This article is part two of a two part series guessing every NBA team’s biggest lineup questions for 2018-2019. The questions do not need to be about each team’s starting lineup, but about possible combinations that could be prevalent in a given game. Click here for part one.
Dallas Mavericks: Is Dirk Nowitzki still a guaranteed crunch time player?
Though there should be no doubts that the stretchy-as-ever Dirk Nowitzki can still be one of the Dallas Mavericks key contributors, due to the harshness of father time, Nowitzki should not be used nearly as much in crunch time.
At forty years old, Nowitzki’s flaws as an athlete and defender have become even more evident. Now, he is most comfortable playing center, as he has struggled mightily on small ball fours. With DeAndre Jordan coming to the Mavs a few years later than expected, there will be less minutes for Dirk at the five.
Furthermore, as the question indirectly states, perhaps Dirk Nowitzki is no longer one of the Mavs five best players. Prospects Dennis Smith and Luka Doncic could have terrific years this season, and wings Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are perhaps more suited for fourth-quarter minutes in the switch-heavy NBA. In fact, the trio of Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith performed better last season when Nowitzki was off of the floor.
Unlike most former NBA stars, Dirk Nowitzki is still a very solid NBA player at the age of forty. But with the ability to play a solid crunch-time five of Dennis Smith, Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan, perhaps Nowitzki is no longer suited for a regular fourth-quarter role.
Denver Nuggets: Can Will Barton really start at small forward?
In order to relieve their payroll, the Denver Nuggets traded their starting small forward, Wilson Chandler to the Philadelphia 76ers. To make up for the loss of their starting small forward, the Denver Nuggets did…nothing. Okay, not nothing. They drafted Michael Porter and re-upped Will Barton for four-years, 54 million dollars.
The problem is, Porter is still recovering from injury and is probably more suited for power forward than small forward. And at 6’6” and 175 pounds, Will Barton is more suited for shooting guard than small forward. But it seems as if the Denver Nuggets are moving on with Barton as their starting small forward.
This shouldn’t be a colossal disaster, as the New Orleans Pelicans saw success last year with the undersized E’Twaun Moore playing small forward. But with the Denver Nuggets already sporting a bottom five defense last season, having Barton at small forward should not help their chances of climbing into the top 20 in 2018-2019. This lack of defense could definitely dampen the Nuggets playoff hopes.
Golden State Warriors: How will DeMarcus Cousins integrate?
With DeMarcus Cousins still recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in late January, the Golden State Warriors will be starting the season with another center taking the tip, whether it be Jordan Bell, Damian Jones, Kevon Looney or David West. And to end games, the Golden State Warriors will probably run out their Hamptons five lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and whatever’s left of Andre Iguodala.
When Cousins returns, Steve Kerr and company will need to find a way to carve out more than 25 minutes a night for the All-Star big man. And though Boogie’s skillset is one that the Warriors can benefit from, as they have never had a big man who demands the attention of other big men quite like him, Boogie has never been one to take a backseat.
In fact, Boogie has led his teams in usage percentage every single year. But in Golden State, a team with two or three better offensive players than Cousins, Boogie will need to learn how to be effective as a complementary player.
Furthermore, despite averaging a career 32.3 minutes per game, Cousins may see nights in which he plays less than 20 minutes, due to the depth of the Warriors roster, and Steve Kerr’s ability to combat matchups.
Getting Cousins for just 5.3 million dollars was a major steal on the Warriors part. However, now comes the tough part, assimilating him into a preexisting system.
Houston Rockets: Is Carmelo Anthony still a starter quality player?
After playing the worst season of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, Melo is now coming to Houston with the insistence to start. And though Melo has been granted the opportunity, there could be a chance that Head Coach Mike D’Antoni revokes it midseason.
For starters, Melo is not nearly as productive of an offensive player as he used to be. Last season, he averaged career lows in points per game, true shooting percentage and offensive box plus-minus, and only shot a league average 35.7% from three. And on the defensive end, Melo’s career lack of instincts and effort is now paired with a lack of athleticism, leading to one of the worst DBPMs of his career.
