This article is part one of a two-part series guessing every NBA team’s biggest lineup questions for 2018-2019. The questions do not necessarily need to be about the starting lineup, but about possible combinations that could be prevalent in a given game. Stay tuned for part two.
Atlanta Hawks: Is John Collins a center?
More than most other rebuilding teams, the Atlanta Hawks actually have a clear starting lineup. Rookie and fifth overall pick, Trae Young should be manning the point. The contract formerly known as Kent Bazemore should start at the two. Potential three-and-D’er Taurean Prince should start at small forward. The bouncy John Collins should start at power forward. And veteran rim protector, Dewayne Dedmon should start at center. Outside of Dedmon, the Hawks have little depth at center. Furthermore, general manager Travis Schlenk has been adamant about the idea of putting as much shooting on the floor as possible. Therefore, the team might try to play John Collins at center for stretches of games.
On paper, having the explosive, rim-running John Collins take minutes at the center may seem like a good idea. Offensively, he would provide much needed spacing for the Hawks treasure chest of young shooters. And being that his offensive game is not as diverse as many other young forwards, perhaps this is the natural progression of his game. The problem is, last year the Hawks tried this experiment out and suffered poor results. In the 1330 possessions John Collins played last year without Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala or Miles Plumlee, the Atlanta Hawks were outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions, while only being outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions regularly.
This is because John Collins may suffer from the Kenneth Faried conundrum. To put it simply, despite Collins dynamite dives, he lacks the size to defend fives and lacks the offensive versatility and lateral quickness to defend wings.
Perhaps the Hawks will do better with their Collins-at-center minutes this season, as their roster does look different from last year’s. If these lineups do not work, Collins could see a decrease in his minutes per game.
Boston Celtics: Are Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes necessary for good defensive lineups?
It would not surprise me if Celtics head coach, Brad Stevens, decided to start Aron Baynes at the five, and bring either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum off the bench for select games this season. However, it is pretty apparent that the Celtics five best players are Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. Therefore, Stevens should start the five of them for the majority of their games. The problem is, in 1022 possessions without Baynes or defensive wiz Marcus Smart, the Celtics only outscored opponents by .1 points per 100 possessions last season. This is due to just how much the two give the team defensively, despite being extremely limited on offense. And with the return of Gordon Hayward this season, Baynes and Smart should see less minutes in 2018-2019.
This may not matter, as the Celtics should be much better in possessions without the two, due to Hayward’s offensive fortitude. When the Celtics need to get stops, I doubt that Baynes or Smart would not be on the floor. Balancing offensive and defensive talent is one of the best problems a team could have, but in the end, it is still a problem the Celtics will need to deal with in 2018-2019.
Brooklyn Nets: Who is going to start?
With immense guard and forward depth, it is possible that the Brooklyn Nets only have one starting lineup spot locked in for next season, with second-year big Jarrett Allen likely starting at center. With ball handlers Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell, sharpshooters Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris, and defensive specialists DeMarre Carroll and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all deserved of minutes, head coach Kenny Atkinson will need to make some tough decisions. They could stick to a prospect-heavy starting lineup, in which DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris hit the pine, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson starts at the four, and Dinwiddie, Russell and LeVert man the one-to-three. With Carroll starting 73 and Crabbe starting 68 games last season, I doubt that Atkinson won’t want to get some veteran leadership in the front five.
And with Dinwiddie, Hollis-Jefferson, LeVert and Russell all showing promise last season, they will likely need to battle it out in training camp to see who will acquire starting spots. Applaud the once laughable Brooklyn Nets for putting together a team filled with young talent, despite not having their own pick since 2013, but perhaps benching some of their youth will tarnish their development.
Charlotte Hornets: What is the situation from shooting guard to power forward?
With James Borrego taking over the head coaching role from Steve Clifford, the Spurs alum may want to make some changes to the Hornets starting lineup. Diet Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker will still be starting at the point, and after the Dwight Howard experiment, Cody Zeller should be back starting at center next season. But perhaps Borrego will try to break up the two-to-four triumvirate of Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams, by swapping one or two of the three out for rookie Miles Bridges or sixth man Jeremy Lamb. The question is, who?
Despite his deteriorating health and athleticism, Nicolas Batum is still useful as a secondary ball handler. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist provides some much needed defense to the unit, even though he has the offensive game of a pylon. And Marvin Williams provides great spacing for Walker’s drives and Zeller’s rolls. Though Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, Walker and Williams outscored opponents by three points per 100 possessions last season, being that the team did not make the playoffs for the second year straight, maybe it is time for a change.
Chicago Bulls: What is the best frontcourt combination?
The Chicago Bulls are weird. Next season they will be paying the defenseless and injury prone Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker over 20 million dollars apiece, and the team would be lucky to be twenty-fifth in the league in defense. The weirdest thing of all is just how cluttered the Bulls are in the frontcourt. The team will likely start Parker at the three next season, despite his inability to defend wings, while stretch big Lauri Markkanen starts at the four, and one of rookie Wendell Carter or veteran Robin Lopez starts at center.
