Every NBA Team's Toughest Starting Lineup Decision For 2022-23

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 13, 2022

Every NBA Team's Toughest Starting Lineup Decision For 2022-23

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    With the Donovan Mitchell trade in the rearview and potential Russell Westbrook deals seemingly stalled out, it feels safe to assume the offseason is, more or less, done.

    And with training camps right around the corner, teams are likely thinking about who their starting fives will be.

    In some cases, the answers are obvious. Others have one or two questions. A few lineups are basically all questions.

    With just over a month from opening night, here are the toughest decisions for every team's starting five.

Atlanta Hawks: Clint Capela or Onyeka Okongwu

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    It's probably safe to pencil Clint Capela in as the Atlanta Hawks starting center. He's had that role in 136 of his 137 appearances for the team.

    But there's at least an argument for 21-year-old Onyeka Okongwu.

    He's smaller and doesn't have anywhere near the experience as a roll-man that Capela has, but Okongwu would make Atlanta's starting defense far more switchable.

    Getting him more reps with starting guards Trae Young and Dejounte Murray could pay off in the long run, too.

    At 28, Capela certainly isn't old, but it's easy to see Okongwu as the future of the position.

Boston Celtics: All Set

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    There's no use trying to come up with any kind of positional controversy here.

    Malcolm Brogdon has been a starter for the majority of his career, but there's no reason to break up one of the most dominant groups of 2021-22.

    Last season, the Boston Celtics were an outrageous plus-24.3 points per 100 possessions when Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III were all on the floor.

    The lineup features an idea mix of size, playmaking and scoring, and there's no reason to tinker with it.

    Reserves like Brogdon and Grant Williams may get their chances with most of the starters when someone is out or resting, but the default is clearly the same as 2021-22.

Brooklyn Nets: Where to Put Ben Simmons

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    Despite standing nearly seven feet tall, Ben Simmons has spent the bulk of his career playing point guard.

    He's about to start 2022-23 alongside one of the game's most ball-dominant guards, though. And his team also features one of the greatest three-point shooters of all time.

    With Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry potentially laying claim to the starting backcourt, Simmons may have to finally accept designation as a forward. On this team, he might even have to play some 5.

    This all might be moot if the Brooklyn Nets essentially play positionless while Irving, Simmons and Kevin Durant are on the floor, but simply starting Simmons at a new spot could help establish a new role in his mind.

Charlotte Hornets: Move P.J. Washington to the 5?

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    Every move the Charlotte Hornets make for the foreseeable future should have LaMelo Ball in mind.

    And though his numbers (20.1 points, 7.6 assists, 2.9 threes and a 38.9 three-point percentage) in Year 2 were absurd, Charlotte may be able to make life even easier for him.

    Last season, the Hornets were plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions when P.J. Washington played the 5, and it's not hard to see how his outside shooting could open up the floor for Ball.

    Washington has hit 37.8 percent of his threes during his career, and that kind of shooting forces opposing bigs to follow him outside the paint. That, in turn, makes for wider driving lanes for Ball.

    Of course, Washington's size (6'7") exposes the team to defensive problems, but a five-out attack piloted by LaMelo may be able to overcome that.

Chicago Bulls: Move Alex Caruso into the Starting Five?

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    This may not be much of a question as long as Lonzo Ball is out, but there's even an argument to start Alex Caruso when everyone is healthy.

    Last season, the Chicago Bulls were plus-16.3 points per 100 possessions when Caruso, Ball,
    Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan were all on the floor.

    Injuries limited the sample size to fewer than 500 total possessions, but it was clear that the defense and ball-moving tendencies of Ball and Caruso were the perfect complements to LaVine and DeRozan's scoring-centric games.

    Chicago will surely want to see how 21-year-old Patrick Williams will look at the 4, but the aforementioned group with Nikola Vucevic is a card it may have to play at some point.

