Ranking NBA's Best 5-Man Units

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Ranking NBA's Best 5-Man Units

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    What makes a good five-man lineup?

    Don't worry about the construction of the quintet or the balance between offense and defense. Forget about whether it's better to have five solid players or two stars and three below-average role players. 

    This is all about one thing—outscoring the opposition. 

    No matter how it's done, winning games is the ultimate goal. And the only way to do so is by scoring more points than the other team, whether that's accomplished through dominant offense or suffocating defense. 

    In order to determine the league's best five-man lineups, I'm looking solely at net points per 100 possessions. That subtracts points allowed from points scored, so the difference—which takes pace and minutes played out of the equation—shows just how much better than the average opponent a lineup has been during the 2013-14 season. 

    As a qualifier, though, lineups must have spent 250 minutes or more on the court together this year. Otherwise, small sample size can rear its ugly head. 

    For example, the Milwaukee Bucks' five-man group of John Henson, Khris Middleton, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia and Nate Wolters has outscored the opposition by 44.5 points per 100 possession. Problem is, they've spent under 22 minutes on the court together, meaning that's probably more the result of small sample size than anything else. 

    Does anyone think that group is one of the best units in the NBA? If it qualified, it would rank No. 1 by a gigantic margin. 

    So, looking at only the groups that have hit the 250-minute barrier at this stage of the season, let's figure out who's the best of the bunch. 

     

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and are current as of Feb. 26.

Honorable Mention: Thunder Starters Pre-Westbrook

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Involved Players: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha

    Minutes Played: 524:39

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-6.5

     

    This is not a knock on Russell Westbrook, who will continue making the Oklahoma City Thunder all the more dangerous once he's fully healthy and regains his sea legs. It's simply a vote of confidence for Reggie Jackson, who did everything possible to maximize OKC's chances at success. 

    At the beginning of the season, having Jackson in the lineup as the lead point guard was problematic. 

    Defenses were playing off him, sending as many as three defenders to form a cup around Kevin Durant and preventing him from getting the rock. It's why the Minnesota Timberwolves were able to shut him down during the second outing of the year. 

    But as Jackson has developed into an increasingly cerebral scoring threat, defenses have had to respect him. And once that happened, Durant started lighting up scoreboards with even more frequency. 

    You've heard what KD did without Westbrook in the lineup, so there's no need to rehash here. This lineup was what enabled him to leap into the forefront of the MVP race, as he was forced to take on a ridiculous offensive burden while still being surrounded by solid-to-excellent defensive players. 

    Kendrick Perkins' presence in one of the best five-man units the NBA has to offer might be surprising, but Durant's name cancels out just about everything else. I'm fairly certain the Durantula by himself could have been close to being a top-10 five-man unit, based on the way he's played throughout the season.

10. Portland Starting 5

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Involved Players: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews

    Minutes Played: 1074:12

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-6.8

     

    This Portland Trail Blazers bunch has spent nearly 200 more minutes on the court than any of the other featured groups in the article, save one. In fact, only four of the 10 have topped 600 minutes played at this stage of the season, and Rip City is already well over 1,000. 

    Subjectively, they deserve to be moved up a couple of spots, simply because the combination of volume and efficiency is just ridiculous. It's also a result of the lack of depth in Portland. 

    There have only been a few quality backups in Portland that have been healthy throughout the 2013-14 season, which is why the starting five is almost always on the court. Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland and the rest of the second-string players aren't good enough to lighten the burden these five must shoulder night in and night out. 

    At least it works. 

    "The starters in Portland have constructed an offense against which it's impossible to load up," wrote ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz earlier this season. "It's a testament to careful roster construction and to a mindfulness that, to be maximized, diverse skill sets need to complement one another on the basketball court."

    Do defenses focus on slowing down LaMarcus Aldridge's mid-range game, forcing the ball out of Damian Lillard's hands or closing out on the bevy of three-point shooters? There are no good options, and then the focus must immediately shift to keeping Robin Lopez off the offensive glass. 

    Defensively, the play has been adequate, but the sheer offensive firepower of this five-man unit is jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly ridiculous.

9. Miami Heat's Starters

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    Team: Miami Heat 

    Involved Players: Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade

    Minutes Played: 321:28

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-8.0

     

    This is the exact reason Pat Riley brought the Big Three together a few years back. 

    When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are on the court together, the opponent almost doesn't stand a chance. That trio, when healthy, hasn't been toppled too many times, and this season has seen the same story emerge while D-Wade's knees have worked properly. 

    However, that's not enough. 

    Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier are the perfect complements to the three superstars, because they can both provide help on each side of the court. The former is a tenacious/pesky perimeter defender, while the latter is still capable of manning up against either kind of forward and locking down superstars when LeBron needs a break on defense. 

    Offensively, Chalmers does enough ball-handling to keep the Heat offense running, and Battier is still a potent marksman. Even though he's shot only 39.7 percent from the field during the 2013-14 campaign, there's no doubt that Battier can heat up every once in a while. 

    There's one set of stats that says it all about this Heat unit, though. 