Outside of them, big man Bobby Portis deserves at least twenty minutes a game. Human gummy bear Cristiano Felicio will be paid a whopping 8.5 million next season and might get minutes for that simple reason. And swingman Justin Holiday and forward Chandler Hutchison should both see minutes at small forward.
The team could try to get Holiday and Hutchison their minutes by going small for some lineups and putting Markkanen at the five, but those lineups got destroyed defensively last season.
The Bulls balancing act will be difficult. And being that head coach Fred Hoiberg is on the hot seat, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein, let’s hope he finds the perfect combinations.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Who is going to start?
Much like the Brooklyn Nets, the Cleveland Cavaliers might only have one guaranteed starting spot next season: Kevin Love. Outside of him, they have two solid point guards, in veteran George Hill, and eighth overall pick, Collin Sexton. At the wing, the team rosters a mix of inconsistent and defenseless players, in Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman and JR Smith. And, being that Love is a poor defender, one of Larry Nance, Tristan Thompson or Ante Zizic will likely start beside him.
Personally, I would love to see the Cavs start a two-point guard lineup of George Hill and Collin Sexton, as George Hill is a great shooter off the catch, and both are solid defensively. I’m not sure if head coach Tyronn Lue would be open to that. Between Hood, Korver, Osman and Smith, I can see Lue starting any of them. Hood is the most offensively versatile of the four, while Korver is the most dependable, Osman is the most natural small forward, and Smith started 61 games last season. And as the second big beside Kevin Love, I would prefer Larry Nance to Thompson or Zizic, as Zizic is too unproven, and Thompson was one of the worst players in the league last season.
With LeBron James taking his talents to the west coast, the Cavs will need to fight for a playoff spot for the first time since 2013-2014. However, it seems as if they are up for the challenge, re-signing Kevin Love for four years, 120 million.
Detroit Pistons: Who are the best wings?
There is no question that Pistons head coach, Dwane Casey will be starting Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond at the four and five, as those two are the team’s best players. Despite having consistency issues since his 2016 injury, Reggie Jackson will likely start at point guard. Therefore, the only two starting spots up for grabs are shooting guard and small forward. Casey will need to choose between four competent wings, who pretty much form a spectrum. On one end is the sharpshooting second-year Luke Kennard, who lacks a defensive game. Following him, is the better defending, Reggie Bullock. After Bullock, is the worse shooting, yet better defending, Glenn Robinson. And finally, there is the defensive specialist, and offensive nightmare, Stanley Johnson.
And despite Johnson starting 50 games last season, the Detroit Pistons should consider starting the shooting side of the spectrum. With the offensively limited Andre Drummond starting at center, and point guard Reggie Jackson shooting just 30.8% from three last season, the Pistons need some spacing in their starting lineup. That’s where Kennard and Bullock come in. Both Kennard and Bullock shot over 40% from three last season, and with them on the floor, the Pistons annihilated opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possession. And with Drummond, Griffin and Jackson forming a decent defensive trio last season, they can risk a worsened defense for a much improved offense.
Indiana Pacers: Can Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner work together?
Once again, having an excess of young talent is always a good problem to have. When you have too much talent concentrated into one position, it could end up stunting development. Unfortunately, this is the case for the Indiana Pacers. 22-year-old centers, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have both shown flashes of brilliance in their tenures with the Pacers. When sharing the floor last season, the two were outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions.
Head coach Nate McMillan should try the combination out again next season, if it continues to fail, the Pacers should consider putting one of their centers on the trade market. And although Myles Turner started 62 games for the Indiana Pacers last season, perhaps he should be the one to go. Not only because the Victor Oladipo-Domantas Sabonis duo worked better for the Pacers last season than the Oladipo-Turner duo, but because Myles Turner hits free agency in 2019, while Sabonis becomes a restricted free agent in 2020. Therefore, the Pacers should opt for the cheaper center, and save up their money in 2019 for a bigger fish.
And being that Turner is still a very valuable player, he should be able to attract a decent package filled with either win-now or future talent.
Miami Heat: Is there a concrete starting lineup?
Last season, the Miami Heat started 25 different lineup combinations in the regular season. Three players, Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside, started all games in which they were available. Outside of the three, no player started more than 41 games.
The Heat’s most common unit of Dragic, Richardson, Whiteside, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson was unexceptional, being outscored by 1.6 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, perhaps the team would like to see Justise Winslow in a more prominent role before he hits restricted free agency in 2019.
The question is, how will the starting lineup change? Dragic, Richardson and Whiteside will likely continue to start, but outside of them, no one should be guaranteed a spot.
Milwaukee Bucks: Who will start at center?
This is an intriguing question for the Bucks, as neither option of theirs is rather solid. First, there is John Henson, who started 69 games for the Bucks last season. Though he was a good rebounder and had the wingspan and athleticism to guard wings better than most centers, he was an average rim protector, and contributed nothing offensively, as he was a mediocre roller, per NBA.com’s play type stats, and could not shoot the three. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks also signed Brook Lopez this offseason, who despite being a much better offensive player, with the ability to shoot threes and play the post, as well as a rim protector, lacks the athleticism to switch.
