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The Spurs have the best lineup in the NBA — and one of the worst

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The ratings swings between the starters and bench might be the wildest ever.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs currently sit at 12-10 and in the 8th seed in the Wild Wild West, where only 3.5 games separate the 4th and 14th seeds (whoever told you normality would return with 2021 was obviously lying), and what more evidence does the NBA need to abolish conferences than this? It’s been a roller coaster ride for the team this season. While they certainly play a more exciting brand of basketball than in recent years, their performance still varies wildly from game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, and even lineup-to-lineup.

In fact, there may have never been a team whose performance swings more wildly based on who’s on the court than these Spurs. Bleacher Report has put together a list ranking the top and bottom five line-ups in the league this season based on net rating with a required 75 minutes of playing time so far this season. Depending on how closely you have been monitoring the advanced stats, it may come as no surprise that the Spurs have line-ups at both ends of the spectrum, but which units place where goes against all basketball wisdom.

Best Lineup No. 1: San Antonio Spurs

The Lineup: Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Devin Vassell, Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl

The Numbers: Plus-28.9 net rating in 82 minutes

Sure, this is the smallest sample of any team in the top five. But we set the bar at 75 shared minutes from the jump, and we’re not going back on that just because a surprise entry is walking away with the title.

Besides, how fun is this? We all know a weird collection of San Antonio Spurs vets and prospects won’t lead this exercise for long, so let’s enjoy it.

Opponents are only shooting 34.5 percent from long range against this unit, which goes a long way to explaining its profoundly stingy defensive rating of 80.0. That’s a hilariously unsustainable figure; last year’s top defense belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, who permitted 102.5 points per 100 possessions.

A stretch of minutes this short might lead you to believe this reserve unit ran up its net rating in garbage time. Not so. Cleaning the Glass filters that out, and it shows an even higher net rating when the game is still undecided. Luck is a factor, but these guys aren’t capitalizing on the waning minutes of blowouts.

The elephants in the room are named DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — the Spurs’ two biggest names. Neither appears in this lineup, which won’t come as a surprise to careful San Antonio observers. Their shared minutes have produced negative net ratings in each of the last two seasons.

Long live Patty Mills and his refusal to move his dial off the “play like your shorts are on fire” setting. He’s shooting the lights out and having the best year of his career at age 32.

Long live Spurs second units playing fast, smart and team-oriented ball for what feels like the 20th year in a row.

The Spurs’ strongest quarter tends to be the second, when the second unit is often working at digging the team out of a hole the starters dug early, so it’s no surprise that this group ranks high. Speaking of the starters, here’s where they come in:

Worst Lineup No. 4: San Antonio Spurs

The Lineup: Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson and LaMarcus Aldridge

The Numbers: Minus-12.5 net rating in 219 minutes

One of the takeaways here is that Dejounte Murray is having a real rollercoaster of a season.

It has to be strange, emotionally, to spend this much time with the five-man unit that has played the most bad basketball in the league (its 219 minutes are tops in our bottom five), but then to also log stretches with the group that finished first in our “best lineups” section.

It must be like spending most of his work day in a rat-infested sub-basement that smells like old shoes and despair, but then getting a few precious moments in the palatial corner office on the top floor.

Concerned friend: Did you have a good day at work, Dejounte?

Dejounte, confused: I...I don’t know.

DeRozan and Aldridge don’t help the Spurs’ bottom line, which we chronicled earlier. Walker and Johnson have a ton of promise, but not enough present production to save this unit.

If one wanted to take the bold step of impugning head coach Gregg Popovich’s coaching acumen, one could point to the fact that he’s given this wildly unproductive lineup so much time on the court.

Has an NBA team ever featured a second unit that outperforms the starters so much? It wouldn’t be too unusual if it was the other way around, but this is pretty wild. Of course, net ratings don’t tell the whole story, and naturally you have to take into account the fact that the second unit is typically facing easier competition themselves, but both of these numbers are still pretty telling.

If there’s one thing I disagree with, and one of these cases where the stats of one line-up don’t tell the whole story, it’s the part about DeMar DeRozan “not helping the Spurs bottom line”. He certainly does, especially in the fourth quarter when he decides to take over, but as I observed during their most recent game against Minnesota, it wouldn’t hurt if he asserted himself at the beginning of the game instead of deferring until later considering Murray, Johnson and Walker aren’t often big contributors in the first quarter. That is especially true as long as Aldridge (whose hot first quarters were the only thing that kept the two Memphis losses from getting out of hand too early) is out.

It’s also worth noting that with Derrick White back in the fold, a change could be on the horizon even once Aldridge and Gay return from injury. The odds seen pretty good that he will eventually replace either Walker or Johnson in the starting line up (and not Murray, despite what these rankings may lead people to believe). His addition to the starting line-up would bring an infusion of energy and playmaking on both ends, with the bench’s style of play would suit either Johnson or Walker well.

Whatever it is, Pop needs to do something to end the the Spurs slow starts, even if it means shaking up that second unit has been so successful a bit. They won’t always be able recover from getting down by double digits so early, and it’s simply not something that can continue if they hope to make the playoffs. I just have one requirement: don’t stop playing Devin Vassell!