Change of pace: The league’s fastest and slowest lineups

Once in a while, coaches will give their team an unusual look on the floor for several reasons, one possibly being to either turn the game into a track meet or slow it to a crawl. Either way they likely disrupt the flow of the game, though hopefully to the advantage of a coach looking to change things up in the first place. This post will (hopefully) take a good look, with the help of a couple tables, at which lineups best give teams either another gear or a new set of breaks, for better or for worse.

The minimum minute requirement I made for lineups was 50, making room for five-man units used for special situations, ones that work around an injury to a key player, etc. I also plucked out lineups with players that are no longer on the respective teams they were listed with, which impacted the Cavaliers’ units with Andrew Bynum and Chicago’s with Luol Deng, among others.

The last filter I made was to adjust to a team’s average pace, otherwise the Philadelphia 76ers (POOR THADDEUS YOUNG) would represent half of the 10 fastest lineups. In the end, none of their five-man units of over 50 minutes of run made the cut. It also meant the Jazz and Bulls would make room for some the other slowest groups in the league.

Anyway, that’s about it. Below is the first table with the 10 fastest lineups. The 10 slowest are listed further down. All stats are according to NBA.com:

There’s a nice mix of lineups. Some go small with a big man to work around like Houston with Dwight Howard and Portland with LaMarcus Aldridge, each with four players to spread the floor with a couple of them able to slash. For the Blazers, Mo Williams is basically replacing Robin Lopez which makes it understandable that they’d make the game as fast as possible. Also understandable is that they don’t stop opponents anywhere as efficiently as Houston’s four-out lineup.

Lineups from Brooklyn and Chicago also made the list, though only the Nets’ unit is faster than Philadelphia’s average pace of 102.68. A healthy Brook Lopez would’ve made for more huge lineups up front, but unfortunately they didn’t last long after the center broke his right foot. Chicago’s lineup isn’t exactly small, though on paper it feels that way without their center in Joakim Noah. As expected, that lineup drops off without, well, everything he provides. Chicago’s overall pace hasn’t changed all that much with D.J. Augustin as the point guard, dropping by about half a possession per game since his arrival.

Minnesota’s lineup is also missing their center in Nikola Pekovic. It isn’t exactly a lineup surrounding Kevin Love with four shooters, but one at least made for a track meet. Some of that pace might be helped by the outlet mall that is Love and a guard leaking out early after a missed (and sometimes made) shot.

Some standard-looking lineups (at least by position) involve Denver’s, the Lakers’, Phoenix’s, San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s, though only Denver’s yields a positive net rating even with the interesting pairing of J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov up front. In time, the Spurs’ and Thunder’s lineups should even out. No lineup with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should be that bad. Same goes for Tim Duncan with Tony Parker, etc.

The average net of those 10 lineups averages out to -1.71 with rating splits of 101.51/103.22/-1.71.

Now to the 10 slowest lineups, sorted by most snail-like to least snail-like:

Not surprisingly is Golden State making the list featuring a lineup without Stephen Curry or a true backup point guard. As expected it falls apart offensively but at least holds its own on defense, thanks to the duo of Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut.

Another big lineup, at least up front, is the Pelicans’ one with Anthony Davis and Alexis Ajinca. Overall, the Davis-Ajinca pairing has struggled (-12.2/100 possessions) but the lineup featured in the table looks like a potential starting five with Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson coming off the bench.

A similar Suns lineup to the one among the fastest in the league makes the slowest 10, arguably the biggest difference in players being Channing Frye at center to further stretch the floor instead of a Plumdog. The change on both sides of the court has been remarkable not just in pace but production as Phoenix has scored 30 more points per 100 possessions while allowing nearly 17 more. Overall, it’s a positive net.

A smallball variation that goes slow can be found in Atlanta with Elton Brand manning the middle. It’s hard to imagine any Hawks lineup without Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Kyle Korver being even average on offense, though they’ve held their own on that side of the floor.

Defensively, that Hawks unit understandably hasn’t fared well but neither have five other ones listed. Detroit’s lineup featuring their big three with Chauncey Billups and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt is the most egregious mess, though the Wizards without John Wall and the Lakers without any resistance in the backcourt allow over 115 points per 100 possessions. So many flames yet so little water.

Utah’s lineup looks like one used in the last minutes of a blowout. That’s all I take away from theirs.

The rating splits for the 10 slowest lineups are 102.98/108.59/-5.61.

Overall, a bunch of the sample sizes from these fast or slow lineups are quite small when looking at minutes played. Quite a few have appeared in over 20 games, however, so it should be all right to take away some things from those tables.

The easiest one for me is that it takes as simple as one substitution to alter a team’s normal pace, like how Portland’s fastest lineup involves Mo Williams substituting for Robin Lopez, or even Steven Adams for Kendrick Perkins when looking at Oklahoma City. I’d also lean towards familiarity playing more of a factor in some teams struggling or thriving. Not listed in those tables were stats like assist/turnover ratio, where Detroit’s lineup with Jennings and Billups was a joke at 0.82, the lowest of any unit outside Utah’s blowout-like one. On the opposite side was Phoenix’s slowest five-man group with an assist/turnover ratio of 2.5. The difference in net rating between the Pistons’ and the Suns’ units is nearly 50.

Over the next month, we’re bound to have a new lineup or two making the top 10 in one of the categories, most likely from a struggling team fiddling with players they’re curious about keeping long-term. Maybe we’ll also see the same ones with either vast improvements or drop-offs in production while others might be stored away for the rest of the season if they haven’t been already.

Most teams find a middle ground with their starting lineups anyway, somewhere between 95 and 98 possessions per game but it helps to have a lineup or two to change the flow or a starting lineup that can dictate the pace. If there could only be one lineup to change gears, though, would a much slower or faster one be more desirable for a team with a league-average pace? I guess that could make for a decent discussion with answers being player-dependent.

Any other thoughts are certainly welcome.

As a reminder, all stats are from NBA.com.

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