Cleveland Cavaliers: All Set

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    We could force this one and talk about who'll start at the 3. Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert and Cedi Osman could all be options, but the arrival of Donovan Mitchell makes the choice relatively clear.

    Darius Garland's usage percentage was near 30 last season. Mitchell's has been over 30 in each of his last four campaigns. Evan Mobley figures to get more scoring opportunities as a sophomore. Even Jarrett Allen is an All-Star who got nearly 10 shots per game last season.

    With that much offense accounted for, the fifth spot probably has to go to Okoro, whose own usage was barely over 10 percent in 2021-22.

    In that lineup, he's the obvious three-and-D candidate who isn't going to take too many touches away from the stars.

    Making LeVert a heat-check-off-the-bench guy with Kevin Love will allow him to play his own shoot-first game a bit more, too.

Dallas Mavericks: Should Christian Wood Start?

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    Earlier this summer, The Athletic's Tim Cato reported that Christian Wood would be coming off the bench this season.

    It was a curious development, given the loss of Jalen Brunson's scoring from the starting five and the fact that Wood has started 108 of his 109 games over the last two seasons.

    With his career 38.0 three-point percentage, he also makes sense as the big in five-out lineups piloted by Luka Doncic. Those, of course, were a critical component of the Dallas Mavericks making the Western Conference Finals in 2022.

    With Wood, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie all spread around the perimeter, Luka would be free to operate in the middle of the floor with four good shooters to spray out to.

    Even if the Mavericks are already signaling that JaVale McGee will start at center, the Wood lineups make too much sense to bury altogether. This debate may persist for months.

Denver Nuggets: Who Starts at the 2?

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    Four of the five spots in the Denver Nuggets starting five are about as set as possible.

    When Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic were on the floor in 2020-21, Denver was plus-17.1 points per 100 possessions. They're all locked in for 2022-23.

    That just leaves the 2, where Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seems like the obvious choice, though he's not without competition.

    Bruce Brown's playmaking and slightly lower usage game might make sense in a lineup with as much shooting as this one has. He brings multipositional defense too.

    Of course, KCP's shot with much higher volume from three over the course of his career. And you probably can't have too much shooting around Jokic.

    The Nuggets may be in the enviable position of not having a bad answer at that spot.

Detroit Pistons: Is Marvin Bagley III a 5?

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    The Detroit Pistons getting to more modern lineups may depend an awful lot on Marvin Bagley III.

    If he can provide decent defense at the 5, Detroit could play Saddiq Bey more at the 4, opening up minutes for more shooting at other spots.

    And, as has been said about other ball-handlers to this point, the key to unlocking Cade Cunningham's full potential may be getting as much shooting around him as possible.

    It'd be an added bonus if Bagley could get back to the 34.3 percent he shot from deep in 2020-21 (or a little better).

Golden State Warriors: Can Jordan Poole Force His Way into the Starting Five?

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    The chances of the Golden State Warriors starting many healthy games with a lineup other than Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney feel pretty slim.

    Jordan Poole might just be talented enough to prevent that from being a complete certainty.

    Thanks to injuries, Golden State didn't really have a chance to experiment with Poole and the three legends in the regular season. But when those four shared the floor with Andrew Wiggins in the postseason, the Warriors were plus-16.2 points per 100 possessions.

    It may not be the default, but perhaps that lineup could be a change-of-pace starting five against smaller opponents.

Houston Rockets: Who Starts at the 3?

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    The Houston Rockets appear to have building block talents at four positions.

    Kevin Porter Jr. averaged 6.2 assists and shot 37.5 percent from three last season. In his age-19 campaign, Jalen Green averaged 22.1 points and shot 38.7 percent from deep after the All-Star break. Larry Bird is the only rookie in league history who matched or exceeded all of Alperen Şengün's 2021-22 per-possession averages for points, rebounds and assists. And Jabari Smith garnered loads of top overall pick buzz before the Orlando Magic threw a curveball and took Paolo Banchero.

