The sprained hand of Tony Allen has paved the way for a lot of playing time for Courtney Lee, the Grizzlies’ fresh new addition whose synthesis of floor spacing and defensive activity has lived up to precisely what the doctor ordered since his January 7th debut at the FedEx Forum. Perhaps a discussion for its own time, Lee’s sheer productivity while getting acclimated to the way the Grizzlies grind has been a pleasure to watch, and in turn has aggressively stimulated the already active discussion of what the heck the Coach Dave Joerger is to do about the Grizzlies’ rotations when the roster is at full strength.
While Gasol’s return has muddied the waters on the frontline to an extent, Joerger appears to have a sound idea of how he will be allocating reserve minutes to Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer, with the starting bigs eating up a combined ballpark of 60-65 minutes of clock per night and matchups dictating how rest of the pack cleans up on the spoils. Over at the secondary point guard position, while there is a certain degree of question surrounding the quality level, there is little doubt that whether or not Nick Calathes holds down the fort, Conley will be looking at somewhere between 10-15 minutes of rest from some single source.
Which brings us to the wings, where we are presented a 96 minute-per-game cave of wonders to be adventured once those ligaments in the Grindfather’s left hand heal up.
As such, just short of quarantined at home on this snowy, snowy day here in the northeast, I decided it was time to take a comprehensive look at the available combinations and permutations available on the wing, and evaluate them in the context of NBA.com’s incredibly convenient lineup data tool, specifically focused on two-man lineup analysis.
For those not so inclined towards these measures, you may be asking what exactly we’ll be looking at. So here’s a quick breakdown with definitions loosely provided by NBA.com’s stats site’s glossary:
Min: Minutes. For our purposes, the amount of time that the combination being evaluated has spent on the court together.
Off Rtg: Offensive Rating. The number of points per 100 possessions that the Grizzlies score with the given combination of players on the court.
Def Rtg: Defensive Rating. The number of points per 100 possessions that the Grizzlies give up up with the given combination of players on the court.
Net Rtg: Net Rating. The Grizzlies’ net differential of points per 100 possessions with the given combination of players on the court.
Simple enough. For the sake of sample size, I have filtered out all combinations that have spent less than 20 minutes on the court together. I would additionally advise against putting too much stock into any such combinations with less than 100 minutes of gameplay or so, but hey we have to work with what we’ve got. I also filtered out Quincy Pondexter’s combinations since he will not be returning this year, but I can assure you that all pairings with poor Quincy fell like an anchor to the dead bottom of the table. Lastly, I also filtered out Jamaal Franklin’s measures, which were strong, but with 5 veterans ahead of him in the rotation he’s not a realistic candidate for serious minutes.
Thus, what we’re left with is 5 wing players: Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Mike Miller, James Johnson, and Courtney Lee, yielding 10 theoretical combinations — one of which has yet to be put on display (Allen and Lee). So without further ado, the following table represents the measurable results for each potential wing combination provided within the bounds of this setup:
Now before we go forward with some color commentary on the chart, let’s note a handful of caveats with two-man combo data, including but not limited to:
1) Position agnosticism – Some combinations may not truly represent duos as strict SG/SF pairings. For example, James Johnson and Tayshaun Prince may have played 42 minutes on the court together this year, but a percentage of those minutes may have occurred with the two of them manning the forward positions in a small-ball lineup while a third wing occupied the two spot.
2) Who’s playing the point? – Not for nothing, but it’s got to be easier to be a net positive wing unit when you’re sharing the court when it’s Mike Conley calling the shots rather than Nick Calathes. This is something that raw lineup data fails to pay credence to, and of course, the same question applies for the PF and C positions, as well.
3) Matchup dependence – Certain combinations that measure well may not necessarily present themselves as “above all” options. Joerger may only play some of these lineups when the matchups are favorable, making said lineups appear more attractive than they actually are.
4) All situations are not created equally – Lineup data can make a garbage time warrior look like an all-star. In other words, number four represents the real reason that I removed Franklin’s data from the analysis. We all know that it’s different playing against the best the opposing team has to offer, but this data set does not. On a similar note, some of the numbers for the new guys look great, but in part by virtue of them not being here through the ugly stretch of basketball that was played early in the season (this rings particularly loudly in the Miller Time section below). Then again, there’s a bit of a feedback loop in play, as they have played a major hand in the turnaround, so they do deserve credit.
5) Sample size, sample size, sample size – The second most tested pair of Grizzly wings has seen a total of 188 minutes of court time. That’s less than four full NBA games worth of burn.
