NBA Lineup Composition Trends and Analysis

Coming into the 2015-16 season, the Miami Heat planned to start Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh together in their frontcourt. Bosh seemed healthy and ready to play after the blood clot problems of the previous year and Whiteside was coming off a break out season. On paper they seemed like the perfect combination of big men. Whiteside would suck in the defense with hard rolls to the basket, while Bosh could spot up on the outside and stretch the floor. However, in the 732 minutes that they played together last year the Heat were actually outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions. After the All Star break, when Bosh was unfortunately unable to play, the Heat acquired Joe Johnson and moved Luol Deng to the PF spot next to Whiteside. All of a sudden the team took off on a winning streak and the three-man combination of Whiteside, Deng, and Johnson ended up outscoring opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions. Most fans would agree that Bosh was still clearly a superior individual player to Deng and it’s not like Bosh was some lumbering big who could only play inside and would eat up the space in the paint that Whiteside needed to operate. Bosh has had a higher three-point percentage than Deng throughout his career, as well as the past two seasons. If Bosh was better in all the things that NBA observers have traditionally looked at as the important factors in line up chemistry and composition, how was it that the Heat were able to be so much more successful with Deng in his place?

NBA analyst Amin Elhassan was an early champion of the post-Bosh, Deng at PF Heat team and when asked that question he suggested that Deng allowed this team to play faster on both ends. This was a great detail and it’s something that applies all around the NBA today. It’s not necessarily about pace in particular, although the Heat did play six possessions per game faster with Deng at PF.  In this age of endless statistical information, where everything is tracked and almost every attribute can be measured with a number, we still haven’t found a way to measure mobility. Sure, stats like free throw attempts or steals, probably have some correlation with quickness and agility, but they are also highly relatable to strength, basketball IQ, and/or style of play. In the pick-n-roll era this would be especially important in measuring defensive impact. Someone like Andrew Bogut has the sort of dominant rim protection numbers that could make him look like the best defensive center in the league. Yet he totally lacks the ability to get out of the paint and keep opposing guards in front of him in the pick-n-roll for even a few seconds.  Tristan Thompson is the “bizarro” Bogut, with rim protection numbers that have always been subpar, but with a defensive value that lies in his ability to switch out on smaller players and move his feet. Skills like getting back in transition or getting out in transition are also paramount for building effective NBA teams. We can measure fast break points, but what about the guy that ran hard down the wing, forcing the defense to take a step toward him and open up the driving lane. In the pace-and-space era quickness is becoming a more and more salient component of winning rosters, yet our inability to measure it has created a setting where players with that ability are underrated.

As important as mobility is, there was something else Deng provided that Bosh didn’t. Or perhaps didn’t provide, as Deng has always been a low usage player who scores most of his points by moving without the ball and getting out in the break. Bosh was a very good one-on-one player but, to be frank, at 31 years old he was no longer Miami’s best option. Whiteside’s post ups have never been very efficient, especially with his severe lack of court vision, but Whiteside’s length and athletic ability allowed him to become such a huge threat as a roll man that simply running a pick-n-roll with him and either Wade or Goran Dragic was almost unstoppable. When I wrote the Miami Heat season preview in the off-season, I mentioned how Whiteside’s overall touches and especially interior touches went up drastically during Bosh absence. At the same time, he remained highly efficient (59% FG) even with the increased responsibility. Outside of DeAndre Jordan, Whiteside’s length and athletic ability is pretty much unmatched in the league and the Miami guards could just throw the ball up anywhere around the rim and watch Hassan finish.

This case led me to believe that strong offensive line ups with several talented options actually benefit by playing with guys who are willing to embrace a role with less touches. Guys like Andre Roberson and Luc Mbah a Moute were often criticized as the supposed weak links in their team’s starting units. Needless to say, both players are excellent defenders and their value on that end is still actually somewhat understated. However, their ability to play their role on offense and be ball movers, cutters, and spacers has also been important to their team’s success. While Roberson’s inability to make wide open three pointers continues to haunt him, his cutting and offensive rebounding were a big part of the Thunder’s success last season, in particular in their series against the Golden State Warriors.