    That leaves the 3 spot as the biggest question mark heading into this season, and there are a handful of options there. Eric Gordon's experience and three-point shooting could make life easier for the other four. Jae'Sean Tate's defense and ball moving could have a similar effect. On-court reps for Josh Christopher wouldn't hurt.

Indiana Pacers: Who's the 4?

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    With Myles Turner, Isaiah Jackson, Daniel Theis, Goga Bitadze and Jalen Smith, the Indiana Pacers have a plethora of centers on the roster.

    There are plenty of wings, too, including Chris Duarte, Buddy Hield, Bennedict Mathurin, Aaron Nesmith and Oshae Brissett.

    What they don't have are many (if any) natural power forwards.

    That means someone who's probably more suited to play a different position is going to start and log a lot of minutes at the 4.

    That fell to Brissett after the Domantas Sabonis trade last season. This year, the burden is likely Smith's.

Los Angeles Clippers: Can John Wall Crack the Starting Five?

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    Reggie Jackson has started most of his 159 appearances with the Los Angeles Clippers, but the team has been slightly worse when he plays.

    And his shooting was ghastly last season. He scored 201.5 fewer points than a perfectly average shooter would've totaled on his attempts. That was the worst mark in the league, and it was almost 40 points worse than Julius Randle's second-worst minus-163.2.

    If recently signed John Wall can get back to even 80-85 percent of his prime self, he could make the Clippers starting five far more dynamic.

    He probably won't be as good a three-point shooter as Jackson was in the two seasons prior to 2021-22, but his ability to get to the paint could collapse defenses and give Paul George and Kawhi Leonard more scrambling closeouts to attack.

Los Angeles Lakers: Will Russell Westbrook Be Benched?

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    Assuming they don't find a trade, it sounds like Russell Westbrook will begin another season as a starting point guard, even if there's a much better fit for LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster.

    Having three ball-dominant superstars didn't go well last season, The trio didn't get to play a ton together, but it looked as crowded as expected when they did.

    Patrick Beverley, a low-usage, high-intensity defender who can reliably hit threes (he's a career 37.8 percent outside shooter), makes so much more sense alongside LeBron and AD. And Westbrook would almost certainly feast on opposing second units if he was a super sixth man.

    Convincing a former MVP with over 1,000 starts and years of a "my way or the highway" demeanor may be borderline impossible, though.

Memphis Grizzlies: Who Fills in for Jaren Jackson Jr.?

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    Jaren Jackson Jr. made an All-Defense team and led the league in blocks per game in 2021-22. The Memphis Grizzlies were plus-8.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and plus-3.6 when he was off.

    Following surgery in late June, he was reportedly going to be out for 4-6 months. If he comes back in the latter end of that range, we're looking at somewhere close to the turn of the calendar.

    Losing the linchpin of the defense for that long could be a significant issue, even if there are a number of viable options to hold down the fort.

    They could go smaller and slide Ziaire Williams down to the 4. Brandon Clarke would give them a more traditional look. If they have strong camps, maybe even David Roddy or Jake LaRavia could enter the conversation.

    Whoever it is, Memphis is going to miss Jackson's three-and-D game in the frontcourt.

Miami Heat: Who Replaces P.J. Tucker?

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    The Miami Heat didn't make any drastic moves this offseason. The biggest news may have been the departure of P.J. Tucker, who was a vital cog in the starting five that led Miami to the East's top seed.

    Last season, he shot a career-high 41.5 percent from three. He spared Jimmy Butler from some of the more bruising forward and wing matchups. When he was on the floor, the Heat had a point differential around that of a 56-win team (compared to one around that of a 51-win team when he didn't).

    Now that he's on the Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami really didn't sign, draft or trade for anyone to replace him (unless you think Nikola Jovic is going to be ready way earlier than expected), the responsibility of filling his role falls to incumbents on the roster.

    Butler will probably have to replace a lot of the defense and production, but he won't start at two spots.

