Caution: The following includes overall plus-minus and lineup analytics to color optimism about the upcoming season.
Put this power into the wrong hands and those conclusions can be drawn incorrectly.
An over-emphasis on lineup statistics and metrics can lead to seeing players as the sole reason their lineups performed poorly, which is never the case. The context that leads to production (or lack thereof) is vital. Lineup analytics are only useful when the context and the metrics reinforce each other; where the narrative matches what the data suggest.
Cleaning the Glass is a powerful and user-friendly tool for such a study, and all data mentioned in this article come from Ben Falk’s amazing website. Five teams particularly have reason for optimism when looking at the right lineup data that reinforce some of the changes to their roster or the continuity to their young group as they continue to grow.
Boston: Swapping Point Guards & Trusting Young Wings
On the whole, the Boston Celtics underachieved with Kyrie Irving. Full stop, no sugar coating it, this team could and should have done more.
Despite the underwhelming result, however, it’s not like the Celtics were ever a bad team. They outscored their opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions.
Seeing Irving walk out the door hurt many Celtic faithful, particularly knowing the cap ramifications that went into finding his replacement. But for those who view Irving as this irreplaceable superstar, consider this: In lineups without Irving but featuring both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics outscored opponents by the same margin of 4.2 points per 100 possessions.
What that says about their young core is debatable. The Celtics scored 7.6 points per 100 possession more with Tatum on the court when he was off it. For comparison, that number for Irving was only 6.6. Despite Irving being the focal point of the offense, Tatum was arguably more integral to their success. Those same metrics were even more skewed the season before (+5.4 for Kyrie, +8.5 for Tatum).
The success of Kemba Walker as Irving’s replacement is dependent on the expectation for him coming in. The two are both ball-handling initiators that create their own shots, but they do so in drastically different ways. I’ve already written at length about the potential changes in Brad Stevens’ offense around Kemba that should echo their wildly successful scheme built for Isaiah Thomas a few seasons ago.
All-Star production will be expected from Walker.
But a unique baseline for his success is helping elevate his teammates and, at the very least, not dragging down their production. Tatum’s best play came during the 2018 postseason when Kyrie was hurt: He averaged 18.5 points per game as a rookie with an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 51.5.
Jaylen Brown was also at his best during the same stretch: 18.0 points, 39.3 percent from deep and a 54.9 percent eFG%. The duo has proven their capability in the past, and the Celtics are hoping Walker is not the type of player that hinders their production.
One area we know the Celtics will instantly improve on? Defense.
The following two statements can both be true: Kemba Walker is not an elite defender, and Kyrie Irving is not as poor as he’s made out to be. While they may be accurate reads on their individual skill, the scheming and overall impact they have on their team’s defensive output is drastic.
Just note some of the defensive metrics through their careers of how their team’s defense operates with them on the floor, via Cleaning the Glass:
What Cleaning the Glass does so well with their user interface is allow for quick analysis based on heat maps. Judgments can be drawn on a basic level based on the color next to a statistic or data set. The obvious initial conclusion to draw from comparing Kemba and Kyrie’s career on-court contributions is on the defensive end, where Irving’s teams are always poor performers when he’s in the game and Walker’s results are far more mixed.
Those on-off statistics are only as relevant as the context around them–more is needed to determine if they’re telling of a player’s true impact or defensive aptitude versus their teammates at the time. Thus, two other metrics are useful in that regard.
One is the overall “differential” column, which holds their offense next to their defense and sees how they positively impact their team overall. For Walker, his impact is much greater from a net-positive standpoint, while it is a fair conclusion to draw that Irving’s offense is so strong that he still helps his team despite poor defensive numbers.
The second and more telling place to look is at their team’s overall defensive outputs during the same seasons. For the last three seasons, the Charlotte Hornets have been a bottom-half defensive unit, ranking 23rd in Cleaning the Glass metrics for points per 100 possession (which exclude garbage time).
During two of those three seasons, the Hornets’ bad defense still measured better with Kemba on the court than without him. The lone season they did not (this year), the margin was only a 0.5 point difference.
Kyrie does not have the same claim. The two years with Kyrie, the Celtics were first and seventh league-wide in scoring defense but were worse with him both times. In fact, Irving’s teams have been worse defensively with him on the floor every year.
What does this mean within this context? An already strong defensive unit, the Celtics may have just tightened their weakest hole. Now, they will have the added element of a Kemba-Enes Kanter pick-and-roll defense to navigate, but those can be schemed for. Kanter is workable if he’s kept near the basket, and the Celtics have length and craftiness at other spots to compensate.
