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Let’s cut to the chase: Ranking NBA lineups is hard.
Five-man combinations invite a certain randomness, and so many different factors can skew the results. Chief among them: sample size and quality of opponent. Both make comparing different arrangements inherently difficult and, at times, ineffective.
This exercise won’t pretend to solve these issues. It will, however, try to go beyond the raw results.
A Bayesian adjustment was made to every lineup that has logged at least 15 possessions. This is essentially an attempt to weigh a group’s net rating against its sample size and the performance of the team’s average five-man unit. That gives us an adjusted net rating, which should, in theory, be a friendlier way of pitting combinations against one another.
From there, every quintet that hasn’t cleared 50 possessions was thrown out. This is sort of arbitrary, but drooling over lineups that haven’t spent semi-ample time together doesn’t seem too instructive. The league’s average pace this year is around 100 possessions per 48 minutes. Using half that as the minimum left every team with double-digit candidates.
Some of the results are wonky. This method doesn’t account for quality of opponent, but it still feels like a better, more objective way of going about the process. We will discuss what might contribute to the most unexpected results—like MVP candidates not appearing in their team’s selection.
Players that have since been lost to injury or traded will still be included whenever their lineup samples survive the cutting room floor. This is a uniform evaluation of minutes already played. What is possible moving forward or has become the new norm is part of the discussion, but it does not erase the past. (Next-up contenders will be discussed in these situations.)
Please do not interpret this an end-all. These lineups are not necessarily populated by every squad’s best players. Nor are they necessarily units that need to be closing games or even get more floor time (some should). They are strictly the five-player gaggles that have, relative to their own team, done the most with their minutes they’ve been given.
*Possession data comes from Cleaning the Glass and is accurate as of games entering Saturday, Jan. 25.
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Lineup: Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Alex Len
Possessions Played (as of Jan. 25): 77
Adjusted Net Rating: 15.8
Almost any return for the Atlanta Hawks would’ve seemed like it hit the mark. They have so few knowns, theirs is a situation hard to get completely wrong. Their combination of youth, a shaky to nonexistent backup point guard rotation and John Collins’ 25-game suspension opened the door for just about any scenario.
Trae Young’s absence would’ve been the only outlier worth questioning. The Hawks aren’t built to trudge on without him even after the Jeff Teague trade.
Not surprisingly, their top-seven lineups all included him. Ditch the sample-size minimum, and he’s an even more pronounced constant. Of Atlanta’s 25 most effective combinations by adjusted net rating, he appears in 23.
This lineup is the closest the Hawks get to replicating their five-out combinations with Dewayne Dedmon in the middle last season. Alex Len isn’t shooting as well or frequently from three—and he’s missed time recently with a hip injury—but he’s still an option from beyond the arc. And along with De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, he gives Atlanta the chance to surround Collins and Young with three average to above-average positional stoppers. This group owns a staunch 83.1 defensive rating.
Anyone hoping to see the “All-Future” lineup, with Kevin Huerter subbed in for Alex Len, needn’t be mega disappointed. That group finished fourth among the Hawks’ qualified candidates, with an adjusted net rating of 7.4 across 189 possessions.
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Lineup: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis
Possessions Played: 308
Adjusted Net Rating: 16.4
Sometimes a team’s most used lineup happens to be its most effective one despite facing tougher opponents (starters) and, perhaps, seeing too many reps. This is one of those occasions.
No other Boston Celtics arrangement has sopped up more possessions than their most frequent starting unit. That’s ideal and mostly typical, but in this case, far from a given. Gordon Hayward has missed significant time, and Boston’s carousel of 5s was supposed to invite more variance up front. Daniel Theis has instead began almost every game jumping center.
That mix of injuries and an unsettled big-man rotation has trickled down to the rest of the rotation. The 15 highest adjusted net ratings for the Celtics all belong to units that have tallied under 35 possessions. Absences from Hayward and Marcus Smart are primary catalysts, and a vacillating rotation at the backup 4 and 5 spots has contributed to a tinier average sample size for lineups across the board.
Fortunately, this result still doesn’t need a disclaimer. It features four of Boston’s top five players and the best possible option at center—unless you’re a Grant Williams enthusiast, in which case, all I can say is: same.
The Celtics are pumping in 124.4 points per 100 possessions (92nd percentile) with these five in the game. That’s not much of a shock. Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker are Boston’s four best scorers.
Those curious about the small-ball boy band featuring Smart instead of Theis can rest easy knowing their adjusted net rating is fairly strong (11.6). That group just fell well short of the 50-possession qualifier.
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Lineup: Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs, Jarrett Allen
Possessions Played: 72
Adjusted Net Rating: 20.5
Don’t worry. This isn’t as awkward as it looks.
Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert should ideally be members of the Brooklyn Nets’ most dangerous lineups. In practice, they probably are. But they’ve both missed more than half the season, which limits the number of eligible units they’ve helped headline. It hurts Irving specifically that many of Brooklyn’s most used combinations with him have underachieved at the offensive end.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen have more than enough reps under their belts to warrant the nod. Only eight Nets lineups have higher possession counts, and they’re posting a 138.9 offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage of 65—marks that both place inside the 100th percentile.
The issue? This lineup is hardly a mainstay. It has made just four appearances, all of which have come over the past 13 games. That’s either a red flag or cause to keep rolling with it—or maybe a little bit of both.
