Ranking Every NBA Starting Lineup After 2022 Free Agency
With the draft, free agency and even a handful of roster-revamping trades behind us, it's time to assess the starting fives that'll take the floor when the 2022-23 NBA season commences.
Because so many of these first units include player combinations that have never seen action, it's not really possible to go entirely by the numbers. We'll lean on a group's net rating where available, but subjectivity is going to be an inevitable part of this project.
In addition, it's not like all 30 teams issue a press release officially naming starters. We have a good idea of what several holdover lineups from last year should look like, but for clubs that made major changes this summer, decisions may not come until training camp.
We'll do our best to guess at the likeliest starting five in those situations.
Finally, you'll notice quickly that the order here will diverge from overall power rankings. For reference, the Charlotte Hornets had the third-best starting five in the league last year (among those that are still intact and that saw at least 500 possessions together), and they got knocked out in the play-in round. Depth and balance aren't considerations here like they would be in a full-roster ranking. A narrower focus on first units will sometimes result in mid-tier playoff teams ranking ahead of more serious contenders.
We've still got three months until next season starts, but daydreaming about your favorite team's starting lineup should help ease the ache while we wait. Unless, of course, said lineup lands in the bottom five of our rankings. Even then, there'll be an upside: Bulletin board material!
30. San Antonio Spurs
Starting Five: Josh Primo, Josh Richardson, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-9.7 (in eight possessions)
Primo might not be the best option at the point if the San Antonio Spurs care about winning in the immediate, but they telegraphed their lack of concern for the present when they dealt Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks for a haul of three future first-rounders. Primo saw reps at the 1 in summer league and will get as much of an opportunity to explore the studio space as he wants this season.
Johnson and Vassell have the best chances to elevate the Spurs' starters enough to prove this ranking wrong. The former averaged a quiet 17.0 points while shooting 39.8 percent from deep, a massive uptick on the 33.1 percent he hit in 2020-21 and a sign that stardom might be in the burly forward's future. Johnson has several distinct pieces of a dangerous offensive game, including an aggressive driving mindset, that new three-point shot and a low turnover rate. If he puts the whole package together, fringe All-Star consideration isn't out of the question.
Richardson and Poeltl bring defensive integrity, but both vets are in the last year of their deals and profile more as trade bait than pieces of San Antonio's future core. If they're too helpful, and the Spurs start to win too often to stay in pole position for 2023 prospect Viktor Wembanyama, Richardson and Poeltl could find themselves on other teams sooner than later. That'd leave control of the whole operation to San Antonio's youth movement, and the losses would come at an even faster rate than before.
The Spurs have potential, but this is a retrenchment season. This lineup is focused on development, and it's going to take plenty of lumps in the process.
29. Detroit Pistons
Starting Five: Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Saddiq Bey, Marvin Bagley III and Isaiah Stewart
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Cunningham and Bey are the only certainties in the Detroit Pistons' 2022-23 starting five, but the other three spots are reasonably likely to go to Ivey, Bagley and Stewart.
Detroit didn't grab Ivey (joyfully) at No. 5 to let him languish on the bench behind Killian Hayes, who's increasingly looking like a miss. Some of the same reasoning applies to Bagley, in whom Detroit surprisingly invested $37.5 million over three years. That's not no-brainer starter money, but Bagley will be the second-highest-paid player on the team this coming season (behind Kelly Olynyk) and therefore will probably be a starter. Stewart is the logical choice at center, assuming 18-year-old Jalen Duren isn't ready for major action yet.
Bagley will compromise a very young Detroit defense that already had a low bar, ranking 28th overall last season. And his lack of stretch means a lot of pressure to space the floor in the frontcourt falls to Stewart, who has hit 33.0 percent of his career treys at very low volume.
Cunningham's three-point shot is going to come around, but Bey is the only proven long-range gunner in the group at the moment. Ivey projects as a potent slasher, but he's going to run into too much traffic to be effective unless at least two of the non-Bey members of the starting five improve enough as shooters to pull defenders out of the paint.
It shouldn't surprise anyone if Cunningham plays at an All-Star level in his sophomore season, and all four of the other starters come with upside. The future is bright in Detroit, but youth and inexperience mean this lineup is going to struggle in the present.
28. Orlando Magic
Starting Five: Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr.
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Banchero's abilities as a shot-creator had everything to do with him coming off the board first in the 2022 draft. This Orlando Magic team couldn't get out of its own way on offense, having the second lowest points per game last season (104.23), and the rookie forward will hopefully organize the operation and produce at least a few stretches of decent scoring.
Last year, Orlando's most frequent starting five looked a lot like the one above, only with Mo Bamba joining Carter up front. That unit was solid on the glass (which you'd expect from a two-center lineup) and held opponents to a 48.5 effective field goal percentage that ranked in the 86th percentile. But Suggs and Anthony's collective failure as efficient playmakers put the Magic behind the eight-ball on offense every night. Neither guard shot over 40.0 percent from the field.
Even if all Banchero does is salvage go-nowhere possessions with contested mid-range jumpers toward the end of the shot clock, those low-efficiency looks might still represent upgrades on what the Magic managed in 2021-22.
It's possible this lineup will be tearing up the league in three or four years. But Carter is the graybeard in the group at the ripe old age of 23. It's too early to expect much from such a young collection of talent.