Perhaps this is not news to many, but Al Horford figures to be the most missed departure from the starting lineup. Horford’s overall plus-minus was above 5.0 points per 100 possessions every season in Boston, and has not been negative since 2008-09. He served as a stretch-5 that operates at the top of the key and elbows, very different from where Kanter will ideally be placed.
But the impact of the spacing didn’t have that profound of an impact on the team’s shooting percentages. In lineups where Horford was off the floor but Brown and Tatum were on, the Celtics shot 62.9 percent near the rim (slightly lower than with Horford) but 37.8 percent from three (much higher). It’s possible that having a back-to-basket threat in Kanter will force defenses to collapse, opening up clearer avenues for wings to shoot from three.
Fear not, Celtics fans. There’s plenty of data to suggest only the slightest dropoff will occur, if any, at the point guard spot.
Toronto’s Defense Will Still Be Elite
The reigning NBA Champions lost their superstar, but their identity won’t change.
Nick Nurse’s Toronto Raptors played unselfish basketball, spread the floor, mismatched opponents and always played stingy defense. That defense is still in great shape long-term despite the absence of Kawhi Leonard.
Why? They won an NBA Title without one of their two or three best defenders: OG Anunoby.
He is a defensive maestro, and the lineups that featured him and Pascal Siakam as their athletic forward combo were suffocating. Cleaning the Glass metrics put the lineups featuring both, (but sans Leonard), as some of the toughest to score on:
Without Leonard but with Anunoby and Siakam, the Raptors outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. The tandem provides a great defensive balance between holding opponents to a low shooting percentage, a low rebounding rate and forcing a high amount of turnovers. Their length and athleticism can be overwhelming.
Those numbers climb when placed next to a defensive-minded center.
Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are both high-caliber defenders, albeit in different ways. To show the value the wing pairing has with one of them, we just subtract Jonas Valanciunas’ minutes from last year’s totals: The Raps outscored teams by 5.9 points per 100 possessions.
The result is a pretty convincing theory that the Raptors defense will still be elite:
Check out the turnover rate. For reference of how absurd that is, the Indiana Pacers led the league with a 16.2 percent turnover rate. The difference between this Raptors metric of 17.5 percent and the Pacers is the same distance between the Pacers and the tenth-best team in the category.
Without the head of their snake, the Raptors will certainly have to adapt and evolve, particularly on offense. But those anticipating a massive downfall after their miracle season might want to check out OG Anunoby’s defensive highlights and just what he can do to jump-start what already was a top-ten defense.
Now, some quick-hitting tidbits on fascinating teams entering the 2019-20 season:
The Trae Young-John Collins is legit
It’s no secret that the Atlanta Hawks are building around a long-term core of Trae Young and John Collins. Some lineup and advanced metrics show that these two already have found success together in various ways.
When Collins and Young share the floor, the Hawks were five points better over the course of 100 possessions than when they rested. In particular, their offense was booming, logging an eFG% in the 89th percentile, despite Young being a teenager and Collins still working out the kinks.
If the Hawks get another frontcourt piece that can stretch the floor and they hit on Cam Reddish, this could be a ridiculously good team for years to come.
Could Dallas Make a Jump?
In the 781 non-garbage time minutes the Dallas Mavericks played last year with Dirk Nowitzki, they were a -5.5 per 100 possessions. On the season, the Mavs were an overall -1.6, meaning Dirk dragged their production down quite a bit.
Based on their overall production, the Mavs performed like a 37-win team but only nabbed 33 victories. If that regresses to the mean, this is a team already knocking on the postseason door.
It gets better. Of all Mavericks to log at least 500 minutes, the four worst performers in terms of plus-minus (Dirk, Harrison Barnes, Devin Harris and Dennis Smith Jr.) are all no longer with the organization.
Dallas will have plenty of time to build on the success of Justin Jackson, whom they acquired in the Barnes trade with the Sacramento Kings. It was an astounding 10.7 points per 100 possessions better with Jackson than without him. If he and Luka Doncic develop chemistry on the wings, this could be a dangerous Mavericks offense.
Minnesota’ New Big Three
The Minnesota Timberwolves were +2.5 over 100 possessions in lineups that featured Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Robert Covington last year. Extrapolated across an entire campaign, that’s the same point differential the Philadelphia 76ers produced a season ago and would put the Timberwolves as one of the NBA’s twelve best teams.
Their bench is in need of solidification, but there are some intriguing pieces for a bounce-back season if health cooperates. Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver are fascinating defenders on the wings, and Jeff Teague was quietly tied for fifth in assists per game.
If some bench players step up, the Wolves may straddle that borderline-playoff line out West.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, basketball-reference, Synergy Sports Tech or Cleaning the Glass, and are current as of August 18, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.