Brooklyn’s second-place finisher is slightly more conventional. Kurucs is swapped out for LeVert. That lineup has a 15.1 adjusted net rating across 58 possessions.
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Lineup: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Monk, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Bismack Biyombo
Possessions Played: 74
Adjusted Net Rating: 20.8
You’re not alone if this feels off to you.
Only four Charlotte Hornets lineups have played more, but this group doesn’t have a spot inside the current rotation. All of its appearances came before Dec. 1, and it includes just one of the team’s four most used players (Devonte’ Graham).
The Hornets hovered closer to .500 earlier in the year, and their two primary lineups suffer from an overexposure to rival starters. It is fair to ascribe more value to the arrangement of Graham, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington and Cody Zeller maintaining a slightly positive adjusted net rating in its 391-possession sample.
On the flip side, this unit isn’t a total outlier. Veteran-heavy combinations should technically be steadier, and this is one of the best defensive and offensive rebounding frontlines Charlotte can field.
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Lineup: Coby White, Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Thaddeus Young, Lauri Markkanen
Possessions Played: 52
Adjusted Net Rating: 27.0
It is beyond fitting the Chicago Bulls’ top lineup includes Lauri Markkanen playing the 5, mostly because it makes so much sense, and because head coach Jim Boylen resisted using him at center too often before his right hip injury.
Whether this unit would have even received the opportunity to breathe without injuries hitting the roster is a matter of debate. All of its appearances have come in the last month, which aligns almost perfectly with Wendell Carter Jr.’s right ankle sprain.
Everything about this group seems unsustainable. That, again, is the danger of looking at five-man combos in general. Chicago is pairing a 165.4 offensive rating with a sub-100 defensive rating when these five take the floor.
That defensive mark will break over time. Thaddeus Young is the only above-average stopper of the bunch. Then again, Markkanen-at-center arrangements have hung in there this season at the less glamorous end, and the Bulls’ uncompromisingly aggressive pick-and-roll defense can force enough turnovers to inflate the stinginess of just about any unit not bogged down by plodding bigs.
Offensive regression is likewise unavoidable, but that’s where this clique, well, clicks. Zach LaVine, Tomas Satoransky and Coby White can all play on or off the ball, and Young’s shaky range is much less problematic alongside four others who can capably launch threes.
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Lineup: Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
Possessions Played: 57
Adjusted Net Rating: 11.8
R.I.P. to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson-plus-starters lineup. You were stunningly effective while you lasted.
Sending Clarkson to the Utah Jazz cost the Cavaliers what was, in the aggregate, their most effective unit. Never mind the 50-possession minimum. Only eight of their 60ish fivesomes that made up the team average finished with adjusted net ratings in the green.
This group leads the pack by a light year. Better yet, its performance was, by and large, believable.
Propping up a 128.1 offensive rating for the entire season might’ve proved impossible. The Cavaliers’ 57.4 effective field-goal percentage (98th percentile) over this small sample would’ve most assuredly come down. No way, no how, does this lineup’s 90.8 defensive rating stand the test of more time.
But Cleveland wasn’t playing entirely overs its head. This quintet limited turnovers, controlled the defensive glass and, yes, drilled an unfathomably high percentage of its mid-range jumpers. It had staying power.
Limiting the Cavaliers’ pool to exclusively current players would’ve churned out a similar lineup structure: Sexton, Osman, Love, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson. Those five have an adjusted net rating of 1.8 through 120-plus possessions.
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Lineup: Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell
Possessions Played: 195
Adjusted Net Rating: 29.9
Kristaps Porzingis has missed enough time—and struggled enough—for his absence not to come as a surprise. The four-man combination of Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell has steamrolled opponents, and Maxi Kleber’s more reliable outside clip is, for the time being, a cleaner fit.
Or rather, it was a cleaner fit. This lineup has already played its last possession, as Powell is going to miss the rest of the season after suffering a ruptured right Achilles tendon.
Replicating this group’s effectiveness won’t be easy. It should be as simple as dropping in Porzingis for Powell. It’s not. The Dallas Mavericks are getting waxed on defense whenever Kleber and Porzingis share the floor with Doncic or Hardaway.
Acquiring Willie Cauley-Stein from the Golden State Warriors should help. He’s not the most disciplined defender, but he’s mobile enough to guard outside the paint and more of a natural roll man than Kleber or Porzingis.
If Cauley-Stein’s arrival doesn’t do the trick, Dallas will need to experiment with more Finney-Smith-at-the-4 minutes. They haven’t worked out so well on defense, but the Mavericks are a net plus when he plays power forward beside Kleber or Porzingis.
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Lineup: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, Nikola Jokic
Possessions Played: 57
Adjusted Net Rating: 20.9
This was so close to very predictable.
The Denver Nuggets’ preferred starting five of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic is once again obliterating opponents. They were the unofficial favorite to win even after accounting for injuries to Millsap (left knee) and Murray (left ankle).
They remain the subjective answer. A 12.8 net rating across a 1,150-possession sample is no joke—especially given how much time they’ve spent tussling with opposing starting units. Yanking Millsap for Mason Plumlee, who’s currently sidelined with a right foot injury, is not an upgrade.
At the same time: holy crap, the defense.
Denver is allowing just 65.5 points per 100 possessions with Plumlee-plus-starters on the floor. That’s jaw-dropping no matter the sample size. The Nuggets have struggled to score efficiently during these minutes—they’re not getting to the line or shooting well at the rim or from distance—but they’re grabbing all the rebounds and not committing a ton of turnovers.
