In a league of shorter contracts and constant roster turnover, it can take half a season for a team to understand basic things about itself — such as which players should share the floor. As we blow past the quarter pole of the NBA season, let’s bounce around some teams searching for lineup magic.
Milwaukee didn’t become every NBA nerd’s “it” team because people were excited to watch Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo, but here we are, with those tried-and-true vets having replaced Michael Carter-Williams and Jabari Parker in the starting lineup — at least before Bayless suffered an ankle injury. The changes represent an early admission that Milwaukee’s presumed core lineups can’t shoot or defend — yet.
“As of right now, no,”Bucks coach Jason Kidd tells ESPN.com in response to that question. “On paper, you say, ‘Wow, that’s a long lineup.’ But who is gonna shoot?” Milwaukee envisions Parker as a stretch power forward, but when they stick him in the corner around a Carter-Williams pick-and-roll, no one pays him any attention:
“Jabari will be a really good stretch four in three years,” Kidd says. “Right now, he’s not that. And that’s OK. He’s basically a rookie.”
The new lineup has managed only 98.9 points per 100 possessions, about equivalent to Washington’s 25th-ranked offense. Antetokounmpo should zip past opposing power forwards, but defenders neuter his driving game by playing 10 feet off of him, daring him to shoot. Antetokounmpo can still spin his way to layups, but it’s hard work.
Kidd also hoped the change would stabilize Milwaukee’s defense, which has sunk from second in points allowed per possession last season to 26th so far in this season. Critics have laid most of the blame on Monroe, and he has struggled to scurry around in Milwaukee’s ultra-aggressive scheme. Monroe can leap out at opposing ball-handlers 30 feet from the rim, but after that first action, he’s basically toast. He pauses, turns and shuffles in baby steps back toward the basket — too late to contest layups.
Pinning the regression just on Monroe is unfair. Carter-Williams has the length and fight to be a good defender, but he can get a little wild flying around — like a less athletic Russell Westbrook. “When Michael goes well, we go well,” Kidd says. “He defends with energy, he uses his length, and it gets us going. And when we don’t go well, we look back at the film and see some of things aren’t happening.”
Like most rookies, Parker is lost on defense. He is the big man version of Zach LaVine, just kind of running around out there, chasing birds, unclear as to what he should be doing. Put Carter-Williams and Parker in a pick-and-roll, and you’re going to open wide gaps:
Kidd’s frenzied scheme caught opponents off-guard last season, but teams are prepared for it now with specific counters that are turning the Bucks into venison. Teams know Milwaukee is going to trap every pick-and-roll, so they are baiting the trap, stationing a passing target nearby as a release valve, and pinballing the ball around to open shooters as the Bucks find their bearings:
All the running and reaching has led to a ton of fouls, and leaves Milwaukee in bad rebounding position. The Bucks are dead last in defensive rebounding rate, and only the Grizz and Knicks have allowed more free throws per field goal attempt.
It’s the same strategy smart teams used to solve Miami’s blitzing defense during the final LeBron season, and Kidd views the league’s adjustment as part of Milwaukee’s growth process. The Bucks aren’t going to overhaul their scheme; they need to get better at it. “We knew the league would catch up,” Kidd says. “We just have to use our speed, and our length.”
The defense is improving, and you can see glimpses of what the Bucks could become when they play their longest lineups: a rotating hydra that can cover ground faster than anyone, and switch across three, four or even five positions. Kidd already has Parker cross-matching against bulkier wings, such as Tobias Harris, while Antetokounmpo chases stretchy big men such as Channing Frye and Ersan Ilyasova. Antetokounmpo even guarded Tim Duncan last week.
But 20-plus games in, it’s clear this is going to be long process — and one that will likely include more rotation tweaks. Increased time for John Henson would help the defense, though it would also eat into Monroe’s minutes.
