Steve Kerr is by all accounts a swell and honorable fellow; I don’t think that is up for debate. However, as head coach for the Golden State Warriors, his job also calls for him to fib publicly, almost on a daily basis. What his job doesn’t call for, though, is for any kind of particular dexterity in mathematics, and especially those who attended the University of Arizona, as Kerr did, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Kerr said something interesting the other day, revealing that he sees his newly-formed “Death Lineup,” with Kevin Durant taking Harrison Barnes’ place, playing 12-15 minutes a game.
“Our closing lineup, both at the end of the first half and at the end of games, was generally with Harrison at the four,” Kerr said. “Now we’re just putting KD in that spot. That probably won’t change.”
However, as always, Kerr will reserve his ace in the hole for times when it’s absolutely necessary. The reigning Coach of the Year said he plans to use it for roughly 15 minutes per game.
Whether Kerr realizes it or not, his estimate is going to be way off, in all likelihood, for several reasons.
It’s true that the Warriors set the league on fire with their Death Lineup of Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Harrison Barnes-Draymond Green last year. They not only led the league in offensive rating for any lineup that played over 100 minutes together, at 142 points-per-100 possessions (per NBA.com’s stats index), but their net rating was 47.0, meaning that they outscored people with that lineup by 47 points-per-100 possessions.
Obviously, those numbers are insane. But it wasn’t Barnes who made them unstoppable. The top three lineups in the league last year in (minimum 100 minutes together) terms of net rating all belonged to the Warriors, and they all had Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala as common denominators. Or, as the case may be, “common dominators.”
The Death Lineup first started in the 2014-15 season of course, and it was relatively little used during that regular season. The quintet played together for 37 games, but only in bite size chunks totaling 102 minutes. That works out to 2:45 per game.
They produced a modest 102.8 offensive rating, but perhaps ironic to what we would expect of the vertically-challenged unit, they shone most on defense, their manic switching and rotating forcing a ton of turnovers and allowing a minuscule 81.0 defensive rating, making for an excellent 21.8 net. Still, a couple of Warriors lineups –again with Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala in common– actually played more and fared better overall that season.
Nevertheless, Kerr used the unit more during the Warriors’ playoff run, to the tune of 111 minutes in 16 games, which was when the national audience first really took notice of it. It was actually the Dubs’ most oft-used lineup in the postseason, and still good enough for a 15.7 net rating against top competition.
Last season, after Barnes returned from an early-season sprained ankle that caused him to miss 16 games, the Warriors used the Death Lineup a bit more aggressively, but still not as much as you might have figured. Again they played in just 37 games together but for 172 minutes this time, which works out to about 4:39 per appearance.
The +47.0 net rating is mind-boggling, but the quantum leap forward in their dominance was all on the offensive end. Opponents started to figure out how to score on them (or perhaps the Warriors just dialed back their intensity on that end), and the defensive rating jumped from 81.0 to a still very good 95.0.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, though, the Death Lineup was no longer a secret weapon. The Warriors, hampered by Stephen Curry’s balky knee, turned to it repeatedly, with negligible results against the small-ball lineups the Thunder and Cavaliers countered with. They wound up using it for 125 minutes over 17 games, with only a 101.5 offensive rating and an unthinkable -5.3 net rating for their efforts.
That’s right, the most dominant lineup of this or any other regular season, was outscored in the playoffs.
It remains to be seen how effective Death Lineup 2.0 will be with Durant replacing Barnes. I’ll step out on a limb and guess it’ll work rather well. But regardless of how it works, I simply can’t fathom Kerr using it as much as he suggests he will. Twelve minutes together for any lineup is quite a lot.
The most common Warriors lineup last season, as you would expect, was their starting lineup with Andrew Bogut at center. In the 49 games all their starters were healthy enough to play together, they averaged 11.3 minutes together.
And as modest a figure as 11.3 minutes sounds, it was the ninth-most commonly-used lineup in the league among quintets that played at least 41 games. Detroit’s starting five led everyone with 19.1 minutes together (before they traded Ersan Ilyasova for Tobias Harris), but they were an anomaly borne of having an anemic bench. No other team had five guys average even 15 minutes as a unit.
Even if you allow for some variation on the perimeter and simply categorize the Warriors small-ball lineups as any in which Green plays at center, consider that according to basketball-reference.com Green only played approximately 20 percent of his 2,808 regular season minutes last year at the five, which averages out to 6.93 minutes per his 81 games.
It’s pretty evident it wears him out and isn’t exactly a panic on the others either, or the Warriors would use it more.
Barnes was the X-factor in the Death Lineup the past two years because Kerr could risk asking more of him defensively in those situations, guarding people bigger and stronger because they didn’t have to worry about his offensive contributions.
Perhaps now that sacrifice will have to be made by Green, where all his energy will be saved for defense, with Durant taking on the offensive load when opponents trap Curry. The calculus will change, certainly.
In any event, I don’t see Kerr playing this new Death Lineup 12 minutes a game much less 15, not just for the physical toll it would take on his top guys but also for the simple fact that he likely won’t have to.
I can indeed see them closing second quarters, but it won’t be necessary for those guys to close games, not with games well out of hand. Forget having Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green on the floor down the stretch. More likely than not, all five will be laughing on the bench by then.