Ranking the NBA's Starting 5s on Paper, Post-2015 Free Agency

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 15, 2015

Ranking the NBA's Starting 5s on Paper, Post-2015 Free Agency

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    The league's most coveted free agents have signed new contracts. Rookies have started to settle into their new roles as NBA players. Summer league is firmly in progress, allowing young men to take their best shots at earning roster spots. 

    All of a sudden, the 2015-16 season is starting to take shape. Even though it seems as if the Golden State Warriors only just lifted up the Larry O'Brien Trophy and celebrated their first title in 40 years, the world of basketball never stops progressing.  

    Right now, not every team's starting five is set in stone. A few players who are still available in the open market could manage to claim spots, and training-camp battles are sure to alter the order of depth charts in some fashion. 

    But we're far enough along now to make educated guesses about what will unfold and how each five-man unit will stack up.

    It's not about name recognition in these rankings, but rather how well these starting lineups will play in 2015-16. Offensive ability helps, as does defensive prowess. Continuity is beneficial, and the same is true of any factor that can make a team better on the court. 

    That said, don't make the mistake of thinking these are rankings of the 30 teams in their entirety. Backups don't matter here, even though they're always huge factors in the title hunt.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Projected Starting Five: Isaiah Canaan, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor

    The Philadelphia 76ers are starting to move in the right direction, but there's not enough established talent here for them to move out of the NBA's basement. Even though Nerlens Noel enjoyed a phenomenal second half to his rookie campaign and Jahlil Okafor figures to make an immediate impact as a dominant post presence, the backcourt is questionable at best.

    Whether Isaiah Canaan starts or cedes the gig to a healthy Tony Wroten, point guard is going to be a major weakness. Despite the wealth of quality floor generals littering the landscape of the Association, the Sixers don't boast any who should start on a playoff-contending organization. 

    Is the same true at shooting guard? It may well be, given Nik Stauskas' struggles during his first and only go-round with the Sacramento Kings. 

    The No. 8 pick from the 2014 NBA draft, Stauskas could very well break out in a new location that needs him to connect from the outside. But counting on that isn't exactly the smartest plan, and Philadelphia doesn't have any convincing alternatives.

    There are pieces to like in the City of Brotherly Love, but that's not enough to escape from No. 30.

29. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Projected Starting Five: Damian Lillard, Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee

    The Portland Trail Blazers are in for a precipitous decline. 

    Losing Nicolas Batum was always going to hurt, and Rip City traded him to the Charlotte Hornets early in the offseason. Ditto for Wesley Matthews, though the standout shooting guard departed to the Dallas Mavericks through free agency, and the Blazers didn't get anything back in return.

    The losses didn't end there. 

    Robin Lopez is now a member of the New York Knicks. And worst of all, LaMarcus Aldridge skipped town in favor of a new contract with the San Antonio Spurs. 

    That's four missing members of last year's impressive starting lineup, and the replacements simply aren't on the same level. 

    Gerald Henderson can't shoot nearly as well as Matthews, nor is he as strong on the defensive end. His old-school offensive style will aid Portland's versatility, but the two don't exactly compare. The same can be said for Al-Farouq Aminu and Batum, as the former is far more limited on offense. 

    Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee (or Meyers Leonard, if the young big man works his way into the starting five) are quality players with upside, but neither comes close to touching Lopez or Aldridge. Frankly, it's not even remotely close.

    Portland won't be a pushover, but the franchise isn't exactly swimming with talent right now. Spacing is going to be an issue all season long. 

    Chances are, the depth and young talents who figure to start the season on the pine—Leonard, Noah Vonleh, Moe Harkless, C.J. McCollum—will keep this team from falling all the way down in the Western Conference standings. But as of now, it's hard to find a worse starting five in the Blazers' half of the league.

28. Denver Nuggets

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    Projected Starting Five: Ty Lawson, Randy Foye, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic

    It's amazing how much better the Denver Nuggets were after interim head coach Melvin Hunt took over for Brian Shaw, who was never a strong fit for this run-and-gun roster. Not only did the team go 10-13 once Hunt debuted against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 3, but many of the incumbent starters trended in the right direction. 

    In particular, Kenneth Faried started working toward justifying the exorbitant contract he signed last summer on the heels of his FIBA exploits. The power forward averaged 16.3 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 53.8 percent from the field during the Hunt portion of the season. 