During the 2014-15 playoffs, the Warriors were down 2-1 in the second round against the Memphis Grizzlies when Steve Kerr decided to put Andrew Bogut on Tony Allen and effectively ignore Allen on offense. At that point, Allen was wreaking havoc defensively and Kerr decided to try to make the Grizzlies pay for playing Allen on the offensive end. The strategy seemed successful, although the Warriors would still make some effort to guard Allen when he had the ball. Unfortunately for Memphis, Allen went down with an injury soon after and the Warriors won the next three games and the series. In the 2016 Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, Kerr doubled up on the strategy. He had the Warriors basically playing a zone and a constant strong side overload. Draymond Green was “guarding” Andre Roberson, but actually completely ignoring him and mostly hanging out in the paint. Whether it was Kerr’s idea or Green’s execution of it, the plan backfired. Roberson averaged 10.5 points a game on 59 percent shooting through the first four games of the series, including 17 points in a 24-point win in Game four of the series, as Green continued to lose him on back cuts and no one on the Warriors bothered attempting to guard him even on wide open attempts. Roberson is still an NBA player, after all, and he made Golden State pay for their negligeince. With the Thunder up 3-1, Golden State switched back to a more conventional defense and we all know what happened next.

Since JJ Redick joined the Clippers’ big three they have been looking for the fifth guy to round out their lineup. At times Jamal Crawford looked like that guy, but both the fact that he’s maybe the greatest sixth man in league history, as well as the lack of bench scoring on the Clippers’ roster make it almost impossible to start him. The Clippers tried players like Lance Stephenson, Wesley Johnson, Jeff Green and Paul Pierce at the SF, but none of them quite fit. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin provide plenty of primary ball handling, playmaking, and creation in iso, post or pick-and-roll. This team didn’t need another player that can dribble in their starting unit, they needed someone that could play without the ball. As an example, prior to joining the Clippers, Paul Pierce was still an effective player for the Wizards. However, Pierce’s most famous move is his deadly step back, a move that requires dribbling and precious seconds of the shot clock. Pierce getting older is the biggest reason behind his rapid decline, but being stuck in the wrong role didn’t help. Jeff Green and Lance Stephenson were never the stars that Pierce once was, but they were similar players in that they liked to hold the ball while evaluating their options and at the same time taking shots and possessions away from Paul and Griffin. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is probably a worse pure shooter than all of those players, but he is a far superior player without the ball. Even in college he was a defensive specialist who did his limited offensive damage by cutting and grabbing offensive rebounds. This was the role he’s played most of his life and the role he was most accustomed to. When Paul is trapped, Griffin is double teamed or Redick attracts an extra defender on one of his endless loops, it’s Mbah a Moute that’s almost always left open and, unlike Pierce, Green or Stephenson, he doesn’t just stand in one spot. He quickly flashes to the paint, cuts straight to the basket or spaces along the arc. This ability has made him a release valve of sorts. When Paul is forced to pick up his dribble with nowhere to go, he not only knows that he can quickly pass off to Mbah a Moute, but also that Mbah a Moute won’t then jab step and take a few dribbles or attempt to post. Instead, Luc Richard will pass it right back to Paul, who will then dribble right into another pick-and-roll.

I already mentioned the defensive ability of Mbah a Moute and Roberson, and clearly that’s their main strength on the court. I’ve been working on a huge, secret defensive project and it’s made me pay attention to defense closer than ever before. More and more, I realize that being solid, smart and focused on defense is one of the biggest keys to winning in the NBA. It’s the thing you can control and unless you have a superstar who can create baskets out of thin air at an efficient rate, it’s the most important part of consistently winning games. So I would be selling Mbah a Moute’s and Roberson’s impact short if I didn’t reiterate how important their intensity, versatility and athletic talents are on the defensive end. However, while many analysts and other observers continue to denigrate Mbah a Moute’s value, in reality it’s doubtful trading for someone like Rudy Gay would make this Clipper team any better and, in all likelihood, would actually be a detriment to their chemistry. As a team, it’s important to understand the make up of your line ups. Certain players are more comfortable hardly ever touching the ball and line ups must be put together in a way where the most efficient and talented creators are the ones that have the most possessions. Sometimes low usage players are the best option to fill out a talented starting five, even if they don’t have much actual offensive skill.

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