Looking At Lineups

Darius Soriano —  February 9, 2011

When looking at a team’s overall success, I’ve always tried to take the big picture approach. After all, many factors contribute to why a team wins or loses games and on any given night it’s easy to look at box score statistics, a specific play or plays that went for or against a team, or even how the refs were calling the game and how the teams on the floor adjusted to what was being called or what they could get away with on either side of the ball.

But one of the most basic things to look at is who is on the floor and for how much time and then looking at whether or not that was the right group of players. Often times when we discuss a game after the fact we’ll all wonder why player X played so many minutes or why player Y was on the bench for a crucial part of the game. I think it’s fair to say that every Laker fan at some point or another has questioned Phil Jackson’s rotation in this manner.

So, yesterday, I decided I’d venture over to 82games.com and take a look at the Lakers most frequently used lineups and try to determine if the Lakers are playing the right combination of players by looking at what groups of players were most and least successful together and then combine that with what we know of Phil Jackson’s substitution patterns.

First, I offer this quick explanation of what we see from Phil Jackson as a lineup manager: Phil often has set patterns for his substitutions. For as long as I can remember he’s used certain points of a quarter (i.e. with 4 minutes left in the 1st quarter) as a marker for when he’d make a substitution. There’s no better example of this than how he’s often subbed out Kobe with about 2 minutes left in the 1st quarter so he can get 4-6 minute rest wrapped around the 1st quarter break and come in fresh to play the rest of the half. I’ve always appreciated this about Phil as he consistently duplicates roles and sets expectations for his players in order to try and create a comfort level. This comfort level then, hopefully, leads to greater success from those players. 

To preface the results I found, I only counted lineups that have played more than 40 minutes together this year. I found that to be a low enough threshold to give us a sample size that’s valid. The Lakers have had 9 such line ups play at least that much time together. What I’ve used as an indicator for a successful line up is the measurement of offensive and defensive efficiency for the lineup. This is pretty self explanatory but the Lakers best offensive lineup will have the highest offensive efficiency, the best defensive lineup will have the lowest defensive efficiency, and the best overall lineup will have the best differential. Efficiency is measured in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. Now, on to my findings.

The Lakers best offensive unit is a shared honor between the Lakers current starting group of Fisher, Kobe, Artest, Gasol, Bynum and the mixed group where Blake, Brown and Odom replace Fisher, Artest and Bynum respectively. Both of these groups show an offensive rating of 121. As a whole, this makes perfect sense as both these lineups possess both Kobe and Gasol, the two players that are easily the Lakers best offensive players. Both Kobe and Gasol can create shots for themselves or others, consistently draw double teams, and are options at the end of the shot clock in isolation situations.

The Lakers best defensive unit is the group of Blake, Brown, Barnes, Odom, and Gasol. At first glance this doesn’t quite add up. Artest and Bynum are typically considered the anchors of the Lakers wing and paint defense. Kobe is still a very good defensive player – though it’s fair to say his commitment on that side of the ball seems completely tied to the quality of player he’s facing. It would seem counter-intuitive that a lineup missing these three guys would be the Lakers best defensive lineup with their defensive efficiency of 93. However, when digging deeper, this actually does make a lot of sense. You see, this group really is the Lakers “bench” group. Gasol is a starter but in this lineup he slides over to Center and is flanked by the remaining four players in the Lakers’ nine man rotation. This group faces off against other team’s benches and with Barnes, Odom, and Gasol all playing above average defense you have a unit that has the ability to shut down other teams’ reserves.

The Lakers’ best defensive unit also doubles as their best lineup in terms of differential. I mentioned that they hold opponents to an offensive rating of 93 but themselves score at an efficiency of 116. Again, this makes complete sense as this Lakers group has 2 players that should be considered starters (Odom and Gasol), another player that could easily start (Barnes), and the Blake/Brown duo that while not the most consistent players have had some big games (Brown) and are steadying influences on how the offense is run (Blake). Obviously I’m not clamoring for this group to get more burn just because they’re showing the best efficiency differential of the Lakers’ lineups I’ve examined. But I think it’s important to note that this group has played well together and should be able to hold/extend leads while also cutting into deficits (something that we’ve actually seen a fair amount of this season).

A couple of other trends to note from looking at lineups:

  • The current Lakers starting group where Bynum replaces Odom scores and defends better from an efficiency standpoint. Offensively the group with Bynum has an efficiency of 121 and a defensive efficiency of 99. With Odom starting those numbers are 116 and 103. Not a huge difference, but worth pointing out.
  • There are two lineups that only differ by one player that have played a very similar number of minutes together (84 minutes to 72 minutes) yet yield wildly different results. The group with 84 minutes played has efficiency ratings of 105 (offense) and 127 (defense), performing rather poorly. The other unit has efficiency ratings of 116 (offense) and 106 (defense) performing well together but still not playing particularly good defense. The first unit has Fisher at PG and the second unit has Blake in that role. The other 4 players are Kobe, Barnes, Odom, and Gasol. Make of this what you will but based off these numbers I’d rather see Blake with this group than Fisher.
  • The worst lineup of the entire bunch is when both Barnes and Artest man the Forward slots. They perform okay on defense with a rating of 104, but are terrible on offense with a rating of 88. Goes to show how much the Lakers missed having that third big man they trusted to play meaningful minutes. Luckily the Lakers have only used this lineup for 53 minutes all year but in those stretches this group was outperformed badly.

Make what you will of all this information but what I’ve found is that when the Lakers aren’t limited by injuries they’ll typically throw out a successful lineup that is good for very good offense and reasonable defense. The only red-flag group (that isn’t related to injury issues) that I found is the aforementioned lineup that had Fisher as the PG with Kobe, Barnes, LO, and Pau. When the playoffs come, I think it’s fair to assume that the Lakers – if healthy – will have a 9 man rotation that they can use in a variety of formations and trust to be better than the group that they’re facing. And in the end, that’s all I can hope for.

Darius Soriano

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