Ranking Every NBA Team's Presumed Starting 5, Post-2016 Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2016

Ranking Every NBA Team's Presumed Starting 5, Post-2016 Free Agency

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    Some might say it's too early in the NBA's offseason to establish a detailed pecking order for every team's projected starting lineup. But those people are party poopers, and we're not going to listen to them.

    Plenty of starting fives will undergo changes between now and the regular season, so these rankings are of the in-the-moment variety. Statistics will factor heavily as we forge our hierarchy, and last year's performance will be given special consideration for any starting lineups that remain intact.

    For those pesky first-time opening fives, we must use our imagination to evaluate how key newcomers fit with the nucleus of starters already in place. The smaller sample sizes we have to go on, the more subjectivity will shape a fivesome's placement.

    In many cases, a team's chosen starting lineup is a best-guess selection. We are not always trying to build the scariest five-man unit. We're tapping into a coach's brain, absorbing his vision and constructing a starting five that makes the most sense relative to a squad's direction, play style and depth chart.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    Presumed Starting Five: Jeremy Lin (PG), Sean Kilpatrick (SG), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (SF), Trevor Booker (PF), Brook Lopez (C)

    Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks deserves kudos for mapping out the future as best he can when the team isn't flush with picks or prospects. He made a clear, powerful statement by flipping Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for the right to draft Caris LeVert, who projects as a sweet-shooting wing.

    But such mandates have come at the expense of talent—and the bare-boned Nets are primed for regression. As The Ringer's Matt Borcas wrote:

    It’s officially in play: The Nets could unseat the Philadelphia 76ers as the worst team in the NBA this season. Between no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, free-agent signing Jerryd Bayless, and the anticipated debuts of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, the Sixers should finally show signs of life in 2016–17. The opposite is true for the Nets, who enter this season without last year’s second- and fourth-leading scorers (Thaddeus Young and Joe Johnson, respectively), to say nothing of departed rotation guys like Wayne Ellington and Jarrett Jack. Moreover, the Nets came out of the draft with just two additions — the aforementioned [Isaiah] Whitehead and Michigan's Caris LeVert, who made headlines for his poor combine showing.

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Sean Kilpatrick and Brook Lopez—the three incumbents from our projected starting five—saw just 29 minutes of action together last season, per NBAWowy.com. Jeremy Lin is an upgrade in the point guard department, but he's a below-average shooter, and Trevor Booker does nothing to decongest Brooklyn's spacing warts.

    This lineup, in fact, doesn't house a single proven shooter. Kilpatrick posted the best three-point rate of the bunch, draining 36.1 percent of his triples in 2015-16. The Nets will be hard-pressed to create enough space for Lin-Lopez pick-and-rolls, and their defense won't be stingy enough to offset that inefficiency.

    There's also a chance No. 1 pick-turned-bust Anthony Bennett, who just signed with Brooklyn, could start over Booker. Oh, the offensive horrors we would see.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Presumed Starting Five: Jerryd Bayless (PG), Gerald Henderson (SG), Robert Covington (SF), Ben Simmons (PF), Nerlens Noel (C)

    Three (hundred) cheers for improvement!

    There's almost no telling who the Sixers will trot out in their starting five to begin 2016-17. But this quintet makes the most sense for what the Sixers are looking to do.

    "There are times I think that he can be a point guard," head coach Brett Brown told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper of Ben Simmons. "Not Draymond Green. Not LeBron. Not Lamar Odom. That's a point forward. I walk both lines at different moments. To start him off, we'll play him as a point forward."

    This inclination is in part out of necessity. The Sixers still have too many bigs. But Simmons is ready-made for the point forward role.

    Starting him alongside two guards, in Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson, who can play off the ball should be a no-brainer. Both offer spot-up shooting for a Sixers squad that ranked 24th in three-point efficiency. Add in Robert Covington's three-and-D skill set, and Philadelphia might even be an average shooting team in 2016-17.

    (Pauses for protracted gasps.)

    Pairing Simmons with Nerlens Noel shores up the Sixers' frontcourt defense. Noel's potential as a rim-runner after screening for Simmons looms large as well.

    This starting five, should the Sixers wisely choose to embrace it, will be fun. It's just too raw and new to be good.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Presumed Starting Five: D'Angelo Russell (PG), Jordan Clarkson (SG), Brandon Ingram (SF), Luol Deng (PF), Timofey Mozgov (C)

    Let's assume Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton plans on starting the team's three highest-paid players: Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. And then let's guess he won't chain Brandon Ingram, this year's No. 2 pick, to the second unit.

    Finally, let's expect D'Angelo Russell to pry starting point guard duties from Jose Calderon easily enough.

    Bank on all of this, and presto! You have a smallish-ball blend of inexperienced youngsters (Ingram, Russell), an overpaid, redemption-seeking big and question-mark shooting (everyone).

    These five will have a leg up on last season's starters, if only through addition by subtraction. The Roy Hibbert-Julius Randle frontcourt was a living nightmare, and swan-song Kobe Bryant was a lot like midprime Kobe Bryant—only with crappier shooting percentages and fewer assists.

