Projecting Every NBA Team's Starting 5 for 2015-16 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 5, 2015

Projecting Every NBA Team's Starting 5 for 2015-16 Season

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    You can learn a lot about an NBA team's identity by listening to the coach's buzzwords, studying stats and poring over play-type trends. But you might learn even more by simply looking at which five players take the floor for the opening tip.

    A first unit tells you everything you need to know about a team's identity.

    Does the wing stopper beat out the sharpshooter for the starting small forward spot? Does the floor-stretching big man earn the nod over the stalwart post defender? Is there enough shooting? How many capable shot creators are there? Who's the weak link offenses will attack?

    For the most part, we know who'll be starting this season; most positions aren't up for grabs. But almost every team has a spot in the starting lineup that remains unsettled heading into training camp.

    Here, we'll project the opening-night starters for each NBA team. By necessity, that'll require some guesswork, and it'll also mean accounting for injuries that could keep former starters on the bench for a while.

    In a few cases, the projected starting unit won't be the team's optimal one. So where appropriate, we'll toss in some mentions of five-man groups who'll likely be on the floor at the end of games and/or when everybody gets healthy—which is more important than anything else.

    Because the only thing that tells you more about a team than who starts its games is who finishes them.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    PG: Jeff Teague

    SG: Kyle Korver

    SF: Kent Bazemore

    PF: Paul Millsap

    C: Al Horford

    The departure of small forward DeMarre Carroll (signed away by the Toronto Raptors as a free agent) means the Atlanta Hawks have just one potential question mark in their starting five. And if Thabo Sefolosha were fully healthy, there wouldn't be any intrigue at all.

    It's possible Sefolosha will be ready for the start of the season, and whenever he's sufficiently healed, the small forward job will most likely belong to him. But because Sefolosha is so important to the Hawks' season, it makes sense to play his return cautiously. And that opens up opportunities for the likes of Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr. to impress head coach Mike Budenholzer in camp.

    "I think that is one of the great things about training camp and this team is that we will go into camp and we will try and figure out who our best group starting is," Budenholzer told reporters at media day. "I think it could be any of those guys. Stranger things have happened, a young player could come out of camp and show that he fits with that group."

    Sefolosha is the best wing defender on the roster now that Carroll is gone, and he's also logged a couple of seasons over 40 percent from three-point land. It'll be his job eventually, and unless the Hawks go small with Teague and Dennis Schroder on the court together to finish games, Sefolosha should be on the floor in the fourth quarter.

    Until then, Bazemore, who is a better defender and a more versatile athlete than Hardaway, should keep the spot warm for Sefolosha.

Boston Celtics

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    PG: Marcus Smart

    SG: Avery Bradley

    SF: Evan Turner

    PF: David Lee

    C: Amir Johnson

    It's hard to find a bigger positional logjam than the one afflicting the Boston Celtics' frontcourt. Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger all started at least 13 games last season, but it's a pair of new additions who should occupy the two big spots in the first unit.

    Lee is in town, freshly unloaded by the Golden State Warriors and looking to prove he's still got the game of a two-time All-Star—in a contract year, by the way. He's a skilled offensive big man who should be motivated to perform. But if Zeller takes a leap or Sullinger's slimmer physique unlocks a new level in his game, Lee's spot may not be safe for long.

    Amir Johnson is also a fresh face, signed away from the Raptors on a steal of a two-year deal (with the second being non-guaranteed). He's an underrated defender who does a lot of the dirty work Lee won't, which makes him a good interior complement at the 5.

    The 4 and 5 positions could shake out in any number of ways depending on what head coach Brad Stevens wants on the floor. Sullinger and Olynyk would offer more shooting. Zeller is the up-and-comer. Jae Crowder could create matchup problems by sliding up a position.

    There are almost too many options here, and that highlights the oddly constructed (but talent-laden) roster in Boston.

    Small forward will likely belong to Evan Turner, who started 57 games a year ago on the strength of his ball-handling and passing. His 449 assists more than doubled the total of any other Celtics player not named Rajon Rondo in 2014-15. When crunch time rolls around and bench gunner Isaiah Thomas is doing all the dribbling, don't be surprised to see Crowder and his superior defense push Turner to the bench.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    PG: Jarrett Jack

    SG: Bojan Bogdanovic

    SF: Joe Johnson

    PF: Thaddeus Young

    C: Brook Lopez

    The Brooklyn Nets probably won't be very good this season, but at least they'll be predictable. Unfortunately, the reason it's so easy to project their starting lineup is because there's a dearth of proven talent throughout the roster.

    Jack takes over for Deron Williams, which means the Nets offense will feature plenty of pull-up mid-range jumpers. Not ideal.

