NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Every Team's Best Lineup
By definition, every NBA team has a premier five-man lineup.
Some have struggled, either because they're incapable of scoring points in efficient fashion or because they have no idea how to prevent their opponents from doing exactly that. Others have thrived during the early portion of the 2017-18 campaign, displaying unparalleled levels of chemistry as they torment rival teams.
But how does each squad's best unit stack up?
We're turning to the numbers for the early answer to that question, weighing both volume and efficiency to get a lineup score. The calculation is simple: Take each group's net rating and multiply it by the number of minutes spent on the floor. You're rewarded for high levels of performance, or for maintaining more moderate numbers over lengthier durations.
Of course, there's a catch. In order to weed out the extreme small-sample flukes, we're only looking at lineups that have logged at least 20 minutes together in 2017-18. Yes, that means some teams might not have a single quintet with a positive score.
Three of them fall into that category, and it's there we begin our quest for five-man supremacy. Proceed with caution. Some of these results may surprise you.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers: Minus-210 Lineup Score
Best Lineup: LeBron James, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love
Minutes Played: 35
Net Rating: minus-6.0
Don't blame me. Blame the numbers.
Or, you know, blame the Cleveland Cavaliers for somehow failing to muster a single five-man lineup that has played together for at least 20 minutes and outscored the opposition. This was the closest to doing so, and it still has a net rating that would be sandwiched between the No. 25 Brooklyn Nets (minus-4.4) and No. 26 Atlanta Hawks (minus-7.4).
Offense isn't the culprit. Led by LeBron James running the point and spearheading small-ball inclinations, these Cavaliers are scoring just fine. But they've been utterly incapable of preventing the opposition from doing the exact same, and their 124.2 defensive rating would finish lightyears behind every other team in the league. Currently, Cleveland as a whole is allowing the most points per 100 possessions, and 112 isn't in the same ballpark as 124.2.
But perhaps you're still frustrated the defending Eastern Conference champions don't even have a positive score. We'd have to break the qualification rules in order to find a lineup in the green, but doing so is possible.
The five-man bunch that's outscored foes and played the most minutes together? In a staggering 16 minutes, James, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson have posted an 8.1 net rating. But thanks to injuries and early-season experimentation, that grouping has only suited up in three games—hardly enough for them to qualify at this stage of the campaign.
Cleveland will likely get it together at some point and start playing some semblance of defense. Until then, it's been incapable of doing any damage, leading to this surprising—but wholly objective—placement.
29. Brooklyn Nets: Minus-98.7
Best Lineup: D'Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Timofey Mozgov
Minutes Played: 47
Net Rating: minus-2.1
Progress, not perfection.
The Brooklyn Nets aren't yet ready to compete for a playoff spot, even in the weaker half of the NBA. But they're starting to put together some capable lineups that highlight their massive potential at so many different positions.
Jarrett Allen will eventually work his way into some, but he's not yet part of the leading quintet. That honor still belongs to Timofey Mozgov, who's joined by a bounceback candidate operating in a more comfortable system (DeMarre Carroll) and a trio of youngsters with compatible skill sets.
On defense, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the do-everything force for Brooklyn, capable of guarding multiple positions and switching on just about every screen. His physicality and size help these Nets avoid becoming total liabilities on the preventing end, even if the backcourt has been far too porous.
Offensively, Brooklyn has become the D'Angelo Russell show when the youthful guard is healthy. He's averaging 20.9 points and 5.7 assists while shooting the ball well from inside the arc, and his savvy set-up feeds are making life easier for his teammates. These four don't serve as exceptions.
Thanks to injuries and head coach Kenny Atkinson's tinkering, this is one of only two lineups that have logged at least 20 minutes. The other (replacing Caris LeVert with Allen Crabbe) has posted a putrid minus-30.4 net rating in 14 fewer minutes.
For now, coming close to zero is a good start.
28. Detroit Pistons: Minus-39
Best Lineup: Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Andre Drummond
Minutes Played: 30
Net Rating: minus-1.3
Well, this is bizarre.
Trust me, I double-checked these numbers. Then I triple-checked them. And since I still couldn't believe they were correct, I even quadruple-checked to make sure the 10-3 Detroit Pistons really didn't have a single five-man lineup in the green after playing 20 minutes.
And yet, they don't. But how is that possible for a team outscoring opponents by five points per 100 possessions as a whole?
Everything has to do with the construction of head coach Stan Van Gundy's rotation. He doesn't often lean on one individual group of players, but instead mixes and matches based on his foes' personnel. Detroit has used plenty of lineups in smaller doses, but only three have logged at least 20 minutes.
Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond have recorded a team-high 155 minutes, but they have a net rating of minus-9.1. Replace Johnson with Reggie Bullock, and those numbers shift to 65 and minus-8.1, respectively. Our featured lineup is third, and it's close to playing even.
Instead, it's the sporadicly constructed bunchings that have pushed the Motor City to constant victories. Eight different units have been on the court for at least five minutes and posted net ratings north of 50—most notably, an 89.2 net rating in 12 minutes for Jackson, Bradley, Langston Galloway, Harris and Drummond—and it's those that have sparked massive runs at opportune moments.
Something is fluky here. But whether it's the strangely negative nature of the most-used quintets or the early push toward the top of the Eastern Conference remains to be seen.