    Aesthetically, you want to rank this group higher. Deng and Ingram are interchangeable on both sides, Clarkson and Russell will have more room to drive and we must account for those glorious nights when the latter plays like a caffeine pill-addicted Manu Ginobili.

    Functionally, though, there are too many mysteries that need solving. Clarkson, Ingram and Russell are in the fault-filled development stages of their careers, and Mozgov is a $64 million gamble.

    The Lakers should be entertaining, and this fit has potential. But it's tough to see these five crushing it from the jump.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    Presumed Starting Five: Eric Bledsoe (PG), Brandon Knight (SG), Devin Booker (SF), Dragan Bender (PF), Tyson Chandler (C)

    Forecasting the Phoenix Suns' opening five is fairly difficult.

    Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight are givens. Tyson Chandler would come off the bench as a mentor on most rebuilding squads, but Phoenix continues to toe that imaginary line between competing and restructuring.

    Power forward is a head-scratcher. Alex Len has more experience than rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, but his jumper is a fluid project. Handing the reins of the second-string frontcourt to Bender and Chriss without a veteran safety net is also an implosive gambit.

    Slotting Bender beside Chandler offers more space. He has three-point range and is better equipped to guard today's playmaking 4s. Bledsoe, Booker and Knight will have room to initiate pick-and-rolls, and their drives won't be gummed up by two interior fixtures.

    Of course, that doesn't make this any less of an experimental venture. According to NBAWowy.com, Bledsoe, Booker, Chandler and Knight spent just three minutes together in 2015-16, and Bender, all of 18 years old, enjoyed limited spin while playing overseas.

    Offensive bright spots will shine through, but defensive breakdowns are equally inevitable. Bledsoe, Knight and Booker will seldom have advantages over the opposition, and Bender will leave Chandler in flux frequently as he navigates the nuances of playing NBA defense.

    Together, these five should deliver loads of highlights, but even more growing pains.

26. Sacramento Kings

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    Presumed Starting Five: Darren Collison (PG), Arron Afflalo (SG), Omri Casspi (SF), Rudy Gay (PF), DeMarcus Cousins (C)

    Sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the Sacramento Kings are looking to trade Rudy Gay, Kosta Koufos and Ben McLemore. In order to account for at least some of these potential departures, Arron Afflalo gets the nod as the starting 2-guard. (Also: He's now the Kings' third-highest-paid player.)

    Darren Collison is an immediate upgrade over Rajon Rondo, whose flash and flair was a statistical wash in Sactown. Surrounding DeMarcus Cousins with Afflalo, Omri Casspi, Collison and Gay stocks the Kings with enough spot-up shooting to maintain their top-10 three-point standing—without forcing head coach Dave Joerger to reinvent the wheel.

    Casspi, Collison, Cousins and Gay also logged 253 minutes alongside one another in 2015-16. Sacramento outscored opponents by more than 14 points per 100 possessions during that time—a net rating that would have towered over the San Antonio Spurs' league-leading mark of 11.8.

    Incorporating Afflalo into that dynamic shouldn't be especially difficult. He'll need to abandon the head-down post-ups for catch-and-shoot duty, and a $12 million salary should safeguard the Kings against his deviating from that blueprint as he stat-chases his next contract.

    So why the bottom-five placement? Two syllables: De-fense.

    Sacramento's backcourt will be incredibly vulnerable running out Afflalo and Collison, and the frontcourt combination of Cousins and Gay is a perennial hit-or-miss. Plus, there's a distinct possibility the Kings lose their offensive edge if Joerger reverts to a more methodical system that emphasizes clock-sapping post-ups over pace-pushing mayhem.

25. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Presumed Starting Five: Matthew Dellavedova (PG), Giannis Antetokounmpo (SG), Khris Middleton (SF), Jabari Parker (PF), Greg Monroe (C)

    If Milwaukee Bucks head honcho Jason Kidd swaps out Greg Monroe for John Henson in the starting lineup, he immediately enters the Coach of the Year running. But Monroe started most of Milwaukee's games last season (67), and Kidd has thus far been reluctant to use Henson as more than a situational contributor.

    Michael Carter-Williams will challenge the newly signed Matthew Dellavedova for point guard responsibilities, but we're assuming the Bucks won't once again embrace the non-art of laying three-point bricks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is expected to run point anyway, per the Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner, and Carter-Williams isn't known for his off-ball work. He put down 30.3 percent of his spot-up looks in 2015-16.

    Compare that to Dellavedova, who swished 47.5 percent of his standstill opportunities before disappearing in the playoffs, and this becomes a non-decision. Not surprisingly, Kidd has already indicated Dellavedova could be the opening-night starter, beside Antetokounmpo, per Gardner.

    But the Bucks have bigger problems: They were a defensive disaster in the 1,088 minutes Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Monroe and Jabari Parker saw together, coughing up 109 points per 100 possessions. Milwaukee was actually worse with Carter-Williams as that lineup's finishing touch.