Now that I’ve seemingly obliterated the entire method of analysis, it’s time to evaluate the results. In no particular order:
The incumbent starters
Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince: +2.4
The shortcomings of this duo have always been present in discussion, but they were really cast to the forefront in the San Antonio series last year. The Spurs basically gave them the old “Double dog dare you to shoot it,” effectively stifling any plans the Grizzlies had of getting the ball into the paint. On the other hand, the duo is noted for its ability to shut the water off on the opposing wing. What do the numbers say? They pretty much agree with the assessment, and favor the conventional claim that their defensive contributions outweigh the diminishing offensive effect that they have on the team.
With Tony and Tay on the floor together, the Grizzlies score 103.0 points per 100 possessions — pretty much dead even with league average — while giving up 100.6 per 100 on the other end. Though positive, the net +2.4 differential is a rather weak one in the Grizzlies’ favor, especially considering how other pairings stacked up on the table above. The Grizzlies play at a pace of 92.4 possessions per game, so in a more Grizz-centric perspective that’s about 2.2 points per game.
In line with the caution regarding lineup data, I suggest to note that there is the fact that as a part of the starting unit, Allen and Prince often find themselves up against the best wings that the opposition can put on the court. To contrast, however, it would be prudent to mention that last season the Grizz posted a net rating of +12.1 with them on the court, to much of the same output offensively, but coupled by a dramatically better defensive rating. If there was truly ever a case to be made to keep the wing lineup of Tony and Tay in tact, be it as starters or in rotations with one of them coming off the bench, it lies in the fact that believe it or not this is the only wing combination featuring Tony that has shaken out as a net positive this season.
The “Interim” Starters
Courtney Lee and Tayshaun Prince: +16.2
Of the entire array of results to sift through, this ranks head and shoulders above the group in terms of encouragement. Already one of the only five available pairings with over 100 minutes of shared court time, Courtney and Tayshaun have been absolutely magnificent together, providing some major validation to the argument that the starting lineup should remain as it has been since the trade, even when Tony is ready to go. I’m making no claim of the sort in this post, but the way the team is humming along with them on the floor, this has got to be on the table.
Now I know that trends are just that, but to put just how awesome this tandem has been into some sort of perspective, look at the team’s ratings with them on the court together versus league performance. With Lee and Prince in the lineup, the Grizzlies’ offensive efficiency is 109.1 points per 100 possessions. Anybody want to venture a guess as to which team is averaging that very same number this season? I’ll save you google journey and tell you: the 2nd ranked Miami Heat. And the Grizzlies’ defensive efficiency with the duo: 92.9 — analagous to Indiana’s league-leading-by-a-landslide 92.8 measure.
Do I expect the Grizzlies to keep outscoring their opponents by a rate of over 16 points per 100 possessions by pairing Lee and Tayshaun? Of course not. But with a greater than 100 minute sample and numbers this strong, this duo something that I would be advising Joerger to trot out there whenever possible if I was in his ear — at least until the numbers start allowing him to think otherwise. How far down to earth can this paring fall? Only continuing to play them will tell.
The other question becomes does Joerger start them? The ever-present caution that comes along with this is whether it shakes Tony’s mindset. While it’s just a silly note from a team practice, the following excerpt from this Grantland article by Jonathan Abrams has haunted me whenever entertaining the thought.
Hollins wants to see how Jerryd Bayless, a new acquisition, fits as a shooting guard with the first team, swapping him for Allen. The results are immediate — Allen isn’t happy. He complains about injuring his toe while going too hard on a drill, although he’s really just sore about playing with the reserves. Hollins recognizes the damage and quickly aborts the experiment, placing Allen back on the first team. Allen’s toe miraculously improves.
But there are plenty of ways to get the duo a great deal of minutes even if you’re not starting them — most of which should be explored.
Lastly, as a quick aside, I understand the apparent absurdity of Tayshaun’s data… in terms of production, he has been one of the worst starting small forwards I have ever seen, but somehow as long as he’s not out there with Mike Miller, the team does well with him on the court.
The New Kids on the Block
Courtney Lee and James Johnson: +7.0
If you want to talk about another shiny bright side to the data, look no further than the shiny new personnel decisions made by the front office. In addition to Lee, who I’ve discussed plenty so far in this article, James Johnson has been absolutely electrifying with his highlight blocks, dunks, and overall injection of life into the team. We’ve given away the Grindson label to Franklin, but Johnson could easily pass for a Grind-cousin of sorts, right? Anyway, the good news is that so far the tandem of Lee and Johnson has passed the eye test.
So what’s the profile of their lineup metrics? Pretty darn good. The tandem’s defensive rating weighs in surrendering 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied with Golden State for fifth-least in the league if it was the Grizzlies’ full-time rating. As for offense, they measure at 106.7 points per 100, which would squeak the Grizzlies in at 7th best in the league, just over Oklahoma City. For those of y’all doing the math at home, a +7 differential may not be as sexy as Courtney and Tayshaun’s net rating, but it’s certainly solid.