27. Atlanta Hawks: 301.3
Best Lineup: Isaiah Taylor, Marco Belinelli, Kent Bazemore, Luke Babbitt, John Collins
Minutes Played: 23
Team Rating: 13.1
Considering the Atlanta Hawks have won just twice in 13 attempts, it may be a positive development to see them on the right side of zero. But this roster, which remains relatively devoid of talent after the offseason departures of Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, does have a few intriguing pieces.
Luke Babbitt and Marco Belinelli can shoot the cover off a basketball, and they've both been successful in the early going. The former is knocking down 45.2 percent of his deep attempts while taking 3.2 per game, and those numbers stand at 44.3 and 5.4, respectively, for the latter sniper. Giving that kind of spacing for Isaiah Taylor's drives, Kent Bazemore's athletic cuts and John Collins' penchant for punishing the rim tends to work out quite well.
Is this sustainable? Probably not.
Atlanta has used seven different lineups for at least 20 minutes, and this is one of only two in the green. The other (Malcolm Delaney, Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Mike Muscala and Dewayne Dedmon) has a 0.9 net rating in 22 minutes—direct evidence that head coach Mike Budenholzer is continuing to experiment with combinations and hand more run to a wide variety of contributors.
That's the good news. If these lineups ever start faltering, the Hawks have a signal-caller willing to mix things up at a moment's notice. Of course, the bad news is that Taylor probably can't keep his turnovers in check this well, and shooting regression from the wings and forwards is just about inevitable.
Enjoy the positivity while it lasts, Hawks.
26. Indiana Pacers: 399.6
Best Lineup: Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis
Minutes Played: 148
Net Rating: 2.7
The Indiana Pacers may have risen even higher if Paul George were still on the roster, but they can take serious solace in the fact that the team's best five-man pairing involves both pieces it got back for the superstar. Remember when the world (yours truly included) was hating on general manager Kevin Pritchard for only pilfering away Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis from the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Well, Sabonis is now a nightly double-double machine averaging 13.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 63 percent from the field. Oladipo is on the verge of inserting himself into the Eastern Conference All-Star race, leading the charge for these up-tempo Pacers with an efficient 23.4 points, 4.3 boards and 3.6 dimes per game.
Plus, Indiana is getting tremendous offensive production from Darren Collison, who continues to put up strong counting stats while minimizing his turnovers. Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young help space the floor, and all five are capable of doing so much offensive damage that their defensive porosity is almost irrelevant.
And now, the elephant in the room.
Going forward, Myles Turner will almost assuredly work his way into the team's leading lineup. But early-season injuries have limited his on-court presence, opening the door for Sabonis and the Pacers' other frontcourt options to receive a bit more run. Thus far, he's only been a part of one quintet north of 20 minutes, and he, Collison, Oladipo, Bogdanovic and Young have posted a minus-11.1 net rating.
25. Sacramento Kings: 449.5
Best Lineup: De'Aaron Fox, Garrett Temple, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Skal Labissiere, Kosta Koufos
Minutes Played: 29
Net Rating: 15.5
Maybe the Sacramento Kings will be disappointed that Justin Jackson isn't a part of this leading lineup. Perhaps they'll be unhappy that Willie Cauley-Stein is replaced by Kosta Koufos, who has quietly put together some excellent defensive minutes during the 2017-18 season's opening salvo.
But they're still featuring plenty of youth.
While George Hill struggles immensely on both ends of the floor, De'Aaron Fox has showcased some flashes of brilliance. His overall numbers still lag behind where they should be, largely thanks to his limited shooting range, but the speedy floor general has still provided plenty of good, most notably when he drilled a game-winning 15-footer to beat the Philadelphia 76ers.
"I'm extremely comfortable on the floor, playing with [Hill] or playing without him. Coming off the bench I'm able to see the flow of the game, see how it's going, and just try to be aggressive," he said after that mid-November contest, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post. "If it's getting my teammates involved, it's that. If I'm scoring, then it's that. I just want to be able to help my team win."
That mentality has helped him thrive alongside the steadying presence of Garrett Temple and the offensive exploits of Bogdan Bogdanovic. His quick hands don't hurt on defense, either, especially with Labissiere and Koufos waiting to clean up some of the mistakes on the interior of Sacramento's schemes.
Perhaps the Kings would've liked for Hill to live up to his contract and feature here. But they can't be disappointed by the good that's stemmed from their rookie floor general earning run.
24. Utah Jazz: 473.8
Best Lineup: Donovan Mitchell, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert
Minutes Played: 23
Net Rating: 20.6
The Utah Jazz apparently don't know how to score. They're only putting up 98.6 points per 100 possessions as a team, which leaves them ahead of only the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls.
Fortunately, they're still pretty darn good on the defensive end. So naturally, the best lineup features all the stopping power.
Donovan Mitchell's energy has been contagious during his rookie season. He's capable of flitting around the half-court set while using his quick hands to poke the rock away from unsuspecting ball-handlers. So even while he shoulders immense offensive responsibilities and struggles to shoot consistently, his work on the less glamorous end has still made him an effective presence.
