We did the East’s most important lineups yesterday, now we’re on to the West. Again, we’re focusing on the top five sides in the conference.
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant/Klay Thompson Bench Lineups
Golden State’s starting lineup has a net rating of +23.1. They’ve played 532 minutes. To find a non-Warriors lineup that betters that number, you’d have to go down to one that has played only 181 minutes (a Cleveland group featuring their big three along with Tristan Thompson and DeAndre Liggins).
But when Stephen Curry sits? The Warriors are still great… but they’re mortal. The most used non-Curry lineup stars Durant and Thompson playing with Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and David West. Their net rating together is +13.3, still better than every starting five in the NBA except Houston. But not the unstoppable juggernaut they usually are.
You aren’t beating Golden State’s starting five. The best you can hope for is a draw. So to win a series against them, your bench has to outplay theirs. You have to win the minutes when Curry sits, because when he plays, they’re virtually unbeatable.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard at Power Forward
Here’s a disappointing stat: no Spurs lineup featuring less than two big men (with LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, DeWayne Dedmon, David Lee, Davis Bertans and Joel Anthony serving as the bigs in question) has played more than 13 minutes this season. Considering how famous Gregg Popovich is for lineup experimentation, that seems like a gross oversight. For what it’s worth, that first one-big lineup that has played 13 minutes has a net rating of +50.2.
I’m obviously not going to ascribe any importance to that, but I am going to advocate more creative use of Kawhi Leonard. It seems highly unlikely that both Aldridge and Gasol, or any combination of San Antonio’s big men listed above, can stay on the court at the same time against Golden State. Especially if they break out the death lineup. Beating even Houston with two traditional bigs seems like a tall order. San Antonio’s rigidity cost them dearly against Oklahoma City last season. It might be time for them to experiment more against these modern offenses.
Popovich’s a�?break glass in case of emergency” move in the playoffs has always been inserting Manu GinA?bili into the starting lineup. Perhaps that’s an avenue to explore, but with Manu replacing Pau Gasol instead of a guard. It’s another wing to throw at all of those shooters, and having another ball-handler on the floor is extremely important considering Tony Parker’s diminished skills.
And as Matt Moore pointed out, when Popovich dogmatically sticks Kawhi on the opponent’s best offensive player, there are ways to take him out of the play entirely. But if Leonard is playing power forward, switching constantly and taking a more active part in a pick-and-roll defense, he’s far more present even if he isn’t traditionally locking someone down.
At the very least, it’s something San Antonio has to be more willing to try. If they play the Warriors in a playoff series as currently constructed, they are going to lose. Popovich is as good at making adjustments on the fly as anyone, so hopefully he realizes this and tries something as quickly as possible.
Houston Rockets: Ryan Anderson at Center/Five-Shooter Lineups
Houston has been refreshingly honest about where it stands as a franchise. Daryl Morey is on record saying that their path to victory against the Warriors is three-point variance. Defense flies out the window if you can make 20 three-pointers four times in a seven game series. And to get to a number like that, the Rockets probably are going to have to punt on defense for significant stretches.
Houston has experimented a bit with five-shooter lineups, but not nearly to the extreme degree they might in the playoffs. They’ve tried a Patrick Beverley-James Harden-Eric Gordon-Trevor Ariza-Ryan Anderson group for 7.5 total minutes, and that same group with Lou Williams in Ariza’s place for 6.5 minutes. These are not close to relevant sample sizes, but it’s worth noting that Mike D’Antoni has at least thrown such groups together to see what happens.
Those lineups are not remotely sustainable over long periods of time. But if you tried it for four or five minutes? There’s a chance you happen to make four or five three-pointers and the other team happens to miss theirs. It’s a bet on random chance that makes sense when you know your opponent is better than you. So keep an eye out for these lineups when Houston reaches the middle rounds of the playoffs. If they can’t build leads with traditional lineups, this is going to be their small sample bet.
Utah Jazz: Joe Johnson at Power Forward
Even Utah fans can admit the inherent problems that come with playing Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert at the same time. Gobert has separated himself as an absolute superstar this season, meaning finding lineups that work for him is simply a higher priority than making Favors comfortable. Theoretically, Trey Lyles and Boris Diaw were supposed to be the floor-spacing power forwards who made Gobert’s offense palatable. The results for those two have been middling. But when Gobert plays with Joe Johnson? The Jazz have outscored opponents by 212 points in just under 1,000 minutes.
There’s a lot of inherent noise that comes with two-man pairing stats, so let’s get more specific. When the Jazz play Joe Johnson with their other four starters, making Johnson the power forward, they have a net rating of +28.4.
Johnson solves pretty much all of Utah’s problems. He provides necessary spacing. He gives the Jazz another crunch-time scorer, as they don’t have one offensive superstar to rely on as most contenders do. And Gobert is so ridiculously good at defense that you can get away with Johnson playing so far out of position on that end.
Some matchups are going to make it harder to play Johnson at power forward than others. The Clippers with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan come to mind. But if Utah really is that good with him there, it might force the other team to adjust to them and play only one big man. That leads into our last lineup…
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin at Center
Another sad case of a great coach refusing to experiment: Doc Rivers has used Blake Griffin at center in only 3 percent of his minutes this season according to basketball-reference. That seems like a glaring oversight considering how necessary it might prove against a Warriors team that spaces them to death four times every year.
And yet, the Clippers do fine offensively when Blake plays without DeAndre. There’s no overwhelming reason to tether them to each other as much as Doc does. And it in fact limits what the Clippers can do with their dreaded bench lineups.
We know the Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan pairing can run an effective pick-and-roll with pretty much anyone around them, so why not split up their top four much like the Warriors do? Let Blake run bench lineups with J.J. Redick at his side. Griffin is a far better playmaker than he’ll ever get credit for on Chris Paul’s team. He can shoot anywhere within the three-point line. He could even run some pick-and-roll as the ball-handler (which he does on only 6.8 percent of possessions despite it producing more points per possession than Chris Paul’s).
It just seems apparent that what the Clippers are doing is not working. Taking better advantage of Blake Griffin’s specific gifts seems like a step in the right direction.