Bench Briefings: San Antonio's Potential Death Lineup

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If you’re not familiar with the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, it’s time to remind you about the 73-win team that blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Down 2-1 in the 2015 NBA Finals, then rookie head coach Steve Kerr made an adjustment to his starting lineup by inserting Andre Iguodala in place of Andrew Bogut. Obviously the Warriors thrived with their small-ball lineup en route to an NBA Championship, but their killer five-man lineup didn’t reach peak efficiency until the following year.

Last season, the five-man lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green was Golden State’s third most used lineup, logging 172 minutes while outscoring their foes by an astounding 47 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the second “closest” lineup belonged to the Cavaliers, which only outscored its opponents by 24.2 points per 100 possessions. And thus, the Death Lineup was born.

Regardless of how their season finished, what the Death Lineup accomplished is still unfathomable. The only teams that have a lineup that comes close to replicating the Death Lineup’s numbers from last season belong to the Raptors (NetRtg: 30.6) and the Warriors (NetRtg: 30.2), who replaced Barnes with some guy named Kevin Durant, in their newest iteration of small-ball basketball.

Which brings us to the 18-5 San Antonio Spurs.

The second unit for the silver and black has bailed out the starters several times through the first 23 games, but not all Juice Units are created equal.

With how much head coach Gregg Popovich tinkers with his lineups, and the countless interchangeable pieces, it’s hard to find a consistent measure for how well the bench is performing. San Antonio has 11 bench lineups that have spent at least an entire quarter on the floor together. Of those 11, there are seven five-man lineups that have a positive Net Rating when on the floor. Of the seven, three of those lineups are in the same stratosphere as the Warriors Death Lineup.

There is only one criteria in selecting these bench units: This five-man lineup could not have appeared as a starting lineup at any point this season. There are better lineups in terms of minutes and usage, but those statistics are inflated once they receive starters minutes.

LINEUP #1: Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, David Lee

Offensive Rating: 115.7
Defensive Rating: 76.9
Net Rating: 38.8

Even though this five-man lineup has been on the floor together for 14 minutes, they’re not as astute on defense as their rating may indicate. This lineup has only played in two games together (at Washington, at Dallas), who are a combined 12-30 on the season.

The Wizards are ranked 18th in terms of Net Rating (-2.3), which isn’t terrible, but the 8-13 Wizards have an atrocious bench.

WizardsNetRtg

That’s a list of professional basketball players who have played in at least 15 games and average at least 10 minutes per game, sorted by worst to still pretty bad in terms of Net Rating. The Washington Wizards have three¬†of their rotation players on that list.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks are honoring former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie by tanking into oblivion, as they rank 28th in Net Rating and 29th in Offensive Rating. So this Spurs five-man lineup hasn’t faced nearly the offensive juggernaut their defensive rating would have you believe.

Meanwhile, this bench lineup as issues of its own. Even against lesser competition, this Spurs lineup doesn’t rebound well (34.3) and turns the ball over at an alarming rate (20.6) per 48 minutes. Its only saving grace is that they shoot 60 percent on 3-pointers.

Final verdict: You have a better chance of dying from a stare down with Gregg Popovich than this lineup has of becoming Death Lineup 2.0.

LINEUP #2: Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon

(Before game at Chicago — After game at Chicago)
Offensive Rating: 114.7 — 113.8
Defensive Rating: 68.9 — 65.5
Net Rating: 45.8 — 48.3

One of the great things about writing this post throughout the week is watching how numbers fluctuate throughout the different games. In three minutes against the Bulls, this five-man lineup increased its net rating nearly one point per minute, but actually had a poor showing in Thursday night’s game.

For such a non-floor spacing lineup, this quintet shoots 52.6 percent from beyond the arc behind Mills and Ginobili. Per 48 minutes, they average nearly 55 rebounds, while sharing the ball exceptionally well at 29.3 assists. However, their drawbacks come in terms of turnovers and fouls, as the unpredictable ball handling capabilities of a Mills-Ginobili backcourt average 20 turnovers per 48 minutes. This lineup also needs to learn how to play defense without fouling, as they average 23 fouls per 48 minutes.