    Bogdanovic and Johnson offer some nice shooting on the wing, and if the former struggles significantly, we could see Wayne Ellington push for minutes at the 2. But Bogdanovic showed a good stroke from long range last year, hitting 35.5 percent of his treys, and he's one of the few youthful bright spots on the roster (relative term; he's 26), so he should have a long leash on a team that doesn't have realistic playoff prospects.

    The front line is established and has solid name value. If Johnson, Young and Lopez stay healthy, their scoring will be the Nets' biggest strength. Defense is going to be another issue altogether, but nobody behind this trio appears ready to help in that area anyway.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    PG: Kemba Walker

    SG: Nicolas Batum

    SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

    PF: Marvin Williams

    C: Al Jefferson

    UPDATE: Kidd-Gilchrist dislocated his right shoulder during the Charlotte Hornets' first preseason game against the Orlando Magic Oct. 3, will undergo surgery and could miss the entire 2015-16 season, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. This should open up an opportunity for either Jeremy Lamb or P.J. Hairston to take up the slack at shooting guard. Batum will most likely slide up to small forward.

    ---End of Update---

    The Hornets made their win-now priorities clear by trading away Noah Vonleh for Batum this past summer—a move that should make our prediction on who gets the starting power forward spot a simple one.

    But all it really does is rule out rookie Frank Kaminsky, who may develop into a great player but probably shouldn't be expected to do that in his very first season.

    That leaves two viable options: Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams.

    The Hornets' net rating with Zeller on the floor last year was 7.6 points per 100 possessions better than it was with him on the bench, according to NBA.com. That's a persuasive stat, especially when weighed against the fact that Charlotte was worse with Williams on the court than it was with him sitting.

    The case isn't closed, though, because Zeller doesn't feature the kind of floor-stretching offensive game Williams does. And with Jefferson entrenched as the interior presence, the best way for Charlotte to generate spacing is to slot Williams at the 4, where he shot 36 percent on threes (and a terrific 47 percent from the corners).

    Zeller is the better player in a vacuum, but Williams might make more sense with the other four locked-in starters—particularly for an offense that needs to spread the floor to satisfy its win-now goals.

Chicago Bulls

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    PG: Derrick Rose

    SG: Jimmy Butler

    SF: Tony Snell

    PF: Pau Gasol

    C: Joakim Noah

    Derrick Rose's orbital fracture may not keep him out of the starting lineup on opening night. Even if it does, he'll be back soon enough afterward that we're going to fudge the rules here and slot him as the starting point guard anyway.

    Beyond that, Butler, Gasol and Noah appear to be surefire starters, which means the small forward position, vacated by Mike Dunleavy following back surgery, is up for grabs.

    Nikola Mirotic is a tempting choice after a very strong rookie season, but his skills are most valuable at the 4. So even if he's got a good chance to finish games for the Bulls, it's hard to envision him starting them in place of Dunleavy. Second-year forward Doug McDermott didn't show enough in his injury-hit rookie season to justify consideration here either.

    Enter Tony Snell, who quietly started 22 games a year ago and has the length and shooting touch to best approximate what Dunleavy would have offered. Freed from Tom Thibodeau's staunch preference for older players, the 6'7" Snell could not only see more time under head coach Fred Hoiberg, but also more quality looks on offense as well.

    Snell won't give the Bulls the intangibles Dunleavy would have offered; he's not the irritant, sniper or heady passer Dunleavy was. But if his three-point percentage holds steady at last year's 37.1 percent clip and his defensive production moves closer to its potential, he profiles as a modest breakout candidate.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    PG: Mo Williams

    SG: J.R. Smith

    SF: LeBron James

    PF: Kevin Love

    C: Timofey Mozgov

    It's possible that one, both or neither of the Kevin Love-Kyrie Irving pair will be healthy enough to play on opening night, but Love fully participated in the Cleveland Cavaliers' first practice while Irving didn't, according to Chris Fedor of Northeast Ohio Media Group, so it seems Love is likelier to be active when the lights go on for the opener.

    The point guard spot is open, and new/returning Cavalier Williams seems like the safer bet to occupy it. Matthew Dellavedova earned himself a cult following with a couple of strong postseason efforts, but his offensive game is profoundly limited. Williams is 33, but he's a proven scorer who can threaten defenses from deep in ways Delly can't.

    Iman Shumpert, slated to start at the 2, is also going to miss significant time after undergoing surgery to repair a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist. I don't feel good about it because we've got years of data to suggest Smith is best used as a hot hand off the bench, but it looks like he'll be the man to take on the starting job at shooting guard.

