Power Ranking Every Starting Lineup Post-NBA Trade Deadline

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2018

Power Ranking Every Starting Lineup Post-NBA Trade Deadline

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    The 2018 NBA trade deadline is behind us, with a whirlwind of activity dramatically reshaping clubs like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons.

    This wasn't quite a shape-shifting experience for the entire Association, but there was enough movement to necessitate an examination of rosters both newly formed and long entrenched.

    And what better place to start our analysis than by weighing the starting fives of all 30 teams?

    For our purposes, we are assuming these rosters are all at full strength—minus the players ruled out for the season or deemed unlikely to return. We've also taken the liberty of building the most probable opening group for every club, using both established patterns and a bit of forward-thinking guesswork to assemble the quintets.

    While we're focusing only on how these starting fives fare in this campaign, we are also considering the prospect of growth potential. That could stem from the maturation of youngsters and improved chemistry to the return of injured players.

    All clear on the particulars? Cool, let's get to the rankings.

30-26. Nets, Knicks, Kings, Grizzlies, Mavericks

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    30. Brooklyn Nets

    Lineup: Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jarrett Allen

    The sins of Brooklyn's former front office are felt in this ranking. Not only has the franchise been denied early first-round picks that could have yielded fortune-reversing talents, but it was so starved for youth it had to jettison Brook Lopez just to gamble on D'Angelo Russell's potential.

    The Nets aren't the worst team in the Association, but they have its lowest ranked opening group due to a lack of direction, pedigree and potential. The lone silver lining is that Brooklyn's long-term plan probably doesn't feature many of these players in prominent roles.

            

    29. New York Knicks

    Lineup: Jarrett Jack, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Michael Beasley, Enes Kanter

    New York wouldn't have been nearly this low had this exercise predated Kristaps Porzingis' ACL tear. But without the unicorn, the Knicks are left pinning their hopes on an inefficient gunner (Hardaway), an inside-the-arc dinosaur (Kanter) and an NBA nomad (Beasley).

    This quintet's average age is 29. That not only feels criminally high for a (likely) lottery-bound club, it effectively erases any possible improvements. In other words, this group's massive warts on both ends are going nowhere.

            

    28. Sacramento Kings

    Lineup: De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin Jackson, Zach Randolph, Willie Cauley-Stein

    This might include some of the primary bones in Sacramento's next playoff team. To be clear, the Kings still look worlds away from competitive basketball. But at least there's some excitement around Fox's absurd athleticism, Bogdanovic's efficiency (.462/.395/.840 shooting slash) and Cauley-Stein's biggest step forward to date.

    The Kings could squeeze more youth into the starting five, as Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere have both flashed significant potential. But this basically forces Fox into the driver's seat and therefore accelerates the development of the organization's most important player. It makes sense; it just doesn't help Sacramento's standing here.

             

    27. Memphis Grizzlies

    Lineup: Andrew Harrison, Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol

    Which would you have had an easier time believing before the season started: the Grizzlies fielding a bottom-five opening group or Evans being the best of that bunch? These are bleak times on Beale Street, and good luck figuring out what could buck the trend. (A healthy Mike Conley would help, but it's been a while since anyone has seen him.)

    Evans has been surprisingly good, but his track record warns not to value him above solid. Gasol is clearly declining, as player efficiency rating paints him just a hair above average (17.4). If this isn't the only place where Harrison, Brooks and Green would start, it's at least the lone situation in which they'd open games together.

             

    26. Dallas Mavericks

    Lineup: Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Maxi Kleber, Dirk Nowitzki

    Of the 50 lineups to log at least 150 minutes together, none have been less efficient than this one. When the Mavs go to this look—which they've used to open 29 contests—they get steamrolled by 16.4 points per 100 possessions.

    So, what keeps them out of the cellar? Smith's potential is a big factor, but there's also Barnes' steady play and Matthews' resurgence.

    Kleber is a glue guy, so he can make himself fit with this lineup, even if there might be better fifth bananas available. Nowitzki is more of a novelty item at this stage, but he can still author the occasional scoring outburst.

25-21. Hawks, Magic, Lakers, Suns, Bulls

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    25. Atlanta Hawks

    Lineup: Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Ersan Ilyasova, Miles Plumlee

    It's so early in the Hawks' headfirst dive into rebuilding that only their arms and shoulders have hit the water. They are painfully light on young and/or exciting players. And for some reason, the ones they do employ aren't all represented here.

    Granted, benching Ilyasova and Plumlee in favor of John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon wouldn't change this ranking a lot. But it would be a step toward a brighter future (and an infinitely more watchable present). Schroder and Bazemore are fine as starters, but Prince could be the only keeper of the five.

              

    24. Orlando Magic

    Lineup: D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Jonathon Simmons, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic

    While the Magic only made one deadline deal, they were ready and willing to undertake a housecleaning. Everyone but Gordon and rookie Jonathan Isaac was "readily available," sources told ESPN's Zach Lowe, which shows how replaceable these players are.

    This quintet is light on both shooting (only Augustin and Fournier top 35 percent from three) and defense. And it's essentially devoid of playmaking. There isn't a top 75 distributor in the mix, with Vucevic's 3.3 assists per game leading the way.

              

    23. Los Angeles Lakers

    Lineup: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez

    How badly does this unit need a focal point? Lopez, who is averaging career lows almost across the board, leads it in usage percentage. No one stands as a particularly potent scorer—Ingram's 16.0 points rank first in this lineup and 59th overall