North Carolina’s Lineup Issues Demand a Change: Here’s a SolutionPosted by KCarpenter on February 13th, 2013
Andrew Jones makes a compelling case describing the problems that North Carolina has faced this season — the short story is that the Tar Heels haven’t been getting very effective play out of the post or at the point guard position. The slightly longer story is that a lot of North Carolina’s lineups are deeply flawed, most notably the starting version. Up to the first official timeout, North Carolina has been outscored 48-17 in the past five games. This jaw-dropping number tells a simple story: UNC’s starters don’t make for a very effective offensive unit. This point has been most effectively tracked by the incomparable Adrian Atkinson, whose Twitter feed is a treasure trove of North Carolina lineup data. Still, if I had to pick a single telling fact, it would be this one: In conference play, North Carolina’s starters have posted an offensive efficiency of 76.1 while EVERY OTHER LINEUP has an average offensive efficiency of 107.2. North Carolina’s starting lineup is a problem. But, how does Roy Williams solve it?
Jones makes the argument that a lot of the difficulty hinges on the fact that the starting lineup includes two non-scorers: Desmond Hubert at center and Dexter Strickland at shooting guard. Combine this with Marcus Paige‘s inability to find the bottom of the net on most outings, and you end up with a lineup that can basically only count on Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo to score. Both Jones and Atkinson have an easy fix for the Tar Heels’ offensive woes: just add P.J. Hairston to the mix. It makes sense: According to Atkinson, with Bullock, Hairston, and McAdoo in the lineup at the same time, North Carolina has a net efficiency of +21.1 while posting a net efficiency of +0.2 when the trio aren’t playing together. On paper, the change seems clear — these three guys need to play together more often.
How does Roy Williams make this happen? Jones suggests that Hairston starts in place of Strickland. On its face, this seems an easy choice — A scorer replaces a non-scorer and Hubert still gets to start and helps UNC win the tip. I don’t think this is the answer for North Carolina, however. Strickland, while not a prolific scorer, has shown himself to be a more efficient and controlled offensive option than Paige. Strickland has an individual offensive efficiency rating of 103.4 while Paige puts up an 89.1, second lowest of all Tar Heel rotation players except for Hubert, who has an 88.2. If the goal is to boost the offense, wouldn’t it make more sense to move Strickland to point guard and bench Paige? For purposes of effectively distributing the ball and running the offense there is a case to be made that Strickland, though he isn’t a true point guard, has been better at the position than Paige. Sure, Paige leads the team in assist percentage at 24.9%, but Strickland is pretty close to him with 23.8%. The real difference for me comes in terms of ball control: Strickland has a turnover percentage of 16.3%, while the freshmen turns the ball over at a clip of 25.7%. In any case the real problem might not be one versus the other, but rather simply playing the two at the same time. Paige plays better without Strickland as a backcourt mate while Strickland also thrives with an effective shooter as a running mate. It may not matter who starts as long as these two don’t spend too much time on the floor with each other.
Of course, the issue isn’t so much that either player is bad, as there are lots of players who could help the team by playing more. With Hairston and Leslie McDonald on the bench, it seems silly to give many shooting guard minutes to Strickland or Paige. In any case, here’s a proposal: Strickland is the starting point guard and McDonald starts at shooting guard. Both of these players have a reputation as strong defensive players, important when matching up with the opponent’s most dangerous offensive players, who on most teams ostensibly will start. McDonald provides the team with a shooting guard who can shoot. Paige comes off the bench, giving him the luxury of plying his offense against worse defenders and making him less of a liability on defense. In this set-up, Hairston still comes off the bench, but if match-ups allow it, he comes in after the first official timeout and plays with Bullock and McAdoo the rest of the game. Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll probably note that this means that Hairston is coming in for Hubert or one of the Tar Heels’ unimpressive frontcourt players and that this would mean North Carolina would be playing “small.” That might seem like a tricky trade-off, especially defensively, but playing time is a zero-sum game — if Hairston is getting more time, someone else is getting less time. It’s probably better for the team if that someone getting less time is Hubert or Joel James than Bullock or McDonald.
North Carolina does need to make changes. Strickland as the starting point guard with Paige off the bench eliminates some of the disadvantages of a backcourt that can’t shoot. Going “small” early allows North Carolina to play its best players together more often and lets Williams insert Hairston into the game in a way closer to how he’s been using him all season. It’s not all that complicated: North Carolina has some very good players and if they get the chance to play more minutes together, good things should happen. Still, each game is its own wilderness and it would be expected if the lineups and rotation see some more tinkering as North Carolina comes down the stretch.