With the overwhelming success of the Warriors small lineup, it might seem like two big lineups are dead. It used to be that having two traditional big men was seen as a key to being competitive, but in the era of pace and space, playing two big men who cannot shoot threes is often seen as a hindrance. With the disclaimer that it is still too early to take these results with anything less than a heaping tablespoon of pink Himalayan Crystal salt, I'll be looking at the early returns for a few of the teams that have played with two traditional big men. There are so many ways to slice lineup data for all 30 teams that this is barely scratching the surface of things to think about regarding big men combinations.
(I'm using nbawowy.com. All numbers through Monday's games.)
The Philadelphia Sixers have started the season 0-15. They have an undeniable lack of talent on the roster, and the losses don't really "matter" for the long term future of the team. What is important for the team is whether their two most talented players, centers Nerlens Noel & Jahlil Okafor, can coexist on the court. So far, the very early returns are not positive.
With Noel & Okafor in the game (238 minutes): 87 Offensive Rating, 112 Defensive Rating
With Noel in & Okafor out (133 minutes): 96 Offensive Rating, 103 Defensive Rating
With Okafor in & Noel out (222 minutes): 95 Offensive Rating, 117 Defensive Rating
And just for fun, with neither in the game (only 60 minutes): 118 Offensive Rating, 120 Defensive Rating
While we saw last night just how talented Okafor is, the Sixers have not played well with him on the court and have played especially poorly when he has shared the court with Noel. Should these trends continue, which is definitely not guaranteed this early into their careers, the Sixers will probably have to eventually trade one of the two. I'll be keeping an eye on these splits throughout the year to see which of these lineup combinations works best and if the Sixers have something with their "Noel only" lineups.
Of course, Okafor is a rookie and the Sixers struggles, given their total ineptitude, are not proof of league-wide trends. What about Utah's Rudy Gobert & Derrick Favors, maybe the poster children for what could become the league's counter-revolution in favor of size & physicality over skill?
With Gobert & Favors in the game (242 minutes): 107 Offensive Rating, 103 Defensive Rating
With Gobert in & Favors out (130 minutes): 108 Offensive Rating, 105 Defensive Rating
With Favors in & Gobert out (156 minutes): 99 Offensive Rating, 101 Defensive Rating
With neither in (95 minutes): 100 Offensive Rating, 104 Defensive Rating
The Jazz have been better with their two top-notch big men on the court, but not as much as might be expected. Regaining their defensive dominance from last season with both big men on the court is essential to the team's future success. Utah's had a brutal, road heavy schedule so far, so it will be interesting to see what happens to these combinations when the schedule eases.
Let's look at another team with two excellent big men. Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge are both highly skilled players with range to 20 feet, but neither is much of a threat to shoot threes and truly stretch the floor like Kevin Love, Draymond Green, or other smallball fours. In addition, there were some questions about how well Aldridge would fit into the Spurs system. The early results show cautious optimism for Spurs fans, though their lineups with Aldridge aren't exactly blitzing the league. In fact, their most productive units have been bench units built around Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills, each of whom can pass, handle, and shoot threes.
With Duncan & Aldridge in the game (246 minutes): 106 Offensive Rating, 99 Defensive Rating
With Duncan in & Aldridge out (140 minutes): 112 Offensive Rating, 90 Defensive Rating
With Aldridge in & Duncan out (126 minutes): 107 Offensive Rating, 98 Defensive Rating
With neither in (160 minutes): 99 Offensive Rating, 95 Defensive Rating
This might be skewed slightly by the fact that Aldridge & Duncan have played a disproportionate amount of minutes with starters Tony Parker and Danny Green, both of whom have struggled to start the year, instead of Ginobili, who has been spectacular to start the year. (With Ginobili on the Spurs have a 114 ORTG & 91 DRTG in 227 minutes.) That being said, it will be interesting to see if San Antonio continues to play at its best with only one of the duo in the game and whether the lineups with Aldridge will become even more successful once he adjusts to their system.
Finally, the Bulls, with two defense first bigs (Noah & Gibson), a stretch big (Mirotic), and a traditional post player (Gasol) are an interesting laboratory experiment for the efficacy of different types of lineups, even if the sample sizes are still very small right now. As the season moves along, I will be tracking whether Hoiberg continues to give the lion's share of minutes to the two most common combinations, or whether he mixes and matches his bigs more often in an attempt to understand which combinations are most effective.
Gasol & Noah (45 minutes): 104 Offensive Rating, 100 Defensive Rating
Gasol & Mirotic (233 minutes): 103 Offensive Rating, 100 Defensive Rating
Gasol & Gibson (76 minutes): 92 Offensive Rating, 104 Defensive Rating
Noah & Mirotic (38 minutes): 108 Offensive Rating, 101 Defensive Rating
Noah & Gibson (145 minutes): 97 Offensive Rating, 105 Defensive Rating
Mirotic & Gibson (34 minutes): 124 Offensive Rating, 86 Defensive Rating
The biggest takeaway from the first month of the Bulls season is that they seem to be at their best when Mirotic is in the game and it is difficult to be confident in any of the other combinations yet. This is despite a rather underwhelming statistical start for Mirotic, who is under-performing in many statistical categories compared to his rookie season. If they continue to be most successful with Mirotic on the court, that would provide some more evidence for the importance of big men who can shoot and may suggest that the defensive reputations of some of the Bulls' other bigs may be overblown at this point.