    Replace Monroe with Henson in that four-man combine, and everything changes. The Bucks outmuscled opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions in 108 minutes when he played with the Antetokounmpo-Middleton-Parker trio.

    In the event Kidd decides to buck (sorry) traditional thinking, Milwaukee's starting five has the tools to climb another rung or 10 on this ladder.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Presumed Starting Five: Jrue Holiday (PG), Tyreke Evans (SG), Solomon Hill (SF), Anthony Davis (PF), Omer Asik (C)

    You want to like this projected starting five. You really do. But you can't.

    Omer Asik was that bad in 2015-16, and the Anthony Davis-Jrue Holiday marriage has yet to yield its intended synergy. Something about the roller-coaster shooting of a Tyreke Evans-Solomon Hill partnership also screams "bad offensive juju." Using rookie Buddy Hield instead of either one doesn't completely mitigate those concerns.

    Asik, Davis, Evans and Holiday were a plus-46.7 points per 100 possessions (not a typo) when sharing the floor last season, but injuries and playing-time caps limited them to 28 minutes of burn through eight appearances.

    That's not nearly enough evidence to deem this four-man foundation an established success. And too much about the ceiling of this lineup, Hill included, rests on what-ifs.

    What if Hill's 57.9 percent shooting from three-point range in the playoffs doesn't carry over into the regular season? What if Asik is once again unplayable? What if Holiday isn't yet durable enough to be the full-time starting point guard? What if Evans isn't the same after a third surgery on his right knee in less than a year?

    What if Davis loses his mind amid all these what-ifs and demands a trade or that his NCAA eligibility be reinstated for Kentucky?

    Even if only a couple of these questions are answered in the affirmative, the New Orleans Pelicans are in trouble.

23. Orlando Magic

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    Presumed Starting Five: Elfrid Payton (PG), Evan Fournier (SG), Aaron Gordon (SF), Serge Ibaka (PF), Bismack Biyombo (C)

    Welcome to another episode of "A Starting Lineup You Really Want to Like, Maybe Love, But Just Can't."

    Our latest installment stars the Orlando Magic's odd mix of bigs and the presumptive idea that the spring-loaded Aaron Gordon should, for some reason, almost exclusively play small forward. Positional designations are obsolete and yada, yada, yada. But Gordon is not a 3. Nor is the overpaid Jeff Green ($15 million!), so this isn't a matter of playing musical bigs-turned-wings.

    Perhaps a trade is coming. The modestly priced Nikola Vucevic is expendable with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka on the roster. Pairing him with Aaron Gordon is worthy of a blockbuster wing. Except Orlando plans on keeping this frontcourt logjam intact, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. This lineup cannot grade out favorably until that changes.

    Evan Fournier is the only one of these five who shot better than 33 percent from deep last season. Ibaka should stretch defenses at the 4 or 5, but his 5 percent dip in outside accuracy between 2014-15 and 2015-16 is pretty damning—especially now that he won't have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook setting him up for wide-open bunnies.

    Interior defense may invariably salvage this mixture of talent. Offenses will struggle to score on Biyombo and Ibaka at the rim, and Payton is a wily, risk-taking perimeter pest.

    Gordon, however, far from ruined lives as a three-point defender during his sophomore campaign. Biyombo and Ibaka will be left to rotate over whenever he and Fournier bite on pump fakes, sending the Magic into a state of defensive chaos that head coach Frank Vogel doesn't have the personnel to address.

22. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Presumed Starting Five: Russell Westbrook (PG), Victor Oladipo (SG), Andre Roberson (SF), Ersan Ilyasova (PF), Steven Adams (C)

    Kevin Durant's departure doesn't look good on the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's a godsend for Russell Westbrook's fantasy stock, but a death knell for collective efficiency.

    To be sure, a starting five of Steven Adams, Ersan Ilyasova, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson and Westbrook can work. Oladipo and Westbrook are almost impossible to stop off the bounce, Adams made strides as a postseason pick-and-roll finisher and Roberson improved his three-point shooting in the playoffs.

    Optimistic Oscar will now take a much-needed respite.

    Oladipo and Westbrook are far from an ideal coupling. Both are most effective with the ball in their hands, and the former never warmed up to working away from the action when playing next to Elfrid Payton in Orlando. He'll need to make a Dion Waiters-like spot-up leap to complement his new partner in crime.

    Chances are Roberson will return to Earth from beyond the arc at some point, and the Thunder won't have a rangy wing, like Durant, to get them by when they're forced to play four-on-five offense. Adams will still have space to explode off screens with Ilyasova orbiting the three-point line, but the Turkish power forward is more Enes Kanter than Ibaka (or even Durant) on defense.

    If all goes right, Oklahoma City will sneak into the playoffs on the back of Westbrook, whom they don't plan on trading as of now, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski (via Fox Sports' The Herd). But for the first time in a long time, there's more that could go wrong.

