First, an exercise: write down who you think is the Knicks' best five-man lineup. Now, using NBA.com's lineup data, you can see how that group has performed so far this season. Granted, there's a lot to consider when trying to determine a team's best overall lineup. Sometimes, a unit's success is based on match-ups. For instance, take this lineup:
The lineup of Ntilikina-Lee-McDermott-Beasley-O'Quinn is New York's fourth-most used lineup, having played a total of 59 minutes this season. During that fairly substantial sample size, they are outscoring opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions, a rate that would rank second in the league, just behind the Golden State Warriors. Does that mean that this group should get more minutes? Not necessarily. This second unit plays almost exclusively against opposing bench squads. Chances are, if that group were to face starter-caliber players, their net rating wouldn't look so rosy. This lineup is very good at what it is asked to do, but it likely shouldn't be asked to do much more, based on talent alone.
A team's best lineup can be situational too. Sometimes, the best unit to start the game is not best-suited to finish it. Match-ups again play a major part in this. Most teams still start a traditional center, but by the time crunch-time rolls around, they've gone to smaller, more skilled lineups. So, even though many Knicks fans have vehemently opposed Enes Kanter's fourth quarter disappearances, it makes sense that he would move to the bench; he cannot keep up defensively with most teams' closing units. Of the guys who play regular minutes, Kanter has the worst fourth quarter net rating (I wrote about how tricky it is to evaluate Kanter here).
With all that in mind, I looked at which lineups have been most successful so far this season and one popped out to me:
Ntilikina-Hardaway Jr.-Lee-McDermott-Porzingis is the "small-ball" group with enough playmaking and two-way ability to thrive in crunch time. Even factoring in THJ's prolonged injury, it feels borderline criminal for this group to have only tallied 11 minutes together on the season, especially considering how they've blitzed teams in their few minutes together. In raw plus/minus, this group is +23, which ranks second-best of all the Knicks lineups, despite the limited action.
Even though NBA.com will tell you this lineup has been featured in three games, that includes one second of action during the Charlotte Hornets game on November 7. So, functionally, this group has seen minutes in just two games: the second quarter of the heartbreaking loss to Cleveland on November 13 and the closing minutes of the November 15 win versus the Utah Jazz.
During that Cleveland game, this group outscored the Cavs 19-4, including a 15-0 run that featured this sequence:
This is the lineup at its best. First, it's long and feisty defensively. Even McDermott, who casual fans might think of as a minus defender, plays with maximum effort on that end. This is a lineup that can wreak havoc on D, forcing turnovers, and unlike most Knicks lineups, this group has the ball-handling ability and athleticism to push in transition:
Against the Jazz, this lineup played the final 6:18 of the fourth quarter, when the Knicks were losing 93-91. It closed the game on a 15-8 stretch to win by five. It's remarkable that they were even able to score 15 points, given that they shot just 3-of-13 during the closing minutes. They were able to pull off the win by playing lockdown defense and getting to the free throw line (another thing this lineup is built to do). But, even though they were missing, it was the types of shots they were generating that was encouraging:
This is a simple play with a high screen set by Porzingis for Ntilikina. Frank shows tremendous feel here, knowing that McDermott's man will have to help on the Porzingis roll, and throws a pinpoint pass for a corner three by the Knicks' best shooter. This is a shot that New York will take every time down the stretch.
The threat of the three-pointer is probably the most dangerous thing about this group. The Knicks, as a whole, shoot the fewest percentage of their shots from three in the league at just 25.9%. But, when this group has been on the floor, it has shot 31.6% of its shots from deep, a more respectable figure. In this clip below, McDermott, the team's best cutter, sprints to the rim to create space for Porzingis, sucking in the defense:
One benefit of all the spacing this lineup provides is it means fewer possessions settling for mid-range jump shots. The Knicks shoot the most mid-range jumpers per game in the league, accounting for 43.6% of their total shots, per NBA Wowy. But, with this unit of Ntilikina-THJ-Lee-McDermott-Porzingis, they have taken only 26.3% of their shots from mid-range, a recipe for more efficient offense.
You might look at that lineup and say there's not enough rebounding, size or toughness to close out games, but against most teams in clutch situations, it's skill, speed and shooting that wins down the stretch. Granted, this five-man unit has played so few minutes that maybe it's foolish to draw many conclusions from its statistical dominance. But, even if you threw out the numbers, this is a team that fits together on paper. Hardaway Jr. and Lee make up for Ntilikina's playmaking skills, which are still developing. On defense, Porzingis doesn't have to chase power forwards around the perimeter, taking him away from the paint, where he's the league's best rim protector. All five guys are capable three-point shooters, so Porzingis has more room to operate in isolation. And, perhaps most importantly, none of them are liabilities on defense. Here's hoping Jeff Hornacek gives this lineup more run in the coming games to see if their productivity is the real deal.