Last week, we broke down the league's best on-court player combinations in an article called "The Truth Behind NBA Chemistry: Who Has It?" This is a follow-up piece the looks at the issue from the reverse angle, breaking down the worst lineups in the association. All lineup data comes from NBA.com.
There is no denying it: The player combinations that the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats have used this season have been disastrous.
That doesn't mean what it may seem to mean (that the teams' coaches are messing up their rotations), but it does show that whether due to talent or usage, it isn't working.
In some cases, these teams are just bad. It might not matter who they put on the court; their opponents will always have a better combination of players.
But especially in the case of the Jazz, Mavericks and Blazers—all of who seem to have some talented individual players—you have to question what is going on. Why can't these seemingly skilled professionals find a way to play well alongside one another?
As a baseline, the chart above shows the most-used five-man lineup for each NBA team this season. One fact that stands out is that some teams simply don't have a high-usage unit.
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers, the reason is obviously health. Their optimal lineups have been decimated by injuries, and the result has been stop-gap solutions that are tried and then cast aside as they fail to succeed.
You need only look at the San Antonio Spurs' position on the list, however, to realize that health issues can be overcome. Despite significant time missed by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson, the team has the best unit on this chart—not to mention the best record in the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets, who have dealt with some injuries, like every team, are the lone teams above .500 whose most-used five-man lineups have failed to outscore the opposition. Strange numbers for teams that, in theory, are good.
With a plus-5.7, the Dallas Mavericks' high-usage five-man unit has been very effective, which makes the team's appearance atop this list of bad four-man lineups, at first, surprising.
Take away Vince Carter, apparently, and everything goes into the toilet.
Given the minute totals, and what we know about the career of Carter, it may appear that the sample size is playing tricks on us. After all, this four-man Maverick unit without Carter has a minute total almost three times as large as the five-man group that includes him.
So maybe Dallas is just bad no matter what?
But the issues clearly run deeper. For example, Dallas has a total of 11 four-man combinations that have played at least 150 minutes together this season, according to NBA.com. Carter appears in seven of them, and all seven have positive plus/minus ratings (including six with a plus-3.9 or better). The other four? They all have negative ratings, including a horrific minus-18.5 posted by units featuring Dirk Nowitzki, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo and Shawn Marion (in 272 minutes).
What this shows us is that either the player everyone hoped 2001 Vince Carter would become has arrived a dozen years later or something very, very strange is afoot in Dallas.
In this chart, we also continue to see that the Jazz seem to get outscored no matter who they put on the floor. They have five different four-man combinations in the bottom 25. Worse still, of the 14 four-man units the team has used this season for at least 175 minutes, 13 have a negative plus-minus rating, and the only positive group outscores its opponent by just 0.4 points per 48 minutes.
You have to wonder how this team is winning games.
And we may be gleaning some evidence as to why the Boston Celtics have been able to play better since Rajon Rondo went down to injury: They weren't doing all that well with him anyway. The four-man group listed on this chart, with a barely positive rating, features Brandon Bass along with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rondo, so perhaps Bass is the problem?
Probably not if you keep looking.
Because the three-man unit of Rondo, Pierce and Garnett isn't much better, according to NBA.com, posting just a plus-1.2 per 48 minutes in 757 minutes so far this year.
Here we see more Dallas struggles. In the offseason, the national refrain was that the Mavs pulled off a coup trading Ian Mahinmi for Darren Collison. But these numbers make it seem like they may have been the ones who got fleeced.
As far as another underperforming Western Conference team, the problems of the Trailblazers really start to stand out in this list of three-man groupings. It may be that Wesley Matthews and/or J.J. Hickson are lowering the tide for all ships, but you wouldn't expect the team to struggle so much when two of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard are on the floor together.
In other news, if we want to look at another offseason deal that may be haunting a team, look no further than Marvin Williams going to the Jazz. Danny Ferry had a savvy offseason clearing the salary books for the Atlanta Hawks, and it sure looks like Utah would like a mulligan on that move.
Moreover, while the argument to trade one (or both) of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap has centered around getting young bigs Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter more minutes, this data suggests that there may be a better reason: they don't play well alongside one another.
Both the three-man groups featuring the pair on this list speak to that, and so does the minus-1.5 ranking the two have when you just look at them in a two-man unit.
Really, looking at all these figures, the most surprising number of all might be that the Jazz have put together a 29-25 record this season.
And, lastly, the Phoenix Suns are terrible.
It is fitting that the worst two-man combinations come from the Charlotte Bobcats, Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers: arguably the three worst teams in the NBA (with all due respect to the Washington Wizards and Suns).
When it comes to the Kings, remember a few years ago when people were talking about how great the duo of Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins could be?
Yeah. About that...
One other strange pairing is Brooklyn's combination. While there has been less talk this season than in the past about Deron Williams' ability to make his teammates better, it seems even he is incapable of thriving alongside Reggie Evans. You can say the same thing about Kyrie Irving and Tyler Zeller in Cleveland.
And, again, looking at the Portland numbers may shed some light on the difference between good individual play and good play within a unit. J.J. Hickson is posting career highs this season in both rebounding (per 36 minutes) and field goal percentage, according to Basketball-Reference. Yet, when he is on the court with any of Aldridge, Batum or Wesley Matthews, the team falls behind.
In the end, however, the thing that stands out the most is still the poor play of the Dallas Mavericks.
No mater who is on the court—Collison and Marion or Mayo and Chris Kaman or Mayo and Marion—the team often gets its butt kicked. The fact that Nowitzki has missed so much time obviously accounts for some of the bad play. But as we saw with the four-man units, the two-man units with Vince Carter don't struggle like this.
Mavericks fans—and their owner—can place a lot of blame for the team's poor play this season on the absence of Dirk. But a lot of the blame clearly needs to be directed at the inability of Collison, Mayo and Marion to find a way to play good basketball together.
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