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Solving the puzzle: Exploring Hornets five-man lineups

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The Hornets have a lot of roster additions this season and finding the right combination of players has been difficult so far. What does the data say about the Hornets lineups and how should they adjust accordingly?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets have performed way under most peoples’ expectations so far this year. Some of it has been the schedule, some of it injuries, and some of it just players not playing well early on.

One thing to remember – much of this roster is either new to the NBA (Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston) or new to each other (Lance Stephenson, Brian Roberts, Marvin Williams, and Jason Maxiell). We’ve seen early on that continuity among rosters is valuable – just look at the hot start the Grizzlies and Warriors have gotten off to.

On paper, this roster should be much better than how the Hornets have played. However, few lineups and players have really gotten that much time to develop chemistry. The Warriors’ starting lineup has played just about twice as many minutes together as the Hornets current starting five of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Stephenson, Williams, and Al Jefferson. The original one, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead of Henderson, has played even less.

Hornets head coach has had a difficult task of managing lineups and finding working combinations in the midst of the roster health issues. He’s experimented with many different things, be it starters with second unit, starting Zeller instead of Williams, and three-guard lineups at times. Let’s take a look at which lineups have performed well together and which ones have been disappointing.

Let’s start with the two starting lineups used this season.

Walker – Stephenson – Kidd-Gilchrist – Williams – Jefferson

In 89 minutes, this lineup is scoring at a rate of 93.6 points per 100 possessions and 94.9 points per 100 shots. For reference, the worst offensive team in the league is the Philadelphia 76ers, and they’re borderline historically bad, scoring 93.9 points per 100 possessions. The Pistons boast the second worst offense, scoring 99.6 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets starting five has been worse than the worst offense in the league.

What’s even worse – this lineup isn’t very good defensively either. Opponents have scored 111 points per 100 possessions against them – that would put them at a team pace of 27th in the league, only behind the Timberwolves, Jazz, and Lakers. All of these players except Williams have posted better individual defensive rating numbers, but together, they’ve been rough on both ends of the floor.

Walker – Henderson – Stephenson – Williams – Jefferson

A simple switch of Kidd-Gilchrist for Henderson seems like it would be an increase of offense for a decrease in defense, right? That hasn’t been the case so far. In their 113 minutes together, this lineup is still struggling offensively, only scoring 94.0 points per 100 possessions and 97.3 points per 100 shots. It’s shooting slightly better, but also assisting fewer shots than the previous lineup.

Defensively, they’ve been much better, only allowing opponents to score 103.3 points per 100 possessions. On a team level, that would rank 8th in the league, ahead of the Bulls, Clippers, and Raptors. However, the difference between these two lineups defensively can’t be attributed heavily to Henderson. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM), Henderson has been an inferior defender (-0.81) to Kidd-Gilchrist (-0.39). And that’s with the latter dropping from his team-high 2.07 DRPM (Defensive RPM) a year ago. With more minutes, it’s probably safe to assume the first lineup would see some regression and be better defensively.

Walker – Henderson – Stephenson – Zeller – Jefferson

In 89 minutes, this lineup is scoring much better than the previous two, scoring at a rate of 99.4 points per 100 possessions (still close to worst in the league, but at least closer to the rest of the pack) and 97.7 points per 100 shots. Defensively, they’re right in the middle, allowing 108.0 points per 100 possessions. That number is right around their season defensive average of 108.5 points per 100 possessions, good for 24th in the league.

So, different combinations of guys are getting varied results. It’s very difficult to separate players between who is playing well or bad in a more or less advantageous situation. A role player putting up gaudy numbers against inferior opponents isn’t the same as a starter doing it against fellow starters. Also, some players get the benefit of playing with better players, inflating their own on-court statistics.

Real Plus-Minus was created to cut through some of this noise and provide a plus-minus estimate that eliminates the complicating factors. It can’t eliminate situation completely – Brandan Wright is an amazing back-up big man, but would perhaps struggle in an expanded role – but it can adjust for it and make it meaningful. Let’s look at how the Hornets are faring so far.

