The NBA season is only two weeks old, but there are already some interesting lineup trends that are worthy of a deeper look. While keeping in mind the obvious sample size concerns, some of these trends could foreshadow themes that will be present throughout the season.
Coaches will experiment with player combinations and minute staggering during these early stages in the hopes of unlocking the best rotation for the rest of the season and into the playoffs. These early-season test runs could reveal a hidden gem or the right buttons that may be pushed further down the line.
These test runs could also reveal a combination that needs more time to develop chemistry or something that should be avoided altogether when the games truly matter.
Let’s take a look at two teams who have been showing interesting trends early on and how it might look as the season goes on.
The Mavericks were always going to be one of the more compelling teams to watch early in the season. They are still trying to acclimate a 7-foot-3 stretch center along with a few new key bench pieces, all while tailoring their team to a potential generational star in Luka Doncic.
The Mavericks have performed well to start the season, but there have been some concerns regarding the play of Kristaps Porzingis and his role within the offense. Here are the net rating numbers that have popped out regarding the Doncic-Porzingis combo, from Cleaning the Glass.
Doncic On, Porzingis On: -6.5 Net
Doncic On, Porzingis Off: +23.4 Net
Doncic Off, Porzingis On: -10.4 Net
Doncic Off, Porzingis Off: +28.8 Net
It’s important to reiterate that these don’t numbers don’t by any means spell doom for the Mavericks. Nor should anyone advocate for the permanent benching of Porzingis. What they do reveal is a duo that needs more time to learn each other’s tendencies and preferences. They also show an opportunity for Carlisle to tinker a bit with the staggering of the two stars and see how to best surround each player while they are on the court solo.
That net rating number when both Doncic and Porzingis are off the court is particularly noisy, as the Mavericks have shot an unsustainable 50 percent from deep in the 80 possessions without the two stars.
The number worthy of the most concern would be the minus-6.5 net rating with the two stars together. The skill sets of each player bring exciting possibilities to the offensive playbook, but so far they seem to be just slightly out of sync.
This could be due to the understandable nature of players to err on the side of unselfishness when first joining forces with another star player. Doncic and Porzingis both may find themselves playing less aggressive while sharing the court in an effort to not dominate the ball and take away from the other’s talents. This tepidness usually fades over the course of the season, with the help of coaching and each player finding the right balance.
The Mavericks could look to use Porzingis more as a screener to keep him involved while not taking away from Doncic. Porzingis’s outside shooting ability and length make him a dangerous roll man in the pick-and-roll game. So far this season, the Mavericks have scored 1.25 points per possession with Porzingis as the roll man, per NBA.com.
Those plays have only accounted for 19 percent of the possessions with Porzingis on the court, so an uptick there could be forthcoming.
There have been some flashes of cohesion between the duo. Take this nifty over-the-head pass Doncic throws right on the money out of a quick pick-and-pop to Porzingis.
Plays like this could become more numerous as the season goes on. When you factor in Doncic’s willingness as a passer and basketball intelligence, it’s easy to see the duo developing a synergy with more game time together.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs came into the season in the opposite situation as the Mavericks, bringing back most of the same roster as last season. The two teams have similar lineup trends though, as the Spurs have been blitzing opponents when their two stars are off the court. Here is the net rating data as it relates to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, from Cleaning the Glass:
DeRozan On, Aldridge On: -0.8 Net
DeRozan On, Aldridge Off: -6.8 Net
DeRozan Off, Aldridge On: -30.8 Net
DeRozan Off, Aldridge Off: +31.9 Net
The concern here for the Spurs is that this trend is not totally the result of new players trying to acclimate. This roster was mostly together all of last season, and the team had the same success when both DeRozan and Aldridge were resting.
There is one new variable here — the return of Dejounte Murray. Murray has had a profound effect on the team’s defense since his return. With all three of DeRozan, Aldridge and Murray on the court, the Spurs are locking opponents up with a 97.1 defensive rating. When DeRozan and Aldridge play without Murray, that number rises to 108.1.
Murray’s lack of shooting does hurt the offense, however, as their offensive rating falls to a flat 100 when those three all play together.
All of this data is, of course, subject to the normal small sample-size caveats, but the fact that the offense is exhibiting the same jump as last season when the bench takes the floor is something to monitor.
Last season, the offense succeeded on the back of the San Antonio bench’s three-point shooting. This season, the bench has actually shot worse than the starters from deep. The bench has, however, managed to generate easy looks at the rim. So far, the Spurs have finished 86.2 percent of their looks at the rim when both Aldridge and DeRozan are on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass.
The constant ball and player movement exhibited by the bench has been able to break down opponents in the paint. While the three-point shooting hasn’t been great, the spacing provided by the shooters in that lineup has still been tough to defend.
If this trend continues into the season, it will be interesting to see where coach Gregg Popovich takes this rotation. It seems unlikely that any of Murray, DeRozan or Aldridge would go to the bench. There could be some tweaks to the other two starting spots that currently feature Bryn Forbes and Trey Lyles.
Both of these teams will have ample time to tinker with their rotations and find the perfect grouping. In the Mavericks’ case, it may just take a few months of playing together for Doncic and Porzingis to truly mesh.
For the Spurs, it may require more lineup juggling to best figure out how to surround their best players and maximize their potential.
Both of these teams should be competing for a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference, so the decisions that both Carlisle and Popovich make will be interesting to watch.
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