    There's some flexibility here. Dellavedova could conceivably start at the point with Williams at the 2. Or maybe the Cavs will just clone James in different sizes so he can play all five positions.

    Options abound.

    Once everyone's healthy (and assuming post-surgical effects don't linger for Irving and Shumpert), the Cavs will trot out the terrifying fivesome of Irving, Shumpert, James, Love and Mozgov.

    Not bad.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Don't expect to see this lineup for a few months.
    Don't expect to see this lineup for a few months.Glenn James/Getty Images

    PG: Deron Williams

    SG: Devin Harris

    SF: Justin Anderson

    PF: Dirk Nowitzki

    C: Zaza Pachulia

    It's not a great sign when a team has to get creative with its opening-night lineup, but somehow the Dallas Mavericks' cobbled-together first unit feels appropriate after a summer defined by disappointment.

    DeAndre Jordan was supposed to be the Mavs' starting center, but he famously returned to the Los Angeles Clippers at the 11th hour, leaving Dallas scrambling for a replacement. Pachulia seems most likely to fill that role for now, though it's possible either Samuel Dalembert or JaVale McGee could make a move.

    The real outside-the-box stuff comes on the wings, where injuries may force Dallas to start a rookie at small forward and a backup point guard at the 2. Anderson was impressive in summer league, but he wouldn't be in line to start if Chandler Parsons were healthy. Microfracture surgery in May puts Parsons' status in doubt.

    "I would say there's a chance that Parsons plays in the opener from my understanding," head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. "By NBA standards, we're light years from knowing if that's a real possibility or not."

    There's less uncertainty surrounding Wesley Matthews' health. Coming off a torn Achilles, he won't be ready for the opener and might not suit up until Christmas or later. That means Harris, who spent some time off the ball last year and has a history of solid spot-up shooting, is the best bet to take on the off-guard duties.

    Nowitzki and Williams are aging, Matthews and Parsons are hurt and there's little depth to speak of. The Mavs are running on fumes in early October, which doesn't bode well for the actual season.

Denver Nuggets

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    PG: Emmanuel Mudiay

    SG: Wilson Chandler

    SF: Danilo Gallinari

    PF: Kenneth Faried

    C: Joffrey Lauvergne/Nikola Jokic/J.J. Hickson

    Mudiay will take the reins from Jameer Nelson as the Denver Nuggets, miles from the playoff picture, transition toward a new era. Get your Rookie of the Year bets down now; the award is Mudiay's to lose.

    Unfortunately, promising big man Jusuf Nurkic won't be there on opening night to join him.

    "It's not about whether I play in the next four, three, two, or one months, it's about playing the next 15 years," Nurkic told Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post. "When I'm back, I'll be 100 percent healthy."

    The Nuggets and Nurkic are right to take a cautious approach after a partially torn patellar tendon required surgery in May. Pushing the skilled center toward an early return wouldn't make sense for where the Nuggets are in their franchise trajectory.

    The wing spots are interesting, mainly because it seems like Gallinari makes more sense as a floor-spreading power forward, and Chandler might be best utilized at the 3. But with Faried entrenched at power forward, both multi-skilled players move down a spot. Still, don't be surprised if the Nugs try out some undersized lineups with Faried at center when the right late-game opportunities arise.

    You'll note I punted on the starting center who'll fill in for Nurkic to start the year. Sue me. It'll be one of those three guys—hopefully Lauvergne or Jokic. We've long since moved past the point of considering Hickson a helpful NBA player.

Detroit Pistons

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    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    PG: Reggie Jackson

    SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

    SF: Marcus Morris

    PF: Ersan Ilyasova

    C: Andre Drummond

    It's tough to quibble with the Detroit Pistons' projected starters, which is a pretty strong endorsement of the personnel transformation head coach Stan Van Gundy has engineered since taking over. What he's got now is a collection of players that makes the same kind of sense his one-in-four-out Orlando Magic rosters did.

    Those Magic squads were ahead of their time—built around a dominant interior force with three-point threats orbiting at four other positions.

    Van Gundy claims he hasn't made any final decisions on who'll start, but this feels like the safest group.

    One possible tweak would be slotting rookie Stanley Johnson in at the 3, partly because he profiles as a do-it-all talent who might as well get some seasoning now, and partly because Morris makes more sense as a small-ball power forward.

    If Ilyasova isn't a lights-out shooter, his defensive shortcomings could result in a seat on the bench while a closing lineup that features both Johnson and Morris finishes things off.