If nothing else, there seems to be a place, however matchup-dependent, for this lineup.
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Lineup: Derrick Rose, Langston Galloway, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Markieff Morris, Christian Wood
Possessions Played: 144
Adjusted Net Rating: 28.5
Something about this lineup screams “bench mob,” but it’s not quite that. The Detroit Pistons’ onrush of injuries has, for now, upgraded Derrick Rose and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk to the starting five, and Markieff Morris has earned some spot minutes at the opening tip.
All the different rotation tweaks have limited this group’s run in 2020. Overall, though, they comprise Detroit’s fourth most used lineup. The fivesome has a blistering 138.3 offensive rating and is surviving on the defensive end—success that isn’t as random as it seems.
Detroit is hard-pressed to cobble together a unit with better spacing. Galloway, Morris, Mykhailiuk and Wood are all shooting 38 percent or better from distance, and the latter is the only one of the five attempting fewer than four threes per 36 minutes.
Surrounding Rose with four viable outside threats—and one effective pick-and-roll diver (Wood)—is a dream. He’s averaging 24.8 drives per 36 minutes, finishing at a career-high clip around the rim and assisting on three-pointers in volume. Only six players have dimed up on more triples than Rose, according to PBP Stats.
This lineup would have some competition if the Pistons were at full strength. The planned starting unit of Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Tony Snell, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond has an adjusted net rating of 16.7. But that’s still miles below this group’s mark, and with Griffin out for the year, there will be no late-season catch-up.
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Lineup: Ky Bowman, Jordan Poole, Glenn Robinson III, Eric Paschall, Willie Cauley-Stein
Possessions Played: 82
Adjusted Net Rating: 8.1
Sweet mother of God.
Exactly zero of these players were on the Golden State Warriors last season. Hell, after shipping Willie Cauley-Stein to the Dallas Mavericks, only four have a shot at finishing this year on the roster.
Which is to say, life has come at the Warriors fast. They’ve gone from a championship formality to having the NBA’s worst record in a matter of months.
Injuries have bilked them of their chance to compete immediately following Kevin Durant‘s departure, but this is still awkward. Absences explain the exclusions of Stephen Curry, Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson. You’d expect this year’s most promising lineup to include one of Draymond Green and D’Angelo Russell, if not both, level of competition be damned.
But gap years are conducive to randomness. The winning lineup wasn’t even a staple by the time Cauley-Stein was jettisoned to Dallas. It is the team’s seventh most used combination but made just one appearance after Dec. 1.
That impermanence fits the spirit of the Warriors’ circumstances. They’re not evaluating whole lineups against the future. The heart of their big-picture infrastructure is already in place. They’re tasked with measuring individual long-term fits. This lineup hints at that undertaking, even if it was never a constant.
The Warriors moved Cauley-Stein in part so they could create more room under the hard cap and retain Ky Bowman (two-way contract). Eric Paschall looks like a keeper—or useful trade asset—relative to his draft position (No. 41). Jordan Poole has shown more of an offensive pulse in recent weeks. And though re-signing him in free agency will be tough without Bird rights, Glenn Robinson III has proved extremely plug-and-play.
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Possessions Played: 61
Adjusted Net Rating: 22.6
Take this lineup’s finish with a metric ton of salt. It does not imply that Tyson Chandler is better for the Houston Rockets than Clint Capela. It has merely made the most of a truncated sample.
Chandler hasn’t been a part of the regular rotation in almost two months. Not only has this group been grounded since the start of December, but its possession count was racked up over five total appearances.
This fivesome is more about the foursome within it: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Ben McLemore and PJ Tucker.
Houston is trucking opponents in the almost 600 possessions this quartet has recorded together. Lineups including them are shooting a preposterously high 42.8 percent on above-the-break threes and living in transition.
Granted, the defense is getting a little lucky. Houston is letting opponents get out on the break a bunch and not holding up well at the rim. But the overall performance cannot be painted as a fluke.
Pretty much every fifth wheel attached to this tetrad is finding success. The Rockets have even carved out some promising no-true-center lineups around this four-player base. Sub in Danuel House for Chandler, and you actually get the qualifying lineup with the second-highest adjusted net rating.
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Lineup: Aaron Holiday, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Holiday, TJ Warren, Domantas Sabonis
Possession Count: 50
Adjusted Net Rating: 18.2
Domantas Sabonis-at-center lineups are scoring at a frenetic clip so far, and this lineup lives up to that billing while injecting a ton of weird into the equation.
The Indiana Pacers have an offensive rating of 124 with this group on an effective field-goal percentage that ranks inside the 5th percentile. Offensive rebounding has not been the difference-maker; this unit rates in the 4th percentile of cleaning up its own misses.
So what gives? Free throws. Lots of them. And minimal turnovers. And the usual dose of strong mid-range shooting.
Other lineups have played more. Indiana has 17 other combinations that have notched higher possession counts, and this group just sneaks past the minimum qualifications. But aside from the Holiday brothers-plus-starters arrangement that finished second in adjusted net rating for the Pacers, this unit fits snugly inside the model that has proved most successful: dotting Sabonis with a nice blend of attacking, shooting and individual defense.
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Lineup: Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Kawhi Leonard, JaMychal Green, Montrezl Harrell
Possessions Played: 81
Adjusted Net Rating: 40.0
Paul George‘s absence is neither a misnomer nor something worth reading deeply into. Hamstring and shoulder issues have limited him to 26 appearances, and only four of the lineups in which he’s played meet the possession threshold.