Vic Mackey’s fightin’ Magicians are 5-1 since turning Victor Oladipo into a super-sub, a move team higher-ups discussed last season, league sources say. The team’s new starting five, with Channing Frye in Oladipo’s place, is slaughtering opponents with killer two-way play, and Oladipo has been dynamic as the lead dog on bench units that separate him from Elfrid Payton. Only the Warriors and Spurs, the league’s two best teams right now, have put up fatter per-possession scoring margins since Thanksgiving.
The revamped lineup has opened the floor for both Payton and Oladipo. Payton can’t shoot, and Oladipo has struggled badly most of the season. It was hard for Orlando to gain any traction with two enemy defenders clogging the paint:
The Frye-Nikola Vucevic duo is one of the best shooting frontcourt’s in the league, and Frye generally stays behind the arc — sucking a big-man defender away from the rim. “It just gives us more balance,” Harris tells ESPN.com, “and more spacing.” Payton is getting more shots within the restricted area since the change, and he’s draining 70 percent of them — up from an ugly 43 percent before the lineup change.
Vucevic sees wider passing lanes when teams double him in the post, and he’s a more willing passer this season.
Orlando’s surge is about much more than Oladipo’s new role, and there are reasons to worry it may not last. Oladipo and Payton are still playing together a ton: 16 minutes per game since the switch, down from about 22 per game before. They’re just playing with different combinations, including the shockingly effective Jason Smith–Andrew Nicholson duo. Benching Dewayne Dedmon, who has hooves for hands, has juiced the offense without hurting Orlando on the other end — so far.
But the Frye-Vucevic combination has a long track record of awful defense, and the Magic in this stretch have faced mostly below-average offensive teams. Those teams have hit an icy 33 percent of wide-open 3-pointers, and they’re getting a ton of those looks — especially from the corners, where Orlando has allowed a league-high 9.3 attempts since the flip. What happens against better offenses?
Teams will also get comfortable going small against Frye, since he won’t hurt them in the post. Frye and Vucevic have no shot chasing small-ball lineups on defense. Orlando could punish those groups on the other end, but they may have to slide Aaron Gordon or Oladipo back into Frye’s slot — and suffering some spacing crunch.
Still, Scott Skiles has these guys rotating like mad men on defense, and they have the collective smarts to squeeze through tight pathways. Payton is a crafty zig-zagger, and the Magic are always hunting off-ball cuts. Ignore one of their perimeter guys to choke the paint, and you can bet that guy is zooming to the rim behind you.
“That’s something we work a lot on in practice,” Harris says. “We know there are some openings behind the scenes on cuts.”
On a simple level, the lineup change is about Evan Fournier emerging as a flat-out better option at 2-guard — and better overall player — than Oladipo. Critics slammed Rob Hennigan for “only” nabbing Fournier in exchange for Arron Afflalo on an expiring deal, but Hennigan did his diligence canvassing the league for better packages, and he understood how good Fournier could be.
He’s longer than Oladipo, and a more sound defender. Oladipo is manic, and manic players always look like they are doing something on defense. But what he’s really doing a lot of the time is hopping out of Orlando’s scheme, and leaving a shooter open. Fournier sticks within the system, and he’s more rugged than you’d think.
Fournier’s agents asked for big money in extension talks — well north of $10 million per season, sources say — but the Magic may end up regretting their decision to let him go into restricted free agency.
It might be time for a change in Memphis. Opponents have outscored the Grizz starting five by 20 points per 100 possessions, effectively turning them into the Sixers until Dave Joerger yanks someone.
That someone has usually been Tony Allen, and it might be time to transition the Grindfather into a role as matchup specialist — someone you bust out if Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or James Harden is drowning you in points. Nobody guards Allen, and that torpedoes what would be easy scoring chances for a normal team — like this aborted Marc Gasol–Zach Randolph high-low.
Nobody has ever really guarded Allen. Memphis could survive that when Allen was at peak defensive ferocity, and the rest of the team hummed. Perhaps the fine balance has tipped the wrong way. Allen is almost 34, and hasn’t been the same finishing around the rim, or going chest-to-chest with suckers on defense. Randolph and Gasol are a year older, and Gasol hasn’t recaptured his All-NBA form on either end.