And though Melo and D’Antoni both love isolation basketball, with James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, the Rockets already have three stronger isolators, according to NBA.com. And with forwards PJ Tucker, James Ennis and Ryan Anderson all providing the Rockets with useful off-ball skills, Melo may not be a starter by the end of the season. And if that is the case, I doubt he’ll be a happy camper.
Los Angeles Clippers: How many minutes are there?
Despite likely missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Los Angeles Clippers have an abundance of quality players on their roster. At guard, they have three-and-D’ers Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley, super sixth man Lou Williams, pinpoint passer Milos Teodosic, young defensive wiz Sindarius Thornwell, and 2018 eleventh and thirteenth overall picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. At forward, they have scorers Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, defensive stud Luc Mbah a Moute, and sharpshooter Mike Scott. And at center, they have screen setter supreme Marcin Gortat and the energetic Montrezl Harrell.
So that’s fourteen players all deserved of minutes. And though the Clippers may be stacking all of these assets for a potential trade, if they do not have their targets set, they will surely be wasting the seasons of potential rotation players.
Los Angeles Lakers: Is a center necessary?
It seems like every season, the Los Angeles Lakers are hilariously thin at center. In fact, this season it is likely that the Lakers will start JaVale McGee at center. Yikes. With Head Coach Luke Walton being a product of Golden State, perhaps the Lakers will opt to run a smaller lineup.
With few doubts, the Lakers best five players are Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and the King himself, LeBron James. Therefore, why not try to play all five together?
Yes, the lineup would be on the smaller side, with the 6’9” Ingram and Kuzma being the tallest players, but last season, LeBron was a solid rim protector, decreasing opponents’ field goal percentages’ by seven percent within six feet of the basket. And with the NBA getting smaller and smaller, perhaps the lineup would thrive on its switchability.
For the first time since 2013, the Los Angeles Lakers are in playoff contention, due to the addition of LeBron James. In the West, there are no guarantees. Therefore, Walton must get creative to make sure that the Lakers finish in the top eight. Perhaps playing LeBron at the five may be the Lakers best lineup.
Memphis Grizzlies: Is Kyle Anderson the best option at small forward?
This offseason, the Memphis Grizzlies poached Kyle Anderson from the San Antonio Spurs for a cool four years, 37 million, with the plan to start him at small forward. However, due to his athletic and shooting limitations, perhaps Anderson is more suited for power forward.
In fact, the Spurs realized this in mid-March, swapping point guard Patty Mills for center Pau Gasol in the starting lineup, which slid Anderson to power forward. This lineup performed significantly better than the Spurs other two main starting lineups throughout the season, which both featured Anderson at small forward instead of power forward.
Therefore, though Anderson may start the season at small forward, perhaps the Grizzlies will learn their lesson from the Spurs and put him at power forward. However, then the Grizzlies would run into a couple more issues. Firstly, they would need to demote power forward JaMychal Green to an off-the-bench role. This could lead to dissatisfaction, as Green has been a starter for his past two seasons with the Grizzlies. And secondly, the Grizzlies would need to pick a new starting small forward out of two or three possible candidates, in Dillon Brooks, Wayne Selden and Garrett Temple.
Though the Grizzlies have built a deeper roster than last season, they will likely be in the lottery for the second year in a row. This season, I am looking forward to see how Memphis deals with the problems in front of them.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Where will wing minutes come from?
With Jamal Crawford floating around in NBA purgatory, and Nemanja Bjelica on the Sacramento Kings, the Minnesota Timberwolves now have a lot of empty wing minutes to fill.
Knowing Tom Thibodeau, these minutes could be filled by playing Derrick Rose at shooting guard, next to Jeff Teague or Tyus Jones, and Anthony Tolliver at small forward, in the same vein as Bjelica last season. However, being that Rose was terrible last season, outside of a flukey playoff series against the Rockets, and Tolliver is somehow less athletic than Bjelica, I doubt that these minutes will go well.
Therefore, Thibodeau may need to suck it up and give serious minutes to rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop. Though neither of them were very high draft picks, with Okogie going 20th and Bates-Diop going 48th, they have shown flashes of aggressive defense and athleticism, which should benefit the Timberwolves. If Thibodeau allows them into the rotation, they may not be very consistent offensive contributors, as most rookies aren’t, but at the very least, they will defend wings better than Rose or Tolliver.