Viewed against the backdrop of George’s availability, this outcome is fairly predictable.
Four of the Los Angeles Clippers’ five best players still populate this unit, an ensemble that has spit hot fire all season long. It hasn’t mattered who gets attached to Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Kawhi Leonard and Montrezl Harrell. The end result has been the same: total domination.
JaMychal Green is the most obvious finishing touch. He is more matchup-proof than Ivica Zubac; can be counted on for more three-point volume than Maurice Harkless; and offers a sturdier rebounding presence than small-ball versions that nudge Leonard to the 4 spot.
Of note for this lineup: all five players are combining to shoot 45.5 percent on above-the-break triples and 58.3 percent on short mid-ranger jumpers. Both marks would rank in the 100th percentile and are equal parts unimaginable and unsustainable.
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John McCoy/Getty Images
Possessions Played: 116
Adjusted Net Rating: 25.9
Rajon Rondo? And Alex Caruso? And Kyle “Jonah Hill from 21 Jump Street” Kuzma? And Dwight Howard? And no Anthony Davis?
Can a lineup be clickbait?
Context goes a long way toward validating this group. The Los Angeles Lakers are ripping through opponents when LeBron James plays without Davis, and this unit, while not so much a staple lately, is among their five most-used combinations, period.
Three of the team’s highest-volume lineups are actually of the LeBron-without-AD variety, lending further merit to this end result. Beyond that, when considering how often they face opposing second-stringers, LeBron-and-bench-player arrangements are built to make waves.
Operating with that information in mind still only does so much. This lineup looks out of place. Rondo has the highest three-point clip among its five members (34.9 percent), but collectively, this unit is canning 44.4 percent of its treys and 56 percent of its mid-range opportunities.
The defensive returns are harder to comprehend. Yes, James is more engaged and Kuzma has offered subtle value on the less glamorous end since last season. But this fivesome is down the Lakers’ two best defenders, Davis and Danny Green, and they have better alternatives in the backcourt to both Caruso and Rondo. That should matter.
It apparently doesn’t, at least not to date. The Lakers have a 79.7 defensive rating with this lineup on the floor, over which time opponents are shooting an impossibly low 52.2 percent at the rim and 32.4 percent from long range.
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Lineup: Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Possessions Played: 90
Adjusted Net Rating: 25.3
Try not to take Ja Morant’s absence too seriously. It is not a harbinger of anything sinister. Nor does it negate the findings.
Rookie point guards are just…weird. Especially those who spend so much time versus enemy starters. Their learning curve is steeper when they’re entrusted control of the offense, and they’re historically inefficient.
Scorching-hot streak and all, the Memphis Grizzlies are still scoring more points on the season when Morant is off the court. That’s fine. He is no less of a future All-NBA candidate.
Playing in shorter bursts has served this lineup well. On a paper, a unit of Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. looks like a defensive asset. And it kind of has been. But the offense is standing out more.
This group is in the 100th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions, effective field-goal percentage and turnover rate. And accuracy at the rim. And three-point percentage. And fast-break frequency. And efficiency.
Small samples are dangerous, lineup ratings are married to randomness, blah, blah, blah. All the same: literally, actually, wut?!?!
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Lineup: Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Derrick Jones Jr., Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo
Possessions Played: 102
Adjusted Net Rating: 21.7
Few assumptions were made for the Miami Heat at the start of this process.
In theory, their top-performing lineup would include Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Given how much time Justise Winslow has missed, along with how often he’s played independent of the other two, the preconceptions stopped there. Nearly any three other bodies could round out their most effective five-man combination without catching us totally off-guard.
This checks out.
Adebayo, Butler, Derrick Jones Jr., Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson make up the Heat’s second-most deployed unit, trailing only the starting five, which features Meyers Leonard rather than Jones. The sample sizes for both arrangements would be substantially closer together—the starters have played 929 possessions—if Jones didn’t spend most of November dealing with hip and groin injuries.
The success of this lineup meshes with its structure. Adebayo and Butler are surrounded by enough operable shooters to maximize their playmaking and deemphasize Butler’s own three-point struggles, and it includes another off-the-dribble outlet in Nunn to beef up half-court optionality.
Rebounding is a problem, but that’s a danger ingrained into rolling so small. Adebayo is the tallest of the group at 6’9″. That size concession is worth it. The 6’6″ Jones spares Butler from chasing around bigger wings in a way that Leonard (and Robinson) does not, and this lineup has so far mitigated the deficit on the glass by keeping fouls to a minimum and getting back in transition.
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Lineup: Donte DiVincenzo, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez
Possessions Played: 82
Adjusted Net Rating: 26.1
Returning a lineup that doesn’t include Giannis Antetokounmpo feels dirty and wrong and then dirty again. This is the result that made me question the entire process. And then consider junking it.
Part of me still wants to resign in shame, but we soldier on. It bears repeating that five-man units incite randomness and invariably invite noise.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ starting five of Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez has played a ton relative to most lineups and is a statistical fireball. Its adjusted net rating of 18.7 is the third-highest of the combinations surveyed. The second-best mark also includes Antetokounmpo, albeit on a smaller sample (67 possessions), and features Bledsoe, Middleton, Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo.
Across a slightly larger sample, the latter arrangement might win out. It not only features Antetokounmpo over Ilyasova, but DiVincenzo has fared well defensively on the wing. Either that group, Milwaukee’s starting five or some Giannis-at-center variation is the subjective pick.