27. Houston Rockets
Starting Five: Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Eric Gordon, Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Assuming the Houston Rockets don't trade Eric Gordon prior to the season, he'll serve as a starting-lineup chaperone for four players between the ages of 19 and 22. It'll be a challenging adult-in-the-room gig for the 33-year-old veteran guard, who'll often have nothing to do but cringe and shake his head at the defensive atrocities a group this young is sure to commit.
Smith projects as a strong defender, but it's almost never a good idea to bank on positive contributions from a rookie on that end. Evan Mobley is the exception, not the rule. Houston could move Gordon to the bench and slot rugged stopper Jae'Sean Tate into the first unit, but that would cost the starters the veteran influence they need. When Porter, Green and Sengun played without Gordon last season, they gave up a ghastly 120.5 points per 100 possessions en route to a minus-9.9 net rating.
Ultimately, Houston will just have to embrace the struggle on D.
If the Rockets don't let rough defensive performances get them down, their offense promises to be among the most exciting in the league.
Green is a live-wire athlete who came into his own after the All-Star break, averaging 22.1 points on 58.1 percent true shooting down the stretch. The Rockets never know what they're going to get from the erratic Porter at this point, but Green is going to be a stable source of efficient offense going forward. His explosiveness on the wing will complement the synergy we'll hopefully see from Sengun, a brilliant passer, and Smith, one of the better shooters to come out of the draft in years.
26. Sacramento Kings
Starting Five: De'Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray and Domantas Sabonis
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
The Sacramento Kings have some other options, but this configuration feels like the best way to get as much talent on the floor as possible while leaving a little something in reserve so the bench doesn't struggle to score. Malik Monk could be a shrewd Sixth Man of the Year pick in this scenario.
It's vital for Huerter, Barnes and Murray to hit perimeter shots, as Fox has been under 30.0 percent form deep in two of the last three years. He needs room to get downhill and to operate with Sabonis in a two-many game around the elbows, and space will be hard to come by unless the players manning the 2-3-4 positions can keep extra defenders out of the lane.
The Kings have to be hoping Fox regains his foul-drawing prowess and top-flight speed; both were diminished last season
Defensively, this group is going to be in real trouble. Sabonis is a target in the pick-and-roll, and opponents shot 62.2 percent inside six feet when he was the primary defender, one of the worst marks in the league.
Murray didn't look like a shutdown defensive piece against Summer League levels of athleticism, Huerter is a minus on that end and we've seen enough from Fox to this point to lose faith he's ever going to translate his length and quickness into helpful defensive play.
Harrison Barnes knows where to be, but he's more of a 4 these days and will struggle against the top wing options he'll most likely have to guard.
25. Utah Jazz
Starting Five: Mike Conley Jr., Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jarred Vanderbilt and Walker Kessler
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Everyone but the rookie Kessler could be gone from this lineup before the season starts, led by potential future New York Knicks centerpiece Donovan Mitchell.
Per The Athletic's Shams Charania and Tony Jones, "The Jazz are having conversations with multiple teams on a Mitchell deal, but the Knicks have emerged as the focused destination over the past several days."
With the Jazz targeting draft picks in the Rudy Gobert trade, it seems likely that several of the Knicks' eight available future first-round picks would come back to Utah in any Mitchell deal. Conley and Bogdanovic would be obvious trade candidates in separate moves if Mitchell were to depart, which could leave the Jazz almost totally bereft of veteran talent.
Utah could have the league's worst starting five if top executive Danny Ainge goes all-in on a pick-centered rebuild. The above group probably deserves to rank somewhere around the middle of the pack, as four of the five players involved are quality starters (and better than that in the case of Mitchell). Kessler, too, could make a positive impact in his limited role. The rookie center was the 2022 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year at Auburn.
Because there's a good chance Utah's opening-night starting five is a whole lot different (and worse) than the one listed here, we've got to bump this group down.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder
Starting Five: Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Chet Holmgren and Darius Bazley
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
This Oklahoma City Thunder lineup will have no trouble creating shots as long as Giddey and SGA are involved. But converting the chances those two generate is going to be tough.
Giddey looks to be years away from scaring defenses from long range. He has great size for a primary ball-handler and is already among the league's most creative passers, but his shot features an alarmingly slow gather that leads to a creaky "tee-it-up" release. He shot 26.3 percent from distance as a rookie, an ugly percentage that matches the form that produced it.
Gilgeous-Alexander is the NBA's most prolific driver two years running, but he was iffy from distance last year as well. Compared to Giddey, SGA's 34.3 percent hit rate from beyond the arc offers much more hope for improvement. But he'll have too much company on his forays into the lane as defenders sag off Giddey, Dort and whoever starts at center. Bazley is a pure guess; Jeremiah Robinson-Earl could just as easily find himself in there.
Holmgren is the wild card. He has immense perimeter skill for a player with his size and might be a smart long-odds bet to lead the NBA in blocked shots. But he's going to get knocked around by stronger opponents, and it's too early to know whether his presumably high swat totals will actually translate to helpful defense.
There will be long stretches of beautiful ball movement from this lineup. Giddey will drop jaws once a game with a no-look find, SGA will slide and slither his way to the basket and Holmgren will generate highlights on the open floor. The aesthetics will help ease the pain of an extremely young group that will almost certainly get outscored over a large swath of minutes.