Golden State Warriors

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    PG: Stephen Curry

    SG: Klay Thompson

    SF: Harrison Barnes

    PF: Draymond Green

    C: Andrew Bogut

    It's codified in every NBA team's franchise charter: A 67-win season that results in a championship officially precludes purposely changing anything about the starting lineup the following year. The exact language appears in Article XVII, section B, subsection 4(a)(ii): "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

    So, by law, the Golden State Warriors' hands are tied here. They couldn't swap in Andre Iguodala for Harrison Barnes even if they wanted to.

    The Dubs will run it back with the same starting group that put together a historic season in 2014-15—not just because they should, but because they have to.

    Please don't look any of this up.

Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    PG: Ty Lawson

    SG: James Harden

    SF: Trevor Ariza

    PF: Terrence Jones

    C: Dwight Howard*

    If you could combine Lawson's offense with Patrick Beverley's defense, you'd have one of the very best point guards in the NBA. But since the Houston Rockets' formidable analytics department hasn't yet explored human fusion technology, head coach Kevin McHale has to choose between Lawson and Beverley as his starting point guard.

    The two will make their cases against one another in camp, which the Rockets should be thrilled about.

    "There’s no one that’s gonna guard him in the NBA like I’m going to guard him,” Beverley told reporters. "There’s no one going to push me in the NBA like (Lawson) is going to push me and it compliments each other; so when we go out and face other teams it’s a dominant effort."

    There's really no wrong decision here, as Beverley's elite on-ball defense and spot-up shooting make him a good sidekick for the ball-dominant Harden. At the same time, Lawson is among the league's best facilitators; he's virtually impossible to stay in front of, runs the break at mach 5 and can take some of the pressure off Harden, who could benefit from a few more standstill looks.

    Assuming Lawson is in good shape and in a good place mentally, he's a more dangerous player than Beverley. One's a borderline star. The other's a great fit with niche skills.

    Lawson makes the Rockets' first unit scarier, so we'll give him the gig. Still, we should expect McHale to use all three backcourt players interchangeably and perhaps even all at once in certain situations.

    *Suspended for the season opener

Indiana Pacers

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: George Hill

    SG: Monta Ellis

    SF: C.J. Miles

    PF: Paul George

    C: Ian Mahinmi

    If head coach Frank Vogel follows through on his media day proclamation, these will not be your father's Indiana Pacers.

    According to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star

    Vogel shared his tentative 2015-16 starting lineup with George at power forward, alongside George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles and Ian Mahinmi. Team President Larry Bird has repeatedly said George will see time at power forward as part of an overhaul that will make the Pacers a high-volume offensive team.

    Indy wants to replace size with speed, bruises with buckets. And given the personnel on the roster (the wings are better than the bigs) and the changing landscape of the league, there's a logic to the transition.

    One potentially major problem: George seems decidedly not cool with heavy minutes at the 4.

    "I don't think I'm at that point in my career where I should be changing positions," he told reporters. "I think guys do that later in their career. They put on weight, (begin) lacking physical attributes as far as being quick, so I don’t necessarily feel the need to play a different position, especially coming back into a new season and starting fresh again."

    If George makes a serious stink, either Myles Turner (good!) or Jordan Hill (bad!) could step in at the 4.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Holy smokes! The Clippers have options!
    Holy smokes! The Clippers have options!Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    PG: Chris Paul

    SG: J.J. Redick

    SF: Wesley Johnson

    PF: Blake Griffin

    C: DeAndre Jordan

    There's depth on Doc Rivers' Los Angeles Clippers bench for the first time since the head coach took over in 2013, and we're already learning that more options means more tricky decisions.

    There's good reason to question Rivers' intention to use Wesley Johnson as the team's starting small forward, and not just because the head coach freely admitted he's taking a "mad scientist" approach to preseason lineups, according to Melissa Rohlan of the Los Angles Times.

    Johnson has been a disappointment for most of his career since entering the league as the No. 4 overall pick in 2010, and the Clips have both Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson available to handle minutes as the starting small forward. Why not give one of them the job?

    Then again, Pierce's steadiness and positional versatility (he was a revelation as a spot-use power forward last year) might make him the perfect anchor for the second unit. And Stephenson's catastrophe of a 2014-15 season makes him anything but reliable.

    Johnson would probably be better utilized as an undersized 4 (something we've said about a half-dozen small forwards already), but maybe testing him out as the starting 3 isn't as crazy as it seems. Getting him on the floor with the first unit could help him see more open looks, which is critical for a player who has never shown much acumen for getting his own shot. If Johnson could shoot 35.1 percent from deep in the Los Angeles Lakers broken offense last season, maybe he can connect at a 40 percent clip in the Clips' league-best attack.