    Over the course of 100 possessions, these five shoot the ball 5.6 times fewer than the opposition. They still make 4.6 more shots over the same span. 

8. Don't Mess with the Washington Starters

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    Team: Washington Wizards

    Involved Players: Trevor Ariza, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Nene, John Wall

    Minutes Played: 481:16

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-9.6

     

    John Wall hasn't gotten his fair share of grief for turnover issues throughout the season, but they don't tend to pop up quite as often with this unit. Perhaps that's because there are so many unique offensive options. 

    The dynamic point guard doesn't have to be the sole source of offense, as Trevor Ariza is a capable sniper, Bradley Beal is developing as a go-to option and the two big men can both post up or roll to the basket with efficiency. 

    The combination is a five-man group that turns the ball over 3.5 fewer times per 100 possessions than the opposition. Washington's team average sees the Wizards coughing it up 1.9 times fewer, so that's a big difference. 

    Unfortunately, this lineup won't have any more chances to develop during the rest of the regular season. Nene has been ruled out for the next six weeks with a sprained MCL, per ESPN, and that should take him out of the lineup almost all the way to the postseason. 

    That's the negative. 

    On the bright side, this lineup won't fall down the rankings because it can't get worse. Also, this isn't the team's last representative on this list.

7. Minnesota's Dream 5

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Involved Players: Corey Brewer, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio

    Minutes Played: 899:09

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-10.4

     

    Health has plagued the Minnesota Timberwolves for years, but that excuse can't be used with this lineup. 

    Among the top 10 five-man lineups in the NBA, only the Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers' starting units have spent more time on the court than the group comprised of Corey Brewer, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio. 

    Why?

    Because Rick Adelman can't possibly deny the passing excellence of this group. 

    Even though Brewer and Pekovic aren't exactly the greatest distributors, the ball can move remarkably well between the other three players. Rubio is a fantastic assist-man, and Love is capable of running an offense from the blocks. 

    On top of that, this lineup is one of the most balanced groups Minnesota can possibly offer. There's transition scoring, post play, outside shooting and so much more. 

    Sometimes everything just clicks. This is one of those times.

6. Washington Gets Better with a Substitution

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    Team: Washington Wizards

    Involved Players: Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat, Nene, John Wall, Martell Webster

    Minutes Played: 252:37

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-11.9

     

    The Washington Wizards are the only team with two representatives among this article's featured spots. That's impressive, but it's also a testament to the volatility of Randy Wittman's lineups, as he's been unable to hand any one unit too many minutes. 

    Remember, the cutoff is 250, and this five-man squad is checking in only a smidgen ahead of the necessary time. 

    The only difference between this lineup and the first one Washington boasted is a swap that sends Bradley Beal to the bench and Martell Webster onto the court. It's a great way to underscore the idea that a team's best five-man lineup doesn't necessarily involve its five best players. 

    Is Webster better than Beal? 

    Absolutely not, but his presence seems to help get everyone to the free-throw line. The previous Washington representatives shoot 1.6 more free throws than the opposition over 100 possessions; this one takes an additional 12.6 shots from the charity stripe. 

    That's a huge difference, and it's enough for Webster's group to land just outside the top five.

5. The Bulls Don't Really Care About Injuries and Trades

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Involved Players: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah

    Minutes Played: 253:23

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-11.9

     

    Something tells me this isn't the lineup the Chicago Bulls anticipated leaning on coming into the season. 

    It's missing two prominent names, after all. 

    First, we have Derrick Rose, who was knocked out for the season after he hurt his knee in November. Then there's Luol Deng, whom the front office traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers without getting a present contributor back for Tom Thibodeau to use. 

    Does it matter? Of course not. 

    This is a team that refuses to tank, and this lineup's success is a great testament to that never-say-die mentality. With a defensive liability, limited shooter, developing young player and declining veteran joining Joakim Noah, there's no way the Bulls should be outscoring the opposition by nearly a dozen points per 100 possessions. 

    "There's no tanking, and that's it," Noah said during a media session in the middle of January, as relayed by ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg

    It shows.

    The very fact that Thibs has a lineup like this in the top five should be used to help boost his Coach of the Year resume.

4. The Right Starters for Houston

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Involved Players: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Chandler Parsons

    Minutes Played: 398:03

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-12.1

     

    "Obviously, I would love to start," Jeremy Lin told the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech before the 2013-14 season began. "I think every player would love to start but I think given our current situation, being able to be an offensive spark off the bench, being able to be a primary ball handler in that second group are big things too."

    Thank goodness, because the Houston Rockets have firmly figured out that Patrick Beverley deserves to start, and they've acted accordingly. 

    Beverley has been starting throughout the season when healthy. Additionally, Terrence Jones has been key for a red-hot Rockets squad that is, well, rocketing up toward the top of the Western Conference standings. 

    This lineup is starting to do exactly what so many expected heading into the 2013-14 campaign—dominating on both ends of the court. 

    There's offense galore, and the quality defenders—one on the perimeter, one on the wing and one in the paint—make James Harden's occasional disappearance on defense easier to live with.

