On Feb. 5, Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego made a remarkable choice. Starting point guard Terry Rozier was returning from a two-game absence because of an ankle injury. While Rozier was out, rookie point guard LaMelo Ball had joined point guard Devonte’ Graham in the starting lineup, and both had scored in double figures in each game. Up against the NBA’s best team in the Utah Jazz, Borrego threw caution to the wind and started all three together.
Though the Hornets eventually lost the game, the three-point-guard group won its 5.1 minutes by 7 points. That group likely would have played together for longer had Graham not hurt his groin in the first half. When Graham returned a week later, the Hornets started the same three-point-guard group against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and it won its 14.6 minutes by 8 points in a win.
The threesome of Ball, Rozier and Graham stealthily ran roughshod over the NBA before Ball fractured his wrist on March 20. They didn’t all become consistent starters, but they became formidable together, winning their 106 combined minutes by an astounding 51 points despite the team actually losing its total minutes by 60 before Ball’s injury. Yet that lineup’s performance actually fits snugly within a recent trend in the NBA: the success of prominent three-point-guard lineups.
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Using Second Spectrum data, FiveThirtyEight looked at lineups since the 2014-15 season to feature three guards who each recorded at least 18 pick and rolls per 100 possessions in at least 40 team games played. We then cross-referenced the players in those lineups with their positions assigned on Cleaning the Glass to isolate those who were regularly classified as a point guard or combo guard. That left us with five three-point-guard lineups with at least 200 possessions played together — all of which outscored the full lineups of their teams over the course of the season in question.1
|2020-21 Hornets||LaMelo Ball • Terry Rozier • Devonte’ Graham||213||+25.4||-1.7|
|2019-20 Thunder||Shai Gilgeous-Alexander • Chris Paul • Dennis Schröder||850||+31.4||+1.9|
|2018-19 Clippers||Patrick Beverley • Lou Williams • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander||292||+4.8||+0.7|
|2014-15 Raptors||Lou Williams • Greivis Vásquez • Kyle Lowry||389||+7.4||+3.5|
|2014-15 Suns||Isaiah Thomas • Eric Bledsoe • Goran Dragić||389||+6.6||-0.2|
The purpose of playing three point guards at the same time is simple: trade size for skill and hope the benefits — particularly maximizing the ball-handling on the floor — outweigh the costs. It’s possible for multiple players to initiate the offense, but the real threat is that once a defense is compromised, there are other point guards on the floor who can capitalize with shooting, driving or passing when attacking rotating defenders. Per Second Spectrum, Graham, Rozier and Ball are three of Charlotte’s four most efficient scorers when attacking closeouts. Such skill sets can be more than the sum of their parts in creating open shots.
In 2019-20, Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were three of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s four best against closeouts.2 While the trios of point guards for the 2014-15 Phoenix Suns, 2014-15 Toronto Raptors and 2018-19 Los Angeles Clippers were relatively less effective at attacking closeouts compared to their respective teams, those three lineups had significantly smaller performance gaps with their teams in general.
These lineups found similar frameworks for success. The three-point-guard lineups all played with more pace than their overall teams. Other than the Raptors, they recorded effective field-goal percentages in the 93rd percentile or higher for their respective seasons. The three-point-guard lineups had lower turnover percentages on offense and forced higher ones on defense as compared to their team averages, with the lone exception of the Hornets this season. All five lineups scored at a 91st-percentile rate or above, generally by minimizing mistakes, drawing free throws and ratcheting up both transition attempts and efficiency.
The three-point-guard unit is thus a hypermodern reflection of the pace-and-space era itself: It prioritizes ball-handling, speed, shooting and turnovers while punting on the size that’s so helpful for rebounding — a process that the NBA at large has already begun.
It’s clear that three-point-guard lineups can work, at least in limited samples. But then why is it not a more popular lineup choice for teams around the league?
Just one great point guard is difficult for teams to attain, let alone three. And in a league with limited money to spend, there could be diminishing returns on hiring players that play the same positions along with an opportunity cost of having fewer resources to fill out the rest of the roster.