Perhaps Joerger should swap out both Allen and Jeff Green, and try the Matt Barnes/Courtney Lee combo instead. That proposed starting five has logged only 12 minutes together, and the Barnes/Lee combination has been a disaster overall. But lots of those minutes have come among patchwork small-ball units; Barnes has done well with the core starters, and he needs a Lee type to defend quicker shooting guards.
Green is an awkward fit with the Bruise Brothers From Another Mother. A wing player working within that crowded frontcourt needs craft. He needs the sense to anticipate when a small crack might appear, and the skill to slice through it. He needs the guile to create those openings — to juke a defense with a shoulder shake, or a change-of-pace dribble. He needs to make the right pass, at the right time — and to sometimes make the unexpected pass that skips a step.
Green doesn’t have that craft. He has tried to amp up his playmaking, but it just isn’t his game. He can’t compensate with elite 3-point shooting; opponents know he’s struggling from deep, and they are getting more daring about ignoring him.
Green is an explosive straight-line player. I liked him last season as a stretch power forward off the bench. He could spread the floor, blow by bigger dudes off the dribble, and fly at the rim. JaMychal Green is playing some version of that role now, but perhaps Joerger could pair the Greens as a switchy and bouncy forward combination.
Joerger downplayed the chances of an impending lineup change during a brief chat, though he did concede he thinks of the team having six or seven starters. “It may change, and it may not,” he says.
By the way, don’t rush Randolph out the door just because the Grizz scrapped to a 3-2 record without him last month. Memphis has a negative scoring margin when Gasol plays without Randolph, and it will be tough for Memphis to find worthwhile return on any Z-Bo trade.
This isn’t the end for Allen or Green. They will both remind us soon of their importance within the league; Allen gets another shot at Durant tonight. But if Memphis wants any chance against a top-shelf Western Conference team, they need to optimize every second.
Houston is 4-1 with Clint Capela and Dwight Howard starting in a twin-towers alignment that feels out of place in the modern NBA, and they’re obliterating opponents on both sides of the ball. Howard and Capela are a four-armed rim barricade, and they’re playing volleyball on the offensive glass to make up for what should be a fatal lack of spacing; Houston has rebounded a ridiculous 38.5 percent of its own misses in the 56 minutes these behemoths have shared the floor, per NBA.com tracking.
This is a classic case of an underperforming team shrugging, and starting its five best players regardless of position. Capela has been fantastic as Howard’s backup, and he has probably outperformed Terrence Jones on balance; Jones’ shooting has dipped, his rim protection comes and goes, and teams are filleting the Rockets on the glass with Jones on the floor.
And yet this doesn’t feel sustainable, especially on offense, against better competition. Houston in those five games eked out wins against the Sixers; the Knicks without Carmelo Anthony; the Pelicans without Jrue Holiday, and the Kings with a cranky and hobbling DeMarcus Cousins.
Capela can get happy feet defending power forwards on the perimeter, and he’s just not competent enough with the ball 20 feet from the hoop to keep Houston’s offense flowing.
Jones and James Harden have a nice dribble hand-off chemistry; Jones is a confident passer who can make plays off the dribble — herky-jerky drives that wrong-foot defenses readying themselves for a Harden assault. Houston needs that flow.
Capela is an ace lob dunker rolling to the hoop, but the corridors to glory are too narrow with Howard around.
My hunch: Houston gives Donatas Motiejunas a chance to nail down the starting power forward spot.
Welp. The basketball gods would not allow the Nets to have a respectable starting five. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a delightful lefty grasshopper, is out indefinitely with a fractured ankle, and the Nets have been a sieve on defense without him.
None of the potential replacements are appealing. Bojan Bogdanovic has lost his game, Sergey Karasev hasn’t really shown one, Markel Brown is a worse version of Hollis-Jefferson, and Wayne Ellington‘s birthday hot streak appears to have petered out. Lionel Hollins might consider starting Shane Larkin and Jarrett Jack together. Larkin has been a turbo boost of efficient shooting and solid pick-and-roll play off the bench, and Hollins has paired them now and then in crunch time. Larkin and Lopez are building a nice two-man chemistry, which is fun, because it probably represents the greatest speed differential ever in a two-man game.