New Orleans Pelicans: Who’s going to start?
The New Orleans Pelicans only have two guaranteed starters coming into next season, in Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. That leaves two wing spots open for two of Solomon Hill, E’twaun Moore and Elfrid Payton, and a power forward spot open for Nikola Mirotic or Julius Randle.
Though I can see Head Coach Alvin Gentry running out any of these combinations, I would suggest starting both E’Twaun Moore and Nikola Mirotic, as both saw major success with the Pels last season. With the final spot, Gentry will need to make a decision between offense and defense, with Elfrid Payton being a promising playmaker, but showing little on defense, while Hill can defend, but is nothing more than a theoretical shooter on offense.
Though they caught fire last season in the second half of the year, the Pelicans will still need to fight it out for a playoff spot. Hopefully, Gentry finds them the right combination to do so.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Jerami Grant or Patrick Patterson?
After trading Carmelo Anthony to the Atlanta Hawks, the Thunder now have one starting spot open at power forward, and two solid candidates to take the job, in Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson. Though both are strong defenders, Grant and Patterson offer different offensive skill-sets, which should affect the overall geometry of the Thunder’s starting unit.
Though Jerami Grant shot just 29.1% from three last season, with his exceptional athleticism, he was able to come in the 78th percentile for cutters. Meanwhile, Patrick Patterson, though not the most athletic player, shot a terrific 38.6% from three last season.
And though Patterson played just seven minutes last year next to starters, Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George and Steven Adams, he would likely be a better fit in the Thunder’s starting lineup. For with Andre Roberson at shooting guard and Steven Adams at center, the Thunder’s starting lineup suffers from a basic lack of shooting. Without shooters for defenders to contest, Westbrook’s drives would be made less effective, as there will be no threat to pass. With Patterson stretching the floor, Westbrook should see more open opportunities at the rim.
Phoenix Suns: Who gets minutes in the frontcourt?
Fun fact: the Phoenix Suns have six frontcourt players on their roster to have played over twenty minutes per game last year, in new signee Trevor Ariza, Dragan Bender, Tyson Chandler, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson and TJ Warren. On top of that, the Phoenix Suns took two more frontcourt players in the NBA Draft, in centre DeAndre Ayton and forward Mikal Bridges, both of whom should be seeing big NBA minutes as top ten picks. And although perhaps Bridges and Jackson could also fill in shooting guard minutes, while Devin Booker sits, both are better fits at small forward.
Therefore, new head coach Igor Kokoskov will inevitably make some unpopular decisions when reviewing the Suns rotation. If I were Kokoskov, I would shorten the frontcourt rotation by starting fifteen million dollar man Trevor Ariza and Josh Jackson at the forward spots and DeAndre Ayton at center. I would use TJ Warren as a sixth man, due to his ability as a scorer, while Bridges also receives minutes at backup forward, while occasionally relieving Booker at shooting guard.
Then at backup center, I would contrast DeAndre Ayton’s strong interior presence with Marquese Chriss’ athleticism. Though Chriss has played power forward for the majority of his basketball career, at 6’10” and 240 pounds, Chriss has shown flashes of rim protection to make him a capable center.
Outside of those six, at the age of 35, there is no need to play Tyson Chandler big minutes, and despite being just 20 years old, Dragan Bender has already shown his total and extraordinarily limited skillset in the NBA, and it does not read as that of a future star.
It seems like the Phoenix Suns are trying to win for the first time in a while. And though they are unlikely to make the playoffs next year, I’m excited to see what Booker and company can do.
Portland Trail Blazers: Are there positive lineups without Damian Lillard?
Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were outscored by 4.8 points per 100 possessions with point guard, Damian Lillard off of the floor. Even though the team has another dynamic scorer on its roster, in CJ McCollum, the Blazers simply do not produce to standards when Lillard sits.
However, unless Lillard somehow plays 48 minutes a night, minutes without the superstar are inevitable. Therefore, the Portland Trail Blazers need to find a decent unit that does not include Lillard, if they want to stay relevant in the competitive west.
Obviously, the unit should include McCollum, as he is the team’s second best player. And despite poor team numbers, McCollum has excelled as a playmaker in lineups without Lillard, putting up a 22.7% assist percentage, to his 12.6% with Lillard on.
