been out. I wrote extensively about this on numberFire.com last month, but the trend has grown drastically, even in the past year. Of the 12 best offensive lineups last year (with a 300 minute minimum), eight of them had a stretch big – Kevin Love, Terrence Jones (twice), Channing Frye, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Marvin Williams, and Josh McRoberts. And two more – LaMarcus Aldridge and Kenneth Faried – are apparently working on it.

This trend is something that Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is not unaware of. Take a look at Al Jefferson’s efficiency numbers with and without McRoberts last year (courtesy of nbawowy.com).

PPP PPS FG% USG
Al Jefferson without Josh McRoberts 1.09 1.05 49.7% 31.2%
Al Jefferson with Josh McRoberts 1.13 1.07 51.4% 28.2%

PPP = point per possession, PPS = point per shot, USG = percentage of team plays finished by player

Again, the secret is out — centers are generally better when playing with a fellow big man who can stretch defenses. And that is why the Hornets organization found a perfect fit in Marvin Williams this offseason after McRoberts signed with the Miami Heat in free agency.

Williams had almost exclusively played small forward throughout his NBA career, but last season was often utilized by the Jazz as a stretch four. And it made a lot of sense to build a team this way — why try and fit a player with Williams’ size into the three spot when you can manage on defense with him, when moving him to the four allows you to slot yet another shooter in at the three? It is a positive expected value move.

This is something that Williams has recognized, along with the other non-Jefferson Hornet bigs. Williams obviously talked about his shooting as a big skill he brings to this team, and both Cody Zeller and rookie Noah Vonleh had similar remarks. Zeller commented that he has been working on his range this year, all the way out to the 3-point line. I mentioned to Vonleh yesterday that he was a very good 3-point shooter in college, but just didn’t take that many in his Indiana system. He was very confident in responding that having that range is one of his skills and he has been working every practice to get adjusted to the 3-point line and expanding his range to that mark.

Clifford was very adamant about bringing in more shooting to this roster this season, especially in the starting lineup.

The Hornets' primary four man last year, McRoberts, had his best season as a pro when Clifford encouraged him in that role. Here are his 3-point attempts per year prior to last season: 1, 10, 23, 60, 7, and 84. Last season? He took 291 of them. And while stretch bigs aren’t going to convert as many 3-point shots as their guard counterparts, a .361 success rate is still impressive and devastating for opposing defenses.

Look for Marvin Williams to ease into that role right from the jump, as Clifford announced yesterday in his press conference that he will be the starter alongside Jefferson. Also look for Zeller and Vonleh to grow in their games in this regard as well. Clifford has made shooting, and especially at that four position, a big priority this season. It will show on the court.

Defense, shooting, and space. Sound familiar? If you’ve been watching the Heat and Spurs in the past four NBA Finals, it should. Clifford has the same ideals, and now is starting to get the players to make it a reality.