Newsflash: Basketball is a team game.
Yes, your superstars can be the difference between a win and a loss in a close fourth quarter finish, but the majority of the work is done by how the unit on the floor performs as a whole on both sides of the floor. In basketball, five players on the court have to work as one single entity: passing, scoring, defending, rebounding, and even fighting together as a group.
Take a look at the league’s best records, and you’ll see that in the following order: the Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies are currently the best teams in the NBA. But thanks to the magic of advanced statistics, we can answer more complex questions about the individuals who are a major reason behind their team’s success.
One of those questions is, which five-man unit makes the biggest difference when they play together on the court? If the ideal system of a basketball team uses all five players on court to work as one efficient winning unit, which unit in the league is the best right now? Taking the point-differential (+/-) as a reference point, let’s countdown the top five lineups in the league that have been the most effective when they are set together on the court this season.
5. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies) – 114
Too bad for Memphis. Although they have picked up their pieces since trading away Rudy Gay to Toronto and gone on a decent 8-4 streak, they broke up one of the best lineups in the league in Conley, Allen, Gay, Randolph and Gasol. It was a starting five that featured players who could easily create their own shot from the perimeter and from the post, and players who could play tough defense both on the inside and outside.
It’s no surprise that this lineup led Memphis to one of the top records in the West early in the season. Gay has since been replaced with Tayshaun Prince, who makes the team stronger defensively but robs them off their best natural scorer from the perimeter. The Memphis defense is still good enough for them to remain an elite team, but they may suffer in the playoffs without a scorer like Gay on their side.
4. Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs) – 123
The good news: the Spurs are the best team in the league, and have a lot of effective lineups. The likes of Manu Ginobili, DeJuan Blair, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson give them a lot of flexibility off the bench, but it is their starting five of Parker, Green, Leonard, Duncan and Splitter that have played the majority of the minutes together in blowing the rest of the league away. Both Parker and Duncan have played at the All-Star level, and Splitter is a nice balance to Duncan on the post. But it is the rise of young Leonard and Green as perimeter defenders who also help to spread the floor that will keep people in San Antonio excited for their future.
The bad news: Parker – who briefly heard his name in the MVP conversation – went down with a sprained left ankle against Sacramento and is destined to be out a month. The Spurs have been fairly successful without him so far this season (4-1), but they will miss their floor general if they have hopes of keeping their fluid offensive machine running at a high level.
No shocks here.
We couldn’t have a conversation about the best five-man unit in the league without talking about the new and improved Big Three. Usually known for their defensive identity, Miami’s offense has been great this season, as they are in the top five in the league in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and points. Their best unit features the man who is currently the league’s top MVP Candidate (James), one of the most efficient superstars in the league (Wade), and another All-Star (Bosh). It features a hustling rebound machine (Haslem), and a decent 3-point threat (Chalmers).
No wonder Miami’s on a 14-game winning streak. No wonder they are looking like favourites to win another championship.
2. Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins (Oklahoma City Thunder) – 204
These guys like to score. A lot.
The Thunder are the NBA’s top scoring team, and their starting five of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins the highest scoring five-man unit. Having a three-time scoring champion in Durant, and the NBA’s most athletic and scoring guard in Westbrook, doesn’t hurt of course. But what is truly impressive is that this line-up is also one of the NBA’s best defensively. Sefolosha, Ibaka, and Perkins are all defense-first players. The combined efforts have put the exciting Thunder at second-place in the West.
1. George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert (Indiana Pacers) – 257
Yes, the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, and this underrated line-up is a major reason why. Together, Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert are the toughest group in the NBA to score against. The loss of Danny Granger opened up a space for Lance Stephenson – a forgotten former star – to bring his gritty game into the starting five. The Pacers are now the second seed in the East. Paul George became an All-Star for the first time, and both him and Hibbert should be in the All-Defensive Team contention at the end of the season.
The line-up does pretty well offensively too, as they have the second-highest points total of any five-man line-up in the league (behind the Thunder). Granger has since returned from injury, but plays from the bench for now, behind this remarkably well-functioning starting unit. Quietly, Frank Vogel has created a powerhouse in Indiana who can potentially pose as Miami’s biggest threat in the East come play-off time.