The NBA's killer lineups: Why these 5 combinations dominated the league last season
<header> The NBA's killer lineups: Why these 5 combinations dominated the league last season
By Drew Garrison @DrewGarrisonSBN on Oct 29 2013, 1:30p
Debates rage about the most effective scorer or best passer in the NBA, but what about the lineups that decimate the opposition? We look at five that did last season, including one you probably didn't expect.
The amount of statistical data available for the NBA is continually growing. There are tables upon tables of information readily available, ranging from familiar base statistics like points per game to in-depth shooting splits that detail shot distance and whether the field goal was assisted.
These numbers without context aren't useful, but with a deft touch, they can be powerful. It all depends on what context is sought after, though. Individual basketball players can be broken down to shooting charts and percentages, but basketball is a fluid, five-man sport. Often, we focus on a player's eye-popping statistics.
But what about those killer lineups in the league? Lineups that suffocate their opponent on defense, shred through nets on offense, or dominate both ends of the floor?
Let's start somewhere simple before venturing deep into the "advanced stats" forest. First, we'll single out the five lineups with the best +/- point differential per 48 minutes last season to identify groupings that found success in the simplest form. These lineups will be our "guinea pigs," so to speak.
To crunch it down and regulate the sample size, we'll only look at five-man lineups from the 2012-2013 season with a minimum of 300 minutes played together. Here are the results, per the NBA's media-only stats website:
<table class="sbn-data-table" border="0"><tbody> <tr class="ui-state-even"> <td style="text-align: center;">Team</td> <td style="text-align: center;">Lineup</td> <td style="text-align: center;">+/-</td> <td style="text-align: center;">MP</td> </tr> <tr class="ui-state-odd"> <td> Miami Heat (1)</td> <td>Battier-Bosh-Chalmers-James-Wade</td> <td>18.9</td> <td>300</td> </tr> <tr class="ui-state-even"> <td>San Antonio Spurs</td> <td>Duncan-Green-Leonard-Parker-Splitter</td> <td>17.4</td> <td>364</td> </tr> <tr class="ui-state-odd"> <td>Toronto Raptors</td> <td>DeRozan-Gay-Johnson-Lowry-Valanciunas</td> <td>11.9</td> <td>343</td> </tr> <tr class="ui-state-even"> <td>Indiana Pacers</td> <td>George-Hibbert-Hill-Stephenson-West</td> <td>11.2</td> <td>1218</td> </tr> <tr class="ui-state-odd"> <td>Miami Heat (2)</td> <td>Bosh-Chalmers-Haslem-James-Wade</td> <td>11</td> <td>688
</td> </tr> </tbody></table>
Included are lineups from both 2013 NBA Finals teams, a team that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals and a lineup from a team that didn't make the playoffs at all (Toronto).
The Heat have TWO of the best five-man lineups, but swapping one player from their "better" lineup (Haslem for Battier) created a 7.9 +/- swing. More on this later.
Most of these lineups are didn't play together much, but the Pacers' lineup spent a whopping 1,218 minutes together on the floor. That's a huge sample size and testament to consistency creating results.
These five lineups have been singled out as great, but we still have little idea as to why or how. Let's try to hit at that question.
Miami Heat (1), the offensive masters
Players: Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade.
Profile: This lineup was the best in the league on offense, averaging 11.4 points per 100 possessions more than the league average. It's not surprising that the 2013 NBA champions had the best lineup in the league, and the Heat did it with a small ball group.
What was the fuel to their high-octane production? This lineup put up the highest amount of three-point attempts per 48 minutes (21.4) out of the five "killer" lineups and still shot over 41 percent from deep. They were dangerous from both corners, converting 46 percent from either side.
This lineup was dominant by Tom Ziller's "green triangle" shooting efficiency measure. They shot the lowest percent from the free-throw line at 75 percent, but also attempted the most free throws (24.9), adding up to the highest amount of free throws made (18.7) in comparison to the other four lineups. Sometimes, quantity outshines quality. What's a great free-throw percentage without free-throw attempts?
The other remarkable aspect of this lineup, beyond "oh my god they were so incredibly efficient," is that they still held opponents to nearly nine points per 100 possessions less than league average defensively. Also, it had a rebound percentage 2.2 percent higher than league average despite not playing a "true" center. Erik Spoelstra found a balanced small ball lineup that could do it all.
This was Miami's second-most used lineup, behind their more "traditional" lineup that includes Udonis Haslem instead of Battier.
Miami Heat (2), the "traditional" lineup
Players: Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade
The Numbers: Instead of Shane Battier in the lineup — a player who shot a career-high 43 percent from deep in his first year in Miami — Udonis Haslem joins LeBron and company. What happens? The Heat see huge drops across the board offensively. Three-point percentage dropped by nearly 5 percent, and this lineup take 5.7 less attempts per 48 minutes. They also took 6.3 less free throws per 48 minutes and made just 14.2, according to the NBA's Media Only stats website.
Thus, offensive rating is the most drastic difference between the two lineups. Miami's top lineup averaged 16.7 more points per 100 possessions than Miami's second-best lineup. To further illustrate the monumental gap between the two, that's .1 away from being equivalent to the gap between the Haslem lineup and a Detroit Pistons' unit featuring Jose Calderon, Jason Maxiell, Greg Monroe, Kyle Singler and Rodney Stuckey that ranked third-worst in offensive rating, averaging 83.7 points per 100 possessions.
But this lineup still made it into the top five because it held up better defensively. Here's a chart comparing the two lineups:
One player can make a huge difference in a five-man lineup, but the Heat's "Big Three" and Chalmers were still dominant with either Haslem or Battier.
The NBA's best defensive lineup
Players: Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter
Profile: It's only fitting that the NBA Finals went seven games and featured a five-man group that was the most effective offensively taking on the NBA's best defensive lineup. The San Antonio Spurs' starting lineup held teams to a paltry 87.7 points per 100 possessions, the best of any lineup with a minimum of 200 minutes together on the floor, according to the NBA's media-only stats website.
This lineup limited second-chance points by grabbing nearly 81 percent of the available defensive rebounds. The Spurs' remarkable defense is one of the reasons Splitter fetched a four-year, $36 million contract with the team. Here's a quick look at the on/off numbers for the Spurs' big man:
Aside from the lockdown defense and glass cleaning, this lineup also shot the highest percentage from deep (over 44 percent) in our killer lineups group. This unit was deadly from the right corner, shooting over 57 percent, but only attempted 13.1 threes per 48 minutes.
A low three-point attempt rate and the lowest amount of free throw attempts per 48 (17.6) out of the five lineups explains their offensive rating of 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which landing right in the middle of our study group.
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