And there seem to be further requirements for success. One of the point guards in each grouping — Ball for the Hornets, Gilgeous-Alexander for the Thunder and Clippers, Bledsoe for the Suns and Vásquez for the Raptors — was either the size of a wing or comfortable defending wings. The groups also seem to be best deployed alongside a fourth player who can function both as an initiator capable of extending advantages created by the guards and as a shooter who can convert those advantages; Gordon Hayward for the Hornets and Danilo Gallinari for the Thunder and Clippers are similar do-everything wings. Having three point guards isn’t sufficient to ensure a lineup’s success, as teams also need an orbiting core that can complement the guards’ strengths and offset their weaknesses.3
The four previous three-point-guard lineups have another thing in common: None could capitalize in the postseason. The Thunder, Clippers and Raptors lost in the first round of their respective playoffs, while the Suns — who had traded away Thomas and Dragić in February 2015 — didn’t even qualify for the postseason.4 The three-point-guard teams that made the playoffs achieved mixed results. The Raptors’ net rating with three point guards was -21.9 as the Washington Wizards swept them out of the playoffs, while the Clippers’ was an even worse -44.0 in their six-game defeat to the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder alone found playoff success with its three-point-guard lineup, with a net rating of 11.4, though of course they lost the series. But in general, the lineups committed more turnovers, shot less efficiently from the field and created fewer advantages in the open court than they had during their regular seasons.
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And it’s playoff success that ultimately determines whether an attempt at revolutionizing basketball spreads through the league or fades after brief flirtations — think Stephen Curry’s pull-up shooting versus James Harden’s isolation play. Until a three-point-guard group makes real noise in the playoffs, we likely won’t see teams going out of their way to copy the setup.
So it’s worth asking what the moderate success of teams that employ lineups with three point guards implies for the future of the league. Is the three-point-guard lineup a product of necessity — a side effect of coaches with unbalanced rosters playing all their best players at the same time? Or is it a prototype of the league’s future in its catalysis of pace and skill?
Borrego and the Hornets will give us some semblance of an answer in the offseason. Ball and Rozier are on contract beyond this season, but Graham will be a free agent this summer. He should command a huge raise from his current $1.7 million salary. He’ll be restricted, meaning that Charlotte can match any offer sheet he signs with another team, so the team’s decision will be revealing.
If Charlotte empties the vault to keep three starter-level point guards on the roster, despite the star-level trajectory of Ball and the presence of a max-contract player in Hayward, it would signify the team is intentionally committing to the long-term outlook of its three-headed hydra. If Charlotte lets Graham walk, then we’ll have to wait for the next three-point-guard experiment to know if it can win in the crucible of the postseason.
Yet if a team is able to survive deep in the playoffs behind three point guards, it may look something like Charlotte has. The Hornets are currently the 4-seed in the East, and there’s a chance that Ball could return in time for the playoffs. Per Second Spectrum, Ball is the only one of the three point guards averaging at least 1.0 point per possession while running a pick and roll, but you only need one player to act as the primary initiator. All three are elite catch-and-shoot shooters, with Ball owning the worst percentage of the three at 39.8 percent. In Hayward and Miles Bridges, Charlotte has two versatile wings who can shoot, fill multiple roles on defense and support the three point guards. They can play small with P.J. Washington at center or big with Cody Zeller.
If Charlotte does eventually trot out its three-point-guard group in the playoffs, perhaps it will be able to force enough turnovers to maintain a solid transition game. It’s no fluke that Charlotte’s three-point-guard groupings annihilated their opponents with a 25.4 point differential per 100 possessions. Last season’s Thunder fielded the only other three-point-guard group to equal or surpass those numbers, and it actually won its 108 playoff minutes by 29 points, making it Oklahoma’s winningest three-player lineup in the losing series.
Maybe Charlotte will break the playoff series win barrier that its predecessors couldn’t, and teams will mimic the Hornets going forward. Or maybe the idea will fade over time. The choices of coaches like Borrego and the play of point guards like Ball and his linemates will largely determine which path the three-point-guard rotation follows.
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