Then we have the three biggest guys. Joe Ingles can corral anyone from forwards to lead guards, using his instincts and quick feet to stay between his man and the basket at all times. A healthy Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert make for a tremendous interior combination, even if it's one we won't be seeing in the near future after the latter was ruled out for a few weeks with a bone bruise in his right knee.
Rodney Hood is the lone exception to the preventing proclivities, but the Jazz have to put at least one go-to offensive force on the floor. Though Hood hasn't enjoyed the breakout that was so widely expected, his knack for putting the ball on the floor and creating his own offense is still invaluable in this lineup without a true 1-guard and no real offensive initiators.
These five, as a whole, have been atrocious on the scoring side. They're also allowing just 65.1 points per 100 possessions, which is nearly unfathomable.
23. New York Knicks: 644
Best Lineup: Jarrett Jack, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter
Minutes Played: 140
Net Rating: 4.6
Honestly, the four pieces accompanying Kristaps Porzingis are almost irrelevant.
An early frontrunner for Most Improved Player, the 22-year-old power forward is averaging 30.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 51.3 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from downtown and 84.1 percent from the charity stripe. He's holding opponents to 33.3 percent shooting when he's stationed at the rim. Everything he does is amazing, and it's why the New York Knicks' net rating swings from 5.8 to minus-10.4 when he leaves the floor.
Surrounding him with the shooting of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee helps. Ditto for the offensive rebounding and surprisingly improved defensive play of Enes Kanter. Jarrett Jack has been a steady presence at the point, even if he rarely does anything too noteworthy.
But this is still all about Porzingis.
"The bet is that he's closer to his new normal than not," Dan Favale wrote for Bleacher Report. "He profiled as a superstar long before now; he was just supposed to incur a steeper learning curve without a marquee safety net. Instead, he's ahead of schedule—impressively, unfathomably and, somehow, believably so all at the same time."
Now, imagine what might happen when he and Frank Ntilikina start developing more chemistry together. The two have a team-best 44.7 net rating when sharing the floor; they simply haven't spent enough time alongside each other in five-man units.
22. Toronto Raptors: 672.6
Best Lineup: Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl
Minutes Played: 57
Net Rating: 11.8
No Serge Ibaka? No Kyle Lowry? No DeMar DeRozan?
Well, consider this: The Toronto Raptors' bench has outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions thus far in 2017-18, leaving it behind only the Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. The starters, meanwhile, have posted a 2.3 net rating.
Somehow, some way, this team has been better when the second unit comes into games. That's likely an early-season fluke, driven by the solid two-way performance of Delon Wright, the sharp-shooting abilities of C.J. Miles, the effectiveness of Jakob Poeltl on both ends and OG Anunoby's relentless tenacity and versatility. Perhaps they're lucked into matchups against easier lineups. Maybe their shooting is slightly unsustainable.
But they're producing all the same.
Toronto has seen its net rating improve by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ibaka leaves the floor. It rises by 6.5 and 8.3, respectively, without Lowry or DeRozan. Is that likely to continue? Probably not.
But for now, this backup-riddled quintet barely outpaces the lineup comprised of the aforementioned three starters, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell, which checks in with a score of 427.8. Small samples are fantastic, right?
21. San Antonio Spurs: 680.4
Minutes Played: 63
Net Rating: 10.8
Fun fact: The San Antonio Spurs haven't outscored their foes or been outscored by the opposition with the team's best player on the floor.
Fine. You got me. That's just because Kawhi Leonard is still dealing with a lingering and mysterious injury to his quadriceps that hasn't yet allowed him to make his 2017-18 debut. And the team is scrambling to figure out how it can score without him, to the point that the Spurs are uncharacteristically posting one of the NBA's middling offensive ratings.
As Nate Wolf wrote for NBA Math, the vaunted system simply falls apart without a certain small forward:
"Leonard isn't merely the beneficiary of [head coach Gregg] Popovich's system; he makes the system work. Unless Leonard is involved in the final action as a do-everything scoring threat, the whole play profiles as meaningless....
"Dumping the rock to [LaMarcus] Aldridge may work every so often as an alternative. Absent Leonard, though, the Spurs won't create enough quality looks and don't have anyone to sink the more difficult ones.
"Take away the tip of the spear, and you have no spear at all."
Patty Mills, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have done everything in their power to preserve the spear. But their offensive gains have come at the expense of San Antonio's potent defense, since the wing work of Green and Anderson can't overcome the sieve at the 1 or the interior holes at the biggest spots.
It's almost like the Spurs are missing someone who could pull the leading lineup well outside the bottom 10.
20. Los Angeles Lakers: 716.8
Best Lineup: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle
Minutes Played: 32
Net Rating: 22.4
Lonzo Ball: 20 years old.
Brandon Ingram: 20 years old.
Kyle Kuzma: 22 years old.
Julius Randle: 22 years old.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: 24 years old.
That has to make head coach Luke Walton squeal with joy. He's managed to milk so much production from the youngsters on both ends of the floor that a lineup featuring Caldwell-Pope as the oldest contributor has still been decisively positive, capable of creating offense from any position while locking down on the defensive end.
Unlike many of the early-season candidates, this is a five-man combination that should continue to grow throughout the 2017-18 campaign. All five players will continue to earn big minutes as they prove themselves integral parts of the Los Angeles Lakers' core, and they're all showing constant signs of improvement.