    Or maybe he'll lose the position by December.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Leon Bennett/Getty Images

    PG: D'Angelo Russell

    SG: Jordan Clarkson

    SF: Kobe Bryant

    PF: Brandon Bass

    C: Roy Hibbert

    It hurts to leave Julius Randle on the bench, and for a Lakers team that should be more concerned with developing its youth than winning games this year, it also doesn't make a ton of sense. But Randle started last season on the pine behind Carlos Boozer, and Brandon Bass is a markedly better player than the Lakers' departed power forward. Combine that with concerns about bringing Randle back slowly after a broken leg last season, and you've got the recipe for a veteran starting ahead of him at the 4.

    Plus, Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News reports head coach Byron Scott may favor Bass over Randle for now. So there's that.

    It's funny: The Lakers have only the faintest playoff hopes, but their starting unit is intriguing. A pair of very young and inexperienced guards who could, in theory, play interchangeably, is a fun thing to have. Bryant is always interesting, even if he's at the end of his career.

    And Hibbert is really just a couple of years removed from being one of the most potent defensive forces in the league.

    If Randle eventually takes the job from Bass (which, if he's healthy, he probably should), this Lakers unit becomes even more fascinating.

    I'm starting to get excited. We'd better move on.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    PG: Mike Conley

    SG: Courtney Lee

    SF: Tony Allen

    PF: Zach Randolph

    C: Marc Gasol

    There's not much drama here, as the main bench options—Jeff Green, Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes—aren't significant threats to the incumbent starters.

    It's possible that Allen, who dealt with nagging injuries and started just 41 games last year, could be the one to lose his spot to either Green or Barnes at some point down the line, but he seems motivated enough to hold onto it for now.

    Being singled out as the weak link in the Memphis Grizzlies' conference semifinal loss to the Warriors is still a sore subject, according to Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "But does it gall him that the Bogut switch is seen as the total explanation for what happened in that series? Of course it does. So he says he’s going to come back, better than ever. Says he’s looking forward to the next Grindhouse campaign."

    This Grizzlies unit has been overcoming a lack of spacing and speed with chemistry and defense for a long time. This year will feature more of the same.

Miami Heat

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    PG: Goran Dragic

    SG: Dwyane Wade

    SF: Luol Deng

    PF: Chris Bosh

    C: Hassan Whiteside

    There aren't many starting lineups that leap off the page like the Miami Heat's. You've got All-Stars, breakout stars and likely Hall of Famers slotted neatly into ideal positions. You can imagine the roles forming effortlessly, the chemistry developing and the defenses scrambling to figure out how to stop so many threats.

    There also aren't many starting lineups we know less about, and the only real source of trepidation here is that we have to imagine how this group will play together because we haven't actually seen it happen.

    Bosh and Dragic didn't play a minute together last year, Wade missed his share of time and Whiteside logged a mere 18 games with Bosh—not nearly enough to establish a rapport. Clearly, there are questions about how these five players will fit together.

    But there's such an overwhelming glut of talent that it's difficult to imagine things going badly.

    Gerald Green will jump in for Wade in the event of injury or nights off, and rookie Justise Winslow will be there to spell Deng when necessary.

    Watch out for this group.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Michael Carter-Williams

    SG: Khris Middleton

    SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo*

    PF: Jabari Parker

    C: Greg Monroe

    Spacing will be an issue with this bunch, as only Middleton strikes fear into defenses as a perimeter shooter. But it's possible Parker could improve from long range, which would give the Milwaukee Bucks' first unit a badly needed second shooter.

    That's why, despite an understandably cautious approach toward Parker's recovery from a torn ACL (head coach Jason Kidd has held him out of the second practice of two-a-days in camp), he still seems a safer bet to start the opener than newly paid John Henson.

    Parker might have the range to pose a threat.

    For the Bucks to take another step this season, it'll be crucial for Carter-Williams to improve. Milwaukee went just 10-15 in games MCW played last season, and an embarrassing playoff defeat at the hands of the Bulls put a damper on what was otherwise a stunning bounceback campaign for the team. Notably, the Bucks' net rating was 17.8 points per 100 possessions higher with Carter-Williams on the court, according to NBA.com, which means their late-season decline can't be blamed solely on their point guard.

    Milwaukee has its issues, but this is a young, improving group that now features the interior scoring presence it needed last season in Monroe. It's become cool to predict a step backward for the Bucks, but with this much talent in the starting five, it's hard to see a regression ahead.

    *Suspended for season opener

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Ricky Rubio

    SG: Kevin Martin

    SF: Andrew Wiggins

    PF: Kevin Garnett

    C: Karl-Anthony Towns

    Does anybody else kind of love this lineup?

    Rubio can't score (career field-goal percentage of 36.7 percent; not a typo), Martin can't defend, Wiggins and Towns are crazy young, and Garnett is crazier old. But together, this is a group that has the potential to be really good defensively.

