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The NBA's True Playoff "Death Lineups"

by Roland Beech NBA underdog Champion

With the rise of the Warriors in 2014-15, one of their strengths was a 'small ball' lineup with Draymond Green as Center leading a very switchable defensive group where no player was listed as taller than 6'8 (Harrison Barnes 6'8, Green 6'7, Thompson 6'7, Iguodala 6'6, Curry 6'3). With some heroics during the playoffs the stage was set for this group to soon garner the nickname the "Death Lineup" in the following season with its almost unprecedented follow up dominance -- a +163 plus/minus in 173 minutes during the '15-16 regular season.

Later of course they replaced Barnes with Kevin Durant to form an even more powerful on paper 5-man unit. This group shortly had picked up the moniker of the "Hamptons Five" and went on to win two straight titles before falling in the most recent season in part due to injuries to Durant and Thompson.

However, nicknames aside the question is what teams have actually featured the most dominant playoff 5-man units?

Fortunately our friends over at Basketball-Reference.com currently have lineup data going back to the 2000-01 season so we can examine this for almost twenty seasons at this point.

Highest Playoffs Plus/Minus Lineups
Tm Season Lineup G Min Plus/Minus Outcome
DET 2003-04 C. Billups | R. Hamilton | T. Prince | R. Wallace | B. Wallace 23 522 +132 Champion
CLE 2015-16 K. Irving | J. Smith | L. James | K. Love | T. Thompson 20 371 +130 Champion
IND 2012-13 G. Hill | L. Stephenson | P. George | D. West | R. Hibbert 18 415 +126 ...conf finals
DAL 2010-11 J. Kidd | J. Terry | S. Marion | D. Nowitzki | T. Chandler 21 163 +115 Champion
LAL 2001-02 D. Fisher | K. Bryant | R. Fox | R. Horry | S. O'Neal 19 369 +114 Champion
WAS 2016-17 J. Wall | B. Beal | O. Porter | M. Morris | M. Gortat 13 250 +106 ...conf semis
PHI 2018-19 B. Simmons | J. Redick | J. Butler | T. Harris | J. Embiid 11 173 +94 ...conf semis
CLE 2008-09 M. Williams | D. West | L. James | A. Varejao | Z. Ilgauskas 14 273 +92 ...conf finals
LAL 2000-01 D. Fisher | K. Bryant | R. Fox | H. Grant | S. O'Neal 16 289 +92 Champion
NJN 2002-03 J. Kidd | K. Kittles | R. Jefferson | K. Martin | J. Collins 20 349 +91 Finals
IND 2011-12 G. Hill | P. George | D. Granger | D. West | R. Hibbert 11 240 +86 ...conf semis
LAL 2007-08 D. Fisher | K. Bryant | V. Radmanovic | L. Odom | P. Gasol 21 353 +86 Finals
TOR 2018-19 K. Lowry | D. Green | K. Leonard | P. Siakam | M. Gasol 24 383 +85 Champion
ATL 2014-15 J. Teague | K. Korver | D. Carroll | P. Millsap | A. Horford 14 243 +81 ...conf finals
BOS 2007-08 R. Rondo | R. Allen | P. Pierce | K. Garnett | K. Perkins 25 443 +77 Champion
DET 2006-07 C. Billups | R. Hamilton | T. Prince | R. Wallace | C. Webber 16 266 +77 ...conf finals
SAS 2011-12 T. Parker | D. Green | K. Leonard | B. Diaw | T. Duncan 12 136 +76 ...conf finals
GSW 2017-18 S. Curry | K. Thompson | A. Iguodala | K. Durant | D. Green 9 128 +68 Champion
LAL 2008-09 D. Fisher | K. Bryant | T. Ariza | L. Odom | P. Gasol 21 310 +68 Champion
DET 2004-05 C. Billups | R. Hamilton | T. Prince | R. Wallace | B. Wallace 25 553 +68 Finals


Over the nineteen seasons we have data for, on a simple total plus/minus look the '03-04 Detroit Pistons starting five has the slight edge with a +132 mark (and +41 in the Finals against the Lakers). Six teams featured a +100 or better playoff lineup, with four winning titles.