What happens when Randle becomes more comfortable operating as the last line of defense? What happens when Ingram stops taking bad shots? What happens when Ball starts making shots?
The Purple and Gold have a long way to go before they're a true threat to emerge from the Western Conference's playoff field—or even to function as a postseason lock in the first place. But putting the five most intriguing youngsters on the floor simultaneously and experiencing such positive results is a phenomenal start.
19. Oklahoma City Thunder: 726
Best Lineup: Russell Westbrook, Alex Abrines, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams
Minutes Played: 30
Net Rating: 24.2
Alex Abrines earning the nod over Andre Roberson is interesting, speaking to how effective the other members of this lineup have been on the defensive end. The former is a sharp-shooting threat who operates largely in a catch-and-shoot capacity while trying not to become a point-preventing liability; the latter is a tremendously limited shooter who functioned as one of the NBA's premier wing stoppers last year.
And yet, Abrines is present in a quintet that's been dangerous because of its defense.
These five are scoring only 99.6 points per 100 possessions, which would leave them tied with the Dallas Mavericks for No. 26 on the league-wide leaderboard. But they're also rather stingy, posting a 75.4 defensive rating that should terrify every opponent under the sun.
Russell Westbrook has been a pest at the point of attack, while Paul George has done yeomen's work against opposing wings. Meanwhile, Jerami Grant and Steven Adams have formed a potent interior duo that rarely allows an uncontested bucket around the rim. The power forward provides athletic contests from the weak side, while Adams drains energy away from his matchups with constant physicality.
Roberson's absence is understandable, considering how ineffective he's been after signing an extension this summer. Carmelo Anthony not showing up might be a bit more baffling, especially considering the marquee addition is averaging 20.3 points. But he's long been a defensive liability, and he's slashing just 42.4/35.4/79.2 to put up those gaudy scoring totals.
Defense has reigned supreme here, and combinations are more important than individual prowess. Grant isn't a better player than Anthony in a vacuum, but he's been a more valuable presence alongside the four other relevant men.
18. Memphis Grizzlies: 844.9
Best Lineup: Mario Chalmers, Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons, Brandon Wright
Minutes Played: 71
Net Rating: 11.9
Mike Conley's jumper has gone missing during the opening portion of 2017-18. He's shooting just 39.7 percent from the field, 31.4 percent on his deep attempts and a below-his-career-average 81.3 percent at the stripe. As a result, the Memphis Grizzlies have been 1.8 points per 100 possessions better when he's watching from the pine.
Somehow, Marc Gasol has been even more of a disaster.
Memphis' net rating is minus-1.3 when he plays, and it rockets up to 11.9 when he's replaced by Brandan Wright or another Grizzlies big. He's been a step slower than normal on the defensive end, is turning the rock over too frequently and has become too reliant on a three-point shot that isn't falling.
Initially, a five-man lineup without either of the two men widely regarded as the best players on Beale Street seems baffling. But it makes far more sense when they've struggled throughout the 2017-18 campaign while so many less-heralded contributors have picked up the slack.
Mario Chalmers has held his own defensively. Dillon Brooks has impressed during his rookie season. Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons have arguably been the Grizzlies' two most beneficial presences, even if the former was hailed as a limited figure and the latter saw his contract constantly criticized before the start of this campaign.
Of course, this shouldn't be too shocking. Memphis has made a habit out of defying convention and posting strange results for years now.
17. Portland Trail Blazers: 876.3
Best Lineup: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic
Minutes Played: 23
Net Rating: 38.1
Unfortunately, the Portland Trail Blazers won't have any chances to build upon these early-season exploits for a while longer. Al-Farouq Aminu is still out with a right ankle sprain, and his dizzying improvements on both ends of the floor made him a crucial piece in Rip City.
Offensively, his improved shooting opened up more driving lanes for Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Evan Turner. Defensively, his willingness and ability to shut down players at multiple positions—hounding opposing ball handlers and protecting the rim on various possessions—keyed the Blazers' growth into a two-way power.
As Blazer's Edge's Dave Deckard noted, he even seemed to supplant Jusuf Nurkic as the team's third-best player before succumbing to the injury imp:
"Heading into the 2017-18 NBA regular season, naming the three best players in the Portland Trail Blazers lineup was easy: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic. Anyone old enough to string three syllables together could have done it. Except that for the first three weeks of the season, it hasn't worked out that way. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu has stolen into that third spot, defending and hitting three-pointers with abandon to provide solid support for Portland's starting guards on both ends of the court."
Lillard, Pat Connaughton, Turner, Aminu and Ed Davis have earned a lineup score of 817.5. Two more quintets are in the green while playing at least 20 minutes.
And three of the four groupings involve the power forward in question, who has helped the featured bunch post a stifling defensive rating of 74.0.
16. Chicago Bulls: 958.1
Best Lineup: Jerian Grant, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday, Lauri Markkanen, Robin Lopez
Minutes Played: 67
Net Rating: 14.3
One of my favorite revelations from poring over way too much lineup data: The Chicago Bulls have two five-man lineups that have logged at least 20 minutes with positive net ratings, and they involve 10 unique players.
Jerian Grant, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday, Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez are obviously the leading bunch, featuring defensive weapons all over the court while the sweet-shooting rookie provides a bit of offense. The tenacity of Nwaba on the wings and Lopez on the interior is key here, since opponents have only been able to muster 85.6 points per 100 possessions.
