HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Spurs’ starting lineup was a big part of their defensive improvement last season. It was the best defensive lineup in the league and outscored its opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions in its 364 minutes.
This season, that same starting lineup hasn’t been too good It’s been pretty bad offensively (with Tim Duncan shooting less than 40 percent) and has actually been outscored by four points in 99 minutes. Yet the Spurs are 13-1 and rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, because they have the best bench in the league right now.
While the Spurs’ starters have basically broke even, all other San Antonio lineups have outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, playing great on both ends of the floor.
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
There are two aspects to having a great bench, and neither have to do with how many points the players off the bench score. You just have to go back to the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Chicago Bulls for an example of a great bench that didn’t score a lot of points. That group built on leads because they were great defensively.
Building on leads (or decreasing deficits) is obviously the most important trait of a good bench. But keeping your starters fresh is also critical (and obviously related to how well you build leads). Through Tuesday, every player on the Spurs is averaging less than 30 minutes a game and the five starters have played just 52 percent of the teams total minutes. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the season from a roster.
No other contender in the Western Conference has had the bench success that the Spurs’ “Foreign Legion” crew has had, but some have done well with their reserve minutes.
Note: Before the season started, six West teams would have been considered as “contenders.” Portland has been added to this group, because they’re off to such a hot start and also because their bench was their primary issue last season.
Efficiency from lineups other than starters
Note: This includes lineups with 1-4 starters on the floor. It also includes lineups that started games when regular starters weren’t healthy or before a coach (Kevin McHale) made a lineup change.
Each team is its own case. Some have had their starters healthy for every game, some have not, and one – Houston – has already made a major change to its starting lineup.
The Warriors’ starting lineup – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut – has been ridiculously good offensively, scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes together. Combine that with solid defensive numbers and they’ve been the league’s best lineup (minimum 75 minutes) thus far.
Bench units (which include lineups that have started games that Curry and Iguodala have missed) have been strong defensively, but weak offensively. When Curry has been off the floor, the Dubs have scored an ugly 87.5 points per 100 possessions.
Breaking even will do when your starting lineup is so good, and the Warriors are in good shape if they’re healthy. But it’s clear that Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will be missed if injuries keep popping up.
The Rockets moved Terrence Jones into the starting lineup just seven games ago and have been without James Harden in three games since then, so their optimal starting lineup has played just 69 minutes together and their numbers above include lineups that have started 11 of their 15 games. That set includes lineups with both Dwight Howard and Omer Asik that we know were bad offensively.
So it’s difficult to gather much from these numbers. We do know that the new starting group, with Patrick Beverley and Harden in the backcourt, has been terrific so far. And we do know that the Rockets have been strong defensively – allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions – with Asik on the floor without Howard. So that’s a good sign for their bench … at least until Asik gets traded.
As we all expected, the Clippers’ starting lineup has been great, especially offensively. It currently ranks as the fifth best lineup in the league. But the five starters have played over 68 percent of the team’s minutes, the second highest mark among the seven teams we’re looking at here.
Last season, when the Clippers had a great defensive second unit, that number was 51 percent. This season, they’re suffering on both ends of the floor when they go to their bench and though their starters have been solid on defense, they currently rank as a bottom 10 defensive team.
A healthy Matt Barnes will help, but a defensive big off the bench is needed. Lamar Odom was exactly that for them last season and you can understand why the Clips are monitoring his progress as he works his way back into shape.
The Grizzlies’ starters weren’t what they were last season, when they outscored their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions after the Rudy Gay trade. This season, they were just a plus-0.8 in 169 minutes together. But losing Marc Gasol (out indefinitely with a sprained MCL) is obviously a huge blow.
The new starting group (with Kosta Koufos in Gasol’s place) was an encouraging plus-12 in 33 minutes against the Spurs and Rockets. But the impact of Gasol’s injury might be felt most in the bench units, which have been poor already. Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, two guys who are supposed to bring offense off the bench, have shot a combined 32 percent.
We thought that, in the wake of Kevin Martin‘s departure, bench production was going to be a problem for the Thunder. But OKC’s bench units have been terrific, ranking second to only the Spurs in terms of NetRtg. The Thunder have outscored their opponents by an amazing 17.7 points per 100 possessions with Reggie Jackson on the floor.
The issue with the Thunder is the starting lineup, which has been outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in its 97 minutes. Of the 27 lineups that have played at least 75 minutes together this season, that ranks 25th, ahead only the original starting lineups of the Kings and Jazz. In those situations, both coaches have already made changes.
Scott Brooks will surely have more patience with his group, which was excellent (plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions) last season. The starting group has basically been bad in three games (minus-31 against the Pistons, Wizards and Nuggets) and OK in three games (plus-7 against the Suns, Mavs and Clippers). And the success of the bench units has far outweighed the starters’ struggles. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.
Last season, the Blazers’ “other lineups” got outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions. No team suffered more offensively when a particular player stepped off the floor than Portland did when Damian Lillard sat down. So the bench, along with better defense from their center position, was the focus of their summer moves.
So far, so good, as the Blazers’ bench units have basically turned that number around, outscoring their opponents by that same 5.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve scored a solid 103.5 points per 100 possessions when Lillard has sat, and he doesn’t have to lead the league in minutes this year.
The issue is that those bench units still include a lot of minutes from the starters. Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez account for more than 72 percent of the team’s total minutes. It’s obviously a younger group, but compare that with the 52 percent the Spurs’ starters account for.