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It's common to see big men shooting perimeter jumpers in today's NBA, but that wasn't the case 20 years ago. We spoke to some of the pioneers of the "Stretch 4" position that paved the way for today's shooting big men.
Cliff Robinson is one of only three NBA players 6'10 or taller with more than 1,200 three-pointers made in his career. But don't call him a stretch four.
Robinson, who played 18 NBA seasons, used his shooting range as a tool to earn minutes in a crowded rotation early in his career, but he never saw himself as strictly a specialist.
"I also scored almost 20,000 points in my career, and that wasn't just from shooting three-pointers," Robinson said.
Entering the league as a young player on a championship-contending Portland Trail Blazers team, Robinson needed to be versatile to break into a rotation that included established NBA players like Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams and others. But the foundation of his success was his sweet perimeter jumper and, unlike many big men in his era, he wasn't afraid to show that off.
"For me, I always worked on that shot and had the confidence to take it if I was open," Robinson said. "A lot of times, you see big guys who work on the shot and who can make it in practice, but they don't have the confidence to take them in games. I always felt like if I'm going to work on this, I'm going to have the confidence to take it."
Robinson was simply trying to differentiate himself enough to earn minutes as a young player in a deep rotation. What he and other shooting bigs of his era were really doing was revolutionizing how NBA basketball is played.
"I'm glad to be kind of a pioneer of letting it be known that big guys don't have to just be inside players," said Terry Mills, another stretch-four trailblazer in the 1990s.
Unlike the stretch fours in the game today, Robinson and Mills -- two of just 12 players 6'9 or taller to average three or more three-point attempts per game in a single season prior to the 2000 season -- and other shooting big-man pioneers started their careers in an era where they had to justify their existence in other ways. It was great that they could shoot, but they still battled with a traditional definition of what big men were supposed to do.
"There was always pressure to get around the basket," Robinson admitted.
That pressure on bigs with range has declined in the last 20 years. In the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons, only one player 6'9 or taller averaged more than three three-point attempts per game in each of those seasons. This season, 15 players 6'9 or taller are averaging at least three attempts per game.
"When I was growing up, I was a fan of guard play, so I tended to gravitate outside," Robinson said. "Then, I just tried to combine inside and outside play. It's about having an overall presence on the floor. The more you do, the better chance you have of getting to play."
Robinson wasn't the only one. As a first-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan in 1990, Mills entered the NBA as a typical back-to-the-basket big man.
In college, he was a high-percentage interior scorer and a solid rebounder on some good Michigan teams, including a national championship team in 1989. In his first two NBA seasons, Mills' production with the Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets was solid, if unremarkable. After signing with his hometown Detroit Pistons as a free agent in the 1992 offseason, Mills began to discover the extra dimension that would help him carve out a successful 11-year NBA career -- a three-point shot.
In his first season with the Pistons, Mills had the opportunity to play with another big man who added a perimeter shot to his repertoire as a way to prolong his effectiveness: Bill Laimbeer.
"I got a chance to play with Bill, and he was one of the original big man shooters," said Mills, who is currently an assistant basketball coach at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., just outside of Detroit. "He instilled in me that if I could hit that shot, it could be really effective for me and help me in my career. Bill really helped me develop as a player and encouraged me."
Mills attempted a career-high 36 three-pointers in his first season with the Pistons, making 10. The following season, he shot 24 for 73 from three-point range. His third season was his breakout season as a shooter, making 109 threes in 285 attempts (38 percent).
But it was the following season, when current Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins took over as the Pistons' head man, that Mills really started to see the potential of what a big man with shooting range could do for a modern NBA offense.
"The stretch four really developed because you see guys like LeBron James today, who can get to the basket and finish whenever they want, so you don't necessarily always want big guys underneath clogging things up," Mills said. "I really started using that shot when Doug Collins took over as coach of the Pistons. He wanted to use me as more of a specialist in pick and rolls with Grant Hill. It was a win-win for us, because a big guy switching on Grant Hill was a big advantage since Grant could take him to the basket or he could pass to me for a shot over a smaller defender."
Mills made 39 percent of his three-pointers that season and his emergence as a productive perimeter threat helped the Pistons improve from a 28-win team the previous season to a playoff team in 1995-96.
Others also benefited from progressive coaching. Matt Bullard was part of a Houston Rockets team that made great use of floor-stretching shooters at all positions surrounding Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon on two championship teams. Bullard and Robert Horry were among those 12 players to have seasons with three or more attempts per game. Bullard, now in his eighth season as a color analyst for the Rockets, credits coach Rudy Tomjanovich for being a visionary when it came to spreading the floor.