Final verdict: This will be San Antonio’s standard bench lineup throughout the regular season, as long as everyone remains healthy. The defensive rating is completely unsustainable, even though this bench lineup has logged the most minutes of all with 36. Once the playoffs come around, Leonard might be shifted to power forward to accommodate the athleticism and defense of Simmons, while maintaining the offensive punch and floor stretching Leonard adds in place of Lee. Which brings us to…

LINEUP #3: Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon

Offensive Rating: 140.7
Defensive Rating: 80.0
Net Rating: 60.7 (!!!)

Ladies and gentlemen, the San Antonio Spurs Death Lineup.

Okay, these five have only played 15 minutes together over six games, but their signature moment came during a seven minute stretch against the Milwaukee Bucks.

After Davis Bertans was ejected, this group took the floor for San Antonio to start the fourth quarter, producing an 11-3 run to take the lead. They don’t bombard you from beyond the arc on offense, but their success hinges on the efficiency of pick-and-roll plays, paired with mid-range shooting.

spursdeathlineupshotchart

By The Numbers:
Percent of Points from Mid-Range: LaMarcus Aldridge – 37.7% (2nd in NBA)
Deflections Per Game: Kawhi Leonard – 4.0 (3rd in NBA)
Points Per Possession – Pick And Roll Ball Hander Plays: Kawhi Leonard: 1.09 PPP (1st in NBA)

On offense, this lineup excels at getting to the rim and drawing fouls. With how much of a weapon Leonard has become off the pick and roll (his 1.09 points per possession is better than James Harden, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving) it’s fitting that this offense takes advantage of that ability with the Spurs best pick and roll man.

In 16 games, Dedmon has been used in the pick and roll on 23.6 percent of plays, which is second behind Pau Gasol. Of those plays run for Dedmon, he scores 52.9 percent of the time, averaging 1.06 points per possession. Both of those numbers are best among San Antonio’s big men. Crazy enough, Dedmon’s 1.06 PPP is outperforming DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love (1.02), but is slightly behind Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis (1.09).

Even when Leonard turns down a screen from Dedmon, the results can be spectacular as Bucks center Greg Monroe found out first hand.

When not converting in the paint or from mid-range, this five-man lineup for the Spurs averages an insane 42 free throws per 48 minutes, which helps their offense since they play at the second slowest pace (82.37) among all Spurs five-man lineups with double digit minutes.

Defensively, the two-man lineup of Aldridge and Dedmon has a defensive rating of 99.1, right around the league average. Adding Leonard in a three-man lineup helps their offensive and net rating, while maintaining a solid 98.2 defensive rating.

San Antonio’s real defensive anchor, no matter what lineup he’s been in, has been Dedmon. He’s averaging a career-high 1.3 blocks per game with the Spurs, while using his length and athleticism to help stifle opposing offenses. With Dedmon on the floor, opponents are shooting a mere 36.5 percent on field goals compared to 45 percent when he’s off the floor.

Nearly every statistically category plummets for opponents when Dedmon is on the floor.

DewayneDedmonOnOffFloor

Offensively, this lineup isn’t even on the same echelon as the Warriors Death Lineup. With what they lack on offense, the athleticism and length this lineup contains on defense rivals some of the best. There’s still a floor spacing element with Mills and Aldridge, while Kawhi can serve as the primary ball handler. Dedmon gives you a strong rim presence on both ends of the floor, and the uber athletic Simmons adds in gravity defying dunks and chase down blocks, along with a knack for slashing and creating for himself when necessary.

Final verdict: If the game against the Bucks proves anything, it’s that this lineup is the true Juice Unit. But these five need more minutes to reach full Death Lineup potential, which their small sample size indicates is within reach.

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