But Larkin has thrived mostly in bench lineups with four perimeter players; the Nets have sputtered when Larkin plays with both Lopez and Thaddeus Young. A Larkin-Jack back-court won’t stop anyone. Hollins will probably try a more traditional wing first, and that’s the right move.
Is it impolite to dance on a lineup’s grave? I was skeptical of the Hollis-Jefferson starting five before this injury, and before the Knicks spanked Brooklyn in the Lopez Bowl on Friday. It’s hard to imagine the Lopez-Young front line defending at a top-five level over heavy minutes, and Hollis-Jefferson introduces a Tony Allen-level shrink factor on Brooklyn’s spacing.
Other situations to watch:
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers fancy themselves as title contenders, and you are not winning the title with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as your starting small forward. The Clips have put up Warriors-level scoring margins with either Wesley Johnson or Lance Stephenson alongside the core four starters. They need to invest regular-season time in those lineups. You can almost understand Doc Rivers’s hesitancy. Johnson is limited, and Stephenson is irritating. They are risky, and Mbah a Moute is a warm blanket vet — a safe, known commodity.
But unseating the Warriors and Spurs will require risk. The Clippers need to reach their absolute ceiling, and that can only happen if they get the highest-reward lineups going. If they’ve followed Charlotte in souring on Stephenson a month into the season, as Yahoo! reported Monday, they need a better back up plan than granting Mbah a Moute 15 charity minutes per game.
The C’s will face an interesting decision once Marcus Smart returns from injury. Isaiah Thomas seems to have burst through the bench spark-plug glass ceiling, which means it will come down to Smart and Avery Bradley for the fifth starting spot alongside Thomas, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger.
Both potential lineups are about even in point differential, but if Bradley keeps shooting the lights out, it will be hard for Stevens to demote him — especially since Smart’s secondary ball-handling isn’t as much of a need with Thomas pounding it. We’ll see. The Sullinger/Johnson combo has been solid, but it wouldn’t shock me if Stevens experiments with another pairing at some point.
The Wolves are plus-32 in the 68 minutes when Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins have shared the floor. More, please. Hopefully Karl-Anthony Towns‘ recent late-game work has quieted the panic over Sam Mitchell banishing him in fourth quarters.
Utah should stay afloat without Rudy Gobert. Derrick Favors can handle more responsibility on both ends, and Quin Snyder will cycle through a bunch of options at power forward: Trevor Booker, Trey Lyles, pseudo-small-ball with Joe Ingles, or real small-ball with Gordon Hayward.
The Kosta Koufos-Cousins dual center look hasn’t worked, so George Karl is making the right call slotting Omri Casspi into Willie Cauley-Stein‘s starting spot. Casspi and Rudy Gay can toggle between the forward positions, and Casspi is perfect spotting up around Gay and Cousins — launching open 3s and pumping-and-driving for quirky floaters that always seem to go in.
This is getting interesting. Stay tuned.
New Orleans Pelicans
If the Pelicans insist on starting one of their suddenly unplayable Omer Asik, it might be time to toss all three of Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon into the starting lineup instead of bringing Holiday off the bench. Generating points is a slog with Asik bumbling the ball in his sweaty palms, and Alonzo Gee chilling unguarded 25 feet from the hoop.
Evans is a bit undersized as a small forward, but he can hold up. Stagger the minutes properly, and either Evans or Holiday can help Norris Cole run bench units. They should probably do this even in they promote Alexis Ajinca over Asik.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Draymond Green, with a center in front of him
Sometimes it happens after Green and Andrew Bogut trade assignments on defense, so that Green ends up on the other team’s center. Sometimes it happens because the opposing power forward leaps for a rebound, doesn’t get it, and falls behind the play.
