How the best teams in the NBA juggle their lineups

If they could, most NBA coaches would just play with their best players for 48 minutes per game, every game. After all, it’s the stars that greatly drive team performance, and most teams are at their best when their best guys are on the court.

Of course, we know that this cannot happen. The science of recordkeeping is pretty straightforward and has been taken into account by most teams. For proof, just look at the rapid decline over the last decade and a half in the number of players getting more than 36 minutes per night. That used to be pretty standard for the best and even the second best player on a team; today, it is extremely rare.

Players who spend less time on the court necessarily mean their teams have to get by without them more often. Take LeBron James, for example. During the 2004-05 season, James averaged 42.4 minutes per game, the league’s highest, so his Cleveland Cavaliers had to deal with only about six minutes without LeBron per night. Fast forward 16 years, and the 2020-21 version of James averages “only” 34.7 minutes per night. So the Lakers have to decide what to do without LeBron on the court for just under 14 minutes per game.

Considering the Lakers’ net rating drops from plus-9.9 with James on the court to minus-4.0 with him out, according to NBA Advanced Stats, that’s a pretty significant problem. So is the fact that Los Angeles’ net rating drops from plus 9.1 to plus 3.0 when James co-star Anthony Davis leaves the court. Davis has played an average of 32.8 minutes per game, which means the Lakers also have to deal with about 15 minutes without Davis per night, at least until his recent injury. For at least the next few weeks, they will have to deal without him for 48 years.

To avoid overlapping minutes without James and minutes without Davis, Lakers coach Frank Vogel likes to stagger his two stars in the rotation, as we saw when we analyzed rotation patterns during the first 29 games of the 2020 season. -twenty-one. LeBron and AD normally start out together, then LeBron retires sometime midway through the first quarter while Davis remains in the game. LeBron then enters towards the end of the first, while Davis exits. Then Davis comes back in and James leaves again; and finally, they synchronize again during the last minutes of the second quarter. Then they do the same song and dance after halftime.

Because of this, the Lakers can minimize the number of minutes they play with James and Davis off the court. In games they both dressed in, according to, they’ve been on the bench together for just 7.8 percent of the Lakers’ minutes, with most of them coming in the fourth quarter of games that were already in. hand.

LeBron and AD don’t usually hang out on the bench

Minutes on the court and net rating for Los Angeles Lakers roster combinations involving LeBron James and Anthony Davis, 2020-21 season

In Off Total Share Net valuation
Both None 517 46.4% +14.21
James Davis 272 24.4 +5.06
Davis James 238 21.4 -0.93
None Both 87 7.8 +1.06

The minutes are from games both James and Davis played. Until the games on February 21st.

Source: PBP Stats

The Lakers’ Staples Center brothers, the Clippers, take the same approach with their two stars, preferring to minimize the amount of time they spend with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the bench. There’s good reason for them to do so: the Clippers have been outscored by 1.59 points per 100 possessions with their two stars on the bench, while they’ve dominated opponents with both players in the game and far outscored them with at least one of the two on the ground.

Clippers maximize time with their stars

Minutes on the court and net rating for Los Angeles Clippers lineup combinations involving Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, 2020-21 season

In Off Total Share Net valuation
Both None 474 49.4% +18.57
Leonard George 217 22.6 +3.94
George Leonard 212 22.1 +3.64
None Both 57 5.9 -1.59

Minutes include only the games Leonard and George played in. Until the games on February 21st.

Source: PBP Stats

Of course, wow is not the only way to go. Some teams prefer to put their stars in the rotation, maximizing the amount of time they spend together on the court, even if that means the team has to play both of them on the bench more often than ideally. Perhaps there is no better example of this than in Golden State.

The Warriors have included Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in the rotation for years, through many iterations of their team. When both are healthy, it is extremely rare to see one of them on the ground without the other.

The Denver Nuggets approach things the same way, largely incorporating Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray into the rotation. The chemistry between their two stars is so great that it makes sense that they spend most of their time on the floor together. The setup with both players on the court together is also the only one to have outperformed their opponents so far this season, although the scoring margins of the other units have been affected by Denver’s recent string of injuries in the support players.