Objectively speaking, this lineup isn’t a monster deviation. The Bucks are handily winning the minutes when Antetokounmpo sits, about half of which come without Middleton and more than one-third of which come without both Middleton and Lopez. They’re also a net plus when none of their starters are on the court.
Including two of the team’s four best players in what are already quality lineups should only bolster the returns. And they do.
This no-Antetokounmpo, three-starters compilation is no doubt capitalizing on reserve-heavy opponents—it allows 79.1 points per 100 possessions—but it’s also one of the Bucks’ five most-deployed ensembles.
Measured against the defense played by most of the roster this season, it makes sense that a frequently used Giannis-less lineup would binge-eat the souls of weaker offensive competition more effectively than even its most talented contemporaries.
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Lineup: Shabazz Napier, Jarrett Culver, Kelan Martin, Robert Covington, Gorgui Dieng
Possessions Played: 109
Adjusted Net Rating: 16.8
Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence here is both noticeable and off-putting but not nearly “Where the bleepity bleep is Giannis Antetokounmpo?” egregious.
Blame his 15-game stay on the sidelines with a sprained left knee. Feel free to also attribute his exclusion to the fact that the Minnesota Timberwolves, losers of 10 straight, haven’t picked up a win with him in the rotation since Thanksgiving.
This is not meant to infer the team is better off without Towns. He remains the Timberwolves’ lifeline and a borderline top-10 player. But the four-man combination of Shabazz Napier, Jarrett Culver, Robert Covington and Gorgui Dieng has thrived defensively all season, and their collective performance during Towns’ absence only elevated their statistical profile.
Rookie Kelan Martin’s inclusion is more negotiable. He received some spot starts while Towns was out, but he’s on a two-way contract and not always with the team; he’s made just one appearance over their last 10 games.
Still, this exact lineup is among the Timberwolves’ eight most used. And Martin has been the most effective fifth wheel for the Napier-Culver-Covington-Dieng base. He is a better shooter than he’s shown at the NBA level and doesn’t need the ball in his hands as much as Andrew Wiggins or even Josh Okogie.
Throw out Martin and the logic doesn’t change. Minnesota owned the league’s third-best defense during Towns’ absence—along with, admittedly, the absolute worst offense—and the Napier-Culver-Covington-Dieng foursome was the main reason why.
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Lineup: Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes
Possessions Played: 87
Adjusted Net Rating: 19.1
Zion Williamson-inclusive lineups are eventually coming for this title. The New Orleans Pelicans have thoroughly outpaced opponents with him on the floor through his first three games. But only one of his units qualifies for the cut this early into his career, and for now, it falls well shy of the leading marker.
More reps for this lineup should be a given in 2020. It has made just one appearance since Jan. 1. Williamson’s debut, Derrick Favors’ on-again, off-again availability and Jrue Holiday’s left elbow injury have complicated the rotation, but the returns suggest chiseling out time for this group should be a priority.
Through the 13 games in which they’ve seen minutes together, Holiday, JJ Redick, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Jaxson Hayes have a 123 offensive rating and are burying 44.4 percent of their threes. They’re getting destroyed on the glass, a larger symptom of Ingram-at-the-4 arrangements, and their opponent shot profile implies they’re getting lucky on defense. They make up for their overall downside by forcing turnovers on 18.4 percent of possessions.
Imagining this lineup with Williamson instead of Hayes will leave you trying to catch your breath.
Hayes is the more active defender at this point, but he fouls a ton and gets pushed around underneath the basket. Zion-at-the-5 combinations aren’t doing any better on the glass, but by their very nature, they’re stacked with more versatility.
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Lineup: Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris Sr., Julius Randle, Bobby Portis
Possessions Played: 89
Adjusted Net Rating: 20.6
It makes perfect sense that the New York Knicks’ top lineup includes just one player under the age of 24. It’s not like they’re rebuilding or anything.
New York’s best combination is forgivable. Veteran-heavy units should have a more pronounced impact than fivesomes with less experience. But this group nods to a larger theme: The Knicks aren’t playing their youngsters nearly enough.
Just three of their 10 most-used lineups include more than two under-24 players. Six have no more than one under-24 inclusion. As Forbes’ Tommy Beer unpacked following their Jan. 18 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers:
“All told, [Marcus] Morris, [Reggie] Bullock, [Elrid] Payton and [Taj] Gibson played a combined 161 minutes and attempted 63 shots Saturday night. [Kevin] Knox, [Mitchell] Robinson, [Allonzo] Trier, [Damyean] Dotson and [Ignas] Brazdeikis logged a combined 49 minutes and took 14 shots.
“And Saturday’s game was not an isolated event. Morris, who is having a career year, leads the team in scoring. This month, Payton is averaging 28 minutes a night. Bullock has logged at least 24 minutes in each of his last seven appearances and is averaging over 10 FG attempts per game. Dating back to Christmas, Knox is seeing just 17 minutes a night and averaging fewer than six shots per game. Dotson has been bounced in and out of the rotation. Trier, who averaged 14.5 points per game over the second half of 2018-19 and started on opening night this season, has appeared in less than half the team’s games in 2019-20.”
For the record, Dotson (25) and Trier (24) don’t fall under the category of traditional youth. The point still stands. The Knicks are tied for the league’s third-worst record while, apparently, trying to win. Their prospect pool isn’t teeming with smack-you-in-the-face transcendence, but that’s part of the problem. They need to see what they have in those young enough to stick around for the long haul.