21. Denver Nuggets

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    Presumed Starting Five: Emmanuel Mudiay (PG), Gary Harris (SG), Danilo Gallinari (SF), Kenneth Faried (PF), Nikola Jokic (C)

    Here's to shot-in-the-dark improvement.

    Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay played almost 300 minutes together in 2015-16, during which time they were a defensive turnstile and net minus. But that's what happens in limited samples headlined by a rookie point guard.

    Mudiay struggled mightily as the Denver Nuggets' floor general for most of last season. His turnover percentage was through the roof for much of the year, and he finished dead last in total points added, according to NBAMath.com.

    Any improvement, however slight, on his behalf will constitute a significant step forward for this high-upside squadron. The same goes for Jokic, the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 16 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 assists and one block per 36 minutes.

    Faried does pose some spacing issues at power forward; he shot under 33 percent outside the paint last season. But Gallinari and even Jokic have three-point range, keeping the dream of serial Mudiay drive-and-kicks alive.

    At full strength, if Gallinari maintains borderline All-Star status and Harris remains a per-36-minute superhero, Denver's starting five should have no issue pumping in points with the best opening units. It's the absence of fiery defensive presences that tethers them to the bottom 10.

20. Dallas Mavericks

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    Presumed Starting Five: Deron Williams (PG), Wesley Matthews (SG), Harrison Barnes (SF), Dirk Nowitzki (PF), Andrew Bogut (C)

    Blind faith in Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle kept this starting five outside the bottom 10. But it didn't do much else.

    Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams are pieced together with bubblegum and Elmer's glue sticks. Dirk Nowitzki just turned 38. Wesley Matthews missed only four games last season but isn't the same after his Achilles injury in 2014-15.

    To say this starting five is uniquely susceptible to age and injury would oversell its durability. The Mavericks are a house of cards, and it starts with their most important players.

    Still, there's Carlisle. Even if the Mavericks defense is crud (it should be), he will stitch together an offense that ranks in the top 12 or higher of points scored per 100 possessions.

    Matthews, Nowitzki and Williams scored like a top-three offense in their 1,000-plus minutes of action together. Barnes and Bogut won't muck up that chemistry. Bogut is a rim-protection upgrade over Zaza Pachulia, so the Mavericks defense might even improve.

    Everything isn't going to be all right in Dallas after another series of free-agent strikeouts. But the Mavericks, as they always do, will feign survival.

19. Indiana Pacers

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    Presumed Starting Five: Jeff Teague (PG), Monta Ellis (SG), Paul George (SF), Thaddeus Young (PF), Myles Turner (C)

    The Indiana Pacers are going to miss George Hill. They don't deploy a top-three defense while gifting extensive minutes to Monta Ellis without him.

    Jeff Teague is a defensive downgrade to roughly the umpteenth degree. He held his own on fellow point guards last season, hassling three-point shooters off timely close-outs. But at 6'2", he doesn't have the size to cover up for Ellis against big shooting guards.

    This is before considering the offensive adjustments Indiana must make. Teague, like Ellis, prefers to operate with the ball in hand. He connected on 49.6 percent of his catch-and-fire threes last season, but Hill attempted more than twice as many such shots—in addition to keeping up a 44.5 percent success rate.

    Balancing touches between this ball-dominant backcourt and Paul George will be a trying task. The Pacers' situation is compounded by the trade for Thaddeus Young, who remains a curious acquisition for a team looking to push the pace and chuck more threes.

    Young is athletic enough to get up and down the floor, and his 41.8 percent clip between 16 feet and the three-point line will help carve out extra space as Myles Turner finds his perimeter stroke. But he hasn't shot better than 33 percent from three-point land since 2009-10 and is yet another player unaccustomed to working predominantly off the ball.

    Left alone, the Pacers were already an anemic offensive contingent. The three-man amalgam of Ellis, George and Turner scored like a bottom-three attack last season. Teague and Young won't be enough to prop them up any further—and whatever impetus they might provide will come at the defense's expense.

18. Washington Wizards

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    Presumed Starting Five: John Wall (PG), Bradley Beal (SG), Otto Porter (SF), Markieff Morris (PF), Marcin Gortat (C)

    Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter and John Wall made up the Washington Wizards' go-to starting five after the All-Star break, and it's safe to say their reign will spill into 2016-17. It isn't safe to assume much beyond that.

    Ian Mahinmi is now the team's third-highest-paid player, and head coach Scott Brooks could decide to fight opponents with size. Andrew Nicholson could also step in the moment Morris or Porter shows signs of cracking.

    In the meantime, given how the suggested assembly closed 2015-16, consistency is Washington's best friend. Beal, Gortat, Morris, Porter and Wall performed like a playoff team in their 197 minutes of court time. They outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, a net rating that would have ranked second in the Eastern Conference.

    Morris' midseason acquisition seemed to fortify a leaky Washington defense, as Bullets Forever's Jake Whitacre deftly described in March:

    Morris' versatility and athleticism help the Wizards address a lot of the defensive issues they faced earlier in the season. In the same way an offense struggles when you don't have anyone who can make plays happen with the ball, a defense struggles when all the defenders are at their best working off-the-ball.