3. Didn't Expect the Bobcats, Did You?

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    Team: Charlotte Bobcats

    Involved Players: Gerald Henderson, Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, Kemba Walker

    Minutes Played: 301:11

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-12.7

     

    Wait...what? 

    The Charlotte Bobcats have the third-best five-man lineup in the NBA during the 2013-14 season? How is that possible? 

    Don't laugh, because these aren't the same Bobcats that were the league's laughingstock over the last few years. This is a dangerous defensive squad with increasing offensive capabilities, especially after adding Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour right before the trade deadline.

    Even with Al Jefferson holding down the fort, this is still a five-man unit that forces opponents into grinding out every possession. The 'Cats don't shoot as often as their opponents when this group is on the court—especially beyond the arc, where they take 6.6 fewer shots per 100 possessions—but they dominate the percentage game. 

    Shooting 6.2 percent better from the field, 1.7 percent better beyond the arc and 0.2 percent better at the charity stripe is a big deal, especially when the game is slowed down and every shot matters even more than normal. 

    Charlotte remains one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, and this unit is a big reason why. 

2. Pacers Are All About Defense

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Involved Players: Paul George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Lance Stephenson, David West

    Minutes Played: 1081:57

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-14.5

     

    How exactly do you score on this lineup? 

    There's a simple answer: You don't. 

    George Hill loves shutting down opposing point guards, as he's well aware that's his ticket toward maintaining his spot in the lineup. Lance Stephenson has developed offensively, but his primary calling card is still his shut-down ability. 

    Then there's Paul George, who should be considered the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate among non-big men. He's a versatile, cerebral defender who rarely makes mistakes on the less-glamorous end of the court. 

    David West is the glue of the defense, showcasing his toughness and incredible lateral quickness on a nightly basis. And he's still outdone by Roy Hibbert, whose rim-protecting abilities have made him the prohibitive favorite for DPOY. 

    There is no weakness, and the offense has come together thanks to George and Stephenson's contributions. 

     

    Author's note: The Pacers were originally overlooked, but don't hold that against them. This is just about as elite as it gets. 

1. Golden State's Full Squad

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Involved Players: Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Klay Thompson

    Minutes Played: 645:30

    Net Points per 100 Possessions: Plus-16.1

     

    Here's ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss on the derivation of the "Full Squad" nickname. Apologies for the lengthy quote, but the full story is necessary:

    'What's our record, Jordan, with our full squad? What's our record? Full squad. When we have everybody? Does anybody know what our record is? When we've got Andre and Steph and everybody in the lineup? We're pretty darn good.' -- David Lee, to WarriorsWorld's Jordan Ramirez

    With that, Mark Jackson's 'no excuse basketball team' gave way to a new slogan for the new year. 'Full Squad' was a grand vision of what the Golden State Warriors would be with their vaunted starting lineup, and the phrase doubled as a bulwark against criticism. If you're judging this team right now, just wait -- we'll be truly great with our starters back.

    On the day 'Full Squad' was born, Golden State was a lukewarm 17-13, struggling to find their footing after losing Andre Iguodala to a hamstring strain. The phrase looked prophetic when the Warriors ripped off 10 straight wins with Iguodala in tow. 'Hashtag Full Squad' became an Internet sensation and an invincible starting lineup. As with so many Bay Area startups, it seemed the good times would last forever.

    Strauss goes on to write—and this was in early February—that reality isn't so pretty for the Golden State Warriors. But even if that's true, it's not because of a starting five that has emerged as the most effective unit in the NBA.

    This was the dream for the Dubs—a lineup that was potent on both ends of the court and could thrive with dominant defense across the board and sharpshooting from the backcourt. Unfortunately, the record isn't stellar in Golden State, but that's largely because of the impotent second string.

    These five, when they've played together, have been dominant.

    That's why hope should remain present in the Bay Area. So long as Golden State can sneak into the playoffs, where rotations shrink and the starting five spends even more time together, the Warriors have a lineup capable of beating anyone.

Hidden Gems

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    The following lineups haven't generated too many minutes played—due to some combination of injury, opportunity and coaching decisions—but they've all been quite valuable to their teams. 

    They're the hidden gems. 

    The problem is they've only spent between 50 and 100 minutes on the court together during the 2013-14 season. 

    1. Oklahoma City Thunder: Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Derek Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb (Plus-46.1 points per 100 possessions)
    2. Indiana Pacers: Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, Lance Stephenson, C.J. Watson (Plus-35.7)
    3. Houston Rockets: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Dwight Howard, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons (Plus-35.1)
    4. Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb (Plus-34.4)
    5. Charlotte Bobcats: Al Jefferson, Ramon Sessions, Anthony Tolliver, Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller (Plus-32.0)
    6. San Antonio Spurs: Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker (Plus-31.4)
    7. Chicago Bulls: D.J. Augustin, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Tony Snell (Plus-28.5)
    8. Chicago Bulls: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah (Plus-28.0)
    9. Oklahoma City Thunder: Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb (Plus-27.5)
    10. Detroit Pistons: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe, Kyle Singler, Josh Smith (Plus-25.5)