This lineup is still among New York’s 10 most deployed. It’s only seen the light of day once since Jan. 1, but Morris has missed some time, and RJ Barrett is currently out with a right ankle sprain. A surface-of-the-sun offensive rating is powering its placement. Barrett, Morris, Payton, Portis and Randle are pumping in 142.7 points per 100 possessions and taking an absurd 46.9 percent of their attempts at the rim.
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Lineup: Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Mike Muscala
Possessions Played: 70
Adjusted Net Rating: 38.9
Quibble with Mike Muscala sneaking into the center spot over Steven Adams as you please. That version of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s three-guard alignment has burned through more than three times as many possessions (242) and, fittingly, finishes with the second-highest adjusted net rating up for consideration, a mammoth 28.8.
Fretting over that discrepancy, insofar as it might be one, is a waste of time. The three-headed monster that is Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made it. This is all that matters.
Oklahoma City is pummeling opponents by 32.8 points per 100 possessions when its three guards share the floor, with dizzying offensive and defensive ratings. The sample size is fairly large (656 possessions), which only makes the efficiency tougher to comprehend. Lineups featuring those three rank inside the 90th percentile or higher from every shot range. That is remarkable, squared.
Adding Danilo Gallinari to the fold is the equivalent of a cheat code. He provides a fourth capable shooter and ball-handler. That quartet owns a raw net rating of 36.1 across 479 possessions. It doesn’t even matter who takes up the fifth spot.
Muscala is more intriguing on offense, if only for the five-out structure he unlocks. His 34.6 percent clip from downtown comes on 8.7 attempts per 36 minutes—efficiency and volume good enough to pull defenders outside the paint. This exact fivesome is hitting 47.1 percent of its threes and generating a mind-melting number of looks from point-blank range.
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Lineup: D.J. Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba
Possessions Played: 74
Adjusted Net Rating: 19.0
Injuries have upped the weird factor on the Orlando Magic’s rotation. They’re currently starting Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic together, for crying out loud.
This lineup is the byproduct of the games Orlando has surrendered to seesawing availabilities. Even this group is feeling the squeeze. These five haven’t taken the floor together since before Christmas, a hiatus that coincides with Michael Carter-Williams’ monthish-long absence to close 2019 and begin 2020 (left hip) and extends to left knee injuries preventing both D.J. Augustin and Jonathan Isaac from suiting up now.
But the initial returns from this partnership, which amounts to an Isaac-plus-bench-mob unit, are better than good. They’re better than great. They’re staggering.
Augustin, Carter-Williams, Isaac, Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba have notched a 113.5 offensive rating and 79.7 defensive rating in the time they’ve played together. This doesn’t quite compute, not even when accepting that small bursts of court time can translate to unanticipated dominance.
More than 50 percent of their looks have come on long mid-range or three-point attempts. Subsisting on perimeter looks is counterintuitive to the personnel. Everyone except Carter-Williams is shooting above the league average on deep twos, but nobody is hitting 35 percent of their three-pointers for the season. Giving Augustin (34.6 percent) and Ross (32.9 percent) the benefit of their reputations doesn’t fully reconcile the offense’s performance.
At least the defense is somewhat explainable. Carter-Williams has the size to cover wings, and Isaac is now a system unto himself. Both he and Bamba have the length to stop dribble penetration in its tracks and prohibit ball-handlers from ever reaching the rim.
Determining whether this platoon can keep treading water on offense demands it gets more reps. That’s not happening until the Magic inch closer to full strength, assuming they ever do. That consigns this lineup’s long-term outlook to something of a holding pattern. The possessions already played, though, have spoken for themselves.
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Lineup: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Scott, Joel Embiid
Possessions Played: 60
Adjusted Net Rating: 28.4
OK, go with me: Maybe, just maybe, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can work more efficiently together when surrounded by non-ball-dominant players who space the floor.
Sixty-possession portfolios are not the bible of sample sizes. Nor are the Philadelphia 76ers particularly invested in this lineup. They can’t be. Embiid’s left hand injury torpedoed its availability—Josh Richardson is also dealing with a left hamstring issue now—but the Sixers uncorked this group sparingly in the first place.
Every possession this lineup plays is one in which Philly has $60.7 million worth of Tobias Harris and Al Horford on bench. It’s also tough to consider Richardson and Mike Scott premier floor-spacers at the moment when they’re both connecting on under 34 percent of their triples.
Functionally, though, this lineup tilts toward the model best suited to the Embiid-Simmons tandem. Richardson, Scott and Furkan Korkmaz (39.3 percent from deep) have never existed to work off the dribble, and they’re all players who need to be guarded beyond the arc.
This unit’s offensive success—148.3 points per 100 possessions—is ephemeral in the sense that close to 40 percent of its attempts come from mid-range, and it isn’t getting to the rim. But this lineup is splashing in 55.6 percent of its three-balls and just generally shooting well from the perimeter.
Familiarity can matter as much as talent. Harris and Horford are better players and, in some ways, more dangerous shooters. But dwindling the number of those most comfortable operating on the ball has its advantages.
Though the Sixers should not permanently bust up their starting five in favor of role player-heavy looks, increasing the frequency with which they stagger Embiid and Simmons from both Harris and Horford is worth exploration.
