Ranking NBA Eastern Conference Starting Lineups After Cavs Donovan Mitchell Trade

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 6, 2022

Ranking NBA Eastern Conference Starting Lineups After Cavs Donovan Mitchell Trade

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    This isn't your slightly-older brother's Eastern Conference.

    Just two years ago, the Orlando Magic reached the East playoffs despite finishing the season seven games below .500 (33-40 overall). Only six of the 15 East teams even ended up with a winning record, speaking to just how weak the conference was overall.

    Those days are now long gone.

    The East is absolutely loaded, with 12 squads possessing strong playoff (or at least play-in) chances. Led by some devastating starting lineups, the conference has only gotten more dangerous with Donovan Mitchell moving from the Utah Jazz to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    With Mitchell now in The Land, where do the Cavs' starting five rank among the East's best? How much does P.J. Tucker moving from the Miami Heat to the Philadelphia 76ers affect both teams? Can Dejounte Murray push the Atlanta Hawks to a top spot?

    Here's how all 15 opening lineups in Eastern Conference stack up.

15. Orlando Magic

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Cole Anthony, SG Jalen Suggs, SF Franz Wagner, PF Paolo Banchero, C Wendell Carter Jr.

    There should be some slight shifting in Orlando's starting lineup, with No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero almost certainly leapfrogging Mo Bamba in the Magic opening five. Banchero can completely transform this offense over time with his multi-level scoring and elite passing ability for a big man, although this metamorphosis will take time.

    For now, we don't know how all these pieces will fit.

    Both Anthony and Suggs are on-ball guards who combined to make a horrendous 38.0 percent of their total shot attempts last season. Poor play could lead to Markelle Fultz taking a starting job from one of them at some point this year as well.

    The four-man unit of Anthony, Suggs, Wagner and Carter did register a net rating of minus-0.8 in 501 total minutes together last season, which isn't that bad considering their ages and Orlando's dismal 22-60 record last season.

    Adding Banchero to this group while expecting leaps from everyone else makes for an intriguing future. For now, this is still the worst starting five in the conference until Anthony and Suggs can improve their shooting efficiency.

14. Detroit Pistons

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    Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Cade Cunningham, SG Jaden Ivey, SF Saddiq Bey, PF Marvin Bagley III, C Isaiah Stewart

    Detroit's starters had the worst field goal percentage (43.0 percent) and plus-minus per game (minus-5.2) of any East team last season. That's not a great place to start, although the addition of Ivey and the development of the rest of the young core should at least mean a slight bump up the rankings.

    Cunningham had a strong end to his rookie season (21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 45.2 percent shooting over his final 21 games) and should develop more as an off-ball threat with Ivey occasionally taking control of the offense.

    Following the Jerami Grant trade to Portland, power forward could be a committee until someone proves they can handle the job full-time. This could be Bagley, Stewart or Kelly Olynyk as head coach Dwane Casey finds the best fit around his future All-Star backcourt.

    With Grant gone, this will be one of the youngest starting fives in the NBA and one that will likely shift around as the season progresses.

13. Indiana Pacers

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    Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Tyrese Haliburton, SG Bennedict Mathurin, SF Buddy Hield, PF Jalen Smith, C Myles Turner

    For now, this starting five in Indiana doesn't look all that bad, although we'll see how long Turner and Hield actually remain on the roster.

    Haliburton and Mathurin could be one of the NBA's best backcourts in a few years, especially with the former averaging 17.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 9.6 assists and 1.8 steals on a sparkling 62.9 percent true shooting rate following his trade to Indiana.

    For now, this unit will struggle defensively, even with Turner ranking as one of the league's best rim protectors when healthy. Hield won't stop anyone on the perimeter, and Mathurin likely won't be a plus defender as a rookie.

    Smith averaged a modest 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in his four starts following a trade to the Pacers yet was named the team's starting power forward after re-signing on a three-year, $15.1 million. He could be a potential steal on this contract and, at 22, has lots of room to develop in this new role.

    Turner and Hield's stay in Indiana may be temporary, however, causing this starting five to slide to the bottom of the conference.

12. Washington Wizards

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Monte Morris, SG Bradley Beal, SF Deni Avdija, PF Kyle Kuzma, C Kristaps Porzingis

    The return of Beal and trade for Morris makes this an improved backcourt than the one that ended the 2021-22 season, and Avdija's growth as the projected starting small forward gives this group a ceiling that could finish a few spots higher.

