It doesn't sound like it should be much of a dilemma. The Golden State Warriors' "Death Lineup" is maybe the biggest game-changer we have in the NBA right now. Andre Iguodala checks into a game with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green on the floor. Nobody is taller than 6-feet-8, and the norms of basketball are befuddled with the way the Warriors use their lack of size and their abundance of versatility to their advantage.
Golden State is a very good team with a center like Andrew Bogut in a more traditional lineup, but the Warriors are transcendent when the Death Lineup comes in. There's a huge difference between using that lineup as a change-of-pace trump card in any given game and relying on it for extended minutes in Game 6 of the NBA Finals when you're trying to secure your second straight NBA championship. That's Steve Kerr's dilemma heading into another closeout game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
How much can you rely on something that is supposed to be so impossible to beat, and yet has only been employed 29 minutes over four of the five games so far?
The reason not to overextend this lineup is you don't want the opposing team to get used to playing against it. It's supposed to be a whirlwind experience that leaves the opponent dizzy and gasping for air. It's the lineup equivalent of playing in altitude for the first time. It also hasn't always been effective against this Cavs team during the series.
Game 1: 3 minutes, minus-2.5 points per 100 possessions
Game 2: 4 minutes, plus-125.0 points per 100 possessions
Game 3: 6 minutes, minus-57.0 points per 100 possessions
Game 4: 17 minutes, plus-14.0 points per 100 possessions
Game 5: N/A, Draymond Green suspended
Kerr has used the Death Lineup for extended minutes one time in this series, and it worked out. That also happened in Cleveland, where the success of that lineup on the opposing arena floor can add a bit more pressure to the opponent. Not only are they forced out of their comfort zone from a schematic and psychological point, but they're also forced to try to overcome the defensive excellence from a smaller team in front of stressed-out fans, potentially adding negative energy to the arena. It's easy to scoff at the idea of the crowd affecting the team they're rooting for in that manner, but it's a real thing in pressure-packed situations.
Overall in the series, we've seen roughly 30 minutes of Death Lineup on the floor and the Warriors are plus-14.1 points per 100 possessions. But does that mean the Warriors should use it a lot in Game 6, with Bogut out? Overall in the postseason, the Warriors' Death Lineup is plus-3.3 points per 100 possessions. That lineup has seen 101 minutes in 15 games. The offense has been good (110.1 points per 100 possessions) but not special. The defense has been bad (106.8) and not anything close to what it's supposed to be.
During the regular season, the Death Lineup put up a ridiculous 142 points per 100 possessions on offense, while yielding only 95. That's right; they had a net rating of plus-47 in their time on the court together. That's an insane level of dominance. But this isn't the regular season, and throwing that particular lineup on the floor against the Cavs might actually force them to play a more versatile style of basketball that behooves their effort in trying to force a Game 7.
The problem is the rest of the options, especially with Bogut unavailable because of the knee injury, are underwhelming in this postseason.
The starting lineup for the Warriors during the Finals has been entirely detrimental to their game plan. They've posted a minus-19.7 net rating, meaning they're often putting themselves in a hole either in the first quarter or coming out of halftime. The easiest solution, in theory, could be just replacing Bogut in the starting lineup with backup center Festus Ezeli. The Warriors big man was supposed to be headed toward a big payday this summer when he hits restricted free agency, but his time on the floor has become increasingly sparse while he has been anything but a positive for them.
In 35 minutes in this series, the Warriors are giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions with Ezeli on the court. And their net rating is about a half-point in their favor. Considering the confidence the Cavs showed in Game 5 while staved off elimination, you can't be sold that a big man who is struggling to anchor a defense in this series is the answer there.
There isn't a ton of data to go off in this matchup with Ezeli on the court, but the two lineups the Warriors have used the most with him as the center have been pretty successful in small doses. If you do go with Ezeli in the middle, you probably have to start Iguodala and bring Barnes off the bench. Ezeli has excelled with Iguodala on the court with him.
A lineup of Curry, Shaun Livingston, Iguodala, Green and Ezeli is a plus-38.4 in seven minutes in the Finals.
A lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green and Ezeli is a plus-44.8 in five minutes in the Finals.
Golden State is a plus-10.8 per 100 with Ezeli and Iguodala on the court together in this series, and minus-23.1 per 100 with Ezeli on the court and Iguodala on the bench.
You can kick around the idea of Anderson Varejao getting a start out of nowhere at center, but the Warriors have been destroyed in the three most-used lineups with Varejao playing. It's pretty safe to assume Kerr isn't going to throw Marreese Speights into the starting lineup.
The solution for the Warriors is probably to start with Ezeli and see how he's able to neutralize Tristan Thompson, if at all. If the Warriors can't get off to a quick start, you bring in the Death Lineup and plan on playing them anywhere from 17 to 20 minutes in the game. You can tempt fate by going longer, but LeBron James will likely be able to figure out how to exploit them the longer he's on the court with them. If the Cavs' offense is clicking at home as it often does, then you'll have even more complications in using this strategy to close out the season.
The Warriors have used this balance between big and small beautifully all season long. They need only one more burst from the Death Lineup to kill the Cavs' season.