23. Indiana Pacers
Starting Five: Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte, Buddy Hield, Jalen Smith and Myles Turner
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
The Indiana Pacers tried to shake things up by signing Deandre Ayton to a four-year $133 million offer sheet, but the Phoenix Suns kibosh on that by immediately matching to retain their starting center. Ayton now can't be traded anywhere until Jan. 15, and he can't be dealt to the Pacers for a full year.
Indiana shouldn't feel too badly about all this. with Myles Turner still in the fold for now, we get to see a true five-out lineup on the floor at the start of games.
Haliburton is a blossoming star at the point who averaged 9.6 assists per game after coming to Indiana via trade last season, and he'd thrive in an environment with so much space in which to work. Hield, who came with Haliburton from Sacramento, has some of the most powerful off-ball gravity in the game. With him spotted up on the wing or running around off screens, defenses won't have the resources to blockade the lane. It's true that Turner and Smith are more comfortable popping to the perimeter than rolling to the bucket, but the Pacers could capitalize on those skills as well.
A cleared-out lane allows for plenty of cuts, and offensive rebounding could be a strength as opponents struggle to box out the Pacers wings and bigs when they're stationed so far from the basket. Aggressive crashes from Smith and Duarte, in particular, could generate loads of second looks for Indy's offense.
It's harder to envision a better-than-average defense with this unit, but Duarte competes on the wing, and Turner can deter shooters inside with his shot-blocking prowess. Hield is a sieve, Haliburton needs to add strength, and while Smith can block shots, he's going to struggle matched up against more mobile forwards.
This is a fun group, but even with Ayton out of the picture, you may not want to get too attached.
22. Washington Wizards
Starting Five: Monte Morris, Bradley Beal, Deni Avdija, Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
After a 2021-22 season spent without a reliable starter at the point guard position, Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard outlined the obvious for reporters: "I think we need somebody that is a pass-first point guard; somebody that will be able to contain the dribble on the defensive end and help us keep people out of the paint."
Morris has never averaged more than 5.6 assists per 36 minutes over a full season, and he's certainly not known as a stopper, so Sheppard whiffed on both counts. And yet Washington was so inept at the point that Morris is still a serious upgrade on what they had.
Washington's starters will fill it up on offense, as all five players are either quality spacers, useful ball-movers or both. Avdija's shooting is the most suspect in the group, and plenty of projections have Will Barton starting ahead of him. But the Wizards finished 25th in defensive efficiency last season. Avdija was quietly one of the most promising young stoppers in the league last year and easily topped all Wizards in Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus. With great size, fiery competitiveness and quick feet for a 6'9" combo forward, Avdija's too valuable to leave on the bench. That's to say nothing of the potential for growth from a lottery pick that won't turn 22 until January.
It'll take an All-Defensive Team level of impact from him to keep opponents from lighting this bunch up, which is why we can't quite justify moving this potent offensive unit into the top half of our rankings.
21. Los Angeles Lakers
Starting Five: Russell Westbrook, Lonnie Walker IV, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Thomas Bryant
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Everything tends to make more sense for the Los Angeles Lakers when Anthony Davis plays center, but one can understand the thinking behind signing Bryant to man that spot. He'll bring some stretch from the frontcourt that might help offset the fact that Westbrook provides none as a guard.
Ideally, the Lakers wouldn't be making roster decisions to compensate for Russ, because ideally, he wouldn't be on the roster in the first place. But nobody seems willing to accept him via trade, so L.A. is trying again to accomplish the task at which it failed last season: Find supplementary pieces to create a viable lineup around Westbrook, James and Davis. You wouldn't think it'd be that hard, but the trio produced a minus-3.0 net rating in 818 possessions together last season...so, clearly, it is.
Walker is probably a downgrade from Malik Monk, who departed in free agency. The former San Antonio Spurs guard has potential and athleticism, but he's highly unlikely to match the 39.1 percent long-range stroke Monk provided last season. By default, Bryant should be more productive than Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, who combined to start 46 games at center in 2021-22. But when a minimum signee coming off a torn ACL who's never posted a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus in his career counts as an upgrade, all it means is that things were really bad before he got there.
James may still be a fringe MVP candidate, and Davis could bounce back. But it takes more than two players to make a lineup worth taking seriously.
20. Charlotte Hornets
Starting Five: LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington and Mason Plumlee
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Miles Bridges is conspicuous in his absence from the Charlotte Hornets' starting five, but the restricted free agent's availability is complicated by legal and potentially suspension-worthy issues stemming from felony domestic violence charges. For the curious, the above lineup with Bridges in Hayward's spot was a plus-8.6 in 690 possessions, and swapping out Washington for Bridges, which Charlotte did for a team-high 802 possessions last year, yielded a minus-1.5.
Ball, Rozier, Hayward and Washington teamed with Cody Zeller to put up a plus-8.3 net rating in 2020-21, which might hint at what the group we're forecasting could accomplish this season. But Zeller is forever an on/off legend after the Hornets went 3-17 in the 20 games he missed and 33-29 in the ones he played during the 2016-17 season. That's one of those stats that stick with you. I didn't even have to look it up.
Ball and Rozier are among the better offensive backcourt combos in the league, and they could combine to average 45-50 points per game between them if Bridges' absence sends a few more shots their way. The duo put up 39.4 points per game last year, and Ball is bound to keep improving as he enters his age-21 season. As long as they're involved, Charlotte will push the pace and have a chance to repeat as the best transition offense in the league—with or without Bridges.
