The Nets have been in flux all season; 43 different starting lineups is just the tip of the iceberg. As players have come and gone and fallen into and out of the rotation, the sort of cohesion that generally makes for playoff success has been fleeting. Now, as the team gears up for the Celtics, fans are wondering whether and how it will all come together.
For Steve Nash and his staff, one priority is simply to get the best players on the court. If and when Ben Simmons is ready to go, he will go, even if that requires considerable learning-by-doing for everyone involved. In the meantime, the current starting lineup—Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Bruce Brown, Kevin Durant, and Andre Drummond—played just 134 regular-season minutes together, producing a 6-3 record, but a rather unimposing net rating of +2.3 points per 100 possessions. Even if that lineup remains set, there will be choices to be made, with an eight- or nine-man rotation, and perhaps even more for short spurts or if injuries strike. What combinations are most likely to be effective?
It’s easy to find detailed data on the performance of different lineups, but the sample sizes are so small that the numbers have little meaning. Only three of the Nets’ hundreds of lineups have played more than 60 minutes together all season, and the 20 most common lineups together account for only one-fourth of the team’s total minutes. What we need is a simpler and more reliable picture of how well or badly different players have meshed.
A first step in simplifying the complexity is to focus on pairs of teammates rather than complete five-man lineups. If two players have done well together, it stands to reason that at least some of the potential lineups including them should be promising. But that still leaves several dozen pairs to assess.
A statistical technique called multidimensional scaling provides the best way to boil these complex data down to a more manageable form. In the map below, the distance between each pair of teammates reflects how well or badly they’ve played together this season—the closer the better. By reducing net ratings for several dozen pairs of teammates to just two dimensions, the map creates some distortions, but it provides a comprehensible overview of who has played well with whom. (In doing the scaling, I’ve weighted each pair’s net rating by their time on the court together, so the map is based mostly on the most reliable ratings, and the distortions mostly affect pairs with little or no playing time together.)
Quite appropriately, the map places Kevin Durant at the center of the team. He is the mega-star all the others revolve around. Seth Curry is close, not because he is as important to the team as Durant, but because he has performed well with a variety of teammates in his limited time as a Net. (Since the scaling procedure puts successful teammates close together, the players with the best overall ratings tend to cluster near the center.)
The positions of Drummond, Nic Claxton, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Day’ron Sharpe suggest one of the team’s big issues for the playoffs. All four centers have performed reasonably well overall, but they pull the team in four rather different directions. Sharpe has the best net rating of the four, +6.4, but the least experience. If he gets any playing time, it will likely be with Durant, Kessler Edwards (two rookies together in the playoffs?), and two of Irving, Curry, and Patty Mills. Drummond is an impressive +5.6 in his 22 minutes per game with the Nets, and his affinity with Irving (+11.1) and Durant (+8.6), in particular, should keep him in the starting lineup—at least until Simmons is ready for a major role. Claxton has been less good overall (+0.7), but has teamed splendidly with Brown (+18.0 together), especially in recent weeks. Expect to see those two on the court with Durant, Irving, and Curry, with Durant, Curry, and Goran Dragic, and perhaps even with Curry, Dragic, and Aldridge.
The two players furthest from the center of the action are the two with the worst individual net ratings over the course of the season, regardless of lineups, Cam Thomas (−6.2) and Blake Griffin (−4.7). If they play at all, it looks like Thomas should get minutes with Drummond, Irving, and Brown or Edwards (essentially, taking KD’s role in a KD-less lineup), while Griffin might work with Aldridge, Dragic, and Mills in a veteran blue-collar lineup, or perhaps with Claxton in place of Aldridge for more defensive mobility.
The four players who were traded or waived after playing major minutes this season—James Harden, DeAndre’ Bembry, Jevon Carter, and James Johnson—are loosely grouped in the upper left part of the map, suggesting that they generally played better with each other than with the rest of the team. That has made it easier for the Nets to move on. However, the map hints at one reason for Patty Mills’s sustained slump. Some of Mills’s most successful pairings have been with Harden, Bembry, and Aldridge—guys who are gone or not playing.
The newest Nets — Curry, Drummond, and Dragic — offer more opportunities for successful mixing and matching with roster holdovers. That’s a good indication of Sean Marks’s success in plugging holes to keep the Nets competitive through a tumultuous season. Now it is up to Nash and the staff to make the most of what they have in the post-season. And of course, up to the players to perform.