On March 20th, 2015, Dennis Lindsey was giving an interview on 1280 the Zone and he offered this assessment in regards to evaluating talent, specifically last year’s draft prospects from the University of Kentucky:
“Again, if we’re all being honest here, we’re trying to predict human beings, and luckily the best predictor of human beings is past performance. So, a big part of what we’re trying to do is understand performance and who drives winning. The Kentucky situation, for example, with all of their players… who’s on the train and who’s pulling the train? You have to come to those opinions, and that’s just what they are. They’re opinions.”
Dennis Lindsey was discussing the idea of how to evaluate an individual talent that is surrounded by so many great players. It’s a really interesting concept and probably applies specifically to the current Jazz team as well. Are there players that pull the train for the Jazz? Are there players on the Jazz who look better than they are because they often play with really good players? In the modern age of basketball analysis I think basketball fans and experts have become smarter about who really impacts winning and who does not. But with this current Jazz team, it’s still hard to know exactly who the most impactful players are. This is still a relatively young roster and the core group of guys has only played about a season’s worth of games together. It’s difficult to parse value, but it doesn’t mean we can’t try.
If you look closely at the two top lineups, in terms of net rating, that have played over 50 minutes this season, the same four players exist in both. Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert are the common four, with Alec Burks the fifth player in the best lineup, and Raul Neto the fifth in the second best. Anyone could easily surmise that those four players are pulling the train, while Neto and Burks are merely passengers enjoying success. But is that true? Are there in fact only 2 or 3, or even 1 player actually doing the heavy lifting? Or is there something about those particular 5 man lineups that make them so effective, because of Burks and Neto and not in spite of them?
The highlighted lineup is all 265 minutes that Hayward, Hood, Favors and Gobert have shared and they are still an effective +7.2 per 48 minutes, but it is also a little worse than the 5 man lineups with both Neto and Burks. This means that in the 40 minutes that those four have played with one other player that is not Alec Burks, or Raul Neto, they are significantly less effective.
When you isolate the best three man lineups among Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert, you quickly find that Hayward, Favors and Gobert make up the best 3 man lineup at a net rating of +8.9 in 299 minutes. But the 3 man lineup of Favors, Hayward and Hood is the only combo that isn’t effective at -0.9 points per 48 minutes. Perhaps Gobert and Favors together is a key (Gobert, Hayward and Hood are a +3.6, however.)
It should be no surprise that Gobert and Favors are the best two man lineup of the four guys we have been discussing at +7.6 in 328 minutes. It’s also the biggest reason that the Jazz’s fortunes should improve this season as long as those two are healthy.
There are no easy answers to these questions of who impacts the game, but they are discussions that the front office must be having and that Dennis Lindsey must think about similarly to evaluating Kentucky prospects. And this lineup data is only a small piece of the puzzle and certainly doesn’t give any definitive answers. But what if it doesn’t matter who plays in the starting or finishing lineup as long as Hayward, Hood, Favors or Gobert are playing? Conversely, what if adding another key piece, like say… Jeff Teague, would amplify the advantage those four players seem to cause? Let’s take a look at last year’s lineups to see if we can gain any more info.
Last years best 5 man lineups tells a similar story to this year’s. Again, you find that the 2nd best lineup with more than 100 minutes logged together is Dante Exum, Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert. The interesting thing is that the most effective 2 man lineup is Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood, while Favors and Gobert were only +4.7 for the season per 48 minutes. The opposite has been true this season. But again, that 4 man lineup plus Burks, Neto, or Exum has been very effective overall.
It’s hard to take any solid proof of anything with all of this data. The inverse relationship of the lineups leads me to think that we just need more data to confidently analyze what the Jazz have. It could also be the fact that Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert have genuinely improved sharing the floor together the longer they have played. There seems to be merit to the idea that the Jazz have found a “core-4” if you will that works in Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert.
If the Jazz can just keep their starting lineup healthy, they should improve greatly in the win loss column. The starting lineup of Neto, Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert ranks 21st in net rating of every NBA lineup that has logged 100 minutes or more. Among starting lineups, it would rank 5th behind the Thunder, Clippers, Cavaliers, and Kings. It’s been somewhat of a dismal season with the injuries and patchwork lineups, but the Jazz have a starting group that really gives the team a large advantage.
The Jazz might just be figuring out the right bench combinations, or upgrading the secondary lineups away from really taking off. But that’s another story for another post.