Surprising Stretch Fives and Houston's Unstoppable Offense: Adam Mares' NBA Wraparound

Brook Lopez shoots threes? Brook Lopez shoots threes! Also, Julius Randle is having a breakout year.
November 18, 2016, 8:15pm
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: Welcome to VICE Sports' new NBA Wraparound, a regular feature in which Adam Mares breaks down plays, trends, and all the cool stuff happening in the association.

The pace and space, small ball, three-point shooting era has been rolling along for half a decade now, but every year it gets a little bit weirder. In 2009 it was bold for a team to play a "stretch four" next to Dwight Howard. Today, Kenneth Faried is a team's closing center. Even the Memphis Grizzlies, the last team to build around two post players, have moved toward more four-out lineups, moving the veteran Zach Randolph to the bench.

But it's not just small for small's sake. New bigs are bringing entirely new skill sets into the league while the old guard is adding new tricks to try and keep up with the times. Three teams are on pace to attempt more three-pointers per game than any team in NBA history and not one of them is the Golden State Warriors. The evolution of the game of basketball continues across the league as teams and players push the boundaries of what is possible. New coaches have installed new philosophies and styles into young rosters while a few familiar faces are back in the league with some new tricks.

Let's take a closer look at three teams at the forefront of some pretty unique new trends.

Brook Lopez, stretch five

One of the most entertaining parts of the pace and space era of basketball is watching the unlikeliest of players add the three-point shot to their offensive arsenal. Demarcus Cousins is the most dominant interior scorer in the league, yet last season he took 210 three-pointers, three times more than his previous five seasons combined.

This season, Brook Lopez is becoming the latest (and strangest) member of the stretch five club. Prior to this season, Lopez had made just three total shots from behind the arc. He's already made 16 three-pointers this season on 5.4 attempts per night. More importantly, he's spending more and more time out on the perimeter in pick and rolls, pick and pops, and as a floor spacer in the corners.

The adjustment is actually pretty understandable. He's still one of the most frequent post up players in the NBA per Synergy, and is scoring 1.02 points per possession, the 5th best mark for players that have taken at least 25 post ups. But using him in a more versatile role helps open up the paint for dribble drives, the team's strength on the offensive end. The Nets average the third most drives per game and the 6th best FG percent on drives, per and have a respectable 102.4 ORtg. Not bad for a team that has arguably the league's least talented roster.

Who will be the next unlikely player to start chucking shots from behind the arc? Timofey Mozgov? Al Jefferson? Greg Monroe?

Houston's above the break threes

Houston leads the league in 3FGA's per 100 possessions, they're 2nd in "wide open" 3FGA per game, and are 6th in 3FG percent. Yet perhaps what makes them especially unique is the rate and efficiency with which they attempt non-corner threes. They make 11.2 threes per game from above the break, two more than the 2nd place Golden State Warriors. They have three players, James Harden, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon who rank in the top five in the entire NBA in 3FGM from above the break and another, Trevor Ariza, that ranks in the top 20.

Those are some absurd statistics. Corner threes have been the holy grail of basketball efficiency for over a decade; the three-point line is shorter in the corners and the geometry of the court makes it difficult to defend both the rim and the corners at the same time. In today's NBA, every team places someone in the corners at some point on almost every single possession, including the Rockets.

But the ability to consistently knock down threes from the wings creates a whole new set of issues for defenses. For starters, the distance between the corner, the wing, and the paint is too great for a player to float back and forth between. If the Rockets are able to have reliable shooters in those spots, then James Harden is able to attack his defender one-on-one. Add in a very reliable pick and roll screener and finisher in Clint Capela and you have the perfect recipe for Harden to attack and torture helpless defenses.

Harden's absurd numbers

Torture is a good word for what James Harden is doing to opposing defenses. No player in NBA history has averaged at least 27 points, seven rebounds, and 12 assists like Harden is right now, and he's done it while holding the 2nd best true shooting percentage of his career. The Rockets have an absurd 115.3 ORtg when Harden is on the court, meaning the Rockets have the league's best offense when he is in the game.

Head coach Mike D'Antoni has Harden running the offense like a quarterback. He has the ball in his hands for a league-leading 9.5 minutes per game, a full minute more than the second most ball dominant player in the league, Russell Westbrook. Harden operates at the top of the arc like a QB that is always one step ahead of the defense. Harden is the league's best paper-rock-scissors player, always correctly anticipating which defender will help and which will stay home. Take one step into the paint to help and the pass is already sailing overhead to the open shooter in the corner. Stay home and take away the kickout and Harden is already past his defender and at the rim.

On the rare occasions that the defense is patient enough to disguise their coverage, Harden creates a game of chicken, holding the ball on the attack until the last possible second. In the clip below, watch how the defense thinks they've finally forced him to commit to the shot only to have Harden change his mind in the nick of time.

Harden makes those types of plays every single game, and with knockdown shooters all around the perimeter, the Rockets are creating an offense that is simple to run and nearly impossible to defend. D'Antoni has had efficient offenses before but never one this efficient in the half court. The seven seconds or less Phoenix Suns were great in transition but never cracked 1.10 points per possession on possessions following a made shot like the Rockets have. The Rockets are less reliant on fast breaks and early offense, playing right around a league average pace. Harden even walks the ball up court most possessions, almost like he's catching his breath, before operating like a maestro in high pick and rolls and dribble drives.

Julius Randle's passing

The Los Angeles Lakers are off to a surprising start thanks in large part to the improved passing and playmaking of Julius Randle. Randle has doubled his assists per game from last season, from 1.8 to 3.8 per game. He's also increased his scoring from 11.3 points per game to 14.2 points per game despite playing the exact same minutes per game and taking slightly fewer shots.

Head coach Luke Walton has opened up the court for the young Lakers, placing shooters around the perimeter with clearly defined principles and reads. It's rare that a player is standing in or near the painted area for more than a second or two without a purpose. Randle gets post touches on the elbow or outside of the block and has been great at hitting cutters and spot up shooters on kickouts. He's also become very good at reading the many different options on dribble handoffs and pindown screens. He'll hit D'Angelo Russell on a backdoor cut on one possession and then dribble pitch into a quick screen and re-screen action for Jordan Clarkson on the next.

Randle is the type of "tweener" who's in-between size and skill set makes him more of an asset than a liability. He has the size and footwork to bang down low against undersized power forwards and the speed and skill to maneuver around bigger, slower defenders. Every game he looks more and more comfortable at reading the defense as a sort of point-forward on rolls to the rim, and as the trailing screener, as evidenced by his impressive 13 point, 18 rebound, 10 assist triple double last week against the Nets. At the rate that both he and D'Angelo appear to be improving, they might develop the best two-man game of any young core in the league by season's end.

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