    Garnett's smarts and competitive spirit pair nicely with Towns' length and athleticism, and Wiggins has all the tools to be a total shutdown stopper. Rubio, for all his faults, is a terrific defensive player who ranked first among points guards last year in defensive RPM. Martin...well, Martin can just hide somewhere and try not to screw things up.

    The point is: With 80 percent of your starting lineup looking very strong defensively, you've got a good starting point.

    There's a chance the Minnesota Timberwolves lean on Nikola Pekovic in the middle if he's healthy and Towns isn't giving them the scoring they need. And it's also possible that even with a minutes restriction, Garnett can't stay on the floor. If that's the case, expect Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng or Adreian Payne to see chances to start.

    The Wolves aren't a playoff team, but their first unit has a nice mix of established value and potential.

    This could be fun.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Tyreke Evans

    SG: Eric Gordon

    SF: Dante Cunningham

    PF: Anthony Davis

    C: Omer Asik

    This is an opening-night guess with a fair amount of uncertainty built in.

    New head coach Alvin Gentry prefers Evans at point guard, which means we'll see Dante Cunningham or Quincy Pondexter (once he recovers from knee surgery in May) at small forward. And because Jrue Holiday's health is an ongoing concern—a cautious approach to stress reactions in his right leg will limit him to 15 minutes per game until January, per John Reid of the New Orleans Times Picayune—Gentry will lean on Evans early.

    There's room for this group to get really fun with unconventional lineups.

    If Ryan Anderson is healthy, he could jump in at the 4 while Davis slides to the 5, giving the New Orleans Pelicans the option to play in tons of space. If Davis' three-point shot progresses like many hope it will, the Pellies could become unguardable.

    The real improvement in the organization is on the bench, though. Gentry will supercharge the offense, and new assistant Darren Erman is a strong defensive strategist. If the group that starts the opener isn't getting it done early on, those two coaches will make the right adjustments to assure New Orleans' playoff push ends successfully.

New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    PG: Jose Calderon

    SG: Arron Afflalo

    SF: Carmelo Anthony

    PF: Kristaps Porzingis

    C: Robin Lopez

    Maybe this is wishful thinking, and maybe it's also a bet on the New York Knicks not recognizing the wisdom of playing Anthony exclusively at power forward, but it's just too hard to turn down the chance to put Porzingis in the first unit.

    And besides, Kevin Seraphin, a player at least theoretically competing with Porzingis for the gig (along with Kyle O'Quinn and maybe even Derrick Williams) is saying good things about the rookie, per Ian Begley of ESPN.com: 

    Before I got here, I was expecting him to be maybe a little bit skinnier. When I got here I realized that he was really a good player. And I think the fans, they don’t realize yet what they have on their hands. Because the guy is pretty much 7-3 and he’s capable to run like a guard and he can shoot outside. That’s pretty amazing.

    Give the people what they want, Knicks. Just start Zinger.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    PG: Russell Westbrook

    SG: Andre Roberson

    SF: Kevin Durant

    PF: Serge Ibaka

    C: Steven Adams

    The above lineup, particularly the inclusions of Roberson and Adams, is basically a leap of faith that says/hopes new Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan makes the right decision.

    Dion Waiters is the bigger name with the flashier game and the lottery pedigree. But he's a comically bad defender whose offensive inefficiency makes him, from a statistical standpoint, basically unplayable. Roberson, an excellent defender whose greatest flaw is the lack of a three-point shot (he hit just 24.7 percent of his treys last year) still had a higher true shooting percentage than Waiters in 2014-15.

    There's no logical case for playing Waiters, who dominates the ball in a way that takes touches away from Durant and Westbrook and who has no track record of defending adequately.

    Adams is a bruising role player who will never produce the scoring or rebounding numbers of Enes Kanter, whom the Thunder retained by matching a max offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers. But like Roberson, Adams is the better fit and the more statistically useful big man. Kanter is a horrendous defender whose on-court presence last year sent the Thunder's defensive rating six points per 100 possessions in the wrong direction. His exit from the Utah Jazz coincided with that team posting a historically great second half of defense.

    Kanter will get his numbers, but Adams will do the dirty work. And with Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka in the first unit, there's a bigger need for sound defense, screening and two-way play than cosmetic stat-stuffery.

Orlando Magic

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    PG: Elfrid Payton

    SG: Victor Oladipo

    SF: Tobias Harris

    PF: Channing Frye

    C: Nikola Vucevic

    The Orlando Magic's lineup of the future will almost certainly feature one or both of Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon, and if we're lucky, the future will show up in a hurry.