The Nuggets keep their stars together

On-court minutes and net rating for Denver Nuggets roster combinations involving Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, 2020-21 season

In Off Total Share Net valuation
Both None 811 59.2% +9.85
Jokić Murray 185 13.5 -5.34
Murray Jokić 171 12.5 -2.81
None Both 202 14.8 -2.59

The minutes include only the games in which both Jokić and Murray played. Until the games on February 21st.

Source: PBP Statistics

Naturally, building a rotation becomes a bit more complicated if your team has more than two core players. With three pillars of rotation, a coach has more options. Completely matching the minutes of three players seems silly. If you can go between most and all of the game with at least one of your top three players on the court, why wouldn’t you? Still, coaches can take different paths to get there.

The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, employ something like a three-man stagger between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who average between 32.5 and 33.8 minutes each per night. Antetokounmpo normally comes out in the middle of the first and third quarters, leaving Middleton and Holiday on the floor. The second and sometimes the fourth quarter also usually begins with the bank units. Meanwhile, coach Mike Budenholzer appears to mix and match which of Holiday and Middleton returns to play alongside Giannis for a few minutes before the other returns. Fortunately, all iterations of these units outperform their opponents, with the exception of the one with the three stars on the bench, which has rarely been used outside of Q4 games that have already been decided.

Contrast that strategy with that of the Jazz, which equates Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert, and shakes that duo with Donovan Mitchell. Conley and Gobert rise from the floor in the middle of the first, while Mitchell remains. A few minutes later, they switch, with Mitchell taking his first remainder of the game. Mitchell then returns to play for a few minutes without his point guard and center, who rejoin him on the court to end the half. This process is generally repeated after halftime, and it works very well for the Jazz, who dominate Conley / Gobert minutes against second units and cope very well when Mitchell has to play without either of them in the game. Utah can do this because it relies on Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson and Derrick Favors to take over the rotation.

The Raptors go one step further. Toronto seems to believe it has four main players, as Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby each average between 33.8 and 36.6 minutes per game.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse often pairs Lowry and Anunoby and wobbles that duo with VanVleet and Siakam, who are also paired. He will also use different combinations of those four players on occasion, although he prefers to have at least two of them in the game at almost all times. However, it might be wise for Nurse to mix it up a bit, because both the Lowry / Anunoby Exclusive Units and the Siakam / VanVleet Exclusive Units have net negative ratings so far this season.

The Raptors juggle their top four players

On-court minutes and net rating for Toronto Raptors lineup combinations involving Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, 2020-21 season

In Off Total Share Net valuation
Everyone None 262 41.9% +4.01
Lowry • OG Siakam • FVV 82 13.1 -10.29
Siakam • FVV Lowry • OG 73 11.7 -21.05
Siakam • FVV • OG Lowry 57 9.1 -19.10
Lowry • Siakam • FVV OG 30 4.8 +13.96
Lowry • Siakam FVV • OG 28 4.5 +10.56
Lowry • FVV • OG Siakam twenty 3.2 +29.62
Lowry Siakam • FVV • OG 17 2.7 -12.73
FVV • OG Lowry • Siakam fifteen 2.4 +40.00
Lowry • Siakam • OG FVV fifteen 2.4 -32.26
FVV Lowry • Siakam • OG 13 2.1 -25.00

Combinations with a total of less than 10 minutes were excluded. The minutes include only the games in which all four played. Until the games on February 21st.

Source: PBP Statistics

The Raptors still have plenty of time to turn things around if they want to. It will be fascinating to see if this rotation changes, or how, now that Anunoby has returned from the calf injury that knocked him out of 10 games, especially considering how well Norman Powell did as a starter in his absence. Because barring an injury or some kind of movement on the roster (like a trade or a free-agent signing), those changes just don’t happen as often, at least not for star players.

Sometimes it takes coaches years to convince players that a rotation needs to be changed, and sometimes it even takes a new coach to implement that change. Players are creatures of habit, after all, and that extends to the way they enter and exit the game. That, among other reasons, is why it is extremely important that coaches make these decisions correctly.

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