Ranking the 5 Best and Worst Lineups in the NBA

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2021

Ranking the 5 Best and Worst Lineups in the NBA

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    We tend to imagine that an NBA team's ceiling and floor are tied to its best player. It's a star's league, but that way of thinking still isn't quite right.

    You have to field a team to compete, so success or failure actually depends on the quality of a full five-man lineup. And that's where things get interesting. Fit becomes a factor, as do balance and chemistry. You know, all the stuff that makes basketball as much art as science.

    Here, we'll run down the five best and worst lineups in the league. Rankings will be based on net rating, but we'll still highlight specific areas that distinguish each five-man unit—for better or worse. We're only a quarter of the way into the 2020-21 season, so our samples are small and inherently noisy.

    We'll cut out as much of that as possible by excluding any player groupings that haven't shared at least 75 minutes of court time. There will still be some major surprises, highlighted by the No. 1 entrant in our top five.

Best Lineup No. 5: Utah Jazz

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O'Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert

    The Numbers: Plus-16.3 net rating in 260 minutes

    Considering volume, there's a case to be made that the Utah Jazz's starting five deserves to rank higher than this. They've got more minutes together than any other units in the top five.

    Rules are rules, though, and it's not like it's a slight to clock in as the fifth-best grouping in the league.

    Conley's improvement this year is the key to this unit's success. Last season, Utah's best high-usage lineup included Mitchell, O'Neale, Bogdanovic and Gobert, but with Joe Ingles slotted into Conley's spot. Now that the 33-year-old point guard is playing more like the Memphis Grizzlies version of himself, the Jazz have a supercharged fivesome that handles business on both ends, ranking in the 86th percentile in offensive efficiency and the 74th on defense.

    The only quibbles: This unit neither forces many turnovers nor gets to the foul line. The former isn't a big deal because Gobert's presence in the middle allows for conservative play on D; he cleans up messes, so there's no need to gamble on the perimeter. And when you can stripe it from deep like four of the five members of Utah's best group, you don't need to work your way to the stripe.

    The Jazz's true strength is in their depth. Jordan Clarkson, Ingles and Derrick Favors allow them to go eight deep with quality, starting-caliber talent. But this group has been the main driver of Utah's strong start to the season.

Best Lineup No. 4: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol

    The Numbers: Plus-17.1 net rating in 232 minutes

    No surprises here, as the top lineup on the title-favorite Los Angeles Lakers checks in at fourth place.

    This unit is already dominant, but it also has more upside than any other we'll hit in the "best" section. Anthony Davis is still playing in third gear, and Marc Gasol—savant ball-mover though he may be—will only strengthen the mind-melds he shares with these new teammates as his reps increase.

    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can't continue to make nearly half of his threes all year, but his low usage rate means a downturn in accuracy won't have far-reaching impact.

    This lineup doesn't run much, which limits its chances to capitalize on transition opportunities. But that's not an issue when you have the passing combo of Gasol and LeBron James heading one of the league's best halfcourt attacks. Title-chasers have to be able to score when the game slows down, and these Lakers are experts at it.

    Lest there be any confusion about who's really making the biggest difference here, note that James is the only Lakers player whose absence from the floor coincides with a negative net rating. Los Angeles is a defending champion that looks even better this year than last, yet it gets outscored in the minutes LeBron rests.

    Do we just give him the MVP now to save time?

Best Lineup No. 3: Sacramento Kings

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Lineup: De'Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes

    The Numbers: Plus-23.5 net rating in 94 minutes

    I know what you're thinking, but this isn't just an indictment of Marvin Bagley III.

    It's obviously not the best sign that the Sacramento Kings' starting power forward is absent from his team's best lineup, but Bagley does feature in their No. 2 unit, which has outscored opponents by a very respectable 7.5 points per 100 possessions. The group that features Bagley and the one that includes rookie Tyrese Haliburton are distinguished by their defense, which squares with the eye test that shows the first-year guard is already an instinctive and savvy disruptor whose anticipation and quickness foul up the opponent's offense whether he's on the ball or off it.

    To put it kindly, Bagley isn't as good defensively.

    De'Aaron Fox has made a habit of taking over games in the clutch and is posting career highs in scoring (22.3 points), true shooting percentage (56.6 percent) and usage rate (30.2 percent). He's Sacramento's best player and the only one with an outside shot at an All-Star nod this season. But additional shouts go out to the perpetually hard-playing Richaun Holmes and his reliable floater, along with Harrison Barnes, who cannot legally be described without the phrase "really solid."

