Star talent drives team success in the NBA. A team that puts five very good players on the floor together will probably win a lot of games, given at least a bit of positional separation between those players. But the same five guys can't log all 48 minutes, even in the playoffs, and as the level of competition tightens, small edges in lineup construction can make a crucial difference between elite teams.
The NBA is littered with examples of teams that took off or fell apart after one or two tiny lineup tweaks. Fit matters when the margin between teams is so small. With that in mind, here are eight five-man lineups to watch as we near the halfway point of the season, with an emphasis on groups that could impact the playoff race. Keep in mind: Every sample size here is fairly limited, even as we examine lineups that have logged 200-plus minutes.
The lineup: James Harden–Jeremy Lin–Chandler Parsons–Marcus Morris–Omer Asik
The numbers: 231 minutes, second most-used lineup
Morris is taking Patrick Patterson's presumed spot, and this starting group has functioned much better with him there. They're outscoring opponents by nearly five points per 100 possessions, while the Patterson lineup is struggling on both ends with a scoring differential of -5.6 per 100 possessions. We'll see if that keeps up; this group's offense has already slumped to league-average as Morris and Parsons have struggled from 3-point range of late.
Those guys are floor-spacers in this lineup, and in a larger offense geared almost entirely to 3-pointers, fast-break points, and free throws. Houston plays at the league's fastest pace, and this lineup piles up even more possessions than the Rockets overall. This group gets a full 24 percent of its points via the break; no team has topped a 19 percent share for the season, per NBA.com.
In the half court, this unit (like most Houston lineups) is all about spreading the floor around the James Harden–Omer Asik pick-and-roll, with some other combinations (Jeremy Lin–Asik, and the intriguing Lin-Harden) sprinkled in. Houston stations the other guys around the 3-point line, and Harden might be better than anyone else at slinging skip passes to shooters in the weakside corner midway through a pick-and-roll.
But Parsons and Morris aren't just Bruce Bowen–style spot-up guys. Players like Kevin McHale because he empowers them to stretch themselves; Parsons and Morris are allowed to drive and create after catching a pass if they think they can get by a defender running out at them. The same goes for Carlos Delfino in other units, and though the results can be dicey sometimes, it might be healthier in the long haul — especially as teams designate Parsons as the guy on whom they can hide their weakest perimeter defender.
It's hard to see this lineup maintaining its current stinginess on defense; they've so far allowed just 96.4 points per 100 possessions, a number that rivals Indiana's league-best defense. Morris is at a size disadvantage against bigger teams, and he's not a strong rebounder or reliable team defender yet. Parsons is smart and works hard, but he makes some bad gambles and his helpful instincts make him prone to back-cuts. Ditto for Harden, though he's not quite as interested in being an active helper; few scorers with such heavy responsibility on offense play the other end with equal vigor, and Harden's D has slipped this season.
Asik is a genius, and this lineup is avoiding fouls (a central Houston tenet) and cleaning the defensive glass at a crazy rate. But they've got to prove it over the long haul. The same is true of smaller lineups featuring Parsons at power forward, which are absolutely blitzing teams in a limited sample so far with even better floor spacing (hello, Carlos Delfino, jacking nearly nine 3s per 36 minutes!) and an energetic pace.
Golden State Warriors
The lineup: Jarrett Jack–Stephen Curry–Klay Thompson–David Lee–Carl Landry
The numbers: 198 minutes, Golden State's second most-used lineup
A group that should have been a change-of-pace scoring force has turned into Golden State's closing lineup, and it is blowing the doors off opposing defenses behind its five-man versatility and a hail of 3-point shots. In 197 minutes together, this group has scored about 117 points per 100 possessions — about 6.5 points better than Oklahoma City's league-best overall offense.
This group features three very good passers, two point guards, one solid post-up player (Lee) and one great one (Landry), and two of the most prolific outside shooters in the league. They've shot 55 percent on 2-point shots and a whopping 43 percent on triples, and they shoot a ton of the latter — nearly 25 per 48 minutes, well above the team's overall average. Those shooting percentages are probably unsustainable, especially considering the number of mid-range shots these guys take, but at least it comes from whip-smart passing; this unit has assisted on 66 percent of its baskets, up from Golden State's overall number (59.7 percent) and a mark that would lead the league.
