Any follower of the NBA’s Miami Heat will probably understand what you mean if you mentioned the words “position-less basketball” to them, and with good reason. The Heat won last year’s title with the 6’7 Shane Battier playing power forward and LeBron James acting for large portions as the teams “point guard” (if you can call a 6’8, 270 pound monster man a “guard”).
The fluidity of their positions allowed the Heat to exploit matchups against the more traditional lineups used by the Thunder. They ultimately spread the floor and created wide open threes for the likes of Battier and Mike Miller, as the bigs of OKC chased around much quicker players whom they were unaccustomed and unfit to guard.
The Heat would win based upon the concept of adapting their strategy to the unique talents of the team, namely LeBron James, instead of attempting to play players that fit the typical style of play. It’s a new mindset that the entire league is trying to take on. The rise of this mentality and the fall of typical, 90s-esque lineups have produced some interesting trends in the league. One of the more intriguing of these patterns is many teams’ use of 5-man groups with two point guards playing at the same time.
Over two-thirds of the league used a two-ball-handler pairing for more than 200 minutes throughout the 2012-2013 regular season, and as I’ll discuss in a bit, most teams had substantial success. As power forwards play more center and small forwards play more at the 4, teams are left with 2 wing positions to fill alongside their point guard. Thus, players typically considered 1s have now become combo-guards at times, handling the basketball when needed, and playing off the ball at other times.
But small-ball is not the only culprit. The rise in quality point guards throughout the league has been well documented, and teams have found it easy to find quality play from floor generals as a whole. This is in contrast to the lack of talent at the shooting guard position. After Kobe, Harden, Paul George and Wade, there isn’t much to be said for the position. The 2 has become more notable for irrational confidence guys who come off the bench and are capable of either shooting a team into or out of a game ( J.R. Smith, I’m looking at you). Many of these “chuckers” are reserved for the sixth man role. The decline in quality 2s and the surplus of above average PGs, combined with a trend toward smaller lineups, is the likely cause for two point guard lineups.
Another point to consider is how teams run their offenses and defenses. The NBA is a pick-and-roll league that is learning the value of the three point shot. The use of more multiple ball handler lineups aligns with the first fact. More pick and rolls mean a greater need for players who can navigate those screens with the ball and make decisions out of that action.
But your prototypical shooting guard would be better suited than point guards in a three pointer-heavy league, as they are generally better shooters. This may be true, but point guards have improved their long-range capabilities, and are no longer a liability on the perimeter. PGs shot 34.7% from three in 2012-2013, as compared to only 32.4% in 2011-2012 per ESPN.com. This improvement has allowed many teams to rely on point guards as both ball handlers and spot-up shooters.
In my analysis, I use only lineups that played together for at least 200 minutes throughout the regular season featuring two players nominally called point guards by ESPN.com. This qualifier weeds out lineups that were only used out of necessity or during blowouts, as the goal of this exercise is to look at teams that truly emphasize having two ball handlers on the court.
The parameter eliminates the Raptors, Magic, Mavericks, Pacers, Jazz, Heat, and Suns. This does not mean these teams never played with two point guards, but simply that none of those units played more than 200 minutes together. Note that the besides from Indiana and Miami, all of these teams struggled to find suitable play at the PG position, or had mid-season trades. Miami and Indiana were also the only two playoff teams that did not have a single two-ball-handler lineup with more than 200 minutes in the regular season. Also, note that I did not consider Monta Ellis a point guard in this analysis, despite what ESPN may have him listed as.
My initial guess would be that lineups featuring two ball handlers would benefit on the offensive end, able to run more pick–and-rolls, while suffering defensively, due to a lack of size. In general, however, these smaller lineups perform contrary to expectations: defensive numbers are largely improved, while offensive numbers in general suffer. This goes to show that smaller lineups do not necessarily inhibit a team’s defensive capabilities. Interestingly, they actually held opponents to 2.2 points less than the teams’ average units. Offensively, lineups featuring 2PGs scored .66 points less per 100 possessions than the average production across the 22 qualifying teams. The combined difference of about 1.5 points per 100 possessions, although not large enough to change a team’s outlook, can move a team up about 5 in the league spots in terms of efficiency. For example, the Celtics ranked 14th in the league at a .7 positive differential, while the Lakers were 10th at 2.0 points per 100 possessions.
The most common users of this type of lineup were, in order, the Timberwolves, Pistons, Warriors, Knicks, Bobcats, Nuggets, Hawks and Spurs. Minnesota has gluttony of PGs thanks to some questionable management decisions, and the Pistons and Knicks both lacked true shooting guards in their starting lineups. Those squads featured two point guards more out of necessity than choice, and none of them improved significantly with those lineups. The Nuggets had tremendous success with Andre Miller and Ty Lawson paired up, as did Atlanta with Devin Harris playing next to Jeff Teague. San Antonio and Golden State are both interesting examples of the benefits of two point guards worth highlighting.
Golden State has used their lineup of Jarrett Jack and Stephen Curry throughout the year, and relied heavily on it in their improbable playoff run. Lineups featuring Jack and Curry were on the court for more than 1500 minutes this season. Jack-Curry lineups had one of Golden State’s highest Net Rating (the difference between offensive and defensive ratings), a 3.9 differential, per NBA.com.
In the playoffs, they spent more than 28 minutes per game on the court together, over half the game. While their rating differential decreased to just 2.5 points per 100 possessions, this was mostly due to stiffer competition.
Now, whether the benefits of relying on a “oh dear lord don’t shoot that” reaction creating player is wise is another discussion. But the benefits of having two ball handlers benefited Golden State greatly, especially when their first offensive set (usually a Curry based pick and roll or off ball movement with Klay Thompson) did not come to fruition. Jack was often the secondary option, either in a pick and roll or simple isolation, when the Warriors’ primary sets failed, or in the very VERY rare occasion when Thompson and Curry’s jumpers were not falling.
San Antonio continued to defy biology, the laws of physics and normal human aging processes this year on its path to the Western Conference Finals, using offensive schemes most coaches could only dream of implementing (see: Vinny Del Negro and Scott Brooks). Popovich continues to extract the most from his players, tweaking his combinations of players in to ascertain results seemingly impossible given the geriatric characteristics of his team.
Pop’s most potent offensive two-man lineup this year has featured San Antonio’s two true point guards, Gary Neal and Tony Parker. Neal’s ability to execute in the pick and roll when needed, while mainly acting as another corner three threat, has allowed this lineup to achieve an offensive rating of 110.2 points per 100 possessions. In NBA terms, that is a gaudy number.
This goes to show the true offensive benefit two primary ball handlers can have on a team. In fact, Neal played more along side Tony Parker than he did with any other player. Popovich, one of the geniuses of the league, clearly understands the benefit he can derive from having his best ball handlers (excluding Manu Ginobili) on the court. With the newfound health of Ginobili, Neal has seen his minutes decrease. However, he still features most commonly alongside Parker, doing so in every postseason game thus far, and those lineups have continued to produce an above average total differential
It will be interesting to see the tweaks that can be made, especially offensively, to maximize the potential of two point guard units. And as small-ball continues to be a prominent part of the NBA, two-point guard lineups will likely grow as a viable option for coaches as they adapt to a changing league dynamic. In any case, this is a trend that looks like it’s not going away soon.
Georgetown University Class of 2016
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