Comparing the Eastern Superpowers Episode 5: The Death Lineups

We did it, guys. Five articles comparing the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers. More than a month in the making. Dozens of imaginary awards accepted. And we’re going to finish with a bang. So far, we’ve compared each team’s trade deadline acquisitions, starting lineups, bench mobs, and superstars. Now we’re going to look at their death lineups, AKA the closing units.

The term ‘Death Lineup’ was coined by the Golden State Warriors. They would roll out a lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green. The lineup was fast and athletic; it would crush teams. Every player in this lineup could shoot (to an extent) and could pass the ball. Most importantly, switches couldn’t bother this team. Each player in the lineup was a plus defender, and Dray plus Iggy were all-world defenders at the time. This lineup started a revolution of ‘small-ball’ and teams trying to replicate their success. We’re going to look at each of the four Eastern giants’ potential death lineups.

Toronto Goes Small

Toronto’s starting lineup would work great as a closing lineup. The lineup of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakim, and Serge Ibaka is top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency among lineups that have played 300 or more minutes. Teams are going to game plan specifically for this lineup, however, and you need to switch things up in a seven-game series. So who do you play? Lowry and Green are locks. They both shoot and defend very well for their positions. Kawhi Leonard was included in the Superstar article, so he’s going to be out there. Siakim has the second best Net Rating on the team. The question is, who do you play at center?

Marc Gasol is a great option at center and has actually closed a couple games for the Raptors since coming over from Memphis. However, lineups with Gasol at center are actually scoring points at a lower clip than Ibaka lineups. They are defending better but they are giving up tons of turnovers and rebounding at a very bad clip. The Raptors as a whole team have been under average when it comes to rebounding. Lineups with Ibaka at center have ranked in the 94th percentile on points scored per possession and the 71st percentile in points allowed per possession. The team also holds onto the ball pretty well, although it is not rebounding very well.

Rumors came out that other Eastern Conference teams were happy that the Raptors traded for Gasol. These teams feel the Raptors are less scary when they go big-, rather than small-ball. This is for good reason. Lineups with Pascal Siakim at center rank in the 99th percentile in points scored per possession and the 97th percentile in allowing points per possession. These are the best offensive and defensive lineups on the squad. They are not rebounding well at all, but in small spurts, this lineup will demolish opponents. They also protect the ball and take it away from opponents better than Ibaka and Gasol lineups. Slotting in Vanvleet for the extra spot brings more play-making to the lineup.

Death Lineup: Kyle Lowry / Fred Vanvleet / Danny Green / Kawhi Leonard / Pascal Siakim

Boston Changes Little

The Celtics’ have had a tumultuous season thus far, to say the least. They can’t seem to string 48 minutes of good play together, and, when they do, it seems they bomb the next game. Nevertheless, this team had less talent when it made it to the Conference Finals last year and still has top 3 potential in the Conference. Who should be a part of their death lineup? This one is a little more difficult.

This team can’t really change its identity for a closing lineup. They essentially have four small forwards manning the forward spots in its rotation. They don’t have a power forward that can transition to center for a speedy lineup like Toronto. Neither Guerschon Yabusele or Robert Williams are good enough to do that. So, the Celtics will be keeping (as they have been doing) Al Horford in its closing lineup. They will also be keeping Kyrie Irving, the only All-Star on the roster and the best player on the team. Jayson Tatum has had a difficult Sophomore season but is still deserving of a closing spot. Giving a spot to Marcus Smart, who has been a defensive stalwart all season, locks in four of the starters in the closing lineup.

Like I said, not much to change. But we will be moving Marcus Morris out. He is in the midst of the worst slump of his career and should not be on the floor in close games. That spot should go to the Celtics’ biggest X factor: Gordon Hayward. Before his injury, Hayward was arguably a top 15 player. He still looks the part in a game here and there. Word is he has been destroying in practice; seemingly it is only his lack of confidence holding him back. If he’s on, the Celtics have more talent than anyone on the floor; if not, he is still a high IQ basketball player who will make the right play. Lineups with all five of these players (albeit a small sample size) would have a top 3 Net Rating among lineups with at least 100 minutes.