    For as good as Jared Dudley is as a defender, his best defensive value comes as a communicator and providing outstanding help defense. When he's left out on an island, star players can take advantage of his physical shortcomings in ways they can't against Markieff Morris.

    There is no decision for Brooks to make here should Wall be fully healthy for opening night following left and right knee surgeries. The Wizards starting five won't be contending for any titles, but sticking with the same crew positions them for a return to postseason contention.

17. Chicago Bulls

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    Presumed Starting Five: Rajon Rondo (PG), Dwyane Wade (SG), Jimmy Butler (SF), Nikola Mirotic (PF), Robin Lopez (C)

    Give this to the Chicago Bulls: Their starting five will sell tickets. It just won't do much else.

    While there is plenty of raw talent among the individuals, the group fit is just plain awkward. Nikola Mirotic is the only one clearing 33 percent shooting from long distance for his career, and the Jimmy Butler-Rajon Rondo-Dwyane Wade tricycle doesn't include a single player who's used to playing off the ball.

    Just look at how few of their made baskets came off assists last season:


    Two basketballs would not be enough for this troika.

    Even if we give Butler the benefit of the doubt, holding out hope that his on-again, off-again relationship with spot-up shooting is officially on again, this backcourt marriage between Rondo and Wade makes (sub-)zero sense.

    By the time the trade deadline rolls around, we'll likely be lamenting the complete manipulation of head coach Fred Hoiberg's offensive ideology—the one predicated on ball movement and exceptional spacing. His vision is already beyond warped thanks to last season's badly built roster, and this year's starting five figures to stamp out any traces of a coherent offensive identity.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Presumed Starting Five: Ricky Rubio (PG), Zach LaVine (SG), Andrew Wiggins (SF), Gorgui Dieng (PF), Karl-Anthony Towns (C)

    The gang of Gorgui Dieng, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins started more games for the 2015-16 Minnesota Timberwolves than any other group. New head coach Tom Thibodeau isn't about to rock that boat.

    Not when it's so darn steady.

    Through almost 650 minutes of playing time, this five-man posse toppled opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions—despite posting a defensive rating (109.6) that would've ranked dead last on the league-wide scale.

    But nothing about the defensive shortcomings of these five is incurable. Dieng, LaVine, Rubio, Towns and Wiggins all have the physical gifts necessary to be a plus at their respective slots.

    Thibodeau's guidance, then, might be all the Timberwolves starting five needs to spearhead a playoff hopeful.

15. New York Knicks

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    Presumed Starting Five: Derrick Rose (PG), Courtney Lee (SG), Carmelo Anthony (SF), Kristaps Porzingis (PF), Joakim Noah (C)

    Is the New York Knicks' proposed starting five among the league's best? You can say "to be determined" if you're feeling generous, but that's the extent of this unit's ceiling.

    The Knicks were a statistical plus whenever Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis shared the floor last season. On a 32-win squad, that's saying something. Courtney Lee won't disrupt that dynamic since he's familiar with bandying about behind the arc.

    Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose aren't the same seamless integrations. Noah is a phenomenal passer and screen-setter, but not much else. He isn't a reliable jump shooter, and his back-to-the-basket game never developed. That he has missed at least 15 games in three of the last four seasons is unsettling as well.

    Rose further distorts the spacing. He has never shot better than 34 percent on threes, his career percentages outside 10 feet of the hoop are a statistical seesaw and, as the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring explained, he doesn't offer the usual benefits of a drive-heavy point guard:

    "Rose's ability to drive should free up shots for his teammates, but it's worth noting that among qualifying point guards who drove to the basket at least five times a game last season, Rose owned the third-lowest pass percentage, dumping the ball off just 23.3 percent of the time, according to NBA.com."

    Good health might allow the Knicks' opening five to blossom. Then again, maybe not—and that's the problem.

14. Charlotte Hornets

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    Presumed Starting Five: Kemba Walker (PG), Nicolas Batum (SG), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (SF), Marvin Williams (PF), Cody Zeller (C)

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will make or break a Charlotte Hornets starting five that also includes Nicolas Batum, Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller.

    His bullish defensive sets only bolster a top-10 prevention system without him. But he is just 6-of-25 from downtown for his career and starkly jeopardizes spacing for a Hornets team that ranked in the top seven of three-point volume and efficiency.

    It bodes well for Charlotte that Batum, Walker, Williams and Zeller were all part of its most-used foursome from 2015-16. They outpaced opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in close to 1,000 minutes of court time. But it was Courtney Lee, a strong defender and shooter, who brought out the best in them.

    Lee played 406 minutes with those four after arriving from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Hornets were a plus-9.9 per 100 possessions during that time, posting a better offensive rating (114.5) than the league-lording Golden State Warriors (112.5).

    Kidd-Gilchrist flips this version of the script, forcing the Hornets to depend on additional defensive stops. This isn't a bad thing, and the four other players, with their blend of driving, passing and shooting, fit like a glove.

