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The Thunder’s Big Men Could Stop The Warriors’ Lineups Of Death

As you may have heard, the NBA’s most unstoppable units reside in the Bay Area, in the form of Golden State’s small-ball “Lineups of Death.” Assuming those lineups are intact for the Western Conference finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have an interesting matchup on their hands in a series being billed as a battle of big versus small. In contrast to the Warriors’ small-ball lineups, OKC’s two most common postseason units have contained the hulking frontcourt pairing of 6-foot-10 Serge Ibaka and 7-foot Steven Adams.

When on the court together for the Warriors this season, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green scored the most points per offensive chance (1.26) of any five-man unit in the NBA,1 allowed the 13th-fewest points (0.83), and had the best per-chance scoring margin (+0.43).

And that’s only the deadliest variation of the Death Lineup. Golden State also owned five of the next 10 best lineups by per-chance point differential, all of which contained a variation of Curry, Green and either Thompson or Iguodala or both. Four of those additional lineups featured one of Golden State’s traditional centers, Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli, as the lone conventional big; the other was a small lineup that swaps out Iguodala for guard Shaun Livingston.

LINEUP TEAM PTS/CHANCE DIFF
1 Curry | Thompson | Barnes | Iguodala | Green GSW +0.43
2 Lowry | Ross | Patterson | DeRozan | Valanciunas TOR +0.37
3 Curry | Thompson | Green | Iguodala | Bogut GSW +0.34
4 Lin | Walker | Williams | Batum | Jefferson CHA +0.31
5 Curry | Thompson | Green | Iguodala | Ezeli GSW +0.30
6 Curry | Green | Livingston | Iguodala | Ezeli GSW +0.27
7 Paul | Redick | Griffin | Stephenson | Jordan LAC +0.22
8 Curry | Livingston | Barnes | Thompson | Green GSW +0.22
9 Paul | Redick | Crawford | Griffin | Jordan LAC +0.21
10 Lin | Lamb | Kaminsky | Williams | Hawes CHA +0.21
11 Curry | Thompson | Green | Rush | Bogut GSW +0.21
The NBA’s best regular-season lineups in 2015-16

Minimum 200 average chances between offense and defense.

Source: NBA Player-Tracking Data

With Curry injured for most of the first two rounds, those Lineups of Death haven’t spent much time fully assembled in the postseason. The Warriors’ most crucial three-man combos — Curry, Green and Thompson, and Curry, Green and Iguodala — have logged only 94 total minutes together in 10 playoff games thus far. (They still outscored opponents by 61 points in that limited playing time!) But after Curry returned for the closing two games of Golden State’s series against Portland, at least one of those trios was on the floor for 62 minutes — a total in line with the 27.7 minutes per game they spent on-court together during the regular season.

All this is bad news for the Thunder because the Warriors have a history of going small to combat good teams with lumbering big men: According to the Lineup of Death’s origin story, the tactic was only fully realized last year when head coach Steve Kerr had an epiphany during the NBA Finals and moved Iguodala into the starting lineup. That’s when the record-setting Warriors really took off, first against Cleveland and then against the rest of the league. An inability to match up with the same strategy could end up being Oklahoma City’s undoing as well.

But we shouldn’t assume the Thunder’s big lineup won’t be able to hold its own. During the regular season, only 19 five-man units2 broke even against Warrior lineups containing both Curry and Green. OKC had two of them — No. 7 and No. 13 — and both were of the big variety that the team has been using extensively during the playoffs: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Ibaka and Adams, with either Andre Roberson or Dion Waiters on the wing. So in the matchup of preferred lineups, the Thunder might not be quite as outgunned as it seems at first glance.

Of course, there are a bunch of caveats to tack on here. We’re talking about only 60 to 70 chances of track record from the regular season, and lineup data is notoriously noisy anyway. Plus, even though the Thunder’s big lineup did stick with the Warriors, the Dubs swept the regular-season series anyway.

But as an exercise in figuring out how a 31 percent underdog could fight those odds, things might begin with Oklahoma City’s ability to slow down Golden State’s Lineups of Death. And what extremely limited data we have right now suggests that they could fare better than most.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 200 chances, averaged between offense and defense.

  2. With a minimum of 20 chances, averaged between offense and defense.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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