"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."
Like Mills, Bullard spent his pre-NBA career as a classic big man. Injuries, however, forced him to add elements to his game in order to carve out a successful niche as a pro. There wasn't yet a three-point line in the NCAA in his first year in college, but Bullard said he began extending his range as a sophomore at Colorado.
"I didn't think of myself as strictly a three-point shooter until the end of my NBA career," Bullard said. "Five knee surgeries robbed me of my athleticism, so all I could do by the end of my career was shoot threes. I considered myself to be a complete basketball player that ended up shooting threes at the end of my career to stay in the league."
Considering the initial successes of Mills, Bullard, Robinson and others, it's no surprise that more teams caught on. Three of the coaches who successfully used floor-stretching big men in the 1990s -- Collins, Rick Adelman with Robinson's Portland teams and George Karl with Sam Perkins in Seattle -- are still coaching today. The number of players 6'9 or taller who attempted three or more threes per game exploded after the 1999-2000 season, as did the number of big men who played more like guards.
"A guy like Toni Kukoc when I was playing -- he was a tall guy, but he played that European style," Mills said. "He was 6'9, but he could put it on the floor, he could shoot. We've seen that more and more since, with guys like Dirk (Nowitzki) or Kevin Durant for example. They let big men know that your game doesn't have to be limited."
The success of big men who could shoot the three at the NBA level eventually had a larger effect. San Antonio Spurs three-point marksman Matt Bonner said the success of those before him made it more acceptable for his coaches to encourage that shot growing up.
"I was fortunate to have coaches in the formative days who didn't just stick me in the paint because I was taller than everybody else and really drilled in the aspect of shooting. I guess at the time I had progressive coaches," he said. "It was like the European model -- they treated everybody the same. Everybody did post moves, everybody worked on the perimeter, and when it came to game time we ran a motion offense so you're kind of everywhere."
Phoenix Suns big man Channing Frye said the physicality of interior play was a big reason he developed his perimeter game. While players might be strong enough to handle the constant contact associated with playing inside at the college level, the size and strength of bigs increases in the NBA. Having the versatility to develop an outside game helped him compensate.
"For one, I'm only 250 pounds max during the season, so I'm not going to be able to bang (with some of the league's biggest players)," Frye said. "For me, (shooting the three) is just something that was different, something I've been working on. It's a different aspect of the game I can bring. I'm usually going to play with bigger [centers], so for them to post up, they need the spacing."
Frye attempted only 23 three-pointers in four seasons at Arizona and 70 in his first four NBA seasons with the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers. But much like his predecessors in the 1990s, finding an offensive system that was friendly to a shooting big man allowed him to discover his niche. Frye joined the Suns in 2009-10 and has averaged 364 attempts per season since. Under Mike D'Antoni and then Alvin Gentry, the Suns have made great use of floor-spacers of all sizes, and Frye quickly identified what his shooting ability could do for the team's bigs and former point guard Steve Nash.
"Now, (shooting) is what I'm known for, so it helps coaches find different opportunities for me to be in there with other guys," Frye said. "I was just like, well, I can shoot, so just do it. It was a lot of me saying, OK, I'm not going to play more than Amar'e (Stoudemire) and I can't be as big as Robin (Lopez), so what's in between that? I saw the opportunities (shooting) created for Amar'e and that spacing for Steve (Nash) to see the floor."
Although fit and opportunity are still factors in players finding spots in NBA rotations, the work of pioneering big men who could shoot the three in the 1990s has certainly boosted the credibility of today's stretch fours. The Orlando Magic employed a similar strategy to Tomjanovich's title teams in Houston, surrounding a dominant center with four shooters when they reached the NBA Finals. Individual big men like Frye, Rashard Lewis, Ryan Anderson, Charlie Villanueva, Al Harrington and Andrea Bargnani, among others, have all received lucrative contracts largely on their three-point threat potential.
Basketball fans love debating whether certain star players could have excelled in other eras. An argument against stars from the past excelling in the current league landscape notes that today's game features faster, stronger athletes than in eras past. While those factors may make it harder for a "star" to be a star in any era, shooting big men from the 1990s might actually thrive more today with more innovative offensive approaches and the blurring of positional definitions.
"I always joke that I was born 20 years too soon," Bullard said. "Big men that can shoot threes can play a long time in this league."
-Kristopher Habbas of Bright Side of the Sun and Matthew Tynan of Pounding the Rock contributed reporting.