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A Look at NBA Net Rating, or How Gregg Popovich May Have a Secret Weapon

It’s crazy to think that the San Antonio Spurs, a team that sits atop the NBA with the best record and had won 19 straight games (before their loss Thursday at Oklahoma City), might have a chance to be even more fearsome in the playoffs.  The Spurs have been absolutely frightening during their long winning streak, as pointed out by Ben Golliver:

 

When the Spurs machine is healthy and rolling, it can just about the closest thing we’ve seen to basketball nirvana.  They seem to be able to score at-will, getting wherever they want, and all the while preventing their opponent from getting anything easy.

Just look at this chart here. It shows the best players in terms of Net Rating, a statistic that subtracts the Defensive Rating (number of points per 100 possessions scored by the opponent when on the floor) from the Offensive Rating (number of points per 100 possessions scored when on the floor).  Players who haven’t yet participated in half of the season (41 games) were excluded:

Per NBA Stats, the best players in terms of Net Rating, filtered to show only players who have played 41 games or more.

 

Looking at this, one thing in particular stands out: just how many players from the league’s elite teams are present.  The Spurs, in particular, populate an absurd number of places in the Top 25 in Net Rating:  Manu Ginobili (1), Tiago Spiltter (7), Patty Mills (8), Kawhi Leonard (10), Danny Green (11) and Boris Diaw (25).  Expand it to the Top 40, and another five Spurs show up, including franchise stalwarts Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.  This should come as no surprise; the Spurs have one of the best offenses and defenses efficiency-wise.  It’s been a long-established, well-groomed system implemented by Gregg Popovich and anchored by the franchise’s Big 3.

Looking at these Net Ratings, it makes you wonder what would happen if the Spurs decided to play a lineup with their leaders in this category.  What kind of results could we expect from a lineup of Mills/Green/Ginobili/Leonard/Splitter?  Unfortunately this group has only shared court time for about four minutes total this season.  With such a small sample size, there’s very little for us to go by in terms of the unit’s effectiveness.

What we can consider, however, is the unit’s potential effectiveness. By looking at some of the four-man lineups the Spurs have used featuring these players. In viewing these lineups, we can see a trend emerge:

Lineup Without                 Games                  Minutes                    O Rating               D Rating               Net Rating

Manu Ginobili                      23                           53                           92.4                       81.3                        11.1

Danny Green                      11                           25                           129.4                      79.9                        49.4

Kawhi Leonard                    21                           69                           116.3                      95.8                        20.5

Patty Mills                           8                           17                            136.6                     90.9                         45.7

Tiago Splitter                       6                            21                           114.7                      82.7                        32.0

Again, we fall into the trap of overemphasizing a small sample, but when four of any of these five find time on the floor together, they’ve actually all outperformed San Antonio’s overall net rating (8.7). In particular, lineups that feature both Ginobili and Leonard are very effective, with both offensive and defensive ratings that would be better than any team in the league.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised: Manu Ginobili does lead the league in net rating as shown earlier, and Kawhi Leonard is talked about as if he were a budding two-way star.

 

Lineups with Ginobili and Leonard and two of Green, Mills, and Splitter have only played about 2% of total minutes for the Spurs, but they’ve been highly effective. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

So why haven’t we seen more lineups that at least feature four of these five?  There could be a variety of answers.  First and foremost, San Antonio has had to deal with injuries to all of the players mentioned but Patty Mills, and Popovich has a penchant for frequently resting his players.  If one of these players is injured or unavailable, Popovich obviously can’t give them court time.  Second, Popovich may be hesitant to play small with Leonard at the power forward position.  With three bigs skilled enough to demand minutes in Diaw, Duncan, and Splitter, there hasn’t really been a need for small ball.  In fact, the most used lineup that doesn’t feature two of San Antonio’s bigs has only played 28 minutes together all season.  And with San Antonio having the best record in the league, there really hasn’t been any need to play small lineups; what the Spurs are doing now is clearly working.  Third,  Popovich may simply not want to show this card.  While most of the other title contenders have regularly used a lineup that does not feature a two bigs this season, the Spurs have not.  Perhaps this has been intentional: for Popovich there’s no real need to show his full hand during the regular season given San Antonio’s success, even against such smaller lineups.  As he saw during last year’s Finals, a lineup with Leonard at the four can do wonders for their chances at winning a title.  By withholding this option in San Antonio’s rotation, it allows Popovich to unleash something of which his opponents have little tape to game plan against.

As we enter the playoffs, be on the lookout for San Antonio’s small lineups.  They haven’t been used much during the regular season, but we could be seeing more of them as the Spurs seek another title.  Just maybe we’ll see a potentially great secret weapon from Popovich’s arsenal as Mills, Ginobili, Green, Leonard, and Splitter take the floor together.  It could prove to be the difference in San Antonio’s quest for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

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