The NBA's killer lineups: Why these 5 combinations dominated the league last season

USA TODAY Sports

Debates rage about the most effective scorer or best passer in the NBA, but what about the lineups that decimate the opposition? We look at five that did last season, including one you probably didn't expect.

The amount of statistical data available for the NBA is continually growing. There are tables upon tables of information readily available, ranging from familiar base statistics like points per game to in-depth shooting splits that detail shot distance and whether the field goal was assisted.

These numbers without context aren't useful, but with a deft touch, they can be powerful. It all depends on what context is sought after, though. Individual basketball players can be broken down to shooting charts and percentages, but basketball is a fluid, five-man sport. Often, we focus on a player's eye-popping statistics.

But what about those killer lineups in the league? Lineups that suffocate their opponent on defense, shred through nets on offense, or dominate both ends of the floor?

Let's start somewhere simple before venturing deep into the "advanced stats" forest. First, we'll single out the five lineups with the best +/- point differential per 48 minutes last season to identify groupings that found success in the simplest form. These lineups will be our "guinea pigs," so to speak.

The Lineups

To crunch it down and regulate the sample size, we'll only look at five-man lineups from the 2012-2013 season with a minimum of 300 minutes played together. Here are the results, per the NBA's media-only stats website:

Team Lineup +/- MP
Miami Heat (1) Battier-Bosh-Chalmers-James-Wade 18.9 300
San Antonio Spurs Duncan-Green-Leonard-Parker-Splitter 17.4 364
Toronto Raptors DeRozan-Gay-Johnson-Lowry-Valanciunas 11.9 343
Indiana Pacers George-Hibbert-Hill-Stephenson-West 11.2 1218
Miami Heat (2) Bosh-Chalmers-Haslem-James-Wade 11 688

Included are lineups from both 2013 NBA Finals teams, a team that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals and a lineup from a team that didn't make the playoffs at all (Toronto).

The Heat have TWO of the best five-man lineups, but swapping one player from their "better" lineup (Haslem for Battier) created a 7.9 +/- swing. More on this later.

Most of these lineups are didn't play together much, but the Pacers' lineup spent a whopping 1,218 minutes together on the floor. That's a huge sample size and testament to consistency creating results.

These five lineups have been singled out as great, but we still have little idea as to why or how. Let's try to hit at that question.

Heat_5_medium

Miami Heat (1), the offensive masters


Profile: This lineup was the best in the league on offense, averaging 11.4 points per 100 possessions more than the league average. It's not surprising that the 2013 NBA champions had the best lineup in the league, and the Heat did it with a small ball group.

What was the fuel to their high-octane production? This lineup put up the highest amount of three-point attempts per 48 minutes (21.4) out of the five "killer" lineups and still shot over 41 percent from deep. They were dangerous from both corners, converting 46 percent from either side.

This lineup was dominant by Tom Ziller's "green triangle" shooting efficiency measure. They shot the lowest percent from the free-throw line at 75 percent, but also attempted the most free throws (24.9), adding up to the highest amount of free throws made (18.7) in comparison to the other four lineups. Sometimes, quantity outshines quality. What's a great free-throw percentage without free-throw attempts?

The other remarkable aspect of this lineup, beyond "oh my god they were so incredibly efficient," is that they still held opponents to nearly nine points per 100 possessions less than league average defensively. Also, it had a rebound percentage 2.2 percent higher than league average despite not playing a "true" center. Erik Spoelstra found a balanced small ball lineup that could do it all.

This was Miami's second-most used lineup, behind their more "traditional" lineup that includes Udonis Haslem instead of Battier.

Heat_5a_medium

Miami Heat (2), the "traditional" lineup

Players: Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade

The Numbers: Instead of Shane Battier in the lineup — a player who shot a career-high 43 percent from deep in his first year in Miami — Udonis Haslem joins LeBron and company. What happens? The Heat see huge drops across the board offensively. Three-point percentage dropped by nearly 5 percent, and this lineup take 5.7 less attempts per 48 minutes. They also took 6.3 less free throws per 48 minutes and made just 14.2, according to the NBA's Media Only stats website.

Thus, offensive rating is the most drastic difference between the two lineups. Miami's top lineup averaged 16.7 more points per 100 possessions than Miami's second-best lineup. To further illustrate the monumental gap between the two, that's .1 away from being equivalent to the gap between the Haslem lineup and a Detroit Pistons' unit featuring Jose Calderon, Jason Maxiell, Greg Monroe, Kyle Singler and Rodney Stuckey that ranked third-worst in offensive rating, averaging 83.7 points per 100 possessions.

But this lineup still made it into the top five because it held up better defensively. Here's a chart comparing the two lineups:

Miami_medium

One player can make a huge difference in a five-man lineup, but the Heat's "Big Three" and Chalmers were still dominant with either Haslem or Battier.