    Of course, Hunt is no longer in charge. That responsibility has been handed over to Mike Malone, and there's no telling yet how the remnants of the old regime will fare with another man at the controls. 

    At least he's inheriting a roster that could be talented, even if it largely struggled in 2014-15. Faried and Danilo Gallinari both improved throughout the season, while Jusuf Nurkic is young enough that his best years are most assuredly still to come. 

    The biggest uncertainty, though, revolves around Ty Lawson. If the point guard—a fringe All-Star candidate, thanks to his impressive distribution skills—is traded, rookie floor general Emmanuel Mudiay will move into the starting lineup. In turn, that will force Denver one spot further down in the rankings. 

27. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle, Roy Hibbert

    So much depends on Kobe Bryant. 

    The veteran shooting guard will eventually be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Father Time has forced him into a serious decline. Between his health-mandated absences and his nonexistent defense, he doesn't always help out the Los Angeles Lakers when he's on the court. 

    In fact, my FATS model (based on historical comparisons and explained in full here) indicates that the purple and gold played like an 18.7-win team when Bryant was earning minutes and a 24-win squad with him on the pine during the 2014-15 campaign. That's not exactly a good sign, though having some more help around him will certainly aid his offense. 

    Will he get it? That remains to be seen, as this lineup is young and inexperienced. 

    Roy Hibbert should be a welcome presence on the point-preventing end, but he's not going to score points in bunches. That task will be left to D'Angelo Russell (a rookie), Julius Randle (basically a rookie) and Jordan Clarkson, who won't control the rock nearly as often as he did last season. 

    "The truth is the Lakers don't know for sure if Clarkson is the long-term solution at the point," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote earlier this offseason. "They can't be certain because they've only seen him start 38 NBA games in circumstances that made it hard to get a good read on his value."

    Frankly, it's hard to get a read on anyone's value in this starting five.

26. New York Knicks

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    Projected Starting Five: Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Robin Lopez

    The New York Knicks' starting five isn't entirely set quite yet. 

    Kyle O'Quinn could certainly win the job at power forward if Kristaps Porzingis isn't ready to go, seeing as the newest No. 4 pick is beanstalk thin and doesn't have much high-level experience. As talented as the Latvian 7-footer may be, he needs to put on a significant amount of weight before he's capable of handling a season against NBA-caliber athletes. 

    Beyond that, there's some uncertainty at the smallest position in the lineup. 

    Jose Calderon is the veteran, and he's still on the roster after the Knicks were unable to offload his salary during the previous year. But Jerian Grant, inexperienced as he may be as a rookie out of Notre Dame, is the challenger and has significantly more upside. 

    No matter which route New York travels down to open the 2015-16 campaign, it's going to be operating at a talent deficit. Carmelo Anthony, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo are all quality veterans—some more so than others—but they won't be capable of carrying this squad to too many victories. 

    By virtue of making smaller, smarter moves, the Knicks are headed in the right direction. However, it's still going to take a good bit of time before they arrive at a coveted destination.

25. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Projected Starting Five: Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Karl-Anthony Towns

    A few months from now, we could very well look back on this ranking and laugh. 

    Andrew Wiggins is the reigning Rookie of the Year, imbued with massive potential on both ends of the court. Karl-Anthony Towns is the newest No. 1 overall selection, set to thrive as a rim-protecting defender who can step out and knock down threes on the other end. Gorgui Dieng is quickly improving, while better defense from Ricky Rubio has made him one of the league's more underrated floor generals. 

    However, flaws and youth abound. 

    There's no guarantee that Towns immediately salvages the defense of a team that was more porous than any other in 2014-15. As a whole, Minnesota allowed 112.2 points per 100 possessions last go-round; no one else in the NBA ceded more than 110.6. 

    That's a significant amount of pressure on a rookie center, and that correspondingly makes it more difficult to sing the praises of these Timberpups. 

    But again, we could look back and laugh if all goes according to the optimistic plan in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. 

24. Brooklyn Nets

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Jarrett Jack, Wayne Ellington, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, Brook Lopez

    Though Deron Williams wasn't exactly having the best years of his career in a Brooklyn Nets uniform, the team is still going to miss him rather significantly. For all his shortcomings, the point guard was a talented distributor, averaging 7.6 assists per 36 minutes during his final season in the Barclays Center. 