With returning head coach Steve Clifford bringing a hard-nosed approach, the Hornets' starters could help the team claw its way toward mediocrity on the defensive end. But with team-wide struggles to get easy points from the foul line and on the offensive boards, this lineup will have to defend at a level way above expectations to do anything of consequence.
19. New York Knicks
Starting Five: Jalen Brunson, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
There's nowhere to go but up for the New York Knicks starters, who defined themselves last season as expert diggers of early holes. Before Alec Burks took over at the point, Kemba Walker teamed with Fournier, Barrett, Randle and Robinson to get outscored by 13.4 points per 100 over 852 possessions, a significant sample size. Burks' insertion got the Knicks' starters in to positive territory, but just barely.
Brunson, New York's new nine-figure man, could help the first unit exceed those low standards without breaking a sweat.
It's true that the Knicks will still endure a spacing crunch as long as the Randle-Robinson 4-5 combo is involved, and Fournier's negative defensive impact will always offer opponents an easy target. But Brunson is exactly the type of steady hand the team needs if it's going to avoid a repeat of last year's nonstop loop of rotten starts.
The reserves will probably still be the stars of the show. Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes/Cam Reddish, Obi Toppin and Isaiah Hartenstein will have no trouble pummeling second units. Hartenstein and Quickley might even just be objectively better players than Fournier and Robinson, their counterparts as starters.
That said, the Knicks are going to perform less embarrassingly in first quarters than they did a year ago. The extent will depend on Barrett's growth and if Randle can look more like the 2020-21 version of himself.
18. Chicago Bulls
Starting Five: Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Nikola Vucevic
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-11.0
Together for just 135 possessions last year, the Chicago Bulls' projected starting five acted as if it was trying to throw us off the scent. This unit, which has just two above-standard defenders in Ball and Williams, somehow produced a defensive rating of 87.5 that ranked in the 100th percentile and an offensive rating of 98.5 that ranked in the second.
The NBA can be unpredictable, but here's a certainty: Those trends will reverse, and the Bulls' starters should score in bunches while surrendering nearly as many buckets on the other end.
Reserve groups that include Alex Caruso will dial up the pressure, and Williams could surprise if he stays healthy. But it's just not prudent to expect units including DeRozan, arguably one of the worst defensive players in the league, and a 32-year-old Vucevic to perform on D. Those guys are valuable offensive pieces, but both have decade-plus track records of compromising their teams' defensive integrity.
Throw in increasingly ominous reports surrounding Ball's knee and the likelihood that DeRozan slips after a career year at age 32, and there's a serious downside for this group.
17. Portland Trail Blazers
Starting Five: Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Lillard will stretch defenses beyond their breaking points with his extreme range, and Nurkic has been a capable roll man whenever healthy. The Bosnian big man is underrated as a ball-mover on the short roll, and he's going to have nothing but trustworthy targets in Simons, Hart and Grant dotting the perimeter when he starts rumbling downhill. Hart is the worst shooter of the three, and even he hit 37.3 percent of his triples after coming aboard at the deadline last year.
The fit could be tricky with Simons, who proved he could handle an alpha role after Lillard's injury and McCollum's move to New Orleans. He'll have to take a step back when sharing the floor with Dame, but the $100 million the Portland Trail Blazers handed him this offseason should ease the transition to a supporting position.
Once the kinks get worked out, scoring won't be a problem for the new-look Blazers. The other end is a different story.
Lillard is already 32 and coming off the first significant surgery of his career. He was among the least effective defenders at his position before he went down last season, and there's no reason to forecast improvement. Nurkic, too, has had mobility sapped by injury. With those two at the point of attack in pick-and-roll defense, Portland will start most possessions at a disadvantage.
Simons might be worse defensively than Lillard, which means Grant and Hart will run themselves ragged trying to guard opponents' biggest threats and scrambling to cover for teammates' mistakes. Swapping Simons for Nassir Little might help, but it's hard to imagine the Blazers gave Simons a nine-figure deal to come off the bench.
16. Toronto Raptors
Starting Five: Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-1.8
The Toronto Raptors used this lineup more than any other last season, and its meager plus-1.8 net rating was actually worse than the team's overall full-season figure of plus-2.2. Given all the talent and versatility involved, that's somewhat surprising.
A lack of shot creation in the half court was a driving factor behind an underwhelming 109.6 points per 100 possessions, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that a lineup composed of four wings and a point guard ranked in the 27th percentile in offensive rebound rate. The combination of a low effective field-goal percentage and precious few second-chance points was difficult for the Raps' positionless approach to overcome.
This unit's defensive impact wasn't spectacular overall, ranking in the 66th percentile in points allowed per 100 possessions, and that figure was inflated by a sky-high opponent turnover rate. The length and speed of this group make it a good bet to continue forcing mistakes going forward, but even that comes with a downside: These guys were even worse at preventing opposing offensive boards than they were at corralling their own.
Barnes could take a leap in his second season, perhaps pushing Siakam and VanVleet for the unofficial title of "Best Raptor." If he pops and Anunoby finally takes the next step toward stardom many have expected since 2019, Toronto's starting five could juice its offensive numbers enough to push its net rating up to or beyond plus-5.0 territory. That's a pure guess, and it's always possible that even greater gains are ahead. But it's tough to see this set of personnel putting up dominant numbers with such obvious weaknesses on the glass.