    Still, Morris could be the worst starting point guard in the East, speaking more to the talent in the conference than his own ability.

    Porzingis has All-Defensive team potential as a rim protector (opponents shot just 53.4 percent against him at the basket), but he's almost guaranteed to miss a chunk of the season after averaging just 39.8 games played the past five years.

    Outside of Beal, Washington's strength this season will be their depth, as its roster is loaded with forwards and wings that could easily go 10-12 players deep in a rotation.

    For now, this is an OK starting five that will only improve if Avdija makes a third-year leap and Porzingis can actually stay on the floor.

11. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG LaMelo Ball, SG Terry Rozier, SF Gordon Hayward, PF P.J. Washington, C Mason Plumlee

    Given the uncertainty of Miles Bridges' availability this season after being charged with three counts of felony domestic violence, it's hard to imagine that this starting five will be better than the version we saw last year.

    Washington is likely the new starting power forward in his return to the opening lineup and averaged 11.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals on 50.2 percent shooting in 28 starts last season. He's a better three-point shooter than Bridges but not a scoring hub that Charlotte can run its offense through for stretches.

    Meanwhile, Hayward hasn't topped 49 games in either of his two seasons in Charlotte, and Plumlee will get eaten alive on nights where he has to match up with premier big men like Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Bam Adebayo and Jarrett Allen.

    Rookie center Mark Williams should join this starting five as soon as he's ready and can provide better rim protection and rebounding than Plumlee with time.

    As good as Ball is, he needs more help than this to even reach the playoffs.

10. New York Knicks

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Jalen Brunson, SG RJ Barrett, SF Evan Fournier, PF Julius Randle, C Mitchell Robinson

    Swapping out Kemba Walker for Brunson is one of the biggest positional upgrades of the entire NBA offseason and should have the Knicks playing at a .500 level at the very least.

    Not trading for Donovan Mitchell is by no means a death sentence for the offense, either, as young guards like Quentin Grimes and Immanuel Quickley could each make their case for a starting job at some point this season if/when Tom Thibodeau does the right thing by benching Fournier.

    The Knicks were 6.7 points per 100 possessions better when Fournier was out of the game last season and should be looking for other options on the wing.

    Randle will have a bounce-back season playing next to a proven point guard like Brunson, as will Robinson as a lob target after his new floor general breaks down perimeter defenders.

    If Barrett can make an All-Star leap and Fournier gets moved to the bench, this unit could finish in the top half of the conference.

9. Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Kyle Lowry, SG Max Strus, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Caleb Martin, C Bam Adebayo

    Miami may still end up being one of the best teams in the East, but this is far from one of the conference's top starting fives.

    Losing P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris in free agency has opened up a glaring hole at power forward, one that doesn't have a clear answer at the moment.

    Butler, Martin and Duncan Robinson are all undersized options that may be forced to play the 4 out of necessity, which could cause some real matchup problems when playing teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors with two All-Star/high-caliber big men.

    Butler will also turn 33 before the season begins, and Lowry is the fourth-oldest starter in the NBA at 36, only behind LeBron James, Chris Paul and Tucker. Adebayo is the only member of the opening five in or about to enter an All-Star caliber prime.

    Tyler Herro could end up as a starter, although the Heat's net rating with him, Butler, Adebayo and Lowry all on the floor together last season slumped to minus-3.4.

    Miami will probably still find a way to win 50 games and grab a top-six playoff seed, but this starting five has a lot of concerns right now.

8. Chicago Bulls

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    Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Lonzo Ball, SG Zach LaVine, SF DeMar DeRozan, PF Patrick Williams, C Nikola Vucevic

    The Bulls projected starting five only got to play five games together last season, totaling 63 minutes in all. While this small sample produced some good results (plus-9.6 net rating), the uncertainty surrounding the health of Ball's knee could mean swapping in different point guards.

    Ball is expected to miss training camp and is doubtful to start the regular season due to lingering pain in his left knee from meniscus surgery performed in January, according to ESPN's Jamal Collier and Ramona Shelburne, a huge blow to a Chicago team in need of his defense and playmaking.

    LaVine and DeRozan will do most of the headline-grabbing, but Ball and Williams are critical to this group's ability to win games. The Bulls had a net rating of plus-5.9 (82nd percentile) when both were on the floor last season, compared to minus-0.4 (48th percentile) when Ball and Williams were sidelined.