Notably this Pistons' group stands out for having the top two highest minutes played together for a 5-man lineup in a playoff season (553 in '04-05, 522 in '03-04). This is ahead by a considerable margin over the third hightest minutes lineup used by the '07-08 Celtics with 443.

The '15-16 Cavs beat the Warriors getting a +18 in 86 minutes series from the top lineup (and +36 in 66 minutes with Richard Jefferson subbing in for Love).

The Pacers have two lineups on the leaderboard, but neither could get by LeBron on their own despite the #3 death lineup above being +46 in 179 minutes in the series that season against LeBron.

Also worth noting is that of these top twenty "Playoff Death Lineups" nineteen were starting units...the lone exception being the '10-11 Dallas Mavericks who were #4 in pure total plus/minus but included 6th man Jason Terry joining four starters to be the "closing lineup" and had by far the best plus/minus per minute of any lineup above. This lineup also was outstanding in the finals: +44 in 66 minutes against the Heat.

The '16-17 Washington Wizards had a dominant lineup but couldn't get out of the second round, losing a game seven to Boston -- the starters were doing the job and the team led by 2 when the first sub was made late in the 3rd quarter to the group...when the 'Death Lineup' was fully returned to the court again five minutes later (10 mins left in Q4) the Wizards were losing by...THIRTEEN and couldn't claw all the way back. The unit finished an incredible +77 in 143 minutes against Boston. Too bad players can't play all 48 minutes DC faithful!

Similarly the '18-19 Philadelphia 76ers had arguably the best 5-man lineup in the East but couldn't survive with Embiid resting, losing a game seven where Embiid was +10 in 45 minutes, and the Sixers without him were -12 in 3 minutes...

Finally the Kobe Lakers have four different lineups in the top twenty, all with Derek Fisher manning the point.

NBA 'Death Lineups' per 48 Minutes

Another way to look at this is not just a straight raw plus/minus total but with a "per 48 minutes" effectiveness. To qualify I'll require a lineup to have a raw plus/minus of +50 or higher:

Highest per 48 minutes Playoff Lineups
Tm Season Lineup G Min Plus/Minus
per 48 Min
Outcome
GSW 2018-19 S. Curry | A. Iguodala | K. Durant | D. Green | K. Looney 9 34 +78 Finals
BOS 2001-02 K. Anderson | P. Pierce | A. Walker | E. Williams | R. Rogers 14 78 +34 ...conf finals
CLE 2006-07 D. Gibson | D. Jones | L. James | D. Marshall | A. Varejao 10 88 +34 Finals
DAL 2010-11 J. Kidd | J. Terry | S. Marion | D. Nowitzki | T. Chandler 21 163 +33 Champion
MEM 2010-11 M. Conley | O. Mayo | S. Battier | Z. Randolph | M. Gasol 13 82 +33 ...conf semis
CLE 2015-16 M. Dellavedova | I. Shumpert | R. Jefferson | L. James | C. Frye 16 77 +31 Champion
SAS 2011-12 T. Parker | D. Green | K. Leonard | B. Diaw | T. Duncan 12 136 +26 ...conf finals
PHI 2018-19 B.Simmons | J. Redick | J. Butler | T. Harris | J.Embiid 11 173 +26 ...conf semis
GSW 2017-18 S. Curry | K. Thompson | A. Iguodala | K. Durant | D. Green 9 128 +25 Champion
WAS 2016-17 J. Wall | B. Beal | O. Porter | M. Morris | M. Gortat 13 250 +20 ...conf semis


The Warriors Hampton Five make the list here at #9 and might win a popular vote for 'scariest lineup' to face of the above. Surprisingly last season's playoffs with Looney in for Klay was a runaway leader in per minute plus/minus, albeit with a limited sample size of only 34 minutes total.