15. Miami Heat
Starting Five: Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo
2021-22 Net Rating: Minus-2.5
PJ Tucker appeared in nine of the Miami Heat's 10 most used lineups last season, and his departure is only one of the factors putting this year's starting five in flux. Miami's potential as a landing spot for any available big name—with Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell heading the list—would also result in sweeping changes up and down the roster.
For now, we'll ignore Tyler Herro's latest plea to be a starter and assume the Heat will continue to use him as a sixth man and closer. Unfortunately for Miami's defense, that means we're putting Robinson back on the floor to begin games. He lost that gig to Strus last season, but unless the Heat turns to the re-signed Caleb Martin at the 4 or prefers Victor Oladipo, it makes sense to bump Butler up to power forward and hope Adebayo can cover enough ground to make up for Robinson regaining his first-unit job.
If Robinson's shot returns to form, the Heat should score enough to keep their net rating firmly in the positive. Even though he was relegated to the bench later in 2021-22, Robinson was still part of Miami's most effective high-volume lineup. He, Lowry, Butler, Tucker and Adebayo put up a plus-12.9 net rating across 836 possessions, and most of that group's effectiveness showed up on D, where it held opponents to a stingy 98.2 points per 100 possessions.
Here, we're effectively swapping Strus for Tucker, a move that will make that defensive efficiency tough to repeat but which could also juice the offense. Strus took Robinson's job because he brought more punch on D to go with his 41.0 percent three-point shooting.
Miami's projected first unit is undersized and will be vulnerable against top opposing guards, but don't worry about the minus-2.5 net rating it produced last year. That came on just eight possessions. Adebayo, Butler and Lowry will leverage their toughness and smarts to fill gaps. All Strus and Robinson have to focus on is hitting shots. If they can do that, this group will still be a handful.
14. New Orleans Pelicans
Starting Five: CJ McCollum, Herb Jones, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Lineups including McCollum, Jones, Ingram and Valanciunas were key to the New Orleans Pelicans' late-season surge. The 11-6 record New Orleans posted in its last 17 games (including two play-in victories) produced a postseason berth and may have played a key role in eliminating whatever reservations Williamson harbored about the franchise's prospects for long-term success.
It's not an exaggeration to say those four players are the reason Williamson returned with so little hesitation. The five-year contract that could be worth up to $231 million probably also had something to do with it, but why let the full truth ruin a good story?
Jaxson Hayes was the most frequent addition to that quartet last season, and things went just fine with him as the fifth member. The Pels outscored opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions in those configurations. If you want to argue swapping out Hayes for Williamson, who averaged 27.0 points on 61.1 percent shooting in his last healthy season, is something other than a supercharged thunderbolt of an upgrade, well...good luck.
Williamson's health and fitness will remain concerns until he proves they're not, and one could imagine this unit lacking enough spacing. Jones, Zion and Valanciunas are all low-volume shooters from distance. Then again, if Williamson picks up where he left off as a completely unstoppable downhill force, Jones and Valanciunas will have no shortage of wide-open looks.
Jones also has his work cut out for him as the only defender in this group who rates as a clear plus. He can guard just about everybody, but even he can't cover five players at once.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Starting Five: Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De'Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Young, Hunter, Collins and Capela put up a 55.9 effective field-goal percentage when sharing the court last season, blitzing opponents for 116.7 points per 100 possessions. And if you know anything about the Atlanta Hawks' makeup, you're ready for the "but they couldn't stop anyone on the other end" coda to that sentence.
Because the Young-led Hawks were such a potent scoring outfit, they still won the minutes with those four players on the floor. And with Murray joining the party, that positive differential is sure to increase.
It says a lot that the 21.1 points and 9.2 assists Murray averaged last season with the Spurs are almost afterthoughts in the analysis of how he'll help the Hawks. Atlanta already has Young, and while an excellent secondary playmaker never hurts, Murray's true value will come on defense. That's where he'll stalk passing lanes (league-leading 2.0 steals per game in 2021-22) and put the clamps on matchups that used to salivate at the prospect of exploiting Young.
If Collins isn't traded, his three-point shooting will be a key. Murray is developing gradually in that area, but he's still a low-volume long-range shooter for a guard and hit only 32.7 percent of his treys last season. Collins is at 37.6 percent for his career, excellent for a power forward, and his spacing will be key whenever Murray and Capela share the court.
Hunter needs to get back on the path he was walking two years ago before injuries interrupted his progress toward becoming one of the better young three-and-D wings in the game. Entering his age-25 season, he'll have every chance to dial in on that limited role with Murray sparing him from too much responsibility as a playmaker.
12. Dallas Mavericks
Starting Five: Luka Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Christian Wood and JaVale McGee
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
With Doncic's offense sometimes unstoppable and Finney-Smith capable of locking onto anything that moves with the precision of an F-22 Raptor's targeting system, the Dallas Mavericks' projected openers are off to a good start.
The loss of Jalen Brunson will hurt, but perhaps not as much as many think. Dinwiddie is more erratic as a perimeter shooter, but he averaged 13.7 points and 5.2 assists last season and has been a 20-point-per-game scorer in the past. Brunson's 16.3 points and 4.8 assists won't be all that difficult for Dinwiddie to reproduce, especially if he gets some help from a healthy version of Tim Hardaway Jr.