    Miami could go a little smaller, slide Butler to the 4 and start some two-man combination of Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo on the wings. Or, they could leave Butler at the 3 and deploy Caleb Martin at the 4.

    That option isn't any bigger, but Martin is a more believable defensive option against opposing forwards than Robinson, Herro or Strus.

Milwaukee Bucks: Who Starts at the 2?

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    Four of the Milwaukee Bucks' starting spots have pretty much been no-brainers since the moment they traded for Jrue Holiday. Assuming they're healthy, he, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are locked in at the 1, 3, 4 and 5 spots.

    That leaves the 2, where Grayson Allen (who started 61 of his 66 games last season) is probably the most obvious choice. With his three-point shooting (40.1 percent over the last three seasons), he's a great catch-and-shoot target for drive-and-kicks from Holiday, Middleton and Giannis.

    There are other reasonable options, though. Pat Connaughton is a better rebounder and grittier defender. Wesley Matthews is the more experienced candidate. Even George Hill might make some sense, with his three-point shooting and secondary creation. When Joe Ingles is healthy, starting him at the 3 and sliding Middleton to the 2 isn't crazy.

    There aren't any stars in that bunch, but Milwaukee is suddenly pretty deep on the wing.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Who Starts at the 3?

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves figure to be one of the most interesting teams in the NBA this season.

    They made an all-in trade to acquire Rudy Gobert, despite the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns on the roster.

    Of course, that means KAT will move to the 4, and Minnesota will try to buck the trend of positionless basketball with a more traditional, bruising look (at least to start games).

    Two other spots in that lineup are obvious, too. One will go to rising star Anthony Edwards. The other will be D'Angelo Russell's.

    That leaves one more spot on the wing.

    If the Wolves want to go really big, slow, plodding and old-school, they could start Kyle Anderson. His point forward skills would add a hint of unpredictability. He's a high-end positional defender, too.

    The likelier option, though, would seem to be Jaden McDaniels, the soon-to-be 22-year-old who was a top-10 high school recruit in 2019. He took a step back as a three-point shooter last season, but if he can get back to around the 36.4 percent he shot as a rookie (or a little better), he'll loosen things up a lot for lineups featuring Gobert.

New Orleans Pelicans: Who Starts in the Backcourt with CJ McCollum

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    If Zion Williamson is healthy and available for most of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans have a chance to make things mighty interesting in the Western Conference.

    With himself, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans could have one of the most explosive scoring frontcourts in the league.

    Add CJ McCollum to the mix, and it starts to get pretty difficult to understand how teams will defend them.

    The only question may be who joins McCollum in the backcourt, and even that answer may be fairly obvious.

    You may think of Herbert Jones as more of a forward, but he's mobile enough to have a similar defensive impact at the 2.

    Last season, the Pelicans' net rating was 9.6 points better when Jones was on the floor. They may not be able to afford to keep him out of that lineup.

    The other possibilities would both involve sliding McCollum to shooting guard. In that case, New Orleans could commit even harder to offense and start Devonte' Graham. Or, they could deploy Jose Alvarado to pester starting 1s.

New York Knicks: Can Obi Toppin or Quentin Grimes Crack the Starting Five?

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    If we learned anything about the New York Knicks over their weeks-long failed negotiations to trade for Donovan Mitchell, it's that they have a ton of confidence in Quentin Grimes and Obi Toppin.

    Now, with Mitchell at the Cavaliers and Grimes and Toppin still in New York, it's time to put their talent on display.

    That's easier said than done, with the players ahead of them on the depth chart, Julius Randle and Evan Fournier, making $23.8 and $18 million, respectively. But there's certainly an argument to make the change.

    New York was minus-0.1 points per 100 possessions overall last season. It was plus-9.6 when Grimes and Toppin were on the floor.