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Lineup: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Deandre Ayton
Possessions Played: 121
Adjusted Net Rating: 20.5
The five best players on the Phoenix Suns roster combining to form the team’s most effective lineup? Yes, please.
Phoenix has wasted little time rolling out this fivesome. Only three of the team’s other units have played more possessions, no small feat given Deandre Ayton was suspended for 25 games and then missed an additional five upon his return with a sprained right ankle.
Dario Saric is still starting instead of Mikal Bridges, but this iteration has quickly become the Suns’ most lethal arrangement. Their offense has been divine over these stretches; they’re scoring at a clip of 135.8 points per 100 possessions when Ayton, Bridges, Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. share the floor.
That supernova mark was never fait accompli. Booker is the sole above-average shooter among the five. Ayton doesn’t even take threes, and defenses have zero qualms about sagging off Bridges and Rubio.
Those limitations are reflected in their shot profile. The Suns have hit 41.7 percent of their treys with this gaggle in the game—62.5 percent from the corners—but aren’t taking them that often. They’re propping up their supernova marks in transition and by getting to the foul line.
Perhaps something gives in the long run. This group’s three-point clip seems destined to plunge even on tightly governed volume. The rests of its anchors feel sustainable. Ayton, Booker, Bridges and Oubre are all built to run the floor, and everyone other than Ayton has done a nice job reaching the charity stripe.
This is a lineup worth taking seriously—one with the two-way firepower required to keep Phoenix within fingertip’s length of the West’s postseason picture.
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Lineup: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside
Possessions Played: 96
Adjusted Net Rating: 17.4
Injuries have guaranteed this lineup won’t appear again before next season. Zach Collins hasn’t played since Oct. 27 while recovering from a dislocated left shoulder, and Rodney Hood is done for the year after suffering a torn left Achilles.
Suboptimal depth forced the Portland Trail Blazers to open the season using this lineup like a crutch. They amassed their 96-possession sample while starting the first three games, and with better health, they’d have easily been one of the highest-volume units in the league.
Even now, more than three months since this fivesome last saw the floor, Portland has only five units that have spent as many possessions on the floor. More than half of them are likewise done. Hood’s injury on Dec. 6 has indefinitely shelved a few, and another couple were rendered moot by the Kent Bazemore trade.
Knowing how much better off the Blazers would be with this lineup at their disposal isn’t possible. But it’s fair to estimate they’d be closer to the Western Conference’s eighth seed. Merely having the additional bodies would’ve gone a long way, and this five-player combo was shaping up to be their most balanced lineup possible, with offensive and defensive ratings in the 99th percentile.
Time has a way of bringing the most heavily used units back to earth. This group could’ve fallen off. Or it could’ve enjoyed a run akin to—spoiler alert!—the Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles-inclusive starting five, for which the dominant returns have stood up to cumbersome volume.
Finding the Blazers’ best-performing lineup that’s still intact is decidedly not fun. From Hood’s injury to Bazemore’s departure to even Skal Labissiere’s absence, their depth chart has been put through the meat grinder.
Next up would be the arrangement of CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Tolliver, a deep-cut unit with an adjusted net rating in the red through its first 98 possessions.
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Lineup: De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Trevor Ariza, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes
Possessions Played: 65
Adjusted Net Rating: 17.0
Trevor Ariza’s departure seals this lineup’s fate as a partial-season footnote, but it was having trouble staying on the floor before he ever left. Between absences from De’Aaron Fox (ankle) and then Richaun Holmes (shoulder), this quintet made just eight total appearances.
That still qualifies as one of the Sacramento Kings’ 10 most-used units. And while this group’s raw net rating of 28.1 isn’t inconceivable relative to other small-sample returns, its offensive performance most certainly crosses the line of illogical: 141.1 points per 100 possessions on 76.2 percent shooting at the rim and a 50.0 percent clip from behind the rainbow.
Replicating this model with a new fifth member is probably off the table. The Kings coughed up a defensive rating in the 22nd percentile with Ariza, Fox, Holmes, Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield on the court. Including Bogdan Bogdanovic preserves the offensive output over a similar sample (60 possessions), but they don’t have anyone who can step in and capably guard the same players as Ariza.
A new most effective lineup, with more than one additional new member, is inevitable. The combination of Barnes, Bogdanovic, Hield, Holmes and Yogi Ferrell owns Sacramento’s next-best adjusted net rating, but it’s permanently low volume, if not break-in-case-of-emergency.
Tapping into more Nemanja Bjelica-at-the-5 hybrids is a good place to start, particularly with Holmes and Marvin Bagley III (foot) both nursing injuries. Those lineups have almost shown a consistent defensive pulse without Ariza while also piling on points at warp speed.
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Lineup: Patty Mills, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl
Possessions Played: 176
Adjusted Net Rating: 26.9
Talk about one of the least surprising things ever.
Each year, seemingly without fail, the San Antonio Spurs have one all-bench arrangement that plays more minutes than you think and throttles its opponents. This season will not be an exception.
Patty Mills, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl make up the Spurs’ third most-used lineup. Their performance, predictably, belies the number of opportunities they’ve had to regress toward the mean. They’re scoring at a rate of 124.6 points per 100 possessions (91st percentile) while allowing just 93.8 (94th percentile).
San Antonio’s transition toward adequate three-point volume is barely one month old. These five have not followed suit. They initially scraped by with the same mid-range-stuffed shot profile and are taking fewer threes per 100 possessions since Jan. 1. That’s only a problem if they cool off from in-between range, and they’re hitting the treys they do take at a 44.3 percent clip.