    But we can dig a bit deeper than that. 

    According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Williams produced 6.6 assists per game on 13.1 assist opportunities during his typical contest. Though rounding errors are going to factor in here, that means teammates were shooting 50.4 percent off his feeds. In general, they shot 1,373-of-2,897* with him on the floor, which equates to 47.4 percent.

    Remember, the shots off his passes are included, and they're dragging that number up higher than it would be otherwise. 

    This simply isn't going to be the same team with Jarrett Jack running the show. Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez (when healthy) are all intriguing talents, but the deficit at point guard and the need to start Wayne Ellington are both dragging the Nets toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference.  

    *Determined by using on-court data from media.NBA.com/stats and factoring out Williams' own attempts. 

23. Orlando Magic

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    Projected Starting Five: Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic

    There's an exorbitant amount of youth in this lineup, though that could change a bit if new head coach Scott Skiles opts to roll out Channing Frye instead of the up-and-coming Aaron Gordon at power forward. Based on the latter's remarkable exploits during Orlando Summer League, we're predicting that he gets the nod.

    But that's by no means a guarantee. 

    Either way, the Magic need to forge an identity as quickly as possible. This roster is more a collection of talents whom the team hopes will work together than a parade of compatible players, and that means shooting improvement from the backcourt and a defensive boost in the frontcourt are ultimately necessary. 

    Based on this No. 23 ranking, the Magic's starting five comes in ahead of only three teams from the Eastern Conference. However, it's overflowing with unrealized potential, and it wouldn't be even remotely shocking if a few breakouts led to the Magic remaining in the thick of the postseason competition well after the All-Star break.

22. Sacramento Kings

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    Projected Starting Five: Rajon Rondo, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, Willie Cauley-Stein, DeMarcus Cousins

    The Sacramento Kings will be more dangerous than they were in 2014-15, but that doesn't necessarily make them a true contender for a playoff spot in the brutally difficult Western Conference. Even with an improved Ben McLemore and the addition of both Rajon Rondo and Willie Cauley-Stein, there's just too much potential for trouble here. 

    Yes, we're largely referring to Rondo. 

    Though the former All-Star is a big name, his production went in the wrong direction last year, and there's no guarantee he's suddenly going to return to prominence. Rondo is now operating on a one-season contract and should be highly motivated, but there are significant flaws to overcome here, such as his lack of shooting ability in a lineup without much spacing. 

    "I've been basically challenged my whole life," Rondo told reporters in Las Vegas, per ESPN.com news services. "It is what it is. A lot of people didn't expect me to come this far in the NBA. I have no doubts about what my talents can do. ... Life is about handling adversity, and I've dealt with a little bit of adversity this past season."

    The Kings are now better suited to overcome the doubts, but this is still going to be an uphill battle, one that makes use of the team's rising levels of depth more so than the strength of the starting five. 

21. Boston Celtics

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller

    "Next season's Celtics will be a wonderful logjam of versatile talent, a la the 2012-13 Nuggets, and I love it," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recently tweeted, and it's tough to disagree. This will be a dangerous team throughout the 2015-16 campaign, likely earning a playoff spot and putting a scare into one of the top squads in the Eastern Conference. 

    The Boston Celtics managed to sneak into the playoffs last year, and that experience should prove helpful for a young squad that has plenty of decisions to make about its starting frontcourt. But no matter who starts the game and who comes off the bench, the depth of talent and versatile pieces make this Beantown bunch special, not the strength of the opening five. 

    If any team truly shows that these rankings aren't indicative of an organization's overall strength, it would be Boston. 

    After all, starting Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley means that Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter are coming off the bench. The same is true for Evan Turner and Jae Crowder. And in the frontcourt, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller spending time at the opening tip leads to Kelly Olynyk, David Lee, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko starting on the pine. 

    That's a wealth of talent, but it still doesn't mean the starting five is brimming over with star power.

20. Charlotte Hornets

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Kaminsky, Al Jefferson

    Do the Charlotte Hornets have any options other than starting both Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wings? Unless they're looking to hand Troy Daniels, P.J. Hairston or Jeremy Lamb an immediate spot in the opening lineup, that's the only conceivable solution. 