    Of course, that has a lot to do with the younger players spending a lot of time against second units, but Grimes' shooting, multipositional defense and a hint of playmaking make it easy to see a higher upside than what Fournier offers. And as Toppin is more comfortable with his limitations than Randle, this might make him a better fit in lineups with Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Can Aleksej Pokusevski Crack the Starting Five?

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    Aleksej Pokusevski is one of the most unique, interesting and, at least so far, ineffective players in the NBA.

    He's seven feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds. He carries himself on the floor like the second coming of Kevin Durant. And he has career shooting marks of 37.6 percent from the field, 28.5 percent from three and 71.7 percent from the stripe.

    Occasionally, though, he'll show off flashes of potentially ridiculous upside. The Oklahoma City Thunder have given him reps as a lead playmaker. They've entrusted him to shoot open threes. And all the bumps and bruises they've allowed him to take over two years may eventually pay off.

    Over his last 10 games of 2021-22, Poku averaged 13.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.8 threes. And with Chet Holmgren out for the season with a foot injury, there should be an opening in the starting lineup.

Orlando Magic: Is Cole Anthony the Sixth Man?

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    Cole Anthony started all 65 of his games last season. He remains a wildly inefficient shooter, but the Orlando Magic's point differential was significantly better when he played.

    Having someone who could consistently pressure the opposing defense seemed to be enough to make the difference, even if he missed a lot of shots (the team's effective field-goal percentage was comfortably better when he played).

    Now that Paolo Banchero is the in the starting five, and Franz Wagner has had a EuroBasket-filled offseason of development, Orlando may not need that offensive punch at the beginning of games from Anthony.

    A backcourt of Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs certainly has higher defensive upside than any combination including Anthony. Both of those players can create and pass, too.

    And if Anthony accepts a Jordan Clarkson-like role off the bench, he could probably get just as many shots up, only it'd be against inferior defense.

Philadelphia 76ers: All Set

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    There may be arguments to start De'Anthony Melton or Matisse Thybulle over Tucker, but they feel fairly unrealistic.

    If Tucker can recreate the three-point shooting he displayed last season, and being in this lineup should give him plenty of wide-open opportunities to do so, he's the obvious choice to start at the 4.

    Thybulle's a better defender, but his three-point shot is terribly unreliable. Melton checks both boxes, but if you start him and move Harden to the 3 (at least defensively), you're suddenly pretty small outside.

    Going with Tyrese Maxey, Harden, Tobias Harris, Tucker and Joel Embiid seems like an easy bet and having those other options just speaks to Philadelphia's depth and versatility.

Phoenix Suns: Can Cameron Johnson Replace Jae Crowder?

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    Jae Crowder has been a staple of the Phoenix Suns' starting five for two seasons, but there's a bigger, younger and sweeter shooting option at the 4.

    Since the start of the 2020-21 season, Phoenix is a solid plus-6.3 points per 100 possessions when Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Crowder and Deandre Ayton are all on the floor. That number jumps to plus-12.7 when you swap Johnson in for Crowder (though the sample size is much smaller).

    As solid as Crowder is on defense, Johnson is still very switchable. And the difference between those two on that end may not be big enough to make up for the edge Johnson has as a shooter.

    With Bridges and Johnson flanking actions involving the stars, the Suns' offense could be even tougher to stop than it has been over the last two seasons (they're fourth in points per 100 possessions during that stretch).

Portland Trail Blazers: Will They Really Go Small Again?

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    For years, the biggest question surrounding Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers was whether he and CJ McCollum were good enough defensively. Their shortcomings on that end had a lot to do with the fact that they are, well, short (at least compared to other NBA players).

    After they traded McCollum to the Pelicans, it seemed like the organization might finally look for a bigger, more defensive-minded 2 to deploy with Lillard. Then, this summer, they signed 6'3" Anfernee Simons to a four-year, $100 million deal.

    In case you're wondering, McCollum is 6'3".

    When the NBA signs a new TV deal and the salary cap potentially spikes again in 2025, a $25 million annual salary may not seem like much for a great sixth man. But right now, that certainly feels like starter's money.