    Barnes, who is inexplicably only 28, is on pace to set new personal highs in PER (17.2) and true shooting percentage (63.7 percent). It's not a coincidence that he's been fully actualized when getting minutes at the 4. That's been his best position since his days with the Golden State Warriors.

    The Kings are getting themselves together with wins in five of their last six games. This lineup is salvaging a season that looked nearly lost just a couple of weeks ago, roasting opponents to the tune of a plus-34.5 net rating during that stretch.

    Slap the "Kangz" label on the rest of the roster if you want, but leave these guys out of it. They've been awesome.

Best Lineup No. 2: Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka

    The Numbers: Plus-25.4 net rating in 167 minutes

    This lineup doesn't lack for much, unless you'd prefer a point guard who doesn't try to put teams into the bonus by hacking away like he gets 10 fouls per game and not six. Even with Patrick Beverley doing his thing, this Los Angeles Clippers group is still just mid-pack in opponent free-throw rate.

    Maybe everyone else takes a hands-off approach to compensate for the ultra-confrontational Beverley.

    L.A.'s top five-man unit might lead the league in inducing frustration, as it shreds opponents with perimeter shooting. Nothing inspires a greater feeling of angry resignation than watching what seems like every three-ball fall.

    A whopping 48.2 percent of this quintet's points come from beyond the arc, the highest share of any lineup that has averaged more 10 minutes together and appeared in at least 10 games. The Clips are shooting a league-best 42.3 percent from deep as a team, but this unit further ups the ante with a collective hit rate of 47.2 percent.

    It's concerning that a lineup including Kawhi Leonard and Paul George basically never gets to the rim and doesn't finish well on the rare occasions it generates point-blank looks. The old-school skepticism about jump-shooting teams is mostly dead, but that style of play could become an issue as L.A.'s three-point accuracy inevitably wanes. Nicolas Batum will not keep draining 46.2 percent of his threes—even if he's getting a team-high 2.9 wide-open deep looks per game.

    The lack of a conventional orchestrator at point guard also gives this team a tendency to stagnate on offense.

    Even if the shooting cools off, the Clippers will be fine. We haven't even hit on the defensive excellence of this group. When you only allow 95.1 points per 100 possessions, a little offensive regression hardly matters.

Best Lineup No. 1: San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Devin Vassell, Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl

    The Numbers: Plus-28.9 net rating in 82 minutes

    Sure, this is the smallest sample of any team in the top five. But we set the bar at 75 shared minutes from the jump, and we're not going back on that just because a surprise entry is walking away with the title.

    Besides, how fun is this? We all know a weird collection of San Antonio Spurs vets and prospects won't lead this exercise for long, so let's enjoy it.

    Opponents are only shooting 34.5 percent from long range against this unit, which goes a long way to  explaining its profoundly stingy defensive rating of 80.0. That's a hilariously unsustainable figure; last year's top defense belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, who permitted 102.5 points per 100 possessions.

    A stretch of minutes this short might lead you to believe this reserve unit ran up its net rating in garbage time. Not so. Cleaning the Glass filters that out, and it shows an even higher net rating when the game is still undecided. Luck is a factor, but these guys aren't capitalizing on the waning minutes of blowouts.

    The elephants in the room are named DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge—the Spurs' two biggest names. Neither appears in this lineup, which won't come as a surprise to careful San Antonio observers. Their shared minutes have produced negative net ratings in each of the last two seasons.

    Long live Patty Mills and his refusal to move his dial off the "play like your shorts are on fire" setting. He's shooting the lights out and having the best year of his career at age 32.

    Long live Spurs second units playing fast, smart and team-oriented ball for what feels like the 20th year in a row.

    And long live those gorgeous uniforms.

Worst Lineup No. 5: Memphis Grizzlies

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, Jonas Valanciunas

    The Numbers: Minus-11.7 net rating in 85 minutes

    The bad news: Thanks to injury and health and safety protocols, this is the Memphis Grizzlies' most frequently used lineup. 

    The good news: It won't see much action with Ja Morant back. This unit ran up 78 of its 85 minutes during the seven games Morant missed with a sprained ankle between Dec. 20 and Jan. 13.

    There are bad offenses, terrible offenses and whatever you'd call this lineup, which owns a 91.8 offensive rating and a 45.0 effective field goal percentage. For reference, the worst offense in the league this year belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are more than a dozen points better per 100 possessions. The league average in effective field-goal percentage is 53.4 percent.

    Not great, Grizz. Not great.

    Dillon Brooks is one of the worst inside-the-arc scorers in the league, and Brandon Clarke can't do anything from the perimeter. So it shouldn't register as a total shock that these guys can't put the ball in the bucket.

