Now that we are beyond the 2017-18 NBA season’s midway point, it is time to analyze the top lineups and key players who are catalysts to the League’s top contenders, just as we look at the albatross of five-man units everywhere.
Believe it or not, Atlanta’s most often used lineup is not half-bad, posting a minus-2 in 227 minutes together. Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Taureen Prince, Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee are all players 30-and-under who combined only take up $53 million of Atlanta’s $99 million salary payouts. Mix in standout rookie sixth-man power forward John Collins and head coach Mike Budenholzer has a team to build upon for the future
Nikola Vucevic, who was putting up All-Star numbers before his Christmas Eve hand injury, was keeping the Magic ship at bay, posting a minus-2 in 1019 minutes. But with Bismack Biyombo, owner of a minus-254 in 737 minutes, replacing Vucevic in the starting lineup, that ship is sinking, with Orlando losing six in a row to drop to 1-7 since Vucevic’s injury.
28. Sacramento Kings
It is hard enough to field lineups when a majority of your roster is made up of either college-aged players (six Kings are 22-and-under) or college-aged professors (Vince Carter and Zach Randolph are 40 and 36, respectively). Head coach David Joerger is obviously still toying with rotations because not one group has yet to play 150-plus minutes together. That said, it may behoove Joerger to look at lineups featuring the old-head Carter. And old rookie Frank Mason, once he returns to the team from injury. The 23-year-old rookie point guard and the half-man, half-amazing legend are a part of the few positive five-man combos that have been trotted out thus far.
27. Los Angeles Lakers
Forwards Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are two of the lousy Lakers’ most prized possessions, but no pair of teammates has a worse plus-minus score together on this team (minus-144 in 768 minutes). Not only do the Lakers struggle on the floor offensively when Ingram and Kuzma are paired together (99.3 points per 100 possessions), but they struggle defensively too (107.3 points allowed per 100 possessions).
26. Chicago Bulls
By trading Nikola Mirotic before the trading deadline—the hot rumor nowadays—the Bulls not only get rid of one of their three talented power forwards on roster (Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis are the others), they delete the only Bull with positive plus-minus numbers (+40 in 426 minutes thus far). Combine that with Mirotic’s $12.5 million team option for next season, and he becomes the rare bargain-basement player on the trade block.
It has become quite apparent, even with head coach David Fizdale fired, that Marc Gasol’s future in Memphis is under review. The 32-year-old Grizzlies icon simply does not want to be there anymore. Even though Memphis management rid itself of Fizdale, perhaps it came a year too late in Gasol’s eyes, after the damage had already been done. Gasol’s Player Efficiency Rating is at a seven-year low (17.6) and his plus-minus numbers are the worst on the team (minus-161 in 1384 minutes). By contrast, his 20.3 PER ranked second on the Grizzlies last season, while his plus-61 in 2530 minutes ranked fifth on the team. The Spurs, who have brother Pau, may be the only NBA team that would trade for his NBA contract ($22.6 million; $24.1 million next season and $25.5 million player option in 2019-20). Would Memphis part with an icon to begin a rebuilding process? The Grizzlies did in before nine years ago when brother Pau was traded to the Lakers for brother Marc and Kwame Brown February 1, 2008.
For a loser of a team, Dallas does have one winner of a lineup featuring J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell, who together have logged a plus-88 in 188 minutes
23. Phoenix Suns
It is only fitting that a vet like Jared Dudley leads the Suns in plus-minus—with a plus-52 in 204 minutes—especially considering all the youth on this team he has been hired to counsel. Nothing adds credibility to a 11-year veteran like success,
22. Brooklyn Nets
So what is the secret behind Spencer Dinwiddie’s stellar play as the Brooklyn Nets’ replacement for Jeremy Lin? Probably his modest-paced, turnover-free efficient game. He leads Brooklyn with a plus-47 in 1088 minutes while his playmaking is up (career-best 32.1 assist ratio and career-best and career-best 7.1 turnover percentage.
21. New York Knicks
It is no surprise notoriously-bad plus-minus performer Enes Kanter ranks last on the Knicks in plus-minus with an actual minus-723 in 927 minutes. Kanter, who is also a defensive liability at center, looks appealing at first, with his 13-point and 10-rebound stat line, but when you get right down to it, he is not needed in New York, not when the city already as Willy Hernangomez, Kyle O’Quinn and Joakim Noah on roster.
20. Charlotte Hornets
When you look at plus-minus (and all the other metrics, too), it is obvious that Charlotte’s best player is Kemba Walker (plus-132 in 1245 minutes) and their worst players are backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams (8.7 Player Efficiency Rating and minus-74 in 438 minutes) and third-string shooting guard Malik Monk (7.7 PER and minus-134 in 428 minutes). By making a midseason trade for two backup guards, the Hornets can instantly make themselves a playoff team once again.
You might be surprised to learn that perennial All-EuroLeague point guard Milos Teodosic leads the Clippers in plus-minus with a plus-85 in 317 minutes. That is, unless you watched him in the EuroLeague and saw how he made his championship teammates better over there, too. Not bad considering he missed 20-something games already.
The experiment is over. Look for the Pelicans to trade DeMarcus Cousins at the Febuary 8 trading deadline to see what they can recoup from last season’s trade with Sacramento. Simply put, it’s not working. When Cousins and Anthony Davis play together, they are a plus-97 in 856 minutes. When apart, Cousins is a minus-117 in 528 minutes; Davis is a plus-37 in 343 minutes.
