Breaking down the best NBA lineups of the last 18 seasons.
Ranking the Best NBA Lineups
Rolling out a dominant starting five is the dream of just about anyone who coaches an NBA team (as well as their fans). The "death lineup" of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Green of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors helped their team achieve the winningest NBA record, finishing up with a record-breaking 73-9.
We decided to go back through the last 18 seasons to see where we could find the other winningest lineups across the NBA and to see which teams were more offensively oriented (or more defensively oriented). Some of our findings may be a little surprising. Let's take a look at what we discovered.
Best of the Best
It's one thing to have an incredible five-person lineup once, but what about multiple times during almost two decades? The San Antonio Spurs definitely did, which is one reason they're at the top of our list. They're No. 1 with the best lineups overall since 2000, which definitely checks out. During that time frame, they won their division 12 times out of 18 and went to the NBA Finals five times (winning four championships). They didn't necessarily have the top lineups while on offense, coming in at 12th overall, but their defensive lineups were stellar and at the top of the chart in this category.
The second team for the overall greatest number of top-tier lineups over this period was the Los Angeles Lakers. They were tops on offense, but not quite tops as far as defense went, landing at No. 9 on our list. Over the last 18 seasons, they've had a lot of success in the postseason, including seven finals appearances and five championships.
The Los Angeles Clippers are third on the list for overall best lineups, but they didn't have the successes the first two teams on the list did. The franchise has yet to win its first NBA Finals, and during the time frame we're talking about here, they didn't advance past the conference semifinals despite having great lineups. Their defensive lineups were No. 2, and their offensive lineups were fourth on our list, but it didn't add up to postseason success over these 18 seasons.
Top (and Bottom) Lineups
Next, we looked at the average point differential per 100 possessions to find the best overall lineups as well as the best offensive and defensive lineups. We also took a crack at the worst overall lineups in the NBA to see how much different a top-tier lineup performed during a game.
The best overall lineup since 2000 was the 2006-07 Houston Rockets. This killer arrangement was made up of Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes, Tracy McGrady, and Yao Ming. Per 100 possessions, they enjoyed the best net point differential at 27.4 points.
The worst lineup since 2000 was the 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers. Although Kobe Bryant was on this squad, it was his "farewell tour" season, and he only shot 35% from the field. The rest of this lineup included Jordan Clarkson, Roy Hibbert, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell. Russell was a rookie that year, and Clarkson and Randle were only in their second season in the league – so not exactly a world-beating lineup. This team's point differential was -25.1 points during this season.
Another "worst lineups" team was the 2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers, which leads to a really great story. The Cavs stunk up the season, going 17 and 65, which wound up guaranteeing the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft. Their selection? None other than LeBron James, who would play in Cleveland for seven seasons, depart for the warmer weather of Miami (where he would win two NBA championships with the Heat), and then return to Cleveland, where he'd lead the Cavs to the finals four seasons in a row and would help the team secure its first NBA Finals championship following the 2015-16 season.
Which Was Your Team's Best Lineup?
Finally, we looked at each team's best lineup since 2000. These lineups were based on net point differential per 100 possessions, and those Houston Rockets from 2006-07 with a 27.4 differential climbed to the top easily. The New York Knicks of the 2012-13 season weren't too far behind with a 27.3 differential and featured the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, and J.R. Smith – not exactly a lineup full of scrubs.
The 2005-06 Dallas Mavericks had a pretty sweet lineup themselves, sporting a 25.5 point differential. Dirk Nowitzki, Adrian Griffin, Josh Howard, DeSagana Diop, and Jason Terry helped the Mavericks go all the way to the finals, where they ultimately lost to the Miami Heat in six games.
Also, don't forget about the Indiana Pacers' 2003-04 lineup. Featured in this amazing five-person lineup were Metta World Peace, Jeff Foster, Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal, and Jamaal Tinsley. This squad made it to the Eastern Conference finals but ultimately fell to the Detroit Pistons two games to four.
The best five-person lineups can often wreak havoc on the NBA. Consider that particular death lineup of the Golden State Warriors during the 2016-17 season, which tore through their schedule and came out with the best record in NBA history, upending a record that had stood since the 1996 Bulls. While a hardcore lineup doesn't necessarily guarantee glory, it certainly won't hurt.
At the end of each NBA season, there remains only one team, but historically lethal lineups (whether they take home the trophy) are certainly a ton of fun to watch.
For a lineup to be counted, the lineup had to have spent a minimum of 250 minutes on the court together.
The best overall lineups were determined by looking at the lineups with the highest net point differential per 100 possessions each season. This means if you were to give one lineup the ball 100 times, the net point differential would be the number of points ahead or behind that lineup compared to its opponent on average.
Teams with the best lineups were determined by collecting the top 20 lineups by net point differential per 100 possessions and assigning them an inverse score. The lineup with the No. 1 ranking for the 2000-01 season received 20 points, lineup No. 2 received 19 points, and lineup No. 20 received one point, etc. These were totaled across all the seasons, and the San Antonio Spurs had the highest score.
The "Best Lineups, by Team" was determined by looking at the lineups with the largest net point differential per 100 possessions in a team's history.
Some teams haven't had the same names/cities since 2000. The following were consolidated:
- The Vancouver Grizzlies + Memphis Grizzlies
- The New Jersey Nets + Brooklyn Nets
- The Seattle Supersonics + Oklahoma City Thunder
- The Charlotte Hornets (2000-02) + Charlotte Bobcats + Charlotte Hornets (2015-present)
- The New Orleans Hornets + New Orleans Pelicans
Fair Use Statement
Are you eager to share our work along with your dreamy five-person starting lineup, or are you just jumping to bestow our findings on your readers? If so, please link back to this page, and remember, this content may only be shared for noncommercial use.