Spurs_5_medium

The NBA's best defensive lineup

Players: Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter

Profile: It's only fitting that the NBA Finals went seven games and featured a five-man group that was the most effective offensively taking on the NBA's best defensive lineup. The San Antonio Spurs' starting lineup held teams to a paltry 87.7 points per 100 possessions, the best of any lineup with a minimum of 200 minutes together on the floor, according to the NBA's media-only stats website.

This lineup limited second-chance points by grabbing nearly 81 percent of the available defensive rebounds. The Spurs' remarkable defense is one of the reasons Splitter fetched a four-year, $36 million contract with the team. Here's a quick look at the on/off numbers for the Spurs' big man:

Splitter_medium

Aside from the lockdown defense and glass cleaning, this lineup also shot the highest percentage from deep (over 44 percent) in our killer lineups group. This unit was deadly from the right corner, shooting over 57 percent, but only attempted 13.1 threes per 48 minutes.

A low three-point attempt rate and the lowest amount of free throw attempts per 48 (17.6) out of the five lineups explains their offensive rating of 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which landing right in the middle of our study group.

Pacers_5_medium

Consistency Rules Everything Around Me

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

Profile: This Pacers lineup stands alone in this study if only for one reason: they played a massive amount of minutes together. This group played the second-most minutes together out of all lineups in the NBA, behind the Oklahoma City Thunder's starting five.

The results? Indiana scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions, second-best among lineups that played a minimum of 300 minutes together, per the NBA's media-only stats website. Over 54 percent of the 2,086 field goals this group attempted came in the paint, with a lineup-high 33.1 percent from the restricted area. Here's a look at their shot distribution chart.

Pacers_dis_medium

When they weren't busy attacking the paint on offense, they were holding opponents below league average in that same area, as well as from both corners. They cut off the most efficient shots beautifully.

Indy_d_medium

Indiana's issue was depth beyond the starting five, an area that could be shored up with the return of Danny Granger. Indiana's second-most used lineup played a total of 170 minutes together and featured Tyler Hansbrough at power forward instead of David West.

A 1,218 minute sample size is huge, making this the lineup the most likely to continue as one of the NBA's best. An improved bench, with C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola and Granger (someday, he's expected to miss the first three weeks because of a strainged calf) could help ease their minute load and keep things balanced for Indiana when it's time to go shed minutes.

Raptors_5_medium

The double take

Players: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas

Profile: Yes, the Toronto Raptors had one of the best lineups in the league last season. Yes, this is the only lineup included that didn't make the playoffs. Yes, I also had a double take and even refreshed my page (twice) to make sure the data was accurate.

This lineup was elite at protecting the rim, holding opponents to 49.7 percent shooting in that area — even better than the Pacers. They allowed 92.5 points per 100 possessions, second-best in the five lineups we're exploring, according to the NBA's media-only stats website.

This lineup was also very effective offensively, putting up 105.4 points per 100 possessions, .5 points less than the Spurs' starting five. They shot 66.3 percent at the rim, 56.6 percent from deep at both corners and averaged 20.3 free throw attempts per 48 minutes.

This Raptors group hits all of the marks of effective basketball: high-percentage shooting from the corners and at the rim, high quantity of free-throw attempts and great defense in the paint. This is a lineup that played only 25 games together for a total of 343 minutes, but should see more time together this season. The results look promising, and if Valanciunas improves, watch out.

Ultimately, it's Valanciunas that is the key member of the group. Remember how replacing Battier with Haslem made a huge difference with the Heat? If you swap Valanciunas with Aaron Gray in this five-man unit, bad things happen for Toronto:

Valan_medium

Some of that may be because of Gray, but it shows that, even as a rookie, Valanciunas was a critical member of the Raptors.

Up High

The NBA's highest-scoring per 48 minutes last season, no minutes restrictions (data courtesy of the NBA's media-only stats site):

Team Lineup Points Per 48
Portland Aldridge-Babbitt-Batum-Lillard-Matthews 136.6
OKC Collison-Durant-Martin-Perkins-Westbrook 127
Miami Allen-Bosh-Chalmers-James-Wade 126
OKC Collison-Durant-Martin-Sefolosha-Westbrook 123.7
Houston Delfino-Harden-Lin-Parsons-Smith 120.9

Down Low

The NBA's lowest-scoring lineups per 48 minutes last season, no minutes restrictions (data courtesy of the NBA's media-only stats site):

Team Lineup Points Per 48
Washington Beal-Crawford-Okafor-Singleton-Webster 63.2
Orlando Afflalo-Davis-Harkless-Nelson-Vucevic 75.8
Detroit Calderon-Maxiell-Monroe-Singler-Stuckey 76.7
Washington Ariza-Beal-Booker-Okafor-Price 80.1
Memphis Allen-Bayless-Gasol-Gay-Randolph 80.8

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