    Chicago has a cupboard full of playmakers in case Ball has to miss time (Coby White, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, Dalen Terry, Goran Dragic), but none can match everything Ball brings to the table.

    When healthy, this can be one of the best starting fives in all of basketball, especially if Williams makes a third-year leap. The fact that Ball is still having issues with his knee in what was originally supposed to be a six-to-eight week recovery period is deeply concerning, however.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    Kevin Sousa/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Fred VanVleet, SG Gary Trent Jr., SF OG Anunoby, PF Scottie Barnes, C Pascal Siakam

    On paper, this lineup looks like it should be a few spots higher up this list. The numbers say otherwise, however, as a net rating of plus-1.8 ranked in just the 47th percentile overall.

    Toronto was far more successful when swapping out Anunoby and going bigger with either Precious Achiuwa (plus-14.5 net rating, 81st percentile) or Chris Boucher (plus-22.3 net rating, 91st percentile).

    For now, we'll assume Nick Nurse continues to go with his five best players, a group that could take a step forward based on Barnes' massive potential alone.

    No team used its starters more than Toronto last season, a group that will hopefully get a bit more rest with the addition of Otto Porter Jr.

    Already with two All-Stars in VanVleet and Siakam, Barnes could soon give this starting five a trio of representatives if the Raptors possess one of the East's top seeds by February.

6. Atlanta Hawks

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    AP Photo/Darren Abate

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Trae Young, SG Dejounte Murray, SF De'Andre Hunter, PF John Collins, C Clint Capela

    Atlanta had little problem generating offense whenever Young, Hunter, Collins and Capela shared the floor last season, registering an offensive rating of 115.3.

    Unfortunately, this quartet also gave up 112.4 points, meaning a net rating of just plus-2.8 wasn't good enough to make any sort of playoff noise.

    Add Murray to the mix, however, and the Hawks now have a proven ball-stopper on the outside, one who's going to take on the toughest matchup every night and limit dribble penetration. While he's technically making a switch from floor general to shooting guard, Murray's 6'10" wingspan will allow him to guard across multiple positions.

    Hunter has yet to receive an extension when all three players that were selected ahead of him in 2019 (Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett) and the one taken immediately after him (Darius Garland) have all signed max or near-max deals. If healthy, Hunter should have a career year while looking to get paid.

    Capela should also be motivated to hold off Onyeka Okongwu for his starting job, as the 21-year-old looks like he'll soon be ready to play starters' minutes, if he's not already.

    Overall, the Hawks are taking what was one of the best offensive starting fives in all of basketball and adding in an elite defender who's also a talented scorer and playmaker himself. What's not to like?

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Ben Simmons, SG Kyrie Irving, SF Joe Harris, PF Kevin Durant, C Nic Claxton

    We know the Nets will start Durant, Irving and Simmons in some capacity this season. We don't yet know at what positions, however, and who will be joining them.

    Simmons could be the team's starting point guard or opening center, as his playmaking skills at 6'11" make him the NBA's only player who could do both. Going big with Simmons at floor general and Claxton and Durant in the frontcourt is going to be the best defensive option for this group, although using Simmons at center and adding another shooter to the floor makes this offense borderline unstoppable.

    Harris is coming off two ankle surgeries, so Brooklyn may go with Seth Curry as their floor-spacer to start the season. Harris has thrived as a connecting piece between stars with the Nets for the past few years, though, and should eventually make his way into the starting five.

    If Durant and Irving are on the floor, this team is bound to be good, no matter what. The star duo registered a net rating of plus-13.1 together last season on the back of an eye-popping 122.8 offensive rating.

    We don't know what Simmons will look like coming off back surgery or what position he'll play, for that matter. Only sixty percent of this starting lineup is set in stone at the moment, and availability issues are always a concern with this group.

    The Nets arguably have the most talented starting five in the East, but there are too many questions to rank them any higher for now.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Darius Garland, SG Donovan Mitchell, SF Caris LeVert, PF Evan Mobley, C Jarrett Allen

    Despite what Kendrick Perkins says, no, the Cavs don't quite have the best starting lineup in the NBA, even with Mitchell. At least, not yet.