What is in store for this promising new tandem remains to be seen, as a serious race for minutes lies ahead, but as one of the more athletically inclined pairs, Lee and Johnson will undoubtedly have a shared place in situational rotations at the very least, and they’ll have a chance to be closing games if Johnson can keep himself out of foul trouble.
Mike Miller and Courtney Lee: +11.9
Mike Miller and James Johnson: +4.2
Mike Miller and Tony Allen: -5.5
Mike Miller and Tayshaun Prince: -11.4
I’m lumping these all together because they illustrate a pretty salient trend. Mike Miller’s wing units are basically split between whether he is with one of the newer additions, Lee or Johnson, or a member of the the old guard, Allen or Prince. Taking these numbers at face value suggests that Miller must be paired with younger, more athletic players on the wing in order to get a positive impact with him on the court.
If you don’t execute such pairings with Miller, you end up with the two worst defensive ratings among all feasible tandems. Defensive ratings off 110.3 and 114.4 occur when you couple Miller with Allen or Prince, respectively, which plummet well below the league’s worst posted average team efficiency (Utah’s 107.6 if you’re interested). In the meantime, defensive measures with Lee and Johnson in place of Allen and Prince alongside Miller show up at 105.5 and 105.1, respectively, which are also bad, but at least palatable in the context of today’s NBA.
As expected, Miller’s offensive metrics shake out much better. I would wave a flag to throw up some love for the Miller and Lee duo contributing to an offensive rating in the ballpark of 117.4, but I cannot with a conscience promote such ideas with a sample size as low as 21 minutes, which is not really even a full-game’s rotation worth. It’s still fun to think about, though. I can, however, is point out that the Miller and Johnson combination is also sitting pretty admirably at a number of 109.2, with a far more acceptable sample size of 167 minutes. The Miller and Allen/Prince combinations again fare less admirably, and are only marginally more efficient offensively than when Allen and Prince lace up beside one another on the wing. Yikes.
So what we’re seeing with Miller is a simple trend, really. When he is getting his minutes out on the wing, the team’s defense suffers unconditionally. However, hinging on which wing he takes the court with, the impact of his offensive contribution may typically outweigh the defensive downgrade. To be fair, we are all aware of the expectations under which he was brought to the team, and defensive stalwart was not one of them.
Tony Allen and James Johnson: -12.0
Aoidjfaoijf. That’s my genuine reaction, because I was really hoping that this wing combination would look good. It just doesn’t. I’ve got nothing but presumption to back this up, but my theory would be that the pitiful 109.0 defensive rating (the only worse ones on the team are combos containing Miller) is the product of two high octane defensive freelancers struggling to stay at home on their assignments. This one really pokes a hole in the sails of those pining to get “Dynamite” Johnson in the starting five. That is unless it comes along with a permanent gig for Lee, as well.
James Johnson and Tayshaun Prince: +24.2
But Steve, how could you not give our best combination its own section!? Well, disappointed reader, with a defensive rating of 76.8 in just 42 minutes of court time, everything about this combination stands on a mountaintop and screams outlier. Even Tayshaun’s 2004 championship Pistons in a who played in a far less offensively dynamic NBA (there were literally no teams with offensive efficiencies over 100 points per 100 at the time) had a worse defensive rating than this one. In addition, I question the true reliability of this reading with regards to what I had aimed for it to measure. As mentioned earlier in the caveats, it is likely that a high percentage of their court time may have come with one of them moonlighting as a power forward, rather than them dually occupying the wings. So as much as I wanted to get excited about the prospects of their strong measures, I cannot responsibly do so unless they play together a bit more to validate the current trend.
Tony Allen and Courtney Lee: ???
Finally, we arrive at the unknown. Is this the cave of wonders I was talking about? Will Allen and Lee be able to coexist on the court? Who knows? I would be willing to guess that they can, but at respective heights of 6’4 and 6’5, their ability to share the court will be heavily dictated by who is playing for the other team. Against teams New Orleans who put quicker guys such as Tyreke Evans at the three, a lineup like this could thrive, but as an everyday rotation piece, I’d hate to put either of these guys at a nightly 3-6 inch height advantage against their matchup.
So what can we draw from all of this? These numbers that we’ve attempted to digest give us some of the story regarding the war of the wings, but alas there is much more story to be told. While definite conclusions are hard to come by, there are a few things that are for sure.
1) Courtney Lee + anybody = good things, for now at least. Keep playing Courtney Lee.
2) Courtney Lee + Tayshaun Prince = very good things. Again, for now at least.
3) Mike Miller paired with Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince will make me shudder from here on out.
4) James Johnson and Tony Allen’s shared minutes will be something to keep an eye on.
So now I present the question to you, faithful reader. Which tandem do you think should be taking the lion’s share of the minutes distribution, and why/how do you reckon so? Be sure to be heard by reaching out in the comments section, giving us a shout on Twitter, or perhaps my preferred form of social media, sending some smoke signals our way.