McGee's presence will reshape Dallas' starting five, adding a rim-roller and combining with Wood to add more length than last year's iteration. Sliding DFS to the 3 and sending Reggie Bullock to the bench does the same, and the 2022-23 Mavs will take the floor with the 6'5", 215-pound Dinwiddie as their smallest starter.
If Wood brings the stretch and doesn't get cooked by quicker 4s, Dallas could use all that size and wingspan to produce strong defensive results. That said, the fully switchable Maxi Kleber will likely still close the Mavs' biggest games at center.
Losing Brunson was never the plan, but the more you think about this rangier version of the Mavs, the more appeal it has. Much depends on the defensive buy-in of Wood and the reliability of Dinwiddie as a sniper, but if both deliver in those areas, Dallas could have one of the most sneakily lethal set of starters around.
11. Cleveland Cavaliers
Starting Five: Darius Garland, Caris LeVert, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
We're going with LeVert over Isaac Okoro in the starting five here, even though this particular unit didn't log enough possessions together to provide a net rating as a guide. Personally, I'd prefer Okoro's defense at the 2, which would allow LeVert to run second units off the bench. But when Allen returned from injury on April 15, forcing Cleveland to decide between Okoro and LeVert, it went with the latter.
Will these guys do better than the plus-10.2 net rating they produced in 455 possessions with Okoro instead of LeVert last season? The path to topping that number depends mainly on Mobley's growth, which should be substantial. Heading into his second season, the future perennial DPOY candidate is a lock to improve on the 15.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 blocks he registered as a rookie, likely with gains in scoring efficiency. If you're all-in on Mobley as a transformative, foundational presence (raises hand), it's not unreasonable to expect a leap as soon as his second season.
In preferring Okoro, we may be giving LeVert's secondary playmaking short shrift. The defense will be fine as long as Mobley and Allen are flying all over the floor snuffing out shot attempts and congesting passing lanes, so it makes sense to give Garland some facilitation assistance. Too often last season, the All-Star point guard was the lone source of shot-creation. Trading a little stopping power on the wing for someone who can set up a teammate could be the right call—and it's part of the reason Cleveland acquired LeVert via trade in the first place. If Mobley flashes even more playmaking potential, we can revisit the Okoro-LeVert debate later on.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
Starting Five: Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-25.1 (95th percentile) in 232 possessions
Ja Morant finished seventh in MVP voting last season, and heading into his age-23 season, he's just getting started. That's a frightening thought for teams trying to plan for the Memphis Grizzlies' returning starters, a group that suffocates offenses and throws its weight around on the offensive glass like few others. This burly group recaptured 20.7 percent of its own misses, an elite offensive board rate that led to Memphis running away with the league lead in second-chance points per game.
Morant's relentless downhill drives are just one of the ways the Grizzlies keep the pressure on. Relax for a second, and Adams is carving out space underneath while Brooks (probably with a handful of some unsuspecting opponent's jersey) shoulders his way into rebounding position.
Bane's career 43.5 percent three-point shooting creates breathing room on offense, and Jackson has shown the ability to stripe it from deep in the past—even if his shot went awry this past season.
Speaking of Jackson, he's the reason Memphis doesn't rank higher. His defensive mobility and shot-blocking are critical to the Grizzlies' interior potency, and his developing offensive game challenges opposing bigs who can't handle him in space. But the 6'11" DPOY contender fractured his foot and underwent surgery that could keep him out for at least a couple of months at the start of the season. Considering Memphis held him out of action for nearly an entire year during recovery from a torn meniscus, it stands to reason it'll err on the long side of Jackson's 4-6 month recovery timeline. His questionable availability (and potentially diminished effectiveness upon his return) costs the Grizzlies' starting five a couple of spots in these rankings.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
Starting Five: Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-21.7
Lopez's back injury limited this unit to only 20 possessions last season. Though the plus-21.7 net rating looks nice, you can immediately see its unreliability in its 105.0 offensive rating (12th percentile). Something tells me a lineup including Holiday, Giannis and Middleton won't score at less efficient rates than everyone but the Thunder and Magic posted in 2021-22.
With an expiring $13.9 million salary, Lopez profiles as a trade candidate for a Bucks team that needs another two-way wing and could easily survive on D playing Antetokounmpo or Bobby Portis at center. For what it's worth, the altered version of the above starting five that included Portis in Lopez's place put up a plus-7.8 net rating across 736 possessions—not elite, but certainly good enough.
Lopez may have enough equity with the franchise to stick around, which would make Allen the shakiest member of the group. Wesley Matthews took over for him in the postseason because the Bucks didn't have enough wing defense with Middleton sidelined, and it wouldn't be hard to imagine that happening again. If Antetokounmpo finally becomes a semi-reliable three-point shooter, averaging just 28.8 percent in his career to date, the Bucks might not be able to justify keeping Allen's spacing on the floor at the cost of defensive integrity.
Milwaukee can tinker and tweak Allen and Lopez's spots without fear of doing any irreparable damage. Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton remain among the most effective trios in the league, complete with championship validation, two-way excellence and a plus-12.6 net rating when sharing the court last season. That unit is unstoppable regardless of the supporting talent around it, and the combo of Giannis and Jrue assures no opposing offense will find the going easy on the other end.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Starting Five: D'Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
The fit and chemistry of the Minnesota Timberwolves' new twin-tower starting group are an unknown, and it should be noted that the offseason bombshell that was the Gobert trade broke up one of the most effective high-volume quintets in the league last year.