    Don't worry, it gets worse from here.

Worst Lineup No. 4: San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson and LaMarcus Aldridge

    The Numbers: Minus-12.5 net rating in 219 minutes

    One of the takeaways here is that Dejounte Murray is having a real rollercoaster of a season.

    It has to be strange, emotionally, to spend this much time with the five-man unit that has played the most bad basketball in the league (its 219 minutes are tops in our bottom five), but then to also log stretches with the group that finished first in our "best lineups" section.

    It must be like spending most of his work day in a rat-infested sub-basement that smells like old shoes and despair, but then getting a few precious moments in the palatial corner office on the top floor.

    Concerned friend: Did you have a good day at work, Dejounte?

    Dejounte, confused: I...I don't know.

    DeRozan and Aldridge don't help the Spurs' bottom line, which we chronicled earlier. Walker and Johnson have a ton of promise, but not enough present production to save this unit.

    If one wanted to take the bold step of impugning head coach Gregg Popovich's coaching acumen, one could point to the fact that he's given this wildly unproductive lineup so much time on the court.

Worst Lineup No. 3: Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Stephen Curry, Kelly Oubre Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and James Wiseman

    The Numbers: Minus-16.2 net rating in 171 minutes

    Do you know how hard it is for a lineup to be this bad with Stephen Curry in it?

    The two-time MVP is a historically positive difference-maker. Since 2011-12, his boost to the Golden State Warriors' net rating has ranked in the 99th percentile in five different seasons. He's been in the 97th twice. At the risk of oversimplifying, Curry's presence on the floor has guaranteed a massive winning margin for the better part of a decade.

    The Dubs finally moved away from starting this lineup on Jan. 25, long after it was clear it wasn't working.

    Far earlier than that, it was apparent Draymond Green was a non-threat from the perimeter, Kelly Oubre Jr. was off to one of the most frigid shooting starts in league history and rookie James Wiseman (understandably) had no idea where to be on either end.

    Curry saw all manner of "anyone can score but him" defenses, and Oubre, in particular, was constantly in the way.

    The scariest part is that these are the Dubs' five best players—or at least their five most important ones if they're going to make any noise this season. If not for a scrappy second unit and basically every other lineup that involves Curry, Golden State Would be in serious trouble.

Worst Lineup No. 2: Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Coby White, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.

    The Numbers: Minus-17.3 net rating in 76 minutes

    With only the names to go on, you'd assume this putrid Chicago Bulls lineup was scoring just fine but giving up heaps and heaps of points on the other end. Zach LaVine is a notorious negative on D. Plus, Patrick Williams is a rookie, which basically assures a defensive struggle, and both Coby White and Lauri Markkanen have their shortcomings as well.

    Instead, this Bulls unit's biggest problems are on offense, where it produces just 86.9 points per 100 possessions and turns the ball over like it's going out of style.

    Chicago won't send this group out again any time soon, as Wendell Carter Jr. went down with a quad contusion on Jan. 21. That injury will keep him out until the end of February.

    Much like the Warriors lineup we just hit, this is probably the Bulls' ideal five-man group—at least in terms of future importance. It's probably too soon to worry about White and Williams, but the other three's struggles to contribute to winning basketball suggest another rebuild is on the way.

Worst Lineup No. 1: Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Lineup: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, George Hill, Lu Dort, Isaiah Roby and Darius Bazley

    The Numbers: Minus-20.6 net rating in 102 minutes

    Everything's going to plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who stockpiled draft picks over the offseason and entered this year as the league's most likely tanker.

    Having the worst lineup in the league isn't such a bad thing in those circumstances.

    OKC only has to swap Al Horford in for Isaiah Roby to field a group with a positive net rating. A swing that massive is indicative of how easily these early-season numbers can change, but the Thunder have a good chance of retaining this crown. That's because George Hill is out for a month after having a procedure on his thumb.

    That minus-20.6 net rating won't budge for at least four weeks. Of course, by the time we revisit this exercise, the Thunder's worst lineup won't have enough minutes to qualify.

    For the curious, this lineup's issues seem mostly size-related. It allows opponents to feast at the rim, hitting 77.6 percent of their attempts inside, and frequently fails to end possessions with defensive boards. Opponents grab their own misses more than a third of the time against the Thunder's woeful fivesome.

    Of course, teams also shoot 46.1 percent from deep against our "winner" of the league's worst lineups. This group is highly versatile in its ineffectiveness.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Wednesday, Feb. 3. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.


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