The second bunch is slightly less stingy and has played 43 fewer minutes, but it's still posting a positive figure. Were it the chosen group, its lineup score of 165.6 would still beat out the best offered by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons, despite the Bulls' laughable 2-9 record.
This time, the troupe is comprised of Kay Felder, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio—apparently unable to decide whether it wants to lean toward small-ball inclinations with a pair of point guards or bully-ball tendencies with two physical presences on the interior.
So, which is more likely to be sustainable?
Nwaba's ankle is currently keeping him out of the lineup, and he'll eventually have to deal with Zach LaVine's insertion into the rotation. But doesn't the best bunch have to include Markkanen, who looks every bit the real deal during his first NBA go-round?
15. Phoenix Suns: 1,014.4
Best Lineup: Mike James, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender, Tyson Chandler
Minutes Played: 32
Net Rating: 31.7
Over the course of 273 shared minutes, Tyson Chandler and Devin Booker are on the wrong end of a minus-1.7 net rating. That's a palatable figure for a bottom-feeding organization going through a transitionary period, but it's actually surprisingly low for the team's rim-protecting center and point-producing 2-guard.
After all, they're the two mainstays in the Phoenix Suns' best five-man lineups.
In 32 minutes alongside Dragan Bender, T.J. Warren and the out-of-nowhere offensive threat known as Mike James, these two have been flat-out dominant. Even without logging an inordinate amount of time together, they've worked their way into the top half of these rankings.
Replace James and Bender with Tyler Ulis and Marquse Chriss, and the Suns have a quintet that's spent 29 minutes on the floor while producing a 19.6 net rating—good enough for a lineup score of 568.4 that would still topple the bottom seven squads in our countdown.
But that leaves 212 minutes unaccounted for.
Chandler and Booker are fantastic in their roles, but they both have glaring weaknesses. The big man can't generate any offense for himself and is guarding a smaller section of the court these days, while the 21-year-old is an atrocious defender who can sometimes shoot his team out of games. They need capable running mates, and they've found them while playing beside some of the rotation's other talented figures.
Interim head coach Jay Triano should keep trying to mix and match, but he should also feature these bunches even more frequently.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves: 1,016.4
Best Lineup: Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns
Minutes Played: 242
Net Rating: 4.2
Take a look at those names again.
Jeff Teague has previously been a decent defender for the Atlanta Hawks, comfortably spearheading the defensive schemes at the top of the key. Jimmy Butler is an All-Defensive threat every year, while Andrew Wiggins has the athleticism necessary to thrive in on-ball situations. Taj Gibson has long been heralded as an impact stopper out of the frontcourt, while Karl-Anthony Towns has the smarts and physical skills to eventually develop into a plus on the preventing end.
Scoring isn't an issue for the Minnesota Timberwolves' starting five. It shares the ball nicely, avoids turnovers, shoots well from all over the floor and generates plenty of second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds. But it also has trouble stopping a nosebleed, posting a 105.1 defensive rating that would rank No. 19 in the season-long hierarchy.
If that number seems better than you expected, it's likely because this is Minnesota's opening lineup and has logged plenty more action together than you've seen from most of these quintets. A below-average mark with that much run is still rather detrimental.
The 'Wolves do have some adept defensive lineups, though. None have been better (with the same 20-minute cutoff) than a bench unit of Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica with Towns at the pivot, surprising as that may sound.
But head coach Tom Thibodeau hasn't played that group for more than 30 minutes yet, which means the starters still reign supreme.
13. Dallas Mavericks: 1,071
Best Lineup: Dennis Smith Jr., Yogi Ferrell, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Salah Mejri
Minutes Played: 35
Net Rating: 30.6
According to NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric, these are the only members of the Dallas Mavericks who have served as above-average players during the 2017-18 season:
- Salah Mejri: 9.41 TPA in 119 minutes
- Maxi Kleber: 0.69 TPA in 86 minutes
Neither has spent much time on the floor, and both might regress into the negatives if they became true parts of the rotation for extended periods. Kleber hasn't even been a part of a single unit that has played at least 20 minutes, and Mejri has only featured in one.
That one just happens to be the featured selection, since it's the only Dallas conglomerate that has outscored the opposition while logging the necessary time on the floor. And Mejri has been the stabilizing force on the interior, shutting down opponents near the hoop while Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr. and Yogi Ferrell go to work on the perimeter.
Even though these Mavericks are devoid of true stoppers—Barnes can hold his own, while Matthews isn't the same defender he was in his pre-injury prime—they've produced a stellar 88.9 defensive rating in limited action. Scoring on them is a difficult endeavor because the paint has been shut down, and everyone has worked together to completely eliminate second-chance opportunities.
Perhaps that's why Dallas stubbornly refuses to give Nerlens Noel many minutes?
12. Philadelphia 76ers: 1,146.6
Best Lineup: Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid
Minutes Played: 49
Net Rating: 23.4
Dear Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown,
This is your best lineup. Truthfully, it's not even close.
We could use numbers to back that up. Only one other five-man lineup (Jerryd Bayless, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid) has logged over 20 minutes for you, and that pairing's 6.5 net rating pales in comparison to the featured bunch. Remove the temporal restriction, and no group has beat this one while playing more than 13 minutes.