    His return is just something that, for now, leaves Charlotte's starting five standing in the lurch.

13. Miami Heat

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    Presumed Starting Five: Goran Dragic (PG), Josh Richardson (SG), Justise Winslow (SF), Chris Bosh (PF), Hassan Whiteside (C)

    Although the Miami Heat's starting lineup will look super weird without Dwyane Wade, it won't necessarily be worse. Life after him started to take shape before he ever left.

    Every forecast comes with the colossal caveat of Chris Bosh's health. He needs to be on the floor for Miami to be a force. After missing the latter parts of 2014-15 and 2015-16 due to blood clot issues, that's far from a formality.

    The image of Bosh alongside Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow is nevertheless enough to carry the Heat this high. These five forge enough room for Whiteside to dive toward the basket off screens, even with Winslow's ice-cold three-point stroke.

    The defense shouldn't miss a beat with Whiteside's policing of the rim as Richardson and Winslow shimmy between perimeter assignments.

    Remember, Miami registered a better net rating without Wade, and losing Luol Deng will only sting more if Bosh is unfit to play. The Heat were a plus-5.4 points per 100 possessions whenever Dragic, Richardson, Whiteside and Winslow took the floor and will now presumably add Bosh to that party.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Presumed Starting Five: Damian Lillard (PG), C.J. McCollum (SG), Evan Turner (SF), Al-Farouq Aminu (PF), Mason Plumlee (C)

    Maurice Harkless, an unsigned restricted free agent, could still return, allowing the Portland Trail Blazers to run it back with last season's first-choice starting five. But did general manager Neil Olshey really hand $70 million to Evan Turner so he can come off the bench? Probably not.

    That honor belongs to Allen Crabbe, the $75 million man. He could just as easily start, sliding into the small forward spot, but the Blazers bench needs more shooting.

    Al-Farouq Aminu, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Mason Plumlee scored like the Association's best offense when playing with Harkless, an outside brick-layer himself, so accommodating Turner's nonexistent three-point stroke shouldn't be an issue.

    Besides, there's apparently something in Portland's water that guarantees Turner will qualify for the three-point contest during the 2017 All-Star weekend. "Coach [Terry Stotts] told me, 'Everybody ends up shooting the three better when they get here,'" he explained to reporters. "So I'm gonna have to trust him on that."

    Failing that, Turner can be used like he was with the Boston Celtics—as a pseudo point guard. He can run pick-and-rolls with Plumlee, while both Lillard and McCollum hoist threes after curling around screens, a la Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

    Just like the 2015-16 Blazers in general, this starting five may surprise you.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Reggie Jackson (PG), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG), Tobias Harris (SF), Marcus Morris (PF), Andre Drummond (C)

    At first glance, it seems like the Detroit Pistons should be higher. And you know what? They absolutely could be, but they would need to tweak this starting five.

    Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris should not be playing a bunch of minutes at the 3. The Pistons would make more noise, and strike more court balance, by starting one of them with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson, with the other coming off the bench.

    Sure, this exact lineup edged out opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions. Pull Harris for Johnson, though, and that net rating rises to a plus-7.2.

    Sub in Johnson for Morris, and it reaches a plus-17.6.

    Neither of the alternative lineups eclipsed 30 minutes of regular-season action in 2015, so coach and president Stan Van Gundy would be making a gut-feeling change. It's exponentially easier to stick with what's familiar.

    For now, that's good enough to give the Pistons something resembling a top-10 starting lineup. Their ceiling merely ends there.

10. Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Patrick Beverley (PG), James Harden (SG), Trevor Ariza (SF), Ryan Anderson (PF), Clint Capela (C)

    The Houston Rockets starting five is a microcosm of the entire team. It looks good, it should be good, but will it be?

    James Harden slaughtering defenses with his dribble drives. Clint Capela (aka the anti-Dwight Howard) sprinting down the middle after setting a hard screen. Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley spotting up behind Harden's isolations. Ariza and Beverley suffocating rival shooters. Capela swatting shots at the rim.

    It all sounds so very, very good.

    It should look even better.

    Ariza, Beverley, Capela and Harden fought alongside one another for almost 500 minutes in 2015-16. The Rockets were a plus-8.9 points per 100 possessions across that stretch and played like the statistical equivalents of the league's best offense and a top-15 defense.

    Anderson won't do anything to boost their defensive standing, but as a non-ball-dominant addition, he also won't do anything to unhinge the existing four-man dynamic. That's more important.

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Dennis Schroder (PG), Kent Bazemore (SG), Kyle Korver (SF), Paul Millsap (PF), Dwight Howard (C)

    Signing Dwight Howard before figuring out the Al Horford situation was a mistake by the Atlanta Hawks. Attempting to sell Horford on playing next to Howard and Paul Millsap was an even bigger one. (Millsap. Is. Not. A. Small. Forward.)

    Fortunately for Atlanta, and Big Al himself, Horford chose the Celtics. The Hawks aren't better off overall, but a starting five built around Kent Bazemore, Howard, Kyle Korver, Millsap and Dennis Schroder has its advantages.