    Mitchell and Garland could be the NBA's best offensive backcourt duo next season, as both can take over primary scoring and playmaking duties at any time. The Cavs will likely need to stagger them at the beginning of the season while Ricky Rubio recovers from a torn ACL.

    Neither is stopping anyone, however. It's an area that can't be overlooked, with so many talented guards in the East.

    There's also the question of who starts at small forward, a battle between LeVert (the better scorer and playmaker) and Isaac Okoro (the better defender with higher upside).

    As good as the guards are, though, this frontcourt could be even better, given their presence on both ends of the floor. With both Mobley and Allen on the court, the Cavs allowed just 105.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranked in the 94th percentile.

    This lineup may take some tinkering as head coach J.B. Bickerstaff discovers who fits the best between his All-Stars, although that's a problem every head coach should want to have.

    Cleveland has three All-Stars in the starting five and should soon include Mobley.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG James Harden, SG Tyrese Maxey, SF Tobias Harris, PF P.J. Tucker, C Joel Embiid

    This was going to be one of the best starting fives in the entire NBA, even before bringing in a talented defender and three-point shooter like Tucker.

    Following his trade to the 76ers, Harden helped lead a unit of Embiid, Maxey and Harris to a sparkling net rating of plus-17.6, one that contained a nice balance of offense and defense.

    Tucker should be an easy fit, as he's an extremely low-usage offensive piece who will spend most of his time setting screens or spacing out to the corners to knock down open threes. A whopping 88.6 percent of his three-point attempts came from the corners, and he converted 41.5 percent of those looks.

    With Embiid likely motivated to take home his first MVP award, Harden looking like the perfect second fiddle with his still advanced playmaking ability and Maxey able to light up the scoreboard for stretches, this starting five has it all.

    The only thing potentially holding this unit back is Embiid's availability (he's averaged 54.7 games in the six seasons he has played in) and the backcourt's ability to contain dribble penetration. Overall, this is a really talented and lethal core.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Jrue Holiday, SG Grayson Allen, SF Khris Middleton, PF Giannis Antetokounmpo, C Brook Lopez

    Lopez missing all but 13 games due to back surgery last season meant we only got to see this lineup in action for a total of 10 minutes, although a plus-21.1 net rating in that very brief time should be a glimpse of things to come.

    Antetokounmpo is the best player in the NBA and is somehow still only 27 years old. He's a reliable jumper away from being one of the most complete players the game has ever seen. He's coming off a season where he averaged 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks and made 61.6 percent of his shots from inside the arc.

    However, he may not even be the best defender in this starting five, as Holiday is as good of an on-ball perimeter stopper as we have in this league. Players who are lucky enough to get by him are only met by a wall of Antetokounmpo and Lopez. It's a trio of defenders that almost seems unfair to go up against.

    Allen will be the player opponents target on defense, but he's a necessary floor-spacer in this offense who's equally as dangerous shooting off the catch (40.1 percent) as he is when pulling up (43.2 percent).

    Milwaukee may eventually have to find a replacement for Lopez if the 34-year-old starts to show some slippage in his overall play, and reserve Bobby Portis may actually get more minutes than the veteran center.

    Behind the strength of the NBA's best Big Three in Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday, however, the Bucks will once again have one of the most complete starting fives.

1. Boston Celtics

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    Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

    Projected Starting Lineup: PG Marcus Smart, SG Jaylen Brown, SF Jayson Tatum, PF Al Horford, C Robert Williams III

    It should be no surprise that the defending East champions also have the best starting lineup in the conference.

    A net rating of plus-24.6 (!!!) in 443 minutes is no fluke and speaks to just how cohesive, complete and talented (especially defensively) these Celtics can be.

    Led by Smart, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and Williams, a possible future DPOY, Boston's opening five held opponents to 94.2 points per 100 possessions last season. There's no one to pick on in this group, not even 36-year-old Al Horford.

    If Horford begins to show his age this season, the Celtics could be even better by swapping him out for Grant Williams. When the 23-year-old forward shared the floor with Tatum, Brown, Smart and Robert Williams, Boston's net rating was somehow even better (plus-31.0).

    Add in the experience of making a Finals run together, plus the fact that Tatum, Brown, Smart and Robert Williams are all 24-to-28 years of age, and you get a sustainable core that is all under contract for the next two-plus years.

    In a conference that is now the NBA's deepest, Boston's starting five stands above all.


    Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary info via Spotrac.com.

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