The Follow Through: Let’s Talk About Lineups

Welcome to another edition of The Follow Through, my weekly look at things happening around the league.

I thought this week we’d change things up and look at one larger overarching thing instead of a bunch of unrelated things. That overarching thing: lineups. Which are working. Which aren’t working. Which small sample size lineups are doing interesting things.

So, let’s get started.

The High Usage Lineups That Are Working

Three lineups have played at least 100 minutes, per WNBA.com.

Lineup Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Aces: Cambage, Wilson, Williams, Young, Gray 135 111.1 93.8 17.3
Mercury: Griner, Turner, Walker, Nurse, Diggins-Smith 115 97.8 90.0 7.8
Storm: Russell, Stewart, Talbot, Loyd, Bird 102 116.0 80.3 35.7

 

It should probably come as no surprise that the starting fives for the league’s two best teams are producing two of the best lineups in the league.

For Vegas, these numbers suggest that the A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage pairing is working this season. The team only has a net rating of 9.1 with Cambage and Wilson sharing the floor, but the starting unit has surrounded them with enough talent to make things run smoothly. The addition of Chelsea Gray has helped warp the floor, allowing more room for Cambage and Wilson to do their respective things.

An even better lineup has been the Storm usual starting five. Stephanie Talbot’s addition has been a really underrated storyline this season. Is she Alysha Clark? Of course not, but Talbot is shooting 50.0 percent from deep so far, helping to form an incredibly strong frontcourt with Breanna Stewart. Add in Jewell Loyd playing at an MVP level and Sue Bird being healthy and playing her role really well, and Seattle’s most used starting five has been impressive.

The Mercury lineup is a bit of a different story. The defense has been strong because you have Brittney Griner at the five and one of the W’s best defenders, Brianna Turner, at the four, which is why there’s a 90.0 defensive rating. Offensively, the 51.9 true shooting percentage from that lineup is a far from from the over-60 TS% of the other two groups. Phoenix needs Diana Taurasi back, as the version of the lineup that swaps Megan Walker for Taurasi has a 100.8 offensive rating. (It has been a defensive disaster through 65 minutes, though.)

Lineups That Have Struggled

As for some high-usage lineups that have struggled, the fourth and fifth-most used lineups in the league have negative net ratings.

New York’s lineup of Shook, Onyenwere, Whitcomb, Laney, and Ionescu has a -1.9 net rating. The offense has been strong there, but that unit allows 105.3 points per 100 possessions.

See Also

There’s an obvious answer to why that lineup has struggled: the lack of Natasha Howard. While this exact lineup with Shook subbed out for Howard has technically been worse, that group has played just 23 minutes together because of Howard’s injury. The versatility of Howard at the five should make this a potent lineup once we get the chance to see it again.

The other lineup that’s struggled, with a -2.2 net rating, is Chicago’s five of Ndour-Fall, Hebard, Copper, DeShields and Vandersloot. That grouping has played 87 minutes, and that fact alone can explain why the Sky have struggled this season. We talk plenty about the lack of Candace Parker being why they kept losing, but the Allie Quigley injury and Azurá Stevens not giving the team what she did in 2020 have also been key reasons.

In fact, that same lineup with Ndour-Fall subbed out for Stevens has been the team’s second-most used lineup, and it’s good for a 18.9 net rating. The offense runs a lot better with Stevens in there. It runs even better with a Parker and Stefanie Dolson frontcourt, as that unit is at a 20.0 net rating in 34 minutes. As the Sky get healthy and can stay away from using that most-used lineup, they’re going to keep improving. Like James Kay said, the Sky championship hopes haven’t vanished, but they need to win now. They’re finally getting a chance to play a lineup that’s built to win. 

Another group that’s struggled in big minutes—not counting that Mercury one that I mentioned earlier—is Indiana’s most-used lineup: Teaira McCowan, Jessica Breland, Tiffany Mitchell, Danielle Robinson, and Kelsey Mitchell. The defense from that unit has been solid, but Kelsey Mitchell’s efficiency issues—which can partially be blamed on the poor spacing from this lineup—have really tanked the offense. The 94.1 offensive rating is the second-lowest of any lineup to play at least 60 minutes.

Other Interesting Lineup-Related Tidbits

Alright, so that’s some data from the top lineups. Let’s just quickly run through some more units that haven’t played as much but maybe should (or shouldn’t) based on the Small Sample Size data.

  • Remember that Stephanie Talbot lineup for Seattle? Well if you sub Talbot out for Katie Lou Samuelson, the net rating rises to 38.1. Putting shooters around two of the league’s best players: it works!
  • The best Vegas lineup has been the starting five but with Liz taken out for Dearica Hamby. There’s a 27.3 net rating with that unit, in large part because the defense has played so well.
  • On the bad end, the most-used lineup with all three of the bigs—A’ja, Liz, Hamby—has a -15.6 net rating. There have been times in the past where I thought a unit like that could work and maybe it still could, if you subbed Jackie Young out for either Riquna Williams or Kelsey Plum to bring in better spacing. But so far this year, it hasn’t.
  • No Dallas Wings lineup has played more than 44 minutes, but the top one—Harrison, Thornton, Mabrey, Ogunbowale, and Harris—has an offensive rating of 120.6. The defense has been almost as bad as the offense has been good, but I think this speaks well to the argument that Tyasha Harris should play more.
  • Meanwhile, the second and third-most used lineups have been disasters for Dallas, with offensive ratings under 80. Both fives feature Moriah Jefferson and Charli Collier, so maybe…don’t play those two together at this point?
  • Minnesota has had injuries all year, so they haven’t really gotten to run the lineups they might have wanted to. But their most-used lineup has a net rating of 62.8—yes, SIXTY TWO POINT EIGHT. That group—Fowles, Collier, Carleton, McBride, Clarendon—is definitely not the lineup anyone expected to see a lot of this year, considering Clarendon wasn’t even on this team to start the season, but the spacing of Carleton, Collier, and McBride mixed with the inside threat of Fowles and the capable ball-handling of Clarendon has that lineup humming along.
  • This is absolutely meaningless, but if we take all minutes filters off and look at every single grouping to play together at all, eight lineups have a net rating of 300 in one minute of action. But of lineups to appear in at least two games, the best is Seattle’s Ezi Magbegor, Breanna Stewart, Epiphanny Prince, Jewel Loyd, and Jordin Canada. They’ve played just one minute together across those two games, but it was a really good minute!

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