    Those four incumbent Hawks notched a net rating of 9.9 in 103 minutes together last season, posting offensive (110.3) and defensive ratings (100.4) that would have ranked among the NBA's four best in either category. Howard can enhance those results.

    The Hawks won't lose anything on defense with him. He and Horford found identical success protecting the rim during 2015-16, holding opponents to sub-50 percent shooting. Getting Howard to ditch the post-ups for more pick-and-rolls, while making room in the offense for said possessions, will be the real challenge.

    Injecting more pick-and-rolls into the offense shouldn't be too complicated. Millsap can set up shop behind the three-point line, clearing a path to the basket, and Howard is far more comfortable than Horford at diving toward the bucket.

    Howard, mind you, ranked in the 71st percentile of roll-man efficiency during his last season with Houston. Those touches just represented less than 10 percent of his total possessions. Call his number more, almost solely for screen-and-rolls, and the Hawks will have themselves a top-10 starting lineup.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Mike Conley (PG), Tony Allen (SG), Chandler Parsons (SF), Zach Randolph (PF), Marc Gasol (C)

    Last season, lineups featuring Tony Allen, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph were a net minus. Their sample size was not insubstantial (445 minutes), but it was curtailed by Conley's and Gasol's injuries.

    Back in 2014-15, with 716 minutes of floor exposure, Memphis' core four was a plus-12.8 per 100 possessions. Knowing how much time this group has spent together over the last half-decade, the assumption is that, if healthy, they'll rival their previous selves.

    The actual bar probably lies somewhere in between. Allen and Randolph are on the wrong side of 34, and Gasol, 31, isn't far behind them. Age will takes its toll, and Memphis' space-starved offense still doesn't hold up against more contemporary setups.

    But Chandler Parsons' arrival arms the Grizzlies with their first high-end outside weapon of the core four era (sorry, Rudy Gay). They have the capacity to cover up for his spotty defense on small forwards, and his accuracy off the catch prohibits defenses from sending dual double-teams at two of Conley, Gasol and Randolph.

    Yes, Parsons' knees creak when he moves, but he was shooting 44.1 percent on spot-up triples prior to having surgery on a torn right meniscus in March. He also averaged 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists on a scorching 52.6 percent shooting over his final 31 appearances.

    Question the durability of this starting five early and often. Just make sure you aren't sleeping on it either.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: George Hill (PG), Rodney Hood (SG), Gordon Hayward (SF), Derrick Favors (PF), Rudy Gobert (C)

    The Utah Jazz are coming. (This time for real.)

    Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward were a plus-5.0 during 688 minutes of playing time in 2015-16. Only five teams mustered a net rating of five or better for the season. Now Utah gets to throw George Hill into the mix.

    "In addition to the statistical upgrade, Hill gives the Jazz another versatile player who can adapt to Quin Snyder’s vision of positionless basketball," Andrew Bailey wrote for Today's Fastbreak. "Hill may be only 6'3", but his 6'9" wingspan (per DraftExpress) and quick feet give him the ability to defend wings."

    Hill elevates the Jazz's offensive mojo: More than one-third of his total field-goal attempts last season came off passes, so he's used to ceding ball control, but he can orchestrate pick-and-rolls and drive-and-kicks as the primary pilot as well.

    This is going to be sweet.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Isaiah Thomas (PG), Avery Bradley (SG), Jae Crowder (SF), Amir Johnson (PF), Al Horford (C)

    Boston's most-used starting lineup for 2015-16 was Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger and Isaiah Thomas. Those five were a good-not-great plus-2.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Switching out Sullinger with Al Horford infinitely increases the lineup's curb appeal. Horford is a better passer and rim protector, and his 34 percent three-point clip over the last three seasons is an upgrade from Sullinger's 27.7 percent success rate.

    Much like 2015-16, the Celtics' best lineups will feature a smaller player on the court in place of Johnson. It was Evan Turner, now of the Blazers, last year; it will likely be Marcus Smart in 2016-17. But their starting five should still rank among the game's best.

    Horford changes nothing about the Celtics' approach either. They get to play fast and free, with an emphasis on defense. Thomas' role stays the same. The double coverage Horford draws will drive up the number of uncontested triples launched by Bradley and Crowder. His outside touch leaves more room for Johnson to thrive in his wheelhouse—as a pick-and-roll rim-runner.

    Basically, beware of the Celtics. Their starting lineup has all the goods a contender's opening five should.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Dave Sandford/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Kyle Lowry (PG), DeMar DeRozan (SG), DeMarre Carroll (SF), Patrick Patterson (PF), Jonas Valanciunas (C)

    Some free advice* for the Toronto Raptors: Go with what dominates.

    DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas saw just 16 minutes of action together during the regular season. But the Raptors were 7-3 whenever they played, outgunning opponents by 41.3 points per 100 possessions.

    There is no worthwhile reason for betting against this right balance of ball-dominant playmakers (DeRozan, Lowry), off-ball slashers (Patterson, Valanciunas) and side-action shooters (Carroll, Lowry, Patterson).