Meet Royce O’Neale, a 24-year-old undrafted rookie out of Baylor who spent the last two seasons in Germany and Spain. The 3-and-D wing has been such a fixture in practices, the rook has earned 10 minutes per game in 27 contests thus far. He has been so effective in games that he now ranks second on the Jazz in plus-minus at plus-82 in 271 minutes.
No pair of Pacers are as effective together as the ex-Thunder duo of guard Victor Oladipo and center Domantas Sabonis, who log a plus-111 in their 473 minutes together. They also make up two-fifths of Indiana’s most successful lineup thus far, along with Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young, registering a plus-26 in 170 minutes together.
How much does rookie point guard Ben Simmons need center Joel Embiid by his side? When they play together, Simmons has a plus-170 in 648 minutes. Sans Embiid, Simmons has a minus-125 in 665 minutes apart. By contrast, Embiid has a plus-31 in 258 minutes apart.
Nothing hurts point guard Goran Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside and their All-Star bids worse than their negative plus-minus scores, which are minus-64 in 1180 minutes for Dragic, along with minus-27 in 566 minutes for Whiteside. Thank goodness Miami’s bench players are able to outscore their counterparts.
Who would have thought last year’s third-stringer Pat Connaughton would be leading this year’s Trail Blazers in plus-minus, but that is precisely what the shooting guard is doing, registering a plus-92 in 800 minutes this season. Not far behind is rookie center and defensive specialist Zach Collins at plus-42 in 337 minutes.
12. Detroit Pistons
Can someone tell me why Boban Marjanovic doesn’t play more? His plus-minus in Detroit in two seasons is plus-33 in 293 minutes. His Player Efficiency Rating during that span is 27.6. In San Antonio during the 2015-16 season, his plus-minus was plus-55 in 508 minutes with a 27.7 PER. That was good enough to get him a three–year, $21 million contract from Pistons GM/Coach Stan Van Gundy. So why hasn’t it got him more playing time on the court? The 7-3 giant is fourth in PER (27.6) only to Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
Since joining the Bucks in a November trade from the Suns, point guard Eric Bledsoe has become one of the team’s most dynamic players in terms of plus-minus, logging a plus-55 in his 915 minutes in a Milwaukee uniform. Now that last season’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon has unseated Tony Snell in the starting lineup, Bledsoe now teams up in the backcourt with a fellow combo guard.
10. Denver Nuggets
Now that Paul Millsap is injured, Denver has been forced to play Trey Lyles with the Nuggets’ starting lineup. Henceforth, head coach Mike Malone has discovered that, in Lyles, he has the most unsung player in the game today. Not only is the 22-year-old power forward prospect fitting in like a glove with Nikola Jokic, Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray (plus-27 in 31 minutes together), he also is logging 18 points on a stunning .686 true shooting percentage with 7 rebounds in 29 minutes per game during the last 15 contests alone.
Washington is a power forward away from true contention. The quartet of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat has a plus-143 in 541 minutes together. No knock on Markieff Morris or Kelly Oubre, but if the Wizards want to contend for championships, it is high time they land the last piece to their jigsaw puzzle.
As good as the Thunder starters are as a unit (plus-102 in 440 minutes together), Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams play at their best offensively when Roberson is not on the floor. In a recent span where Roberson missed the last six games, OKC’s offense flourished when either Raymond Felton (145 offensive and +25.4 net rating in 14 minutes) or Josh Huestis replaced Roberson. (130 offensive and plus-14.8 net rating in 30 minutes.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Don’t expect Minnesota to miss a beat now that Tyus Jones is in the starting lineup, replacing Jeff Teague. The Timberwolves actually do better with Jones playing alongside starters Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns (plus-147 in 249 minutes together) than those four with Teague (plus-97 in 712 minutes).
Don’t worry too much about the Rockets’ starting lineup now that James Harden is sidelined. In 71 minutes together, Chris Paul has teamed with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela for a plus-21. Hopefully, Harden will be cleared next week when he goes through his re-evaluation of his Grade 2 left hamstring strain.
It is not often that a rookie finds his way onto a top contender’s most-popular lineup (see Jayson Tatum in Boston), but that is what happened in Toronto with wing O.G. Anunoby, who has teamed with All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, along with bigs Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, to form a quintet that has a plus-123 in 360 minutes together.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Even though Kawhi Leonard has logged 181 minutes in eight games since missing games with ankle and shoulder injuries, he has not become his difference-making self yet, registering only a plus-4 during that timespan. In 2016-17, Leonard was the lead Spur at plus-441 in 2474 minutes.
In short sample-size theater, the injury-rehabbed Isaiah Thomas has played in two popularly-used Cavs lineups. Thus far, he is doing better teamed with subs Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson (plus-6 in 24 minutes together) than he is with starters J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron James and Kevin Love (minus-16 in 29 minutes together).
2. Boston Celtics
The beauty of having a versatile big like Al Horford is that you can team him up in the starting lineup with either center Aron Baynes or power forward Marcus Morris to equal aplomb, which is what Brad Stevens has done this year. The lineups with Baynes—in addition to starters Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum—thus far have the edge as a unit, posting a plus-59 in 211 minutes together. The lineups with Morris are at minus-9 in 107 minutes together.
1. Golden State Warriors
Even though we are more than halfway through the 2017-18 NBA season, the Warriors’ standard starting lineup (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia) has only played 20 games together thus far, registering a plus-111 in 248 minutes together. Furthermore, the Warriors’ self-proclaimed “Lineup of Death” small-ball squad (Iguodala replaces Pachulia in starting lineup) dips below sea level this seasons, posting a minus-13 in 58 minutes together. By contrast, the Dubs’ starting five logged a plus-262 in 532 minutes during their 2016-17 NBA championship campaign, while the LOD registered a plus-123 in 224 minutes that same season.