Perhaps head coach Mike Budenholzer would prefer starting Lopez over Henson, as historically, Bud has preferred skill to athleticism.
New York Knicks: Who will start at point guard and center?
Right now, the Knicks likely have the middle three spots of their opening day starting lineup scratched out. Three-and-D’er Courtney Lee and scorer Tim Hardaway will likely start at two and three, while rookie Kevin Knox takes power forward, as Kristaps Porzingis recovers from his ACL tear.
Yet point guard and center are still wide open. At point guard, the competition will be between Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina, all of whom have their cases. Trey Burke is the most offensively inclined of the three, but due to his small stature, he leaves a lot to be desired defensively. Emmanuel Mudiay’s elite athleticism has always been intriguing and in his three seasons in the NBA, he is yet to post a real plus-minus better than -3.78. And despite Frank Ntilikina being the best defender of the three, he struggled as a shooter and playmaker in his rookie season.
Meanwhile, at the center, there is a serious case of devil you do know versus devil you don’t. There’s Enes Kanter, who started 71 games for the Knicks last season but is one of the worst defensive centers in the league. And then there’s the 36th overall pick, Mitchell Robinson, who despite being a better defensive player than Kanter, is nothing more than a rim runner offensively.
If the Knicks are looking to get into the playoff picture, the best combination could be Burke and Robinson, as Robinson would provide much needed rim protection in Porzingis’ absence, while Burke, despite being a terrible defender, improved the Knicks offense by 6.9 points per 100 possessions last season.
If they want to try out their young talent, Ntilikina and Robinson is a sensible combination, as well. Just don’t start Mudiay. Please.
Orlando Magic: What is the best frontcourt combination?
Much like the Chicago Bulls, this question must be asked for the Orlando Magic. The team has two minute-worthy power forwards, in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, and two minute-worthy centers, in Mohamed Bamba and Nikola Vucevic. And, much like the Bulls, the Magic could very well try starting Aaron Gordon at small forward, despite him being a natural power forward. If they do that, capable wings, Terrence Ross and Jonathon Simmons, will lose minutes. Furthermore, the team would be missing out on potential strong combinations, like pairing Gordon with Isaac at four and five.
With significant clutter in their frontcourt, the Orlando Magic will likely make someone unhappy next season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Could Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz work together?
Last season, the Philadelphia 76ers starting lineup of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid had the best net-rating of any lineup that played at least 200 minutes. Therefore, I doubt that the 76ers will break that up this season to try out an unproven prospect.
Simmons and Markelle Fultz should see minutes on the floor together next season. Success in these minutes will all come down to whether or not Markelle Fultz has actually reformed his jump shot.
The 2017 first overall pick was particularly notable for his case of the yips last season, in which the form of his jump shot had changed due to injury.
For example, here was Fultz’s jump shot in college:
And here’s what it was at his worst in the NBA:
A large part of Fultz’s appeal as a prospect was his ability to hit 41.3% of his threes in college, and if he cannot carry his shooting into the NBA, he will be a clunky fit next to Ben Simmons, as both are great playmakers, who lack the ability to shoot off of the ball.
Hopefully, Fultz gets it together in 2018-2019 and proves to be an essential member to a contending Sixers team.
Toronto Raptors: Could there be more changes to the starting lineup?
With a new head coach and changed roster, the Toronto Raptors may only have three starting lineup spots locked down. Kyle Lowry will start at point guard, as he is easily the team’s second best player. Kawhi Leonard will start, as he is easily the team’s first best player. And Danny Green will likely start, as well, as he is one of the league’s most prolific three-and-D’ers.
And then, some combination of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas will take over the four and five. Though Ibaka and Valanciunas started 76 and 77 games, respectively, perhaps the Raptors could benefit by swapping out Valanciunas for Siakam. In which case, Ibaka would slide to the five, which would further emphasize him rim protection, while understating his declining athleticism. Meanwhile, Siakam has proven the ability to switch onto any position, which would surely help the Raptors defense. Valanciunas would then power the second unit offensively, in a role similar to what Enes Kanter had with the Thunder or what Greg Monroe had with the Bucks.
Washington Wizards: Do Wall and Beal always need to play together?
Last season, John Wall played 90.8% of his minutes next to Bradley Beal. For comparison’s sake, in Houston, Chris Paul only played 51.9% of his minutes next to James Harden. Basically, what I am saying is, the Washington Wizards should consider staggering the minutes of John Wall and Bradley Beal, in order to always have a legitimate scoring threat on the floor, instead of choosing to play most of their minutes together, minimizing their personal outputs.
With a trio of competent backup guards, in Troy Brown, Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky, the Washington Wizards now have the personnel to do this successfully, without losing too much in a given lineup. And then, when the Wizards need to boost their offense, they could play Beal and Wall together, similar to the Rockets, with their star-studded backcourt.
Despite a mix of toxic personalities, the Washington Wizards have a more talented roster than last season. Head coach Scott Brooks needs to try something new, in order to keep the Wizards relevant. Perhaps this change would be a step in the right direction.