    And while it may seem unorthodox, that duo will allow Steve Clifford's defensive system to wreak havoc. Even though injuries held Batum back a bit during his final season with the Portland Trail Blazers, he and Kidd-Gilchrist are two of the league's premier stoppers against perimeter players. 

    The other tough decision revolves around Frank Kaminsky: Will the Hornets bring him off the bench or immediately grant him the starting gig as he makes his NBA debut? 

    The latter should be the choice, if for no other reason than the dire need for spacing. Al Jefferson is a dominant option from the left block, but that still leaves Batum as Charlotte's only above-average option from the perimeter. 

    If summer league is any indication—and it's always fraught with legitimate caveats and misleadingly strong performances—Kaminsky can make it two.

19. Detroit Pistons

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Ersan Ilyasova, Andre Drummond

    The Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons may occupy back-to-back spots in the countdown, but for all intents and purposes, pretend there's a large gap between them. The Pistons clearly operate on the next tier up.

    Not only do they have intriguing young talents waiting to explode, but they're moving closer to Stan Van Gundy's coveted one-in, four-out strategy. After all, each of the players surrounding Andre Drummond can knock down shots from the outside, even if they haven't all been consistent up to this point in their careers. 

    If Ersan Ilyasova can turn back the clocks a few years and rekindle the magic of his 2012-13 season, when he knocked down 44.4 percent of his deep looks while taking 2.9 per contest, the Pistons will be dangerous. The same is true if Stanley Johnson successfully navigates the college-to-NBA transition. Ditto for continued improvement from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. 

    Most importantly, the Pistons will be significant playoff threats if Reggie Jackson can keep up what he started during the second half of his 2014-15 campaign. During the final 21 appearances of his year, he averaged 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 9.7 assists while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from beyond the arc. 

    That's a lot of hypotheticals. Plenty can go wrong, which is the biggest reason the Pistons are only just sneaking into the top 20, despite the upside possessed by this five-man unit. 

18. Indiana Pacers

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    Projected Starting Five: George Hill, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Jordan Hill, Myles Turner

    Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver may only have given the Indiana Pacers a "B" for the Monta Ellis signing, but he's still intrigued by the shooting guard's fit next to George Hill and Paul George: 

    A change of scenery should produce a better fit [for Ellis]. Indiana can use all the extra ball-handling and play-making that it can get, and Ellis handles those tasks well. His arrival will allow George Hill to move off the ball while allowing C.J. Miles to fill a complementary role.

    Importantly, Ellis will ensure teams can't totally load up on George, who played just six games in 2014-15 after suffering a serious leg injury last summer. Indiana's top priority on offense is to put George in position to succeed, and Ellis helps ensure that George doesn't face a wall of defenders every time down the court. Striking the right balance between the two players when it comes to shots and touches will surely be an ongoing story throughout next year.

    It's an ideal scenario for both Ellis and the Pacers, and that first part only would have been true in a few locations.

    Plus, the presence of rookie Myles Turner in the paint will help make up for the 2-guard's inevitable defensive lapses. Even if the Texas product struggles with his shot once he's guarded by NBA defenders, he'll be perfectly capable of making an immediate defensive impact around the rim. 

    "Myles is a little bit better than I thought he was," Indiana president Larry Bird said about his team's top draft pick, via Scott Agness of VigilantSports.com. "He's got a talent that we don't have here. He's going to play a lot of minutes."

    Those minutes should immediately come with him serving as part of the starting five.

17. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Projected Starting Five: Michael Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe

    The length. Oh, the length. 

    Per DraftExpress.com, we have the wingspans—and heights—of each player in the expected starting five, though it's worth noting that they could have stretched out even more since they were measured coming out of college. For Giannis Antetokounmpo, that's almost guaranteed. 

    PlayerWingspanHeight
    Michael Carter-Williams6'7 ¼"6'6"
    Giannis Antetokounmpo 7'3"6'11"
    Khris Middleton6'10 ¾"6'7"
    Jabari Parker7'0"6'8"
    Greg Monroe7'2 ¼"6'11"

    That's a lot of size, which should enable the Milwaukee Bucks to keep looking quite strong on the defensive end of the floor. They finished the previous season ranked No. 3 in defensive rating, and though that's partially due to the depth of defensive talent, the combined wingspans should ensure the new starting five becomes quite suffocating. 