Among units that logged at least 800 possessions together, only the Boston Celtics' starting five posted a better net rating than the plus-12.9 Minnesota got from Russell, Patrick Beverley, Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Towns. Credit the Wolves for not resting on their laurels.
It's reductive, and it discounts the fit concerns already mentioned, but what if the analysis is as simple as asking whether Gobert and presumptive starting small forward McDaniels are an upgrade on Beverley and Vanderbilt. There's an apples-to-oranges problem with that comparison, but you'd have to do some serious mental gymnastics to make the case that Gobert and some nondescript fill-in somehow bring less to the table than Beverley and Vanderbilt. And McDaniels is more than a fungible piece. The Wolves kept him out of the Gobert negotiations because the lithe 6'9" forward posted a plus-1.9 Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus last season, which trailed only Vanderbilt (and topped Beverley) among Minnesota regulars.
For years now, Gobert's presence on the floor has assured a top-notch defense. With Edwards' potential to vault toward superstardom in his third season, Towns' unsurpassed frontcourt shooting rendering spacing issues around Gobert moot and McDaniels also likely to blossom, the Timberwolves seem to have improved on one of last season's top lineups.
7. Phoenix Suns
Starting Five: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-8.1
The Phoenix Suns put up an eye-popping plus-34.9 net rating in 50 possessions with Bismack Biyombo in Ayton's place last season, which helps illustrate why the franchise wasn't interested in paying through the nose to keep Ayton until it absolutely had to. The Suns are so good at positions 1 through 4 (throw Cam Johnson in there over Crowder if you want) that it hasn't really mattered who's manning the center spot.
Paul, Booker, Bridges and Crowder teamed with JaVale McGee to produce a plus-20.6, and they were a plus-26.4 with the mighty Frank Kaminsky at center. A return to health from Dario Saric will provide a downsized look next season, and we should expect that configuration to smoke opponents just like all the others.
Ayton is a cut above all the other players who spent time at center for Phoenix last season, assuming he's interested in playing for the Suns after the awkwardness of the past several months. His hands, mobility and overall two-way talent were major factors in the team's 2021 push to the Finals.
If this ranking seems a spot or two too low, understand it's pricing in the unknown future of Ayton. The $133 million offer sheet Phoenix matched can't be viewed as a clear sign it wants to go forward with Ayton at center. That's possible if fences can be mended, but the decision to match may have been more about retaining a valuable asset that would have otherwise gotten away for nothing. Ayton, the Suns or both could agree it's better for the big man to stay home until he can be traded on Jan. 15.
This is a ranking of starting fives, and Ayton is (or was) an important part of the Suns'. But their top four might still deserve this position if the fifth piece was a tackling dummy.*
*Which Paul would still find a way to yell at.
6. Brooklyn Nets
Starting Five: Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
This five-man collective is fiction. Barring something totally unforeseen, it'll never see the floor. The best we can do is acknowledge the hypothetical greatness by acting as if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant will still be around when the season starts.
We don't know what the Nets will look like if their top stars are no longer on the roster, so we might as well have some fun with their entry into the rankings. Brooklyn re-signed Nic Claxton, presumably to be its starting center. But we're kicking him out of the first unit and entrusting Simmons with the 5 in a small-ball lineup that would very likely post the highest offensive rating of any group in the league.
There's not much defense here beyond Simmons, but—holy smokes!—take a look at the spacing, shot-creation and weapons-grade firepower!
Durant is arguably the purest scorer who's ever walked the earth, and you can't talk about Irving for long without mentioning the phrase "preternatural skill." Even amid his truncated and arhythmic presence in the lineup last year, Irving averaged a career-high-tying 27.4 points per game on 58.9 percent true shooting.
Curry and Harris rank third and fourth, respectively, in career three-point percentage. So to say Durant and Irving will have room to cook understates it to a ridiculous degree.
The more we discuss the merits of a lineup we'll almost certainly never see, the stranger it seems that Durant doesn't want to be a part of it. The offense-defense imbalance and health questions might prevent Brooklyn from contending for a championship, but it's hard to imagine a lineup that would be more fun to play with than this one.
5. Denver Nuggets
Starting Five: Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Nikola Jokic combined with Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green to produce the only plus-10.0 net rating among five-man units that logged over 1,000 possessions together last season.
So what will he do with Murray, KCP and MPJ dramatically improving that group's offensive firepower, shot creation, spot-up shooting and on-ball defense? One answer might be: Hope his top two teammates, who combined for nine games last year (all logged by Porter), resemble their past selves and stay healthy.
Another: Shred every defense in their path en route to the best regular season record in the West.
No shade intended toward last year's supporting cast, but Jokic was making gourmet dishes out of table scraps. He had a million statistical arguments for winning his second straight MVP, but the fact that Jokic guided a hodge-podge mix of backups and journeymen vets to such statistical success should have ended the discussion on its own.
With vastly superior offensive help around him, Gordon won't be so overtaxed as a scorer and playmaker. Better still, with Caldwell-Pope wrangling the most dangerous opposing guards, Gordon also won't have to check the toughest opponent across four positions.
