NBA lineup data is both useful and limited. Looking at the performance of five-man lineups gives really good -- not complete, but really good -- context for production. It's the most relevant data for figuring out what works and what doesn't on the court because it's a perfect reflection of what happens on the court. If a five-man unit gets outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions, that's probably not a good lineup. There's little wiggle room.
There are two main issues. First, raw five-man lineup data doesn't account for opponents. The other major problem is five-man units are used for comparatively few minutes. Whereas an individual player could play up to 3,000 minutes in a season, due to injuries, staggered rotations and the nature of role players, only a handful of the most-used five-man lineups in the league top out over 1,000 minutes together in a season. (Only two lineups have played more than 500 minutes together so far this season: the starting fives of the Clippers and Hawks.) In terms of deriving meaningful analysis, the sample sizes are pretty small.
One way to account for both limitations is by comparing the highest-volume lineups. This will almost always be starting lineups, who face other starting lineups for the most part. There is not conference parity, but because every team plays every other team at least twice, the strength of schedule differences among teams end up being quite small.
When you set a reasonable minimum threshold -- we'll use 150 minutes for the season to date, because that gets us 41 lineups to consider -- you end up with some comparable situations. What you'd expect to find is that the best teams have the best five-man lineups. And for the most part, that's true. Here's the top five in net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating, or points the lineup would outscore opponents over 100 possessions).
- The Warriors' starting five when Andrew Bogut is healthy.
- The Clippers' starting five but with Jamal Crawford replacing J.J. Redick.
- The Warriors' starting five with Marreese Speights replacing Bogut.
- The Kings' usual starting five.
- The Clippers' usual starting five.
The two most-used Warriors lineups, the two most-used Clippers lineups and -- what now? That's right. The Kings' starting five has a net rating of +18.4, better than the starting lineup of the Clippers, a 33-16 team, and substantially better than the starting lineup of the Hawks, who are 40-9.
The Kings are 17-30. How the hell did that happen and why are the Kings still so bad?
The unit has been together for 419 minutes, good for fourth in the NBA, so this doesn't appear to be a fluke. Other lineups with 300 minutes or more under their belts pass the smell test: the Grizzlies, Blazers, Clippers, Hawks, Warriors, Suns and Rockets have lineups above that threshold with strong net ratings. The Lakers' old starting lineup has a horrible net rating. Top lineups for the Nuggets and Jazz are just OK or a bit worse. Everything passes the eye test, except for that Kings lineup.
So let's take the numbers at face value. That lineup is great, one of the league's very best. How are the Kings still so bad?
The bench is just hideous
The most important reason the Kings remain pretty awful is there is perhaps only one decent player on the entire bench. That'd be Carl Landry, whose overall on-off numbers are tragic, but whose individual contributions (especially on defense) have stood out at times. Nik Stauskas is the only shooting guard on the roster other than solid starter Ben McLemore, and Stauskas has been rough enough to escape a Rising Stars Challenge invite. Ramon Sessions is an immediate drain as soon as he steps on the court. There's no real backup center on the roster, which leads to a lot of Jason Thompson, Landry and (gasp) Derrick Williams filling that role. Needless to say, those fellas cannot defend centers or discourage quick guards and wings from attacking the rim.
Likewise, there's absolutely no shooting on the bench. The Kings are one of the most reluctant and inefficient three-point shooting teams in the league, but the bench is especially bad in this realm. No reserve shoots better than 28 percent from long-range. That's untenable in today's NBA.
The team's defensive talent pool is shallow
In other words, every single plus defender on the Kings is a starter. DeMarcus Cousins is the team's defensive anchor and the data shows how much of an impact he makes. The starting five with Cousins has a superb defensive rating of 90.9.Replace Cousins with Reggie Evans -- reputed as a good defender and Boogie's injury replacement during the Michael Malone era -- and the Kings' defensive rating falls to a pedestrian 107.
There's also a noticeable downgrade when Williams plays with the starting five in lieu of Thompson. Considering Cousins and Thompson are the longest-tenured Kings and have started together for much of 4-1/2 seasons, that the duo would be solid defensively is no surprise. The drop-off when Sacramento goes away from them is huge. (The only other good defensive frontcourt the Kings can present according to the data: Cousins-Landry. Landry averages less than 20 minutes per game. Huh.)
SB Nation presents: The NBA's top-four MVP candidates
Cousins still plays himself out of games
Despite being so obviously important, Boogie is still averaging just 34 minutes per game. Why? Because he averages more than four fouls per game. He's finished with five or six fouls in 16 of his 35 games this season and has finished with fewer than three fouls only three times. Because of that, he was seven games in which he didn't even hit 30 minutes. As noted, when he's not on the floor, the Kings suffer.
There are some crazy coaching decisions going on
Thompson is ridiculously better than Williams, especially on defense. Yet Ty Corbin chose to start Williams over a healthy Thompson Tuesday. Thompson's minutes have decreased since Corbin replaced Michael Malone. Williams plays way too much under Corbin, which is to say Williams plays at all.
But the coaching issues are a minor problem. This is primarily a roster issue. The Kings just don't have enough good players to produce a winning team. Malone was able to paper over it by playing the starters heavy minutes and squeezing juice out of Omri Casspi (who was much better early in the season than now) and Evans.
Corbin's working no magic, the Kings' defensive pride is gone and this isn't going to get better until that bench is completely overhauled.