But truthfully, we don't even need numbers. Until Markelle Fultz gets healthy and proves worthy of the No. 1 pick, this lineup makes sense. It has your best playmaker at the 1 surrounded by plenty of size and boatloads of shooting. It has defense at the point, on the wings and on the blocks. It can thrive in the pick-and-roll game, space out the floor with deadly marksmanship or run through Embiid in the post.
Rarely is a team's leading quintet so glaringly obvious. This features the team's five best healthy players, and four of the five are still growing into dominant figures. Of course you want to use them in conjunction with one another.
Now, Brett, if you'd please allow them to get even more run together.
Love, the NBA-watching world.
11. Los Angeles Clippers: 1,220.1
Best Lineup: Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers, Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Minutes Played: 147
Net Rating: 8.3
OK, no cheating.
You're likely familiar with all these players, recognizing Blake Griffin as a bona fide superstar, DeAndre Jordan and Patrick Beverley as All-Defensive candidates, Danilo Gallinari as a versatile forward and Austin Rivers as an underrated defender with some shot-creation skills. So, do you think this bunch of Los Angeles Clippers is better on offense or defense?
Cue the Jeopardy theme music. Waiting...waiting...waiting...
If you guessed these Clippers are defensive world-beaters, sorry. You lose. If you pegged them as a superior offensive lineup, even though I attempted to steer you in the wrong direction, please go ahead and pat yourself on the back. Multiple times, if you so desire.
Los Angeles has been fine on the defensive end with these troops doing the heavy lifting. The defensive rating (102.6) would be tied with the Miami Heat for the league's 11th-best mark. But its 110.9 offensive rating would trail only the patently unfair Golden State Warriors, who are on pace to have the best scoring season in league history.
That's the bread and butter.
And honestly, it shouldn't be that surprising, even if Gallinari hasn't yet produced like the Clippers hoped when landing him in free agency. Griffin is a fringe MVP candidate, helping add a third initiator to the offense. Other than Jordan, who remains one of the league's best roll men and thus provides his own type of gravity, everyone can knock down spot-up jumpers.
Finding an exploitable weakness just isn't possible.
10. Boston Celtics: 1,221.2
Minutes Played: 71
Net Rating: 17.2
Let's not focus too much on the merits of this lineup, which should be fairly obvious.
Kyrie Irving has been a legitimate MVP candidate early in the season, while Al Horford should be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. No member of the 2017 draft class has been more impressive than Jayson Tatum, who's contributing admirably on both ends of the floor. Aron Baynes provides physicality and more defense, while Jaylen Brown's versatile offensive game and overwhelming athleticism always keep opponents on their collective toes.
But these Boston Celtics are so deep that head coach Brad Stevens hasn't needed to lean too heavily on any single lineup. He can use Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis off the bench, and nearly every piece is compatible in his positionless schemes. That makes it hard for a singular quintet to rack up monstrous minutes, and it depresses the scores in this analysis.
The most impressive stat of all might be the following.
Boston has used 17 different lineups for at least 10 minutes while rattling off a dozen straight wins to open the season with a 12-2 record. Fifteen have posted positive net ratings, and one of the two exceptions features exactly zero of the typical starters.
Stevens is a genius. The Celtics are overwhelmingly deep and cohesive. So with that in mind, it should still be impressive that any grouping managed to finish within the top 10.
9. Charlotte Hornets: 1,277.2
- Kemba Walker: 33.8 points per 100 possessions better while on the floor
- Dwight Howard: 20.0 better
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: 13.9 better
- Jeremy Lamb: 13.0 better
- Marvin Williams: 8.4 better
Best Lineup: Kemba Walker, Dwayne Bacon, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 103
Net Rating: 12.4
Only five players on the Charlotte Hornets have positive on/off differentials thus far in 2017-18:
Naturally, four of the five are featured here.
Walker is the obvious linchpin for the Hornets, sparking everything they do offensively with his ability to control the pace and exploit pick-and-roll scenarios. Thanks to his long-range proficiency, he's refusing to let defenders duck under screens any longer, and he can torture them with his speed as soon as they attempt to fight over a pick.
But the one exclusion makes just as much sense.
Kidd-Gilchrist is a high-quality defender, but the Hornets want to put as much spacing around Walker and the paint-bound Howard as they can. Williams is simply a better fit, and relatively unheralded rookie Dwayne Bacon joins him in the five-man unit. The Florid State product has largely struggled on offense, but his 37.5 percent clip from beyond the arc on two attempts per game still demands some attention from Charlotte's foes.
The Hornets have also found success with Kidd-Gilchrist in Bacon's place (a 9.2 net rating in 84 minutes yields a lineup score of 772.8), but that pairing has been neither as heavily used nor as effective as quintets featuring the rookie.
8. Milwaukee Bucks: 1,311.2
Best Lineup: Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson
Minutes Played: 88
Net Rating: 14.9
Eric Bledsoe should eventually work his way into the Milwaukee Bucks' featured lineup, but his tenure with the team is far too young. At the moment, he's only been a part of one qualified quintet, and it's posted a minus-25.1 net rating.
So for now, the selection is exactly what you'd expect while Thon Maker is struggling and making John Henson look like an even better choice at the 5.