    Throw in Greg Monroe's dominant offense, Jabari Parker's contributions when healthy and the expected improvement from everyone else, and you have a two-way squad capable of taking down quite a few of the league's best teams. 

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, DeAndre Jordan Zaza Pachulia

    Meet the lineup that sounds far better on paper than it will be in reality. With the exception of DeAndre Jordan Zaza Pachulia, each player in the Dallas Mavericks' starting five is a household name with star potential (or established stardom), but each of them has fundamental flaws. 

    While Deron Williams is a talented distributor, injuries and an utter lack of confidence have contributed to his substantial fall from grace, one that left him so ineffective and overpaid that the Brooklyn Nets bought out his contract.

    Wesley Matthews was one of the NBA's most underrated players last season, but he'll be a 29-year-old shooting guard coming off an Achilles tear when the 2015-16 campaign begins. As easy as it may be to root for a return to form, the reality is much scarier; there simply isn't a history of players coming back from this type of devastating blow.

    As for Chandler Parsons, he'll be working his way back from an injured knee that required surgery, but it's not like he was particularly impressive during his first season in Dallas. Per FATS, the Mavericks were 2.8 wins worse when he was on the floor. 

    Then there's Dirk Nowitzki. Even though the German 7-footer will be a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer when he's eligible, he began to decline substantially in 2014-15. His scoring dipped as his true shooting percentage also fell to its lowest point (56 percent) since his rookie campaign. 

    Head coach Rick Carlisle will probably work some magic here, but this is a collection of flawed talent and questionable circumstances, which doesn't bode well in the tough Western Conference.

15. Phoenix Suns

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    Projected Starting Five: Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris, Tyson Chandler

    Where's the major weakness in this starting five? 

    Though the Phoenix Suns don't boast any players who would qualify as true superstars, they figure to be a capable squad on both ends of the court. This roster is brimming over with contributors who can stroke the ball in from all spots of the court, and having Tyson Chandler operating on the interior of the defense will provide a huge boost in the desert. 

    Not only should the magical medical staff in Phoenix ensure that Chandler stays healthy during this late stage of his impressive career, but it's not like he's been particularly ineffective over the last calendar year. Now fully recovered from the back injuries that plagued him with the New York Knicks, he's coming off a season in which he held opposing shooters to a 50.9 percent clip at the rim while facing 9.5 attempts per game, via NBA.com's SportVU databases

    Those numbers may not sound particularly impressive, but Chandler's defensive prowess stems more from his overall involvement and versatility. He can hedge and recover against pick-and-rolls nicely, and those attempts he faced came in just over 30 minutes per contest—the result of the overall porosity of his Dallas Mavericks teammates. 

    Pair Chandler with Eric Bledsoe and the other above-average perimeter defenders in Phoenix, and he's going to look quite a bit more effective. 

14. Washington Wizards

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    Projected Starting Five: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Nene, Marcin Gortat

    As intriguing as the John Wall-Bradley Beal pairing in the backcourt may be, the biggest men in the lineup could hold the Washington Wizards back as they chase one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. 

    Nene was less involved than he's been in years during the 2014-15 campaign, ceding touches to plenty of teammates and rarely forcing defenses to respect his skill around the hoop. The big man will turn 33 years old shortly before the next season begins, and expecting a reversal of his current course may well be a foolish wish. 

    Marcin Gortat didn't decline last go-round, but he's now on the wrong side of 30 and isn't suddenly going to provide a substantial boost for the Washington Wizards. Throw in Otto Porter Jr.—or Kelly Oubre, Alan Anderson or Jared Dudley—as the Paul Pierce replacement, and you're looking at a three-man frontcourt that isn't blowing anyone away. 

    Massive development from one of the options at the 3 would change this, but the Wizards' starting five has a limited ceiling. Though Wall may be developing into one of the league's truly elite point guards, there's only so much he can do when carrying a supporting cast that isn't quite strong enough to move Washington into the NBA's top tier.

13. Utah Jazz

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    Projected Starting Five: Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert

    This may seem like a lofty finish for a young team that placed firmly in the lottery last season, especially because the Utah Jazz didn't actually make any substantial changes during the offseason. Alec Burks will return to the squad—although there's a chance he could be replaced by Rodney Hood—but that's the only significant difference in the five-man unit featured here. 

