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Do starting lineups have to be permanent?

The Spurs have a collection of players with different specialized skills that allow them to counter most opponent's game plans. So should they use that variety in their favor even if it means going through a multitude of different lineups?


In the past couple of years the Spurs have been one of the teams that has most experimented with lineups. While most good teams rely on a couple of pet units, and only make changes when absolutely necessary, the Spurs go for different combinations seemingly every other game. Part of that is predicated on the effort to limit the minutes for some players while trying to find playing time for others. But there is also a willingness to change things up and find an edge through match ups that not a lot of contenders have.

The best example is the recent benching of Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard in favor of Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw against the Knicks. Since it was on a FIGABABA, I initially didn't make much of it. But after that game, J.R. Wilco, who had already discussed the changing of lineups here, mentioned something to me I haven't considered: what if this was only the first step into establishing matchup-dependent lineups, not unlike what often happens in soccer or baseball? What if the next innovation the Spurs introduce is a completely pragmatic approach to who starts the game based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent?

What if the next innovation the Spurs introduce is a completely pragmatic approach to who starts the game based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent?

That would be revolutionary and frankly unthinkable for almost any other franchise. But the Spurs have a tradition of being creative when it comes to set starters, with the obvious example here being Manu Ginobili. Ginobili has consistently been one of the two or three best players on the Spurs roster but, in order to add some much-needed firepower to the second unit, he's come off the bench for most of his tenure with the team. Still, when he has been needed, he's been asked to start and the team has never suffered because of it.

Not everyone is Manu Ginobili, though. A lot of players need to know their role and place in the rotation and their performance relies heavily on the knowledge of which teammates they will share the court with. There is also the question of pride and ego. There are players that would consider coming off the bench beneath them and seeing their minutes fluctuate from game to game might rub them the wrong way.

But is there anyone like that on the Spurs roster right now? I can't imagine Tiago Splitter or Danny Green feeling slighted by occasionally coming off the bench -- not with the former, who had no trouble playing limited minutes after being a star abroad, nor the latter who was cut three times before finding a home. And no team has as much corporate knowledge to power through any initial discombobulation as the Spurs do.

So how would this theory work in practice? Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will always start because they are the team's primary scorer/creator and defensive anchor, respectively, and you always need those. But even they could see their roles fluctuate according to the team the Spurs are playing.

Let's use the Rockets as an example. Harden and Parsons start at the two and the three in Houston. The Spurs' best perimeter defender is Leonard, so having him on Harden makes sense. But then why start Green? Belinelli or Ginobili can defend Chandler Parsons spotting up and Parsons is not a threat on the offensive boards. On the other end, the Spurs would be forcing Harden to defend on the ball instead of resting by staying on Green. Shifting the offensive burden to whomever Harden is defending instead of always initiating via Parker could be both good on offense -- as The Beard is not a strong defender -- and defense -- as he wouldn't have as much energy after having to play two-way basketball. And how about giving Baynes an early shot at guarding Howard? Considering his value comes from physical post D and the Rockets don't have a properly spaced offense to exploit his lack of mobility, it might be worth it. At worst he will send one of the less reliable free-throw shooters in the league to the line a couple of times before coming out. At best he helps contain Howard and allows Splitter, the Spurs' best defender in space, to rest and be ready to go when Lin comes in to run pick and rolls with a well-spaced floor.

What I'm suggesting are changes that are not limited to roles or positions but that also take specific skills into the equation. Another example: Green is a better, more versatile on-ball defender than Manu Ginobili. But off the ball, Green has the propensity to sink too far and play off his man without having Leonard's uncanny ability to help and recover. MySynergySports had him ranked 286th last season on points per possession allowed on spot ups, with 1.6 PPP, and shows him to be allowing a sky-high 1.8 points per possession this season. Ginobili meanwhile ranked 119th in 2012/13 and is allowing 1.6 PPP this season -- which is still high, but better than Green. So against players that rely heavily on spot-ups for their offense like Thabo Sefolosha or the aforementioned Parsons, Manu would actually make more sense, defensively. And as bad as he has been shooting the ball this season, Ginobili has traditionally been a good spot-up shooter, so the offense shouldn't suffer as much. When the Spurs face teams with two wings that can attack off the dribble, like the Nets with Pierce and Johnson, they can go back to Green as the starter.

The possibilities are endless. Against teams that have a stretch 4 in the starting lineup like the Nets and Mavs, Diaw could start while Splitter comes off the bench. Starting Leonard at the four spot would also be a possibility, with either Belinelli or Ginobili at the two and Green at the three. When facing teams that like to pack the paint, Green should be on the court as much as possible and Mills should get a few more minutes. Against teams that like hiding their point guards on Green while their stopper handles Parker, like the Warriors, having Belinelli or Ginobili in there would prevent that. And starting Diaw and giving minutes to another floor-stretching big like Bonner would help counter squads that want their bigs to stay as close to the basket as possible.

I realize that this would be too radical an approach for even an adventurous team like the Spurs to go all the way with. What I'm proposing here would involve a team that has started 7-1 to change its starting lineup and therefore its rotation at least a dozen times in the regular season, and potentially several more times in the playoffs. Pop always looks for the edge and has boldly experimented with lineups favoring certain skills -- even if it means sitting Duncan when the other team needs a three. And he actually has been doing what I'm discussing here to an extent - just not at the level I'm proposing. I can't really blame him, as doing so would greatly go against convention and the unwritten rules of coaching.

Still, while a full-on lineup revolution might not be on the horizon just yet, the Spurs are showing that having various players that can do one or two things really well (while having very different skill sets but a similar talent level) allows them to potentially be as versatile in terms of matchups and counters as teams that have a couple of do-it-all freaks of nature.

That knowledge is particularly comforting when thinking about the future, when the post-Duncan Spurs might be forced to get creative in order to match the success of more naturally talented teams.

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