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5 NBA lineups that will determine the season

At the quarter-point of the regular season, lineup data can be more telling about a team’s trajectory than simple wins and losses

Cleveland Cavaliers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

At the quarter-point of the regular season, lineup data can be more telling about a team’s trajectory than simple wins and losses. The first six weeks of a season are always designed to be about self-discovery, finding out what players belong in the rotation, what sets to run, who has improved individually in ways that help the team, and what combinations of players work best together.

Some lineups are already established and working, helping playoff contenders establish their dominance. Others are intriguing in small doses and could be the panacea to some concerns. We’ll look at five-man crews that are working (or not) and smaller combinations that are the real meat and potatoes therein. Regardless, there are several lineup constructions that — to this point in the season — have grabbed our attention as ones that could determine the fate of the season.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney

The five-man unit that led the Warriors to the NBA Championship last year is still the league’s best lineup. Through 19 games together, they are +132 in 278 minutes. That lineup shoots 46.5% from 3-point range despite having two non-shooters — precisely because each player knows their role so well.

More than anything, that group has an absurd amount of ball movement and ball control. There are 228 assists when they share the floor, with only 77 turnovers — almost a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

A lot has been made of Golden State’s slow start to the season. Yet they have now won seven of their last ten and are back in the top six of the West, barely three games out of the top spot. The insanely positive metrics of this starting group go to show that the Warriors are struggling to fill out their second unit. This early portion of the season has been devoted to trying to merge the two timelines of this roster, exploring the capabilities of the young players such as James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody.

The on-off splits for all these stars are pretty astronomical. Nobody else on the Warriors has a positive plus-minus rating. Not a single one, not even Jordan Poole (-2.0). Individual plus-minus metrics aren’t always an indicator of a player’s success, but in Golden State, it’s pretty clear. Outside of the starting unit, this is a team still searching for answers.

Los Angeles Lakers: Russ-LeBron-AD triads

If it feels like the Lakers have been searching for an answer, it’s probably because they have been. Sure, injuries always play a role in why teams cannot establish consistent rotations and get major minutes for their core groups. But the Lakers, still probing internally to find their core lineups, have yet to play a five-man unit 50 minutes together.

As such, it’s hard to take any one group seriously as a potential solution. Instead, we’ll look at the combinations of minutes for the Lakers when Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James do and do not share the floor. Here’s where the Lakers stand, per Cleaning the Glass:

All three on the court: -2.8 per 100 in 373 possessions

LeBron and Davis, no Westbrook: +2.4 per 100 in 416 possessions

Westbrook and Davis, no LeBron: +1.7 per 100 in 486 possessions

Westbrook and LeBron, no Davis: -6-4 per 100 in 163 possessions

To break that down simply, the Lakers are not very good when all three are on the court and are much cleaner overall when just two of the three play. The most difficult combination to make work: Westbrook and LeBron. It’s hard to know if that reveals more about the struggles that combination of driving creators has on a team starved for spacing or just how impactful Anthony Davis has been all season that the Lakers fall off as soon as he’s off the floor.

Darvin Ham has moved Westbrook to the bench in order to stagger the LeBron and Russ overlap as best as he can. Los Angeles has played 10 games with LeBron and AD in the starting lineup and Westbrook coming off the bench; they’re 6-4 in those contests. It’s early, and the lack of consistent production elsewhere is a concern, but the Lakers might be alright just by staggering these minutes.

Brooklyn Nets: Ben Simmons at the 5

Ben Simmons has been slowly getting better and more acclimated to NBA pace. He’s looking more physical and seeking out contact, a great sign for his overall confidence.

Part of Ben’s resurgence comes from a renewed push to playing him at the 5. According to Ben’s Cleaning the Glass page, he is a +9.8 per 100 when he’s playing and Nic Claxton and DayRon Sharpe are off the floor, within the top ten percent of the league in impact.

For context, there have been 447 possessions where Simmons has played alongside one of Claxton or Sharpe. He’s a putrid -12.6 per 100 in those moments, a wild swing based on the position he’s playing. Brooklyn is legitimately good when they have Simmons and a bunch of skill players around him and woefully bad when trying to jam their non-shooting Aussie in with another big.

Let’s go further here, though. Simmons at the 5 with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the floor: +13.4 per 100 possessions. Maybe it’s still too early to write these Nets off as a playoff contender, and all they really needed was to figure out the best way to utilize Simmons. It’s taken a while, but Brooklyn’s success of late is in direct correlation to this newfound usage at the center spot.

Atlanta Hawks: The New Backcourt Duo

When the Atlanta Hawks made the audacious trade over the summer to acquire Dejounte Murray, questions arose about the fit between their new star and their old one, Trae Young. While there are clear bumps in the road in Atlanta on the coaching front, the fit between Murray and Young as been one of the bright spots for the Hawks. They are the team’s best two-man lineup (+3.1 per game) of any two-man unit in the ATL to log at least five games together.

The pair are sharing the floor for 21.4 minutes per night, a modest amount meant to spread out their ball handling capabilities so each gets to eat. When the postseason comes, both should up their minutes together.

As far as bigger lineups with those two, the five-man unit of Young, Murray, DeAndre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela has been a +59 in 314 minutes. The Hawks have some pieces to work through once everybody is healthy, particularly in sorting out the frontcourt minutes and role for Collins. A recent surge of strong play from rookie AJ Griffin, a solid spot-up threat with positive offensive impact, could see a more wing-heavy unit featuring Griffin and Hunter together thrive.

The Best Story in the NBA

...is the Sacramento Kings!

Their five-man starting group of DeAaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray, and Domantas Sabonis is +81 in 235 minutes and going nuclear on the offensive end. They’re carrying the Kings back to being a playoff team. We love to see it.