And being that the Portland Trail Blazers Lillard-less problems have been mostly offensive, though risky for separate reasons, the Trail Blazers should pair McCollum in the backcourt with one of Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas or Gary Trent, as all three have shown the ability to shoot the three.
To add playmaking, perhaps Evan Turner should play small forward, as despite being an awful shooter, he is a reliable secondary ball handler.
No matter how the Portland Trail Blazers approach these Lillard-less minutes, if they want to make the playoffs next season, they will need to find a way to stay afloat without their superstar.
Sacramento Kings: Who will start at shooting guard and small forward?
The Sacramento Kings seem to have point guard, power forward and center slots figured out in their starting lineup, with Fox likely starting point, as he did so every available game last season after George Hill was traded to the Cavaliers. Willie Cauley-Stein should start at center, as he did so for 58 games last season. And despite Vlade Divac hinting that Marvin Bagley could play minutes at small forward (please no), the second overall pick will likely start at power forward.
That leaves the wings wide open for two of three candidates, in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield and Justin Jackson. And being that all three proved to be terrible defenders, I suggest for Head Coach Dave Joerger to start an offense-centric starting lineup, with Bogdanovic and Hield.
Not only was this the best pairing of the three with Cauley-Stein and Fox last season, but because Bogdanovic and Hield should provide Fox tons of spacing on drives, and in the pick and roll.
At 39.2% and 43.1% respectively, Bogdanovic and Hield are both reliable shooters, who will attract perimeter defenders, opening up drives and dives. And with all five starters being 25 or younger, perhaps this lineup can grow together throughout the season.
San Antonio Spurs: Who will start around Aldridge and DeRozan?
Despite playing rather retro styles, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are both legitimate stars in the NBA. With that being said, playing such specific styles, the San Antonio Spurs need to find the right combination to start around Aldridge and DeRozan.
Being that DeRozan is an awful defender, and neither Aldridge or DeRozan is much of a three-point shooter, the Spurs must find a way to cram both shooting and defense into this lineup.
Due to the need for shooting, I suggest playing Aldridge at center. He has made legitimate strides as a rim protector, and with quicker players around him, it would be easier to hide Aldridge’s limitations as a perimeter defender.
Despite playing less than 15 minutes per game in his last two season, with his shooting and perimeter defense, Davis Bertans would work well at power forward. His partnership with Aldridge led to a 9.1 net-rating last season, and both feed off of each other’s styles rather well.
And though he is not known for either, at small forward, Rudy Gay at least has the ability to play adequate defense, and knock down the occasional three, which cannot be said about any other small forward option.
At point guard, the Spurs can either go with offense and no defense, in Patty Mills, or defense and no offense, in Dejounte Murray. However, being that Murray is still just 21 years old, perhaps his offensive game will grow next season. And therefore, I would go with Murray to start at point guard.
The San Antonio Spurs have a weird mishmash of players this season, and it should be fun to see what wizard, Gregg Popovich does to make sure this team’s secures a top-eight seed in the West.
Utah Jazz: How will Dante Exum earn his money?
Despite playing just 3280 minutes over four seasons, the Utah Jazz re-signed combo guard, Dante Exum to a three-year, 33 million dollar contract on July 6th.
Exum is a career -3.1 box plus-minus player, and with locks at starting point guard and shooting guard, with Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell, there aren’t many guaranteed minutes for Exum to play. Therefore, to some, Exum’s contract may seem like an overpay. But despite the poor box plus-minus, Exum has had promising stretches throughout his NBA career thus far.
In 213 minutes last season, Exum put up a 56.6% true shooting percentage. And despite his injury-riddled past, he put up terrific drive numbers, averaging a career-high 16.9 drives per 36 minutes, on 67.7% true shooting.
Furthermore, despite poor career defensive numbers, with his impressive 6’9.5” wingspan, he does have the potential to be a good perimeter defender.
However, being that he played just 120 total minutes last season with franchise cornerstones Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, his future with the team is not set in stone.
In the end, this move is risky for the Utah Jazz. If Exum thrives in a sixth man role this season, it would put some doubts to rest.