Malcolm Brogdon is the steadying presence as the point guard, comfortable both controlling the pace of a game and working in catch-and-shoot scenarios to supplement Giannis Antetokounmpo's rim attacks. Tony Snell and Khris Middleton are there for spacing, though the latter is also a quality defender willing to take on tough wing assignments night in and night out.
That's the core Milwaukee is building around, so it shouldn't be any surprise that the only two qualified troupes with positive net ratings feature those four core players. They've just been better with Henson than Maker, which also shouldn't be surprising while the younger big has struggled immensely on both ends of the floor.
But this also offers so much room for growth.
A Maker breakout could help the leading quartet grow even more. They could keep thriving with Henson. And best of all, they could throw out a super-small lineup with Bledsoe replacing both centers for short bursts.
7. New Orleans Pelicans: 1,361.2
Best Lineup: Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Dante Cunningham, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins
Minutes Played: 164
Net Rating: 8.3
Truthfully, the presences of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are about all that matters.
Jrue Holiday has shown flashes of excellence, but he's been largely inconsistent after inking a big deal this summer. The other two pieces just happen to be on the floor while the bigs are particularly dominant; they're ultimately replaceable by whatever other bodies the New Orleans Pelicans are attempting to use.
According to pbpstats.com, they've earned an 8.52 net rating when the two superstars are on the floor. Without either of them, they're at minus-9.76. Even when only one is playing, they're being outscored by their opponents to the tune of a minus-6.58 net rating.
Everything hinges on the fire-and-ice combo.
Both draw an inordinate amount of defensive attention, and they've been similarly excellent on the stopping end. Cousins in particular has seemingly broken out, willing to body up against more physical players and protect the rim whenever he's on the floor.
Because of those improvements, this lineup isn't simply a one-way scoring juggernaut. It's actually been even better on the defensive end, posting such an impressive rating there that it would trail only the stifling Boston Celtics in the season-long rankings.
Sure, we're still at an early portion of the 2017-18 campaign. But the Boogie-Brow experiment seems to be working. Now, if the Pelicans could only put more talent around them...
6. Miami Heat: 1,388
Best Lineup: Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, Justise Winslow, Hassan Whiteside
Minutes Played: 40
Net Rating: 34.7
If any coach loves experimenting during the early portion of a season, it's Erik Spoelstra. The Miami Heat clipboard-holder is a strategic genius who manages to make subtle shifts to his team's schemes throughout the year, seeking to maximize the talent he has at his disposal.
Lest we forget, he was one of the forefathers of the positionless revolution, thanks to this time with the Big Three. Last year, he made a drastic shift to employ a drive-and-kick offense that made the most of James Johnson and Dion Waiters, and the impact helped drag Miami out of the Eastern Conference's basement. So let's give him time before he settles in on a few pet lineups; he's still figuring things out.
Thirteen games into the year, the Heat have used six distinct bunches for at least 20 minutes. Five of them have been in the green, with only Goran Dragic, Waiters, Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Bam Adebayo serving as an exception (thanks, offense!). That alone is impressive as Spoelstra shuffles so many moving pieces.
Of course, the leading group is full of incumbents.
Dragic, Richardson, Waiters, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside largely know how to play together, though Winslow's season-ending injury last year prevented him from logging time next to Waiters. His ability to serve as a secondary facilitator opens up even more possibilities, though, and it gives Miami another plus defender to pair with the hulking center in this smaller unit.
Don't expect Miami to devote too much time to any one group at this stage of the calendar. But if it needs key stops and a quick run, this is where Spoelstra should turn.
5. Denver Nuggets: 1,398.7
Best Lineup: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Minutes Played: 197
Net Rating: 7.1
Paul Millsap has had the intended effect.
He and Nikola Jokic are still working out the kinks in their on-court chemistry, but the former Atlanta Hawk is already making a substantial impact on defense. Of course, it also helps that Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are more comfortable preventing dribble penetration while Jokic understands even more about positional nuance.
But Millsap's presence alone has drastically improved Denver's stopping power, thanks to his knack for filling so many different roles and flitting into passing lanes to force turnovers. An additional 2.5 percent of opponents' possessions have ended with cough-ups while he's on the floor, which is a big deal for a scheme that normally avoids gambles like the plague.
Now, the Nuggets can win on both ends.
Jokic's passing wizardry and cutting synergy with Harris are impactful. Murray has provided occasional offensive explosions. Wilson Chandler remains a versatile threat. And Denver as a whole is scoring 107.7 points per 100 possessions with this featured quintet—good enough to sit pretty at No. 6 in the year-long hierarchy.
Thing is, these Nuggets are also posting a 100.6 defensive rating. And on that same overarching totem pole, that would tie the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 5 mark.
Anytime you're within the top half-dozen on both ends, you're doing something right. Actually, you're doing a lot right.
4. Orlando Magic: 1,713
Best Lineup: Shelvin Mack, Evan Fournier, Jonathon Simmons, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Minutes Played: 30
Net Rating: 57.1
Throughout the early portion of the 2017-18 season, the Houston Rockets are scoring 109.9 points per 100 possessions. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, are their only superiors, posting a league-best 116.6 offensive rating.