Golden State can do almost anything with this lineup. They've often shifted point guard duties to Jack in crunch time, allowing Curry and Thompson to come jetting off screens on either side of the floor, catch the ball, and either shoot or run a quick-hitting pick-and-roll with whichever big is nearby. The Curry-Lee pick-and-roll is devastating enough on its own, and while Landry isn't on Lee's level as a pick-and-roll threat, the wing on this play can simply dump the ball into Landry for a post-up try.
The Warriors also like to run a Jack-Lee pick-and-roll on the left side, with Curry lurking as a kickout option up top, and they can always play through Lee in the high post and have the guards screen for each other off the ball.
And that's just scratching the surface.
The questions will come on the other end, especially as those shooting numbers regress to the mean. This group is undersized at almost every position, and it is beginning to show leaks; opponents have scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions against this lineup, on par with what Phoenix's 26th-ranked defense allows. Wings with strong post games can attack Thompson, and though Lee and Landry have been game all season, some big guys are just going to be too big for them.
The result has been some defense-bending double-teams and a ton of fouls; only the Raptors have allowed more free throws per shot attempt on a team level than this lineup. The scary thing: Opponents have shot a putrid 28.9 percent from deep against this group, and while that's in part a reflection of Golden State's attention to detail, it's also bound to change. Golden State has thrown out some zone to make up for the size and quickness issues, but top teams will eat that up if they get more than one or two cracks at it.
Long story short: This has been a wonderful story, but if the Warriors want to have some real postseason success, they'll need Andrew Bogut.
The lineup: Jeff Teague–Lou Williams–Kyle Korver–Josh Smith–Al Horford
The numbers: 200 minutes, Atlanta's most-used lineup
Larry Drew decided to start this group only after Devin Harris's foot issues cropped up, but he should think about making the change permanent. This five has thrived on both ends, outscoring opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions — about what the powerhouse Clippers have done for the full season, per NBA.com. As with the Golden State group, having multiple ball handlers and five skilled passers has resulted in a massive uptick in both assists and shooting percentages; the Hawks have assisted on 73 percent of baskets when these five play, an unthinkable number, and they're shooting well from all over the floor. All the passing hasn't resulted in many turnovers, either; this group has coughed it up on just 11.1 percent of its possessions, even better than New York's insanely low league-best rate.
Neither Teague nor Williams is an elite spot-up guy, but both have done well enough hanging in the corners when the other works as the point guard. Korver's running around screens creates openings for everyone else, and Williams is very cagey losing defenders around off-ball picks. Both Williams and Korver are very dangerous when Horford or Smith holds the ball at the elbows, and Utah-style "flex" plays for Williams have gotten him a lot of open jumpers.
Drew has also been good at drawing up pick-and-rolls that bend the defense away from Korver on the weak side, including a Suns-style dandy in which one big will roll down one side of the paint toward the hoop while the other big jets up the opposite side, catches a pass from Teague, and immediately skips a cross-court bullet to Korver.
But this group is also showing cracks. They barely get to the line, a teamwide issue for Atlanta, which is threatening to set the all-time league record for lowest free throw rate. They've struggled horribly on the defensive glass, the predictable result of a lack of size on the wing and Smith's occasionally indifferent boxing out. Bulky wings will attack Korver in the post; Paul Pierce fouled him out in Boston's stirring comeback over the weekend.
The early signs are good, especially since the same lineup with DeShawn Stevenson in Korver's place has fared even better than this group. But it's still early.
The lineup: George Hill–Lance Stephenson–Paul George–David West–Roy Hibbert
The numbers: 501 minutes, Indiana's most-used lineup, and the second most-used in the league
The headliner here is Stephenson, who has won Gerald Green's starting spot and lifted Indiana's borderline unwatchable offense close to top-five territory — at least when this one unit is on the floor. Indiana's bench is as awful as it was last season, though in a potentially positive sign, the combination of George and four bench players has done very well in limited minutes, per NBA.com.
Stephenson has been one of the season's nice stories. Once an out-of-control mess with the ball, he's cut his turnover rate dramatically and earned Frank Vogel's trust in the process. Stephenson's a solid rebounder for a guard, and he has the freedom to push the ball after a stop — a nice way for Indiana's grinding offense to find some easy points. Vogel now runs some actual plays for Stephenson in the half court, including traditional high pick-and-rolls, some duck-ins for post-ups, and other pick-and-rolls that come after some creative misdirection. Having a second distributor is helpful for George Hill, who isn't the kind of waterbug point guard who regularly gets deep into the lane. It also allows Hill to work as a spot-up guy.