    So what gives? 

    Well, the Jazz were spectacular during the second half of the season.

    Dante Exum began developing into a defensive asset. Gordon Hayward kept playing like an All-Star, even if he didn't actually earn that type of accolade. Ditto for Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, both of whom combined to shut down the interior and thrive as around-the-rim scorers and glass-eating presences. 

    After the All-Star break, Utah posted a 104.6 offensive rating while ceding only 99 points per 100 possessions. Over the course of a full season, the former would have left the Jazz just inside the top 20, while the latter would have rather easily supplanted the Golden State Warriors for the league's top mark. 

    Outscoring an opponent by that much on an average night isn't easy, and the Jazz are young enough that they're only getting better and better. 

12. Toronto Raptors

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas

    DeMarre Carroll is only going to make the Toronto Raptors' core more deadly. 

    Already, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan made the Canadian representatives into formidable foes, but Carroll's developing offensive ability—see: Playoffs, 2015—will take pressure off the studly guards and ensure that they can stay quite fresh throughout the season. Even if the former Atlanta Hawk doesn't get the clean looks generated for him in Mike Budenholzer's offense, the threat of his ability to either connect from the outside or attack the rim adds new elements to the Raptors. 

    All that said, improvement from Jonas Valanciunas would be even more impactful. 

    Though the Lithuanian center continued to grow on the defensive end last season, his offense hasn't made the mark it should. Not because his skill is stagnating—he actually finished in the 88th percentile for post-up points per possession, according to NBA.com—but because he isn't as heavily utilized as he should be. 

    Whether this is the fault of the center or head coach Dwane Casey is ultimately irrelevant. Somehow, someway, Valanciunas has to get more involved during the 2015-16 campaign, as his skill is capable of elevating these Raptors into an elite squad.

11. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Projected Starting Five: Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, Omer Asik

    It's really a shame we still have no idea what this bunch can do together. 

    After all, Jrue Holiday managed to suit up in only 40 games during his second go-round by the Bayou, while Eric Gordon appeared 61 times. Throw in some nagging injuries that Anthony Davis suffered and the occasional absences from Tyreke Evans and Omer Asik, and you have the recipe for very little continuity. 

    NBA.com shows that this quintet spent only 171 minutes on the floor together, spread out over the course of just 13 games. That's not enough to have much of a baseline, even if it outscored the opposition by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. 

    Can everyone stay healthy? Will they click as well when the sample size grows and other teams know how to probe their biggest weaknesses? 

    Even if everything makes sense conceptually—Davis and Asik should be a strong defensive tandem, and there's offense galore in the backcourt—the Pelicans have just a bit too much uncertainty to burst into the top 10.

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    Projected Starting Five: Jeff Teague, Thabo Sefolosha, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Al Horford

    Losing DeMarre Carroll is going to hurt, but maybe not as much as some would believe. 

    According to FATS, the Atlanta Hawks were actually a bit worse with the departed swingman on the floor, dropping from a 51.8-win squad to a 47.7-win one. That's a bit misleading, due to the strength of the team's bench and the ability of Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to replicate the starter's defensive prowess.

    But still, Carroll isn't as essential to Atlanta's success as the 2015 playoffs may have indicated. 

    If Sefolosha is the man who replaces him—as he should be—the Hawks will be just as strong on defense, and the offensive decline won't be all that significant. Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford are capable of taking on a bit more responsibility, and the ball-sharing system will ensure that whoever joins Kyle Korver on the wings gets plenty of open looks that most NBA players can hit. 

    Where things would get a bit more problematic is if Tim Hardaway Jr. stepped into the starting five, since his playing style doesn't yet fit in with Budenholzer ball. Such a move would drop Atlanta a bit in these rankings, pushing it down behind the New Orleans Pelicans and into the No. 11 spot. 

    But lest we forget, the Hawks are returning four All-Stars to the starting five. No matter who that fifth player may be, this will be a strong unit. 

9. Houston Rockets

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    Projected Starting Five: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard

    This placement will inevitably be perceived as a slight, but it really shouldn't be.

    The Houston Rockets won 56 games during the 2014-15 season, leaving them behind only the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks. They weren't particularly fluky, and they overcame significant injuries all season long, shuffling in pieces who would help pick up the slack left behind by injured players such as Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley. 