Player '15 ORPM '14 ORPM Odiff '15 DRPM '14 DRPM Ddiff '15 RPM '14 RPM Rdiff
Cody Zeller 0.34 -3.04 +3.38 1.55 0.79 +0.76 1.89 -2.25 +4.14
Jannero Pargo 0.07 -1.13 +1.20 -1.33 -2.84 +1.51 -1.26 -3.97 +2.71
Bismack Biyombo -0.45 -3.90 +3.45 -0.89 -0.11 -0.78 -1.34 -4.01 +2.67
Gary Neal -0.26 0.49 -0.75 -2.08 -4.92 +2.84 -2.34 -4.43 +2.09
Brian Roberts -1.04 -1.45 +0.41 -2.64 -2.33 -0.31 -3.68 -3.78 +0.10
Gerald Henderson -2.71 -1.66 -1.05 -0.81 -0.96 +0.15 -3.52 -2.62 -0.90
Kemba Walker 1.27 0.79 +0.48 -0.87 0.79 -1.66 0.40 1.58 -1.18
Jason Maxiell -2.68 -3.25 +0.57 0.47 2.48 -2.01 -2.21 -0.77 -1.44
Lance Stephenson -2.41 0.90 -3.31 1.28 0.14 +1.14 -1.13 1.04 -2.17
Marvin Williams -1.95 -0.32 -1.63 -0.32 0.25 -0.57 -2.27 -0.07 -2.20
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -1.05 -0.78 -0.27 -0.39 2.07 -2.46 -1.44 1.29 -2.73
Al Jefferson -1.18 1.12 -2.30 -1.09 1.02 -2.11 -2.27 2.14 -4.41
Noah Vonleh -0.61

-0.21 -0.82
P.J. Hairston -0.58 -1.36 -1.94

Since RPM is additive, let's put together a hypothetical "best" lineup on offense, defense, and total.

Best Offense: Walker - Neal - Hairston - Zeller - Biyombo (-0.28 ORPM)

Best Defense: Walker - Stephenson - MKG - Maxiell - Zeller (2.04 DRPM)

Best Lineup: Walker - Stephenson - MKG - Vonleh - Zeller (-1.10 RPM)

The common trend between these lineups are two players -- Zeller and Walker. While Walker and Stephenson have had trouble getting used to each other on the court, as both are ball-dominant players, Stephenson has been improving recently. He wasn't a huge positive in regards to RPM last season, but his mark of 1.04 at 23 years old was impressive nonetheless and he's not done expanding his game.

Zeller has been playing like one of the Hornets best players, if not the best, so far. At this point in the season, he and Williams have been splitting time fairly equally -- Williams is at 24.4 minutes per game and Zeller is at 23.8 -- but that could (and should) change if Zeller continues this impressive play in his second season. He has been talked about being the Hornets big man of the future, but he might very well just be the Hornets big man of the present.

This is not to say that Williams has been poor and Zeller amazing. Williams is still the best floor stretcher the Hornets have and Zeller still sometimes battles foul trouble. However, the initial roles of Williams as the main four and Zeller as his relief seems like it should flip. The Hornets very well may have the right players to make a playoff run, just not in the right roles.

Most of the Hornets issues this year has been their best players on paper not playing as such. There will be some regression to the mean -- Kidd-Gilchrist is certainly a net positive defensively and Jefferson isn't suddenly a negative player. But this is the price of having so much roster turnover. Numbers are heavily influenced by the situation of the player -- in a new or uncomfortable one, it makes sense for numbers to be down at first.

Kidd-Gilchrist will reportedly be back this week, which will finally let the wing rotation be at full health and get into a rhythm. I wrote earlier this season that MKG, Stephenson, and Walker have somewhat overlapping skill sets, and how that probably increases the necessary learning curve for these three. Health will help. So will increasing Zeller's minutes -- he's earned them and the Hornets are better with him on the court. The pieces are there for the Hornets -- now that Clifford is getting back his full availability, perhaps the puzzle will start to come into shape.

Note: Stats courtesy of ESPN.com, nbawowy.com, and basketball-reference.com.