Their stinginess at the other end isn’t a flash in the pan. They could stand to give up fewer threes, but Jakob Poeltl is a one-man wall around the rim, and they handle their business on the glass without forfeiting too many opportunities in transition.
The Spurs’ starting five has climbed out of its early-season hole and since won its minutes on the back of a smarter offense. Their bench still remains the biggest difference-maker. More pointedly, it is this lineup specifically that could swing the race for the West’s eighth seed in their favor.
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Lineup: Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis, Malcolm Miller, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher
Possessions Played: 62
Adjusted Net Rating: 33.4
Leaning into the absurdity is all you can do. Don’t fight it. Don’t get mad about it.
Recognize that the Toronto Raptors have navigated too many injuries. And that three games of exceptional usage are doing serious lifting here. And that this lineup ranks 10th on the team in possessions played. And that Kyle Lowry-plus-bench-mob units are the (slightly exaggerated) truth.
Aside from the impact injuries have levied on the rotation—Malcolm Miller started a game in November—that’s the most meaningful takeaway from this out-of-left-field result: The Raptors are duh-eep.
Only five teams have backups with better point differentials per 100 possessions: the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto, meanwhile, has a net rating of 25.7 whenever Lowry plays without all five of OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. The sample isn’t monstrous, but it flirts with 150 possessions.
This bolt of lightning is an extension of the Raptors’ depth. It is not a staple, but by letter of the law, this group optimized its time on the floor to the nth degree.
Second place belongs to a similarly reserve-heavy lineup: Anunoby, Ibaka, Lowry, Terence Davis and Patrick McCaw (26.2 adjusted net rating on 72 possessions). Third place has two bench players on its docket: Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, to go along with Gasol, Siakam and VanVleet (25.7 adjusted net rating on 51 possessions).
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Lineup: Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert
Possessions Played: 815
Adjusted Net Rating: 23.6
What’s left to say about this Utah Jazz lineup? They wisely moved Joe Ingles back into the starting five on Dec. 4 and have been supernova-ing ever since.
Over their last 25 games, the Jazz are 20-5 with the league’s top offense and second-best net rating. They’ve been even more dominant when Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert share the floor. They’re outscoring opponents by 22.3 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 122.5 while converting a scintillating 42.7 percent of their threes.
Mike Conley’s place inside the pecking order is now the elephant in the rotation. He has come off the bench in each of his five appearances since returning from a hamstring injury. Utah may have no choice but to keep him there. As Andy Bailey wrote for Forbes:
“The Jazz went 12-9 with a 13th-ranked net rating and a 23rd-ranked offensive rating before his first departure from the lineup. They went 16-4 with the No. 3 net rating and the No. 1 offense since then.
“Of course, a lot of that had to do with the schedule softening up. But it’s difficult to ignore how much better Joe Ingles has been since replacing Conley in the starting lineup. His average game score coming off the bench this season is a paltry 6.1, compared to 13.0 as a starter. We’re working on two years of Donovan Mitchell looking comfortable, and maybe even better, as the de facto 1.”
Utah didn’t trade for Conley—and his $32.5 million salary—to deploy him as a sixth man. Maybe he’s fine with it long-term. Even if he is, the Jazz will have some awkward decisions to make down the stretch of close playoff games. Do they have the guts to leave that much talent, that much money, watching from the sidelines in crunch time?
Champagne problems are obstacles with which Utah can live. Lineups with Conley in Ingles’ or O’Neale’s place have fared pretty well. And besides, the tightness of the Jazz’s gold shoes is an issue for another day. For now, they still get to bask in the utter annihilation being inflicted by one of the league’s most lethal units.
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Lineup: Ish Smith, Bradley Beal, Jordan McRae, Davis Bertans, Thomas Bryant
Possessions Played: 67
Adjusted Net Rating: 40.7
Never, ever forget that the 2019-20 Washington Wizards entered Thanksgiving with the NBA’s second-best offensive rating.
As luck would have it, most of the minutes recorded by this lineup were compiled within that timeframe. Extended absences from Thomas Bryant and Jordan McRae limited its availability thereafter. This grouping didn’t see the court between Dec. 2 and Jan. 21.
Except, the thing is, this fivesome wasn’t lucky at all. It was critical to Washington’s detonation.
In the time Bryant, McRae, Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans and Ish Smith have logged together, the Wizards are averaging—drum roll—161.1 points per 100 possessions while putting down 61.5 percent of their threebies, which account for 40.0 percent of their total looks.
Small samples can emanate noise and all that, but still…swoons.
Buying into the Wizards’ defensive returns with these five on the floor is a trap. They rank in the 94th percentile or better of points allowed per 100 possessions, opponent effective field-goal percentage, opponent turnover percentage, defensive rebounding rate and opponent free-throw-attempt rate.
Anyone who has watched Washington (not) play defense this year knows that’s not going to hold. But the offense has the chops to be a sustained success.
Beal’s efficiency has dropped in a higher-usage role, but he’s still Bradley Beal. Smith is averaging 14.6 drives per 36 minutes and shooting 63.6 percent inside three feet, the second-best mark of his career. Bryant remains a threat when diving toward the basket and has hit 14 of his 41 long-range attempts (34.1 percent). McRae is draining 41.7 percent of his spot-up triples.
And Bertans…well, Bertans is having the best high-volume season in league history from beyond the arc by anyone not named Wardell Stephen Curry II.