I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight: Must've Been a Lineup of Death | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight: Must’ve Been a Lineup of Death

Updated: September 9, 2016


Death lineups were all #NBATwitter could talk about at times last season. But Randy Wittman rarely employed “death” in lineup form during his tenure with the Wizards. And perhaps that was the death of him—inflexibility, that is, which is contrary to the hallmark of versatile death lineups.

The Golden State Warriors made famous a killer five-man unit of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala, Harrison Barnes (now Kevin Durant), and Draymond Green. All good passers, with positions 3-thru-5 capable of playing inside and out, and two out-of-this-world shooters—and of course this concept would not succeed without a unique player like Green.

Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer recently wrote about Golden State’s general matchup superiority, plus five up-and-coming teams that “have what it takes to find success out of the Warriors model.” Those teams: the Pistons, Magic, Jazz, Celtics, and Timberwolves (1).

How we got here is fairly elementary. Effective lineups in today’s game demand an increased premium on 3-point shooting atop the long-entrenched presence of athletic big men who can spread the floor but do all the other dirty defensive work required (Rasheed Wallace is long gone and Kevin Garnett is almost there). This Golden State scheme is just another chapter in the book. Yesterday’s stretch-4 is today’s stretch-5.

You have to go far down the list of top Wizards lineups from 2015-16 to find one that did not include at least one of the following “bigs”: Marcin Gortat, Nene, Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair, Ryan Hollins, Drew Gooden, or J.J. Hickson—yes, all these guys played for the Wizards last season. None of these big men, mind you, can shoot the 3-pointer well enough to force any opposing coach to change defensive tactics, nor were they even capable of guarding ball screens by switching.

So here’s the extent of Wittman’s creativity, if you will (2):

  • John Wall, Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal, Otto Porter, and Jared Dudley saw 16 total minutes of action together over four games—Wittman’s 46th-most-used lineup. They were minus-1 in plus/minus.
  • Wall, Bradley Beal, Neal, Porter, and Dudley saw 13 minutes together to the tune of plus-16.
  • Wall, Beal, Garrett Temple, Porter, and Dudley were minus-3 over 12 minutes.
  • Wall, Sessions, Beal, Neal, and Dudley: 10 minutes on the season and an even-0 in plus/minus.

We could dive deeper into small-sized sample theaters, but let’s not. Also: Jared Dudley is no Draymond Green, but he always meant well. And, to be fair to Wittman, last season’s roster construction didn’t really allow (or convince) the coach to get wild hairs and play nearly super-small lineups. Or, the context offered by Tjarks: “The trick to small ball is playing guys who aren’t all that small.”

The current thinking in Wizards Land: Otto Porter has a 7’1.5″ wingspan and Kelly Oubre has a 7’2″ wingspan (3). The Wizards will need 2013’s third overall draft pick, Porter, more than ever. Oubre, a sophomore-to-be, isn’t completely ready, but the Wizards may not be able to afford bringing him on slowly any longer. He’s got potential on defense, anyway.

Furthermore: Washington acquired Markieff Morris on February 18 and he really became the only near-death lineup option at the 5 spot.

Morris is strong, he’s nimble on his feet, and the Wizards at least encouraged him to shoot 3s in an offense driven by John Wall. The caveats: Morris’ wingspan isn’t otherworldly (like Green’s—6’10.75″ for Morris, 7’1.25″ for Draymond), and there are times when Morris’ defensive attentiveness and willingness don’t align. What can a new environment, or occasionally used scheme, do to ignite his career?

Morris only saw around 10 minutes at the 5 for Wittman’s Wizards, per rough calculations, and that was divided between 11 different five-man units. Seven of those lineups included Wall, and three of those lineups included both Wall and Beal.

Just one lineup with Morris at 5 included both Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre as the 3-4 combo. The guards were Ramon Sessions and Marcus Thornton over that single minute of action.

Where we’ve arrived is Washington’s most capable lineup of death being Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, and Morris, obviously. Wonder what Scott Brooks thinks.

During his last season coaching in Oklahoma City, Brooks’ top 13 most-used lineups each included big man pairings between Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, and Mitch McGary. A squad of Reggie Jackson, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, Kevin Durant, and Perkins played 43 minutes together (over 8 games) to the tune of plus-6. The next small-ball lineup featuring players you’d actually want on the court played 23 minutes of action (same crew as above except with Jeremy Lamb instead of Waiters).

The general summer analysis is true: after failing to even secure a meeting with Durant and losing out to the Celtics for Plan B, Al Horford, Washington’s big splash this offseason was an overdue move: getting a new coach (4).

The theme that’s developed with the hire:

  1. Brooks will better facilitate (young) player development, and
  2. The new coach is likely much more amenable to lineup experimentation.

He won’t be coaching for his job like Wittman. That could pair nicely with whispers so far that Brooks is more “militaristic,” than his predecessor, which probably just means regimented. Plus the roster is also set up to better facilitate such.

One could envision floor-spreaders Andrew Nicholson or Jason Smith playing the 5 in a death unit (individual evaluations of pick-and-roll defense notwithstanding—I mean, that Jason Smith signing, don’t you want to just die?). In his Ringer article, Tjarks even takes some liberties in touting that Orlando could field a “death” lineup with Serge Ibaka at the 4 and Bismack Biyombo at the 5. This doesn’t actually differ much from the Wizards playing Marcin Gortat or Ian Mahinmi at the 5 next to an Oubre-Porter 3-4, or even Morris at 4.

The key to all this is, as Tjarks said, not playing so small. In other words, having “bigs” who can guard down and won’t create a severe defensive mismatch on a switch. Washington has the personnel in place with a very capable defensive lineup of Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, and Morris.

The butter is when each player is capable of being a 3-point threat. Last season’s percentages from deep: Beal (38.7%), Porter (36.7%), Wall (35.1%), Oubre (31.6%), and Morris (31.6%)—a ton of room for improvement, especially when it comes to the best shooter, Beal, who should be cracking the 40 percent mark.

Upward and onward go the Wizards, and until there is evidence, this is nothing but fodder—or embalming fluid, depending on your outlook. At least the infrastructure provides more promise than it does the proverbial nail in the coffin.


  1. For the Wizards, it’s hard to discern whether they are on the come-up, a downturn, or simply staying midrange.
  2. Lineup data via NBA.com/stats.
  3. Wingspans via DraftExpress.com.
  4. But a “consolation prize” Scott Brooks was not—he was hired before 2016 free agency even began.
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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.