The net result is a high-scoring lineup that protects the ball (unlike just about every other Indiana lineup) without sacrificing anything on defense or on the glass. Stephenson is still hit-or-miss as a defender, prone to crashing head-on into picks and taking one fatal half-lunge in the wrong direction, but he's making progress every day. At 6-foot-5 with a wingspan a hair longer than 6-foot-10, Stephenson doesn't take away from this lineup's overwhelming collective size.
The lineup: Will Bynum–Rodney Stuckey–Austin Daye–Charlie Villanueva–Andre Drummond
The numbers: 39.5 minutes, Detroit's sixth most-used lineup
Honorable mention: The same group with Kyle Singler in Stuckey's place
The numbers: 29 minutes, Detroit's eighth most-used lineup
It won't last, with Bynum's shaky decision-making, Daye's history as a horrific shooter, and Villanueva's indifferent defense along the back line. But over 77 minutes so far this season, these two bench-heavy units have outscored opponents by 56 points. They've been dynamite on both ends of the floor ever since Lawrence Frank unleashed the Stuckey version during a massive fourth-quarter comeback against Atlanta the day after Christmas. Villanueva has shot well enough from deep (40 percent) that defenders are sometimes afraid to stray off of him on Bynum-Villanueva pick-and-rolls, giving Bynum an open lane into the teeth of the defense. The Bynum-Drummond pick-and-roll has been especially effective with Villanueva and the out-of-nowhere hot Daye to space the floor and drag help defenders away from the rim.
Stuckey has shot a semi-respectable 43.5 percent since starting the season 17-of-72, and he remains the best passer among Detroit's guards. Again: It won't last, especially on defense, but it has been fun to watch as the Pistons have climbed within sight of a playoff spot they won't actually get.
The lineup: Brandon Jennings–Monta Ellis–Mike Dunleavy Jr.–Ersan Ilyasova–LARRY SANDERS!
The numbers: 63.2 minutes, Milwaukee's third most-used lineup
Scott Skiles's rotation has resembled some indiscernible avant-garde art project as he strives to find the best combination from among a bunch of imperfect parts — including two leads in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis who have yet to prove they can combine to lead a .500-plus NBA team. The Bucks were worse overall with both on the court last season, primarily due to a major drop-off on defense, and the same is true so far this season.
This lineup might represent the most promising combination of offense and defense, even if it it excludes Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, capable of guarding almost any position on the floor. But Mbah a Moute can't shoot, and that cramps Milwaukee's spacing. Dunleavy can shoot, and his ability to do so after running around screens loosens up Milwaukee's offense in all kinds of ways. Ilyasova's long-range shooting, coming around now, makes him an ideal floor-stretching power forward, and all that shooting is probably necessary with the range-less SANDERS! patrolling the paint. It's just hard to get by with two defense-first bigs — SANDERS! and Ekpe Udoh, for instance — if both lack any sort of refined offensive game.1
Ilyasova can run pick-and-pops from both the top of the arc and the wings, a key spot in Milwaukee's offense, and he also has value just dragging an opposing big to the 3-point line. He's been rolling a bit more of late, and Dunleavy has found a nice groove popping out behind those rolls as the defense bends in to account for Ilyasova and the accompanying dribble penetration. Add it all up, and the Bucks with this unit have scored 105 points per 100 possessions — nearly a top-five mark, and far better than Milwaukee's 27th-ranked overall offense. There has been some cost on defense, but the Bucks are still holding opponents to a league-average scoring rate with this group. Bigger guys can batter Ilyasova in the post, and his effort has come and gone on defense this season. Small forwards who can operate down low will also go at Dunleavy; Ellis is a sieve and Jennings is unreliable.
Can this unit hold up? We'll see. One wrinkle that might work is giving Mbah a Moute some minutes as a "guard" in place of one of the Ellis-Jennings duo, with the rest of the unit intact.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul–Jamal Crawford–Matt Barnes–Blake Griffin–Lamar Odom
The numbers: 80 minutes played, +11.7 points per 100 possessions
This is a killer mix of bench guys and starters getting short shrift here only because I've mentioned it before, and surely will again as Vinny Del Negro continues to use it more. A potential crunch-time group.