    There are other options. The defense would likely be better with either Gary Payton II or Josh Hart at the 2, but Portland may be banking that there's enough backline help from Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic to get by with another undersized backcourt.

Sacramento Kings: Who Starts at the 2?

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    De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis have a chance to be one of the game's tougher guard-big combos.

    Having two combo forwards like Harrison Barnes and Keegan Murray in the same lineup makes it easier to switch screens, so they both feel like locks, too.

    That leaves only one real decision for the starting five, and it's who to deploy as the starting shooting guard.

    Two new acquisitions, Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk both have arguments. Each is in the high-30s from three over the last two seasons. Each has dabbled in playmaking in recent years.

    The defense-first option would be Davion Mitchell. Despite standing just 6'2", he'd probably offer more defensive resistance than either Huerter or Mitchell.

    Ultimately, it may depend on how the other four play. If that group seems to need more shooting, Huerter or Monk would be the call. If offense is fine with them, maybe it's Mitchell.

San Antonio Spurs: How Long Do Veterans Start

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    Trading their best player for picks and a veteran they almost immediately bought out signaled the San Antonio Spurs' full commitment to a rebuild, but a couple win-now pieces remain.

    If the team wants to remain competitive, it'll start with Jakob Poeltl. There's also an argument for Doug McDermott, a career 40.9 percent three-point shooter, in that scenario.

    If the aim is losses, a better shot at the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft and on-court development for young players like Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio might need to bench the veterans.

Toronto Raptors: Do They Start a Traditional 5?

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    The Toronto Raptors have at least two (and possibly three, depending on how you see Precious Achiuwa) more traditional centers on the roster in Khem Birch and Chris Boucher.

    But last season, their most-used starting five was Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam.

    The thing is, that group wasn't exactly blowing the doors off opponents. All season, it was plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions.

    The individual net ratings of Birch and Achiuwa are in the same neighborhood. The team was plus-5.1 when Boucher was on the floor.

    Basing the decision on last season's on-off data doesn't make much sense, though.

    Barnes, last season's Rookie of the Year, is almost certain to be better in Year 2. Anunoby and Trent are theoretically pre-prime, too. If those three have improved enough defensively, they may make up for the absence of Boucher's shot-blocking.

    More time to develop continuity and chemistry within that largely positionless lineup could also help.

Utah Jazz: Who Joins Collin Sexton?

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    Up to this point, we've generally operated under the assumption that teams are done making moves. For the Utah Jazz, it's hard to imagine they don't find trades for Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson.

    In that scenario, it feels like three (and possibly four) starting spots are up for grabs.

    Collin Sexton, recently acquired as part of the Mitchell sign-and-trade, is a shoo-in to start at the 1. The confidence that Lauri Markkanen starts at the 4 or 5 isn't far behind.

    That leaves Jared Butler, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Talen Horton-Tucker, Stanley Johnson, Ochai Agbaji, Simone Fontecchio, Jarred Vanderbilt, Walker Kessler and Udoka Azubuike and maybe some other young player who comes back in future trades for the last three spots.

Washington Wizards: Which of the Young Forwards Will Start?

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    After struggling to find consistent point guard play for much of last season, the Washington Wizards now have a couple of options in Monte Morris and Delon Wright.

    That's not the toughest choice facing the Wizards, though.

    We can assume one of those players is the 1, Bradley Beal will play the 2 and Kristaps Porzingis will likely start at center (with apologies to Daniel Gafford).

    That leaves two forward spots for Kyle Kuzma, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert. We might even add Will Barton to that mix to make things even weirder.

    If defense is the priority, Avdija may have a leg up on the competition. Three-point shooting would favor Hachimura or Kispert. Kuzma has a bit more experience than the other young forwards, but he may take a few too many possessions from Beal and Porzingis.

    Ultimately, the depth is probably a good thing, but it will make for some tough choices during training camp.


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