Success in the NBA isn’t about finding your five best players and putting them on the floor; it’s about finding your best unit of five players — how they mesh, how they work together, how they play off each other’s strengths and how they communicate. Wayne Winston, the stats guru for the Dallas Mavericks who talked to TrueHoop recently, has stressed the importance of units over individuals. He said that some teams simply don’t play the right five-man units, and that’s often the difference between a team being good or being bad. Winston said Cleveland would’ve beaten Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring if the Cavs had played Joe Smith instead of Ben Wallace — no one knows if that’s true, but it’s an interesting note from a third-party source. In his chat with TrueHoop, he pointed to several examples such as that where teams simply don’t throw out their best units. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Orlando’s best and worst five-man units. Now, as always with advanced statistics, take these numbers with a grain of salt — for every stat there are myriad variables to take into account, and it’s a relatively small sample size. But it should be interesting nonetheless.
Best unit: Nelson-Redick-Barnes-Anderson-Howard
Adjusted +/-: +57.48
Believe it or not, this is the highest-rated unit in the NBA. This unit’s offensive rating is an astounding 155.45 points per 100 possessions (also tops in the league), and they’ve still been very good defensively with a defensive rating of 98. It’s easy to see why these five players would play so well together — Nelson, Redick and Anderson are elite shooters, Howard is the best center in the NBA, and Barnes fills in with his surprisingly efficient rebounding, high-percentage shots and mop-up duty. And does chemistry play a factor? Redick and Anderson are very close off the court, as are Howard and Nelson.
Worst unit: Nelson-Redick-Barnes-Bass-Howard
Adjusted +/-: -27.18
This is perhaps why Bass has four DNP-CDs in the past six games, as the only change from the Magic’s best unit is the Bass-for-Anderson switch. You’d think inserting Bass into the lineup would mean for better defense and worse offense, but the defense with this five-man unit has been dreadful: 124.36 points per 100 possessions. And the offense, at a 96 offensive rating, is awful. Even this unit’s rebounding percentage is considerably worse than the team’s best unit. Why? That’s a great question. But the answer could be a big reason why Bass has struggled to see the floor recently.
Most common unit: Williams-Carter-Pietrus-Lewis-Howard
Adjusted +/-: +19.42
Unsurprisingly, the Magic’s starting five has been very efficient and very productive while spending the most minutes together, by far. These five players are playing lockdown defense, at a 96 defensive rating, and their offense is above the team’s average as well. It makes complete sense why this is the unit out there at the start and finish of games.
What we learned: By looking at the numbers, no one should have been surprised when Anderson earned the backup power forward spot over Bass. Bass is part of three of the Magic’s worst four lineups, while Anderson plays on the best two. These findings are hardly the be-all, end-all for the judgment of players, but one thing is clear — when Anderson’s on the floor, the unit is better.