    So why the mediocre ranking? 

    Well, plenty of teams figure to improve by substantial amounts and have yet to appear in the countdown. Plus, the Rockets won so many games because those non-starting pieces were up to the challenge. The team's bench stats might not be too impressive, but that's largely because the key members of the second unit were often moved up into the starting five. 

    James Harden alone makes this an above-average group. So too does a healthy Howard. But the rest of the members aren't quite enough to push them above the other great units boasted throughout the NBA. 

    Remember, at this time of year, nearly everyone's bunch looks good. 

8. Miami Heat

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, Hassan Whiteside

    Unfortunately, injuries and late arrivals kept this Miami Heat bunch from stepping onto the court together even once during the 2014-15 campaign. By the time Goran Dragic arrived, Chris Bosh had already been hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs, and that made a union impossible. 

    But even without any semblance of familiarity, except that which is gleaned from offseason work, this unit should be superb. After all, each individual piece is a standout at his position, with the declining version of Luol Deng serving as the lone exception. 

    He is still a legitimate starter at the 3, given his proclivity for shutdown defense. But after years of wear and tear under Tom Thibodeau during his Chicago Bulls tenure, he's without question the weak link in this starting five.

    Frankly, that's not much of an insult, given the strength of the other four. 

    Dragic remains an All-NBA-caliber guard who should benefit from continuity and a situation he's happy in. Wade may be in the twilight of his career, but he's an unquestioned All-Star when he's healthy and able to make a two-way impact. Bosh remains one of the league's premier 4s, especially now that he can convincingly stretch out a defense. And after a massive breakout, Whiteside has become one of the best per-minute centers in the sport, thriving on the glass and protecting the hoop. 

    There just aren't many weak spots here, though the lack of an enduring superstar—sorry, Wade—and the necessity of starting from scratch hurt the South Beach residents. 

7. Chicago Bulls

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    Projected Starting Five: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah

    Just imagine if Derrick Rose returns to form. 

    That may be wishful thinking after so many devastating injuries and trouble-ridden return attempts, but the point guard will still be just 27 years old in October and showed flashes of excellence during the postseason. Throughout the Chicago Bulls' playoff run, he averaged 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists, but he shot less than 40 percent from the field and earned a player efficiency rating of only 16.8, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    If Rose builds upon that, the Bulls seem certain to rise at least one more spot in these rankings.

    Jimmy Butler is a bona fide max-contract player, Mike Dunleavy gives the Windy City all the spacing it needs, and the veteran frontcourt is undeniably strong. Even though Pau Gasol's style of play doesn't fit in seamlessly with that of his teammates, he's a positive contributor. The same is true of Joakim Noah, who should look much better after an offseason of rest allows him to recapture his All-NBA form from 2013-14. 

    The floor general is just gravy, scary as that may be for some teams in the Eastern Conference. Even if he's merely an above-average 1-guard who can't turn back the clocks, the Bulls will still be just fine. 

6. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Projected Starting Five: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Jeff Green, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol

    Sometimes, the status quo is all you need. 

    Even though Jeff Green hasn't lived up to his potential and Tony Allen isn't exactly a positive contributor on the offensive end, this five-man unit just works together. There's a healthy conglomeration of offensive ability and defensive prowess, and that results in a lot of deficits for the opposition. 

    According to NBA.com's databases, this group spent 109 minutes together during the 2014-15 campaign and posted absolutely fantastic numbers: 

     RatingNBA Rank
    Offense114.5No. 1
    Defense87.9No. 1

    Yes, they were that good. No, the sample size isn't as concerning, given the long-standing nature of four members of this starting five. 

    There's no reason to expect a significant decline when Green is in town for the duration of the season, either. Everything clicks for this unit, even if its lengthy amount of time spent together doesn't give it that new-car smell. 

    Novelty doesn't often win basketball games. Production does. 

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Projected Starting Five: Russell Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter

    We're now among the heavyweights. 

    Even though the Oklahoma City Thunder were merely a lottery team during the 2014-15 season, that wasn't exactly due to a lack of talent on the roster. It was more because everyone was injured at some point or another—most notably Kevin Durant, who suited up in only 27 contests while he dealt with seemingly never-ending foot trouble. 