Death Lineup: Kyrie Irving / Marcus Smart / Gordon Hayward / Jayson Tatum / Al Horford

Milwaukee’s Two Choices

I will be presenting two death lineups for the Milwaukee Bucks. This is due to a recent slew of injuries in the team. Malcolm Brogdon will be out until at least the Eastern Conference Semifinals (should they make it there), and Nikola Mirotic has a broken thumb but should return right before the playoffs start. Both of these players had a spot in my original death lineup for the Bucks. Let’s run through that one quickly.

That lineup would have been Bledsoe / Brogdon / Middleton / Mirotic / Giannis. Shooting, defense, speed. That is what this lineup was all about. Giannis at center is also an unfair move. Unfortunately, this lineup wouldn’t be able to be fully unleashed until Brogdon and Mirotic return. The Bucks could elect to roll out Giannis with Middleton and three guards, a lineup which has been +3.4 so far this season.

Let’s get crazy. Everyone goes small in the playoffs. They sacrifice size and rebounding for speed and shooting. That’s fine, it makes sense. But what if the Bucks rolled out the antithesis of this philosophy? A lineup of Middleton, Giannis, Mirotic, Ilyasova, Lopez has made a couple of appearances this season. It has been aptly named the “Jumbo Lineup”. I mean, how gross does that look? I love it. Could you start this lineup or even play it for more than 5-7 minutes at a time? Of course not, but the few minutes they play would overwhelm teams. In 22 possessions, this lineup is in the 100th percentile for points scored and in the 100th percentile for points allowed. It has the highest net rating out of any lineup playing any number of minutes. Yes, it is an incredibly small sample. But it is too much fun to ignore. Thus, it is the lineup I want to see.

Death Lineup: Middleton / Giannis / Mirotic / Ersan Ilyasova / Brook Lopez

Philly Stays the Course

The Philadelphia 76ers own the NBA’s best ‘clutch’ record, meaning that they have a 29-12 record in games that are within five points with five minutes left to play. Obviously, their closing lineups are working, so why bother with this exercise? Because it’s fun and I have a deadline to meet.

You’re going to keep Embiid on the floor. You don’t care that other teams like Toronto will go small. A couple of centers in the league can barely cover Joel, so why should a power forward scare him? In fact, more teams will avoid their small-ball lineups because of this man. The same goes for Ben Simmons. He’s a 6 foot 10 point guard with amazing vision and a match-up problem in regular lineups, let alone closing lineups. You’re also going to keep Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris around. Those two score the second and third most clutch points on the team.

This collection of four players have only played with two other players, J.J. Redick in the starting lineup, and James Ennis in some closing lineups. You can choose one or the other based on the matchup. If you want elite shooting, roll with Redick. If you want solid shooting, more size, and hard-nosed defense, go with Ennis. Because I wanted to roll with non-starting lineups for this exercise, we’ll go with Ennis.

Death Lineup: Simmons / Ennis / Butler / Harris / Embiid

There you have it, folks. Five articles up, five articles down. The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs figures to be a bloodbath, and you can consider the past five articles your official primer. Of course, because this is the NBA, one of these teams will get upset in the first round. Will Philly get bounced early? Will Milwaukee succumb to its injuries? Will Toronto see the ghost of Lebron and choke? Will Boston meet Brooklyn early and receive some sweet poetic justice? I don’t know, but what I do know is this: I finished this paragraph – like a reality-TV series – with too many questions. Thanks for reading guys.

Lineup stats from Cleaning the Glass

Agu is a Junior at Marquette University pursuing a Business Management Major with a Spanish Business Minor. He is a Milwaukee native and somehow survived 10 years of mediocrity from his hometown team, the Milwaukee Bucks, and is now writing about them in the midst of their best season. He is new on the scene with no credentials but hopes to have a light Wikipedia page in the future.

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