    Frye had a rough 2014-15, averaging 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in 24.9 minutes per game. But he still managed to hit 39.3 percent of his long bombs, so he wound up starting 51 games anyway. According to Grantland's Zach Lowe, Frye is "available now for very little," and a trade could open the way for Gordon, an athlete and defender with frightening potential, to move into the starting lineup.

    If head coach Scott Skiles would rather move Harris to the 4 and leave Gordon as a sixth man, Hezonja could bring his ultra-confidence and shot-making into the first unit.

    Either way, the Magic get younger and more exciting.

    Of course, if Frye starts off the season on fire from long range while playing capable defense, his price could rise. Or he could even become so valuable to a spacing-starved offense that trading him becomes inadvisable.

    Eventually, we'll see more youth in the first five. For now, Frye's in there ahead of the kids.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Isaiah Canaan

    SG: Nik Stauskas

    SF: Robert Covington

    PF: Nerlens Noel

    C: Jahlil Okafor

    Every position besides point guard feels like it's set in stone for the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers.

    Canaan is the tentative pick to start the opener because the latest on Tony Wroten, who started 15 games a year ago, isn't encouraging. He's still got no timetable for a return as he works back from a torn ACL suffered last February. Kendall Marshall has been cleared for all activities, and as a better facilitator than either Wroten or Canaan, he could get a look at the starting position as well.

    Stauskas could thrive in a new environment after a shaky rookie season with the Sacramento Kings, and it's important not to forget that he shot the lights out from three (42.1 percent) in 23 games after the All-Star break last year.

    Covington can stretch the floor as well, and the Noel-Okafor tandem is essentially the entire franchise's core.

Phoenix Suns

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Brandon Knight

    SG: Eric Bledsoe

    SF: P.J. Tucker

    PF: Markieff Morris

    C: Tyson Chandler

    The only potential shakeup facing the Phoenix Suns' starting five is the possibility they'll move Markieff Morris before the season opener.

    After demanding a trade over the summer, Morris flipped his position and said "I want to be here" at media day on Sept. 28. Whether that stance changes again is anybody's guess. But for now, we'll assume Morris sticks around and starts.

    If Morris were to move on, we could see Mirza Teletovic occupy the 4 alongside Tucker and Chandler up front.

    Yet again, the Suns will trot out a pair of combo guards in the backcourt, hoping for better luck than they've had with the practice over the past two seasons. Last year, remember, they went with a three-guard rotation that featured Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic in addition to Bledsoe, which resulted in a pair of in-season trades to alleviate the positional gridlock and cleanse the franchise of some unrest.

    There's real talent in this first unit, and if everybody's happy, a .500 record is realistic.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Meyers Leonard, with tan in midseason form.
    Meyers Leonard, with tan in midseason form.Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Damian Lillard

    SG: C.J. McCollum

    SF: Al-Farouq Aminu

    PF: Meyers Leonard

    C: Mason Plumlee

    When you swap out four starters in a single offseason like the Portland Trail Blazers did this past summer, the fallout is almost entirely bad. And when the players heading out—LaMarcus Aldridge, Batum, Matthews and Lopez—all fall somewhere between good and great on the broad spectrum of NBA talent, it's even worse.

    The upside is hard to see, but it's there: Jobs are open for the taking, and maybe that'll spark competition in camp that makes everybody a little better for it.

    Hip surgery will keep Gerald Henderson from starting the season unless his recovery speeds up considerably; he's not yet cleared for camp.

    "I can't even go 100 percent speed on the court and do a pull-up jumper, which I'm accustomed to doing," Henderson told Joe Freeman of the Oregonian. "If I can't do that, I shouldn't have a role. My focus right now is getting myself back physically and getting my game back."

    McCollum will get a shot at the 2 after flashing a strong scoring touch in the postseason.

    Up front, things are jumbled. Leonard might be more dangerous as a floor-spacer at center, and since he isn't much of a defender at either of the big positions, he should get a shot at the 5 at some point. Ed Davis could wind up in the first unit ahead of either Leonard or Plumlee, but those two seem like the safest bets at the moment.

    On balance, the Blazers will struggle to defend no matter who's on the floor. But there's a chance they'll score at an above-average rate with an offense built around Lillard and some potentially good frontcourt shooting from Leonard.

Sacramento Kings

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    PG: Rajon Rondo

    SG: Ben McLemore

    SF: Rudy Gay

    PF: DeMarcus Cousins

    C: Kosta Koufos

    The idea of playing Koufos up front with Cousins is a strange one, especially for George Karl, a coach whose history features more uptempo basketball than most. A more creative, higher-scoring route would be to start Marco Belinelli or Omri Casspi on the wing alongside McLemore, which would allow Gay to slide up to power forward.