    When Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are all healthy, the Thunder are sometimes unstoppable. They boast two of the 10 best basketball players in the world, as well as a power forward who can knock down threes and compete for the block title. 

    And as if that trio wasn't already an embarrassment of riches, OKC also gets to throw out Enes Kanter (an offensively potent center who can't play defense to save his life) and Dion Waiters (a mercurial 2-guard with plenty of scoring talent). It's a five-man squad that virtually any opponent on the schedule is going to dread, but it still has significant weaknesses. 

    Of course, "significant" here is only relative to the remaining four members of these rankings. Against most matchups, the defensive trouble at the 2 and 5 will be virtually irrelevant, and the same is true of Ibaka's lack of All-NBA ability.

4. Golden State Warriors

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    Projected Starting Five: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut

    Sure, it may seem disrespectful to have the defending champions down at No. 4.

    But again, we're not ranking teams as a whole. The starting fives are all that matter. 

    Are Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut the only reasons the Dubs were able to sweep—not literally—their way through the Western Conference and then take down the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals? Of course not, since the depth of talent and the remarkable strength of those who came off the pine served as big factors in their Larry O'Brien Trophy pursuit. 

    The Warriors were the NBA's best team throughout the entirety of the title-winning campaign. They may well repeat as champions in 2016, though plenty of other squads will attempt to prevent that from transpiring. 

    That still doesn't mean they're the top dogs in these rankings, no matter how excellent Curry is at the whole point guard thing. 

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Projected Starting Five: Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov

    We'll never get a chance to see what this starting five could have done together during the final stages of the 2015 playoffs. Kevin Love was knocked out of the lineup by Kelly Olynyk during the opening round of the proceedings, and knee injuries prevented Kyrie Irving from suiting up in the Finals, leaving LeBron James to basically fend for himself. 

    But 2015-16 will be the first opportunity for redemption. 

    Everyone is coming back for a second go-round, and each member of the starting five will be in place from Day 1. Last year, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov were midseason additions, acquired in trades with the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, respectively.

    Now, continuity is king, and that helps NBA squads far more often than some realize. 

    As he proved during the Finals, James can still play like he's the best player in the world. He alone carries this starting five into an impressive section of the rankings, but it's not like the other members of his supporting cast are too shabby.

    Irving is forcing his name into the conversation on the league's best floor generals, and Love should reassert himself as a premier power forward now that he's spent a year adjusting to his new digs. And though they aren't members of the Big Three, Mozgov and Shumpert both understand and thrive in their roles. 

    Right now, no starting five in the Eastern Conference comes close to this one. 

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Five: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Paul Pierce, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan

    If the Los Angeles Clippers had anything even resembling a bench, they'd have a serious chance to assert themselves as the best team in the NBA. And still, they were up near the top of the Western Conference standings in 2014-15, then came within one quarter of advancing to the penultimate round of the ensuing postseason. 

    According to HoopsStats.com, the LAC bench spent the least amount of time on the floor by a substantial margin; the difference between it and the No. 29 squad (the Chicago Bulls) was nearly as large as the gap between No. 29 and No. 24 (Atlanta Hawks). 

    But it gets worse. 

    Only the Orlando Magic had a worse offensive efficiency from the second unit, and the same was true on the less glamorous end of the floor. That's a horrifying combination, and it makes it all the more astounding that Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were able to carry this squad to such success. 

    Now, replace Barnes with Paul Pierce. The starting five is getting even stronger, as it's not like any of the incumbents are on the decline. 

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Projected Starting Five: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan

    This is just unfair. 

    The San Antonio Spurs were good enough with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter eating up the minutes designated for the biggest players in a rotation. Now, the latter is being replaced by LaMarcus Aldridge, who may well be the best pure power forward in the NBA. 

    In order to make that swap, the Spurs aren't even sacrificing many pieces. Splitter is gone to the Atlanta Hawks, while a few members of the second unit aren't coming back. But thanks to Duncan and Danny Green re-signing for discounted prices, the key pieces are all intact. 

    Even if Tony Parker is unable to turn back the clocks and party like it's 2009, the Spurs are just going to be flat-out ridiculous. There's a solid chance this could be the league's best team on both ends of the court—and by a significant margin, at that. 

    At this point in the offseason, there's no other reasonable choice for this spot. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

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