GM Daryl Morey’s top-down philosophy—focused primarily on a constant fast-break counterattack—is the result of countless hours laboring over contemporary metrics of basketball. He's even installed statistics monitors above his players' lockers. You can be sure that he’s already slammed his head, plenty of times, against all of the data in this article.
The team’s utilization of lineup statistics will be a season-long process. The benefit of having this information now is that it accelerates the calibration of the most effective 5-man combos in anticipation of the playoffs.
Who scores most efficiently? Which crew gets the most stops? Which is the best lineup overall? By April we’re sure to have different answers than we do now, but let’s take a look at what the numbers are telling us so far.
It should come as little surprise that, of Rockets' lineups that have seen at least 30 minutes of floor time together, it's one with two true centers that has the lowest eFGA (effective field goal percentage against) at .384. Dwight Howard and Omer Asik are two of the very best rim-protectors in the league.
Somewhat shocking is the inclusion of both Jeremy Lin and James Harden in the Rockets’ best defensive set. Both have reputations for daydreaming and losing their men, or gambling incorrectly in the pursuit of creating a turnover.
Even more surprising is that the team has been significantly worse defensively with Patrick Beverley in Lin’s place—subbing Beverley into the same lineup has yielded an eFGA of .458.
One thing these numbers tell us is that Lin has taken great strides defensively, and few have noticed.
We can also see that the Rockets—to no one’s alarm—defend much better when they have more size near the rim. Since Asik is likely to be traded soon, and Terrence Jones has clearly taken over his starting spot as power forward, it’s important to mention that the best non-Asik lineup, defensively, is that of Lin, Harden, Parsons, Omri Casspi and Howard.
They’re allowing an eFGA of .398, versus .415 when Beverley, Harden, Parsons, Jones and Howard share the floor—the best Jones-centric lineup defensively. Casspi is a better team defender than Jones for now, but as Jones adjusts to NBA sets this season—just his second campaign, and the first in which he’s seen significant minutes—his development on defense should be rapid.
It’s also worth noting that Jones’ emergence has come with Lin sidelined with a knee injury, and we may see better or equal results from lineups including Lin and Jones versus Beverley and Jones.
Best Offensive Lineup—Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Of lineups that have seen at least 30 minutes together, this one is clearly Houston’s best scoring ensemble. It shoots an eFG of .551.
Each player in this lineup can create his own shot, and Jones acts as a great big-man complement to Howard with his .406 percentage from beyond the arc. Jones can stretch the defense with his shot, whereas Asik’s clearing out of the paint for Dwight hurts the team’s sets, since he doesn’t need to be covered outside of the paint.
Substituting Beverley for Lin in the same lineup yields similar results, with the team’s eFGA only dropping to .541. Since the Beverley lineup has seen 31 extra minutes on the floor, it is tempting to say that the Rockets are more effective offensively with Beverley as opposed to Lin, but Lin’s return from injury will bear the true results of that speculation.
Best Overall Lineup—Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
This lineup has a plus/minus (also known as a points differential) of plus-30, the highest of any Rockets lineup and also has the highest usage rate at 70 total minutes this season.
Not far behind is the lineup of Lin, Harden, Parsons, Casspi and Howard, which has a plus-26 differential over 67 minutes.
Most alarming is the minus-7 differential when Lin is subbed for Beverley in the ideal lineup. It may speak to how much Jones has developed since Lin went down with his injury, and it may also suggest that Jones, Howard, Parsons and Harden are more effective with Beverley instead of Lin because he is more a naturally deferential point man, and all four are score-first players.
Again, the information on these lineups is subject to wild fluctuation once Lin returns from injury and re-establishes himself into the rotation.
The core of Houston’s best lineup has proven itself to be Harden, Parsons and Howard. Whoever best supplements them come springtime will depend on a few key developments—how quickly Jones can develop defensively, Casspi’s ability to rebound (he pulls down 4.3 per game versus Jones’ 6.9) and most importantly how the dichotomy between Lin and Beverley plays out.
*Statistics used in this article come from www.82games.com and are accurate as of Dec. 9, 2013.