    Insert your favorite throat-clearing, well-actually-small-sample-size warning here, but the Raptors still fared well with these five in the playoffs. They were a plus-5.7 through 95 minutes.

    Imagine how they would have played with this lineup if DeRozan and Lowry didn't spend a majority of the postseason doing their best Jekyll and Hyde impressions.


    *Going bonkers, subbing out Valanciunas for Norman Powell and slotting Patterson at the 5 is a totally acceptable starting-lineup audible.

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Tony Parker (PG), Danny Green (SG), Kawhi Leonard (SF), LaMarcus Aldridge (PF), Pau Gasol (C)

    Tim Duncan ruined everybody's day July 11 when he announced to the San Antonio Spurs, initially via carrier pigeon (probably), that he would be retiring from the NBA.

    Be sad, but Spurs fans should also be thankful their team had the foresight to assemble a team that transcends Duncan's departure.

    LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Pau Gasol, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker make for a damn good starting lineup. Gasol won't replace all of Duncan's defense—not even close. But their rim-protecting numbers were similar last season, and Gasol saved more points than his predecessor on the less glamorous end, according to NBAMath.com.

    Look at it this way: Aldridge, Green, Leonard and Parker were a plus-5.1 points per 100 possessions when playing without Duncan during the regular season, per NBAWowy.com. That would be encouraging enough if the Spurs were supplanting Duncan with Andrew Bynum.

    A healthy Gasol is, at the very least, a lateral transition from a 40-year-old Duncan.

    Don't be surprised when, once again, the Spurs turn loose one of the NBA's five best starting lineups.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Kyrie Irving (PG), J.R. Smith (SG), LeBron James (SF), Kevin Love (PF), Tristan Thompson (C)

    Four-time MVP LeBron James and MVP-of-our-hearts J.R. Smith remain unsigned. If they suddenly get the urge to carry on Tim Duncan's Spurs legacy at the veteran's minimum, this is all in for a rude awakening.

    Just kidding. Cleveland Cavaliers fans needn't fret.

    James and Smith are expected to stay put, according to Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes. Good thing, too. Their starting lineup wouldn't be the same, or even marginally functional, without them.

    Kyrie Irving, James, Kevin Love, Smith and Tristan Thompson absolutely obliterated opponents during the regular season. Their net rating, a plus-12.4, ranked third among all five-man groupings to tally 375 or more minutes of action.

    Both of the lineups (formerly) in front of them—one from Oklahoma City, the other from Golden State—are now defunct courtesy of a hyperactive free-agency period. The stature of Cleveland's starting five is in no immediate danger of coming under siege.

    Even if it was, the soon-to-be-signed James (we think) is the ultimate trump card.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Cameron Browne/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Chris Paul (PG), J.J. Redick (SG), Luc Mbah a Moute (SF), Blake Griffin (PF), DeAndre Jordan (C)

    I know what you're thinking: This dude is such a Cleveland hater. It's not true. I hate Brussels sprouts and despise sitting still. Cleveland and I are totally cool.

    The Los Angeles Clippers' starting lineup is just plain scary, though—more frightening than the Cavaliers' opening five. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan each have the edge over their Cleveland counterparts, with Luc Mbah a Moute being the lone exception, because LeBron James is a basketball deity.

    Griffin's inability to remain on the floor last season prevented the Clippers from basking in the full glory of their starting five. This cast of stars (and Mbah a Moute) was still one of their two most used five-man units, and it blitzed opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Truthfully, Clippers coach Doc Rivers could slot any ol' fifth wheel next to his Fab Four, and they would be fine. In fact, he's done just that, time and again.

    The Griffin-Jordan-Paul-Redick foursome is still plus-15.5 points per 100 possessions since 2014-15, through both the playoffs and the regular season, according to NBAWowy.com.

    If not for a certain lineup from a team that shall remain nameless (until the next slide), the Clippers would lay claim to the planet's best starting five, plus another 95 billion galaxies.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Presumed Starting Five: Stephen Curry (PG), Klay Thompson (SG), Kevin Durant (SF), Draymond Green (PF), Zaza Pachulia (C)

    Let's keep this simple.

    When Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson shared the floor this past season, the Warriors dismantled opponents by 20.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Next season, they will add Kevin Durant, a top-five superstar, to the fold.

    Durant will likely be complemented by Zaza Pachulia, who is pretty much a healthier version of a poor man's Andrew Bogut. So, you know, wow.

    But if you think head coach Steve Kerr will deploy the "Super-Mega-Epic Death Squad" from the jump, turning to Andre Iguodala instead of Pachulia, that's fine. Golden's State's Big Three was a plus-33.5 points per 100 possessions when Iguodala joined their cause.

    Tack on Durant's superpowers to that four-pronged attack, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist with 17 doctorates in unrelated fields to figure out what that means for the rest of the league:

    Irrelevance by way of the Super-Mega-Epic Death Squad.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.


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