I'd call your attention though to the #2 lineup on the list, maybe one of the true original pioneers of "Small Ball" in the NBA, the 2001-2002 Boston Celtics who didn't make it past the Nets, losing in six in the conference finals. Check out this 5-man group --

  • Kenny Anderson 6'0
  • Paul Pierce 6'7
  • Rodney Rogers 6'7
  • Eric Williams 6'8
  • Antoine Walker 6'8
...Look familiar? While Don Nelson often gets a lot of praise for being open minded about trying 'positionless' basketball, and the recent Warriors dynasty put the phrase on everyone's lips, perhaps the Celtics head coach at the time Jim O'Brien should get more credit for being innovative in that regard! The criticism might be he didn't go all in on smallball -- against the Nets the lineup above was +12 in only 18 minutes, and an even smaller lineup with 6'1 Tony Delk in for Williams was +28 in 16 minutes! Meanwhile the big starting lineup with 6'11 Battie at center was a woeful -40 in 106 minutes in the series.

If you set a threshold of say 100 minutes minimum together in the playoffs as a 5-man group, then the '10-11 Mavericks are your top 'death lineup' of the bigger sample ones. Sadly we will never know how it might have played back, as Tyson Chandler was allowed to walk as a free agent before it was given another try.

NBA Playoffs top 2-Man/3-Man combos

Finally to wrap this up, we'll take a quick view at the top 2-man and 3-man combinations in a single playoff season.

Top Playoffs 2-Man Lineups
Tm Season Lineup Minutes Plus/Minus Outcome
SAS 2002-03 T. Duncan | M. Ginobili 568 +238 Champion
GSW 2016-17 S. Curry | D. Green 455 +217 Champion
MIA 2011-12 L. James | D. Wade 799 +217 Champion
DET 2003-04 R. Hamilton | B. Wallace 830 +216 Champion
BOS 2007-08 R. Allen | K. Garnett 857 +204 Champion
LAL 2000-01 K. Bryant | S. O'Neal 620 +187 Champion
GSW 2014-15 S. Curry | D. Green 688 +180 Champion
GSW 2016-17 S. Curry | K. Durant 471 +178 Champion
GSW 2016-17 S. Curry | K. Thompson 433 +178 Champion

Ah, the Mighty Spurs duo of Duncan and Ginobili take top billing. In reality if you had any of the twosomes above as a starting point for your franchise you would likely feel confident of success going forward! Indeed, each of the top ten listed here wound up as Champions in the specific season.

...For Warriors fans, the fact that Steph_Draymond featured twice in the top ten (and '14-15 was without Durant on the team) may give some renewed optimism to what the Dubs can accomplish in the coming season.

What about the "Three Star Model" you ask?

Top Playoffs 3-Man Lineups
Tm Season Lineup Minutes Plus/Minus Outcome
DET 2003-04 R. Hamilton | T. Prince | B. Wallace 648 +182 Champion
DAL 2010-11 J. Kidd | D. Nowitzki | J. Terry 298 +179 Champion
CLE 2015-16 L. James | J. Smith | T. Thompson 498 +176 Champion
DET 2003-04 C. Billups | R. Hamilton | B. Wallace 701 +176 Champion
DET 2003-04 R. Hamilton | B. Wallace | R. Wallace 641 +174 Champion
CLE 2015-16 K. Irving | L. James | T. Thompson 505 +166 Champion
MIA 2011-12 M. Chalmers | L. James | D. Wade 616 +165 Champion
CLE 2015-16 K. Irving | L. James | J. Smith 606 +163 Champion
BOS 2007-08 R. Allen | K. Garnett | P. Pierce 702 +162 Champion
GSW 2016-17 S. Curry | K. Durant | D. Green 349 +161 Champion

...and again the leaderboard is full of champions. Toronto's crew in their recent triumph had a top 3-man of Kawhi_Lowry_Siakam with a nice +126 in 609 minutes, but only good for 43rd place in raw plus/minus.

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