When Shelvin Mack, Evan Fournier, Jonathon Simmons, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are on the floor, the Orlando Magic have rather easily toppled both those marks. They're scoring a jaw-dropping, mind-numbing, brain-melting, hair-raising, face-freezing 143.9 points per 100 possessions in their 30 minutes together, dropping in triples from all over the floor and basically refusing to miss shots.
And because that's apparently not enough, they're also playing high-quality defense. Mack has been the only real liability now that Fournier has made strides on the preventing end. Ian Holmes of Orlando Magic Daily has more about the French swingman:
"What has been most evident this season so far, has been how active he has been with his hands. He is becoming a real difference maker in the way he hassles the ball handler and when he helps in the post when digging in on double teams. As soon as big men lower the ball on drives or in the post, Fournier has been excellent at getting his hands on the ball. Leading to fumbles, turnovers, strips and steals...
"His commitment to creating turnovers is a huge indication of how this team has bought into coach Frank Vogel’s philosophy and how getting out in transition can help this team flourish."
Vucevic is having the best season of his career. Gordon has finally started to realize his immense talent, drilling trey after trey while thriving in all facets of the game. Let's just not overlook the massive improvements Fournier has made on both ends of the floor, since they've been just as key to Orlando's unexpected surge up the Eastern Conference standings.
3. Golden State Warriors: 2,764.8
Minutes Played: 144
Net Rating: 19.2
It's time to enter a new tier.
Up to this point, featured lineups had either barely outscored the opposition on a per-possession basis but logged plenty of minutes, or they'd throttled their foes over a shorter stretch that barely met the 20-minute cutoff. But the Golden State Warriors, as well as the two remaining bunches in this countdown, have been elite over a much larger sample.
Yes, this is the Dubs' starting five. Yes, it's pretty much unstoppable.
If you spend too much time focusing on Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant can torch you. The same is true if you devote too much attention to the 2-guard's off-ball exploits or Durant's incredible shot-creation. Oh, and then Draymond Green is just waiting to wreak even more havoc.
These Warriors have been a two-way juggernaut, as it's only when bench pieces enter the game that their point-preventing chops have fallen off to a more reasonable level. Thorough domination from everyone would just be even more unfair.
We're also convinced this isn't exactly a fluke. The same lineup logged 532 minutes over the course of 43 games last year, and it outscored everyone by 23.1 points per 100 possessions. It was even deadlier on both ends of the floor.
Yes, that's right. This probably isn't the best we'll see from the defending champions' starting lineup.
2. Washington Wizards: 3,219
Best Lineup: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr., Marcin Gortat
Minutes Played: 145
Net Rating: 22.2
Maybe it's a bit unexpected that the Washington Wizards are ranked ahead of the Golden State Warriors, but their placement near the top of the pack shouldn't be too surprising. Even with Kelly Oubre Jr. standing in for Markieff Morris at the beginning of the year—and continuing to play alongside the other four starters after moving to the bench upon Morris' return—this is a deadly group with oodles of talent on both ends.
John Wall hasn't looked quite like John Wall for much of the 2017-18 season, but the slack has been capably picked up by a red-hot Otto Porter Jr. and an ever-improving Bradley Beal. Throw in Marcin Gortat's hard screens—and his increasing willingness to feint screens before pinning his man from contesting the ensuing driving lanes—and Oubre's energy, and you have a lineup that's tough to handle on either end.
This isn't anything new.
Last year's starting five posted an 8.1 net rating over the course of 1,347 minutes, and they topped their foes by 17.4 points per 100 possessions during 200 minutes with a lesser version of Oubre standing in for Morris. These combinations work. We know this.
And that makes it all the more terrifying that they could get even better as the season progresses. Oubre is still seeking consistency with his game, and Wall simply hasn't been the same on defense. The point guard is also shooting just 42.0 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from beyond the arc—far worse than in previous seasons.
If everything clicks, the Wizards could be a serious threat to take over the top spot.
1. Houston Rockets: 3,880.7
Best Lineup: James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela
Minutes Played: 151
Net Rating: 25.7
How do you stop James Harden?
The bearded guard is averaging a staggering 30.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 10.2 assists while shooting 45.4 percent from the field, 39.6 percent from downtown and 81.7 percent at the stripe. His turnovers are down from last year's astronomical figure. He's even playing the best defense of his career, seemingly more locked in than ever.
But here's the more pertinent question: How do you stop Harden when he's paired with an elite pick-and-roll partner (Clint Capela) and three floor-spacing shooters (Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson)?
So far, the answer is simple. You don't.
The Houston Rockets have been a solid defensive bunch, thanks largely to the exploits of the man in the middle. Capela isn't one of the league's premier rim-protecting presences, but his activity and willingness to muddle up offensive sets has been rather key.
And yet, the defense pales in comparison to an offense scoring 126.6 points per 100 possessions—an offensive rating that would blow every team out of the water. The Rockets don't turn the ball over too frequently with these five on the floor. They hit every shot they look at, and they grab plenty of offensive rebounds on the rare misses. Plus, they draw a significant number of fouls to get easy points at the stripe.
Everything works, especially as they benefit from established chemistry. This five-man bunch also played 274 minutes together in 2016-17, and it posted an 8.3 net rating. Now, it's that much better.
Of course, one question remains.
What happens when Chris Paul is healthy?