The lineup: Goran Dragic–Jared Dudley–P.J. Tucker–Luis Scola–Marcin Gortat
The numbers: 92.5 minutes, -5.2 points per 100 possessions
Phoenix's newest starting lineup needs more time to marinate, though the Suns' half-court offense is generally pleasing. Nice play design still requires top-level talent, and this lineup hasn't produced enough points so far.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Alan Anderson's Jump Shot
I don't know what it is, but, man, Toronto's backup wing has an aesthetically pleasing J. He's one of those guys who go exactly straight up and down, even if he catches at a full run before stopping on a dime to shoot. He has a tiny hitch at the start of his shot, where he thrusts the ball out a bit around his waist, that gives it a dash of unique flavor.
2. Boston Returning to Last Season's Starting Lineup
Speaking of lineups: Boston over the weekend went back to the Rajon Rondo–Avery Bradley–Paul Pierce–Brandon Bass–Kevin Garnett starting lineup that finished last season. That group outscored opponents by a frightening 19.6 points per 100 possessions over 219 minutes — still a small sample — with a weird inverted structure in which the big men hung around the perimeter, Bradley cut along the baseline, and Pierce and Rondo operated all over. It deserves another chance.
3. Sponsored Interruptions
A bane of League Pass is when one of the sponsored mini-segments stays on the screen too long, preventing us from watching the actual game. I hate you, Hyundai Drive of the Game and KFC Bucket Chart.
4. Another Kevin Love Injury
The Wolves have persevered through a pile of injury problems, thanks to some stingy defense, Adelman's gorgeous offense, and some inspired play from the guys who have managed to stay upright. But the schedule's going to be a bit harder the rest of the way, and if Kevin Love is out for a while — again — the Wolves may just reach the point where they're looking at a wasted season. They've managed without Love so far, so here's hoping they keep it up.
5. Portland's Red Road Alternates
Last week, I pegged Philly's blue roadies as perhaps the league's best alternate jerseys. These bad boys are in the conversation.
6. The DeAndre Jordan Non-Lob Lobs
Give Jordan credit: He understands his limits, and he knows dunking lob passes is his surest path to points. Once every game or two, a Clippers ball handler will throw a soft, chest-high pass to an open Jordan on the block. Instead of simply catching it and dunking, Jordan will jump as the pass is still the the air, attempt to catch it below his waist and slam it home in a sort of self-created alley-oop. It's counterintuitive, and probably not very smart, but it's so entertaining I'm not sure if it qualifies as a "like" or a "dislike."
7. Corey Brewer's Enthusiasm
Brewer is one of the league's most entertaining players, and it's hysterical to watch how excited he gets when he passes off to a teammate who then launches an open 3. With the ball just out of the shooter's hands, Brewer will already be retreating back on defense, hands raised in the "It's good!!" position, smile on his face.
8. The Return of Al-Farouq Aminu
After a weird string of DNP–Coach's Decision games, Aminu is back in the Hornets rotation, adding his usual combination of rebounding, active defense, off-ball cutting, and cringe-worthy dribbling/shooting. We all know Aminu's limitations; there's a reason the Hornets declined their option on him for next season. But considering the lack of competition for small-forward minutes in New Orleans, I'm not sure what the case is against giving Aminu more of a look now.
9. Marvin Williams, Lost in Utah
It's not just that Williams has disappointed for a team that needs production on the wing; it's the way he has disappointed. Williams is a solid cutter and a useful corner shooter, but he has looked lost in Utah's offense, taking a smaller role than ever before in his career. He's more of a stand-still catch-and-shoot guy than someone who can make a play after running around a screen and catching on the move, and he just hasn't looked at home as a Jazz man. Utah will surely bring up his name as the trade deadline approaches.
10. The Hawks' Accelerated Shot Clock Countdown
The Atlanta in-arena experience generally isn't very good, with "blah" crowds and weirdly frequent clock and scoreboard errors. But they sneak in some clever public-address work and sound effects, including a "tick-tock" countdown that accelerates when the enemy shot clock is running down. The players probably don't notice it, but it stresses me out watching games — and I don't even care about the outcomes. Fun stuff from the folks who brought you "MAR-VIN!" for every made Williams basket, and "That foul was offensive!" for enemy offensive fouls.