Maybe this ranking will look too high if Murray and Porter take time to shake off the rust following serious surgeries. But it feels like there's at least as good of a chance that when we reevaluate the league's best lineups a few months into the season, this unit will sit atop the rankings. This spot splits the difference.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Starting Five: John Wall, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Nicolas Batum and Ivica Zubac
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
We all know the Los Angeles Clippers will close games with at least four big wings on the floor, likely sending Zubac to the pine. Those lineups will include Norman Powell, Robert Covington or even Marcus Morris Sr., and the sheer breadth of options on this absurdly deep roster speaks to its legitimacy as a title threat.
Don't overlook the first unit, though. These guys are going to wreak havoc.
If Wall has anything left at all, he'll juice L.A.'s transition attack. And two years away probably hasn't diminished his status as one of the league's best facilitators of the corner three. One can imagine Batum, specifically, smiling as Wall hits him right in the shooting pocket in the left corner. Sure, Batum will probably pass that shot up and move the ball to Leonard or George, but Wall's pinpoint setups will further stress defenses that are already in full-time panic mode trying to figure out how to cover the Clips' pair of superstar wings.
Leonard may be a notch below the level he showed prior to tearing his ACL in the 2021 postseason, and he's almost certain to sit more often than ever in what could be the most conservative load management plan to date. But he, George and Zubac produced a plus-16.2 net rating when sharing the court together two years ago, and it's hard to imagine how Wall and Batum will knock that number down. Both fit perfectly as pass-first facilitators, and a trio of shutdown wings (plus Zubac's rim protection) will keep Wall from hurting the bottom line defensively.
It almost feels cruel that the Clippers' starting five looks so dominant on paper because it's far from their most dangerous unit. Playing against these guys is going to be a nightmare from beginning to end.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Starting Five: James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker and Joel Embiid
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
Harden's nonexistent defense presents challenges for any player grouping, but the Philadelphia 76ers will get back far more than they give up with this retooled lineup.
The thought of defending a Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll with Maxey blowing past closeouts on the weak side while Harris and Tucker space out the three-point line should give opposing coaches indigestion. And the added stretch provided by Tucker's renowned gunning from the short corners will keep help from crashing down on Embiid when he rumbles to the cup.
The above unit with Matisse Thybulle in place of Tucker was a wrecking crew in its own right last year, managing a plus-20.3 net rating across 660 possessions. It's possible Thybulle's defensive wizardry will be missed with the aging Tucker taking his spot, but it's not like the veteran forward is a slouch on that end. Tucker has hung his hat on rugged individual defense throughout his career, and while Tybulle disrupts action with his length and anticipation, Tucker is the superior on-ball shutdown option—even at 37. Oh, and substituting a guy whose corner three-point percentage has hovered right around 40 percent for the last half-decade should provide an offensive boost over Thybulle, whom opposing defenses actively ignored.
Harden and Embiid could break down, and Tucker is past the point where decline should be expected. But this group is a menace on paper and has everything it needs to dominate on both ends.
2. Boston Celtics
Starting Five: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III
2021-22 Net Rating: Plus-24.3 (94th percentile) in 907 possessions
Just look at that net rating!
We haven't seen one that high across so many possessions to this point and—spoiler!—we won't see it topped in the (counts on fingers) one slide that remains in these rankings.
This group does most of its damage on defense, holding opponents to 94.8 points per 100 possessions last season, good enough to rank in the 96th percentile among all lineups. With DPOY Smart at the point of attack, switchable wings in Tatum and Brown and mobile bigs in Horford and Williams, Boston has all its bases covered. It doesn't matter that the Celtics' starting five only scored at a rate that ranked in the 71st percentile during 2021-22; it had enough stopping power on the other end to produce blowouts on a nightly basis.
Projecting ahead, Brown and Tatum are still young enough to make incremental improvements on both ends that should offset slippage from Horford as he enters his age-36 season. And if the veteran big man suffers a steeper decline, the Celtics can just slot in Grant Williams instead.
Lineups including Williams in Horford's spot last season were shockingly even better, hammering opponents by 33.3 points per 100 possessions.
There are several reasons Boston enters the 2022-23 campaign as the championship favorite. Though the spike in title odds stems in part from the depth-boosting additions of Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari, the Celtics first unit should remain the biggest source of optimism.
1. Golden State Warriors
Starting Five: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney
2021-22 Net Rating: N/A
How do you rank a lineup this high that didn't play a single regular-season minute together last year?
Pretty easily, it turns out.
Though injuries prevented the Golden State Warriors' projected starting five from sharing the floor during the year, it still managed to coalesce in time to key the team's title run. In 339 playoff possessions, these guys posted a plus-17.1 net rating—a shockingly high figure the Dubs accumulated exclusively against strong competition. No inflating the numbers with romps over the Rockets or head-thumpers against the Thunder here; Golden State racked up this number against legit opponents in high-stakes games.
Remarkably, only two teams will return five-man units that played at least as many possessions while posting a higher net rating than this Dubs group during the regular season: Boston and Philadelphia.
Considering the higher degree of difficulty attached to the Warriors postseason net rating; the decade of hive-mind experience shared by Curry, Thompson and Green; and the seamless fit of Looney and Wiggins, there's really not another logical choice here. If anything, the bonds forged and strengthened in the 2022 postseason crucible—not to mention Thompson's improving health—point to this unit performing even better next season.