Regardless, you can identify the exact second when Green, just after snaring a rebound, realizes that a center is trying to run with him in transition. Green hunches a little closer to the ground, lengthens his stride and accelerates into top gear with the league’s deadliest crew of shooters flanking him. You can feel his vicious excitement; he senses vulnerable prey.
During Saturday’s win in Toronto, Green snatched a rebound, saw Bismack Biyombo jogging a few steps in front of him, and instantly transformed a ho-hum four-on-four into a coast-to-coast layup.
2. Jae Crowder, attacking
Solid shooting isn’t enough anymore for most spot-up guys. You have to know how to puncture a defense that has bent away from you — how to attack off the catch, when a pump fake will work, the right driving angles, and the art of drawing contact.
Crowder isn’t a great shooter or driver, but he’s proof that just being decisive can get you a long way:
Crowder is getting to the line at a career-best rate, and more of his shots are coming at the rim.
3. Rodney Stuckey and Monta Ellis, a tricky brew
The Pacers’ offense, ninth overall in points per possession, has cratered when Ellis and Stuckey — two duplicative slashers with shaky 3-point jumpers — play together. Things get especially ugly when they share the floor with two of Indy’s rotation big men; there just isn’t enough space for everyone. Perhaps Myles Turner and his snap-release jumper will tilt the equation when he comes back.
4. Houston’s checkerboard sleeved jerseys
Are sleeved jerseys getting better, or are Houston’s regular jerseys so blah that I gravitate toward almost any alternate they produce? Either way, I like these silver-gray bad boys with the checkered-flag pattern running down the sides.
The black-and-white checkerboard motif mimics the striped design of NASA rockets from the 1960s. That’s cool. Also, from some angles, it looks like the players have a skull stitched into their shorts.
5. Kevin Love as Dirk
Love is a much more active participant in Cleveland’s offense this season, and the Cavs are better for it. He’s a magnetic decoy running around screens off the ball. The Cavs like to set a cross screen under the basket for Love, as if the end-game is a Love post-up, only to swing the ball to LeBron for a pick-and-roll on the other side.
James with that kind of head start is death.
6. Doug McDermott, becoming a player
A great shooter brings no value from the bench. Ask Steve Novak. McDermott doesn’t need to be a stopper on defense to help Chicago. He just needs to be playable, and he appears to have put in the work to get there.
Watch McBuckets’ footwork the next time you catch Chicago: the way he sinks into the paint to help, closes back out on a shooter, and holds his ground when that guy tries to blow by him. He has made massive progress.
7. Metta World Peace, power forward
There is no universe in which World Peace should get a single minute at backup power forward over Larry Nance Jr. The Lakers are terrible. Just develop your young players. This might not be an issue anymore; Peace has played mostly small forward over the last week, and Byron Scott weirdly demoted Julius Randle in the latest plot twist for the NBA’s vaudeville freak show. But you can’t trust Byron Scott.
8. Jordan Clarkson‘s floater
Case in point: Clarkson has been the Lakers’s best offensive player, darting into the lane to unleash floaters, scoops, jams and those stop-on-a-dime pull-ups. When Clarkson is matched up with a smaller defender, he’s comfortable driving into the guy’s chest, bulldozing him into a back-pedal, and rising up for a floater before the defender can balance himself to jump.
Clarkson has to work on his defense, but he’s already a creative offensive player at both guard positions.
9. Josh McRoberts, with a bounce in his step
McBob (he hates that nickname) is feeling straight-up frisky these days for the East-leading Heat. The verve is back in his step after a lost season due to knee surgery. He’s galloping up the floor, tossing casual behind-the-back passes, and even breaking out the patented Rajon Rondo pass-fake in the lane.
McRoberts and Chris Bosh have a fun partnership as two lefty big men with range and inherent unselfish streaks. The Heat have outscored opponents by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions when they play together.
10. In-game telestrations
There are a couple of League Pass analysts who occasionally feel the urge to telestrate as the game is happening. This is a bad idea for several reasons, including that the human beings playing the game are moving; the thing you are telestrating is ephemeral, like life itself, and will be gone by the time you squiggle yellow lines all over my TV screen. Please, don’t do this.