The 20 Best Small-Ball Lineups In The NBA

11.05.13 5 years ago
Just a short year ago, we were blessed to watch the USA Men’s basketball team storm into London and pick apart each opponent with a variety of different tactics that emphasized speed and transition defense. Those lineups, at times, were sorely lacking in the height department. We would occasionally find the 6-8 Carmelo Anthony at the center position where he would rebound and “attempt” to guard opposing centers. Beyond the obvious — Anthony’s unlikely willingness to participate in this type of system long-term — it brings up interesting questions in how effective these type of rotations can be and how valuable it was to the USA team at the time.

Devoid of more than one center (Kevin Love is clearly a power forward and Anthony Davis hadn’t even participated in an NBA training camp yet), the team resorted to a specialized way of playing that stressed the strength of their team, which was their incredible ball skills and athleticism.

That type of basketball has been reinvigorated into the NBA for the past couple of seasons and has been led by the best basketball player in the world on the best team in the NBA. Erik Spoelstra is using innovative measures in his time with the Miami Heat to identify a style that would best fit the Heat’s skill-set (suffocating defense and transition-led defense).

This paved the way for the team to focus on using small lineups, mostly because of LeBron‘s unique skill-set but also because of the matchups it created. These types of matchups are used by nearly every team in the league but the success that they have is highly debatable.

Here’s a list of the best small ball lineups in the NBA, based on projections and prior success.

Evaluation process:
Simply searching through different lineup’s points per 100 possessions and giving the best plus rating system would be no fun for me as a writer so, even though that will be heavily considered, it won’t be the only measurement I use in my rankings. Sorry for all those readers that enjoy non-biased research.

Some type of projection measure needs to be used so I will do my best to consider the many variables that can make a rotation effective. Those include chemistry, specific skills, coaching, age, intelligence and likelihood.

The definition of a small-ball lineup is kind of the tricky part about distinguishing what lineup can qualify to be a part of this list. To make things easier, I’ll allow some leeway in distinguishing between focusing in on just three guard lineups, lineups with two point guards and lineups that lack a true center or power forward.

Each team is only allowed to have one lineup and variations of that lineup may be discussed.

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20. Isaiah Thomas/Greivis Vásquez/Ben McLemore/Travis Outlaw/DeMarcus Cousins
Besides this lineup having abnormally long names, it has the chance to actually be quite effective during the regular season. The additions of Vasquez and McLemore to the team don’t allow for any stats to back up the effectiveness of this particular unit, but they do have the 3-man units listed on Basketballreference.com. The Thompson/Thomas/Cousins trio performed horridly during their time on the floor last year, allowing more points than they scored, but I think a lot of that is due to poor coaching and an inability to put Cousins in a good position to succeed. Regardless, I’d prefer not to play Thompson and Cousins together, so sliding the 6-9 Outlaw into the power forward position makes a little more sense for spacing reasons.

Cousins can be a vacuum, soaking up possessions and space on the floor but his versatility in playing the high or low post should allow for Outlaw to stretch longer forwards to the perimeter.

Both Vasquez and Thomas are players who need to have the ball in their hands but Vasquez could be effective in running the offense with Thomas playing off the ball as a quick scoring punch. Vasquez showed his command of the New Orleans offense last year and the Kings have already given small minutes to lineups with both Thomas and Vasquez this year.

19. Brandon Jennings/Chauncey Billups/Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Josh Smith/Greg Monroe
Surprisingly, Billups still plays in the NBA (I double checked) and it turns out that he is still a pretty effective shooter. He shot a career-high number of 3-point attempts per 36 minutes last season and still connected on 37 percent of his shots. The importance of Billups being able to shoot the three is based around not only on his ability to hit the open three in the half-court set but to do so as the trail player. Obviously, his defense is a major question mark for this lineup and I seriously question whether he can play significant minutes at shooting guard, but he can be effective if hidden properly on defense.

Josh Smith’s defensive versatility is rooted primarily in his ability to create turnovers, which he does at a high rate. This would allow the Pistons to push the pace, putting Jennings in a system that fits more to his tempo. Smith’s athleticism in running the floor coupled with Monoroe’s great outlet passing should allow Jennings a stronger supporting cast than he found in Milwaukee. The athleticism in this lineup is nothing short of amazing and it doesn’t even have one of it’s best players in this set.

18. Jose Calderon/Monta Ellis/Vince Carter/Shawn Marion/Dirk Nowitzki
The thought of Carter, Marion and Nowitzki playing zero minutes together during the season is astounding to me. This isn’t a lineup you would rely on nightly, probably not even on a regular basis, but it could be very effective in smaller lineups due to their ability to shoot the three and slash and score. With the news of Ellis looking to take more shots, it looks like Carlisle will have his work cut out for him in his flowing offense.

The offense should look a lot different this year with Ellis and Calderon leading as the guard duo after they were both signed as free agents this summer. Calderon’s willingness to pass and be patient with the ball should allow others on the team to get the looks that they are hoping for. Calderon is an efficient shooter, placing third in the NBA in effective shooting percentage for the 2012-13 season. That forces teams to push up on Calderon, which gives him a better passing lane to dish to rollers in the pick and roll game.

Carter has proven to be a worthwhile investment for the Mavericks over the past couple of seasons because of his consistency on defense and ability to hit threes from the wing. This team will be reliant on Nowitzki, though. It is most likely one of his last years to put up a vintage “Dirk” season and it couldn’t come at a better time as the Mavericks are looking to capture a playoff berth after missing out last season.

17. Brandon Knight/Carlos Delfino/O.J. Mayo/Ersan Ilyasova/Larry Sanders
As reserved as I am to hand over a top-20 small-ball lineup to Brandon Knight, I am equally confident in handing it over to the four other players that make the list. Delfino and Mayo are two excellent examples of players that excelled in small-ball lineups during their previous destinations in the Western Conference. The shooting guards would typically see time at either their natural position or the small forward spot on the floor because of their size and willingness to rebound. Of the top 10 Rockets lineups during the 2012-13 season, Delfino was on nine of them, showing his versatility in playing in a variety of lineups. The Mavericks lineup was given a boon every time Mayo was inserted into the lineup as their top nine lineups featured the sharpshooter.

The best part is the prospects of a small-ball lineup being so formidable inside the paint. Larry Sanders was used in a Kirk Goldsberry analytics paper that used a defensive metric to show the defensive impact big men have on the game. Sanders proved the most effective in disrupting shots near the rim last season. His progression in defending the basket allows for Ilyasova to stretch the floor with his silky jump shot. Ilyasova finished last season shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and 50 percent on jump shots 10 to 16 feet from the basket.

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