    That lineup, or some other permutation that gets Gay to the 4, may materialize eventually.

    For now Karl seems intent on going big, and every indication is that Koufos will get the job over rookie Willie Cauley-Stein.

    "I thought Kosta was a damn good player for me in Denver and he’s better than he was," Karl told James Ham of CSN Bay Area. "He’s better, he’s more solid, he’s more confident, he’s stronger, he’s bigger. He knows how to play."

    Karl also likes what he's seen from Darren Collison, who missed time with a hip flexor injury last year. Rondo will probably wind up starting, but if Collison's healthy, he might be the better player at this point.

San Antonio Spurs

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    If they look bored, it's because they are.
    If they look bored, it's because they are.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    PG: Tony Parker

    SG: Danny Green

    SF: Kawhi Leonard

    PF: LaMarcus Aldridge

    C: Tim Duncan

    No controversy in sight.

    Shocking, I know.

    These starting spots are as calcified as the San Antonio Spurs' perennial presence among the league's elite. With the only real concerns being Tony Parker's apparent physical decline (he looked significantly slower in the 2015 postseason and not much better in the FIBA Eurobasket tourney) and Aldridge's ability to acclimate to a finely tuned system, the Spurs' camp experience won't feature any competition for starting jobs.

    Nothing else to see here. Check back in May when the Spurs' season starts for real.

Toronto Raptors

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    No love for P-Pat in the group photo?
    No love for P-Pat in the group photo?Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

    PG: Kyle Lowry

    SG: DeMar DeRozan

    SF: DeMarre Carroll

    PF: Patrick Patterson

    C: Jonas Valanciunas

    The starting group is already settled, and it should be motivated by the second-half collapse that concluded in an embarrassing first-round defeat last season.

    Kyle Lowry trimmed down, and Carroll's arrival as a free agent could shake things up in a way that helps everyone forget the missteps of a year ago.

    The real point of interest with this group isn't the opening tip. It's the fourth quarter. Last year, Valanciunas routinely found himself on the pine as the Raps went small and/or leaned on Amir Johnson in the middle. With Johnson gone, Toronto will need to know it can count on its starting center to close out contests.

    That'll mean better defensive alertness and more decisive play on the offensive end.

    The Raps extended Valanciunas on a very team-friendly four-year, $64 million contract, so they won't be overly motivated by financial investment to play him if he doesn't earn the time. It'll be up to Valanciunas to prove he can start and finish.

Utah Jazz

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    PG: Trey Burke

    SG: Rodney Hood

    SF: Gordon Hayward

    PF: Derrick Favors

    C: Rudy Gobert

    Flip a coin between Hood and Alec Burks at the shooting guard spot; either way, you're ending up with a capable player.

    The bet on Hood here reflects the belief that his skill as a shot creator fits with the first unit better than Burks' slashing game. What's more, Burks can play the role of primary ball-handler in a pinch, which makes him a good candidate to lead second units with whichever unproven point guard (Raul Neto? Bryce Cotton?) ends up taking the backup minutes at that spot.

    There's a good chance the Jazz close out games with Hood and Burks on the floor together if Burke is as unimpressive as he was last season, when he shot just 36.8 percent from the field and failed to show the decision-making required of a starting point guard.

    With Hayward, Favors and Gobert making up one of the very best front lines in the game, all the Jazz need from their guards is middling play. That'll be enough for 45 wins and a playoff spot.

    There's still room on the Utah bandwagon if you're interested.

Washington Wizards

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    PG: John Wall

    SG: Bradley Beal

    SF: Otto Porter

    PF: Nene

    C: Marcin Gortat

    The Washington Wizards have advanced past the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and making it at least that far this year will depend mostly on Wall and Beal. But Porter, the successor to Paul Pierce at small forward, will have a major role to play as well.

    After a throwaway rookie season, Porter made strides last year—strides that lengthened into leaps during the postseason, when he averaged 10 points and eight rebounds. All but assured a starting spot unless Martell Webster has a stunning return to form, Porter must make even more progress.

    He'll have to play some power forward when the Wizards go small, which they will because undersized lineups were a key to their postseason success last year. He'll also have to knock down threes with confidence—which seems possible after watching Porter shoot a decent 33.7 percent from deep in his second season (after an icky 19 percent as a rookie).

    More than anything, Porter must begin to play like the guy who Washington selected at No. 3 in the draft just two years ago. The training wheels should come off, and if they don't, well...maybe there'll be a small forward on the market worth pursuing next summer to replace him.

    I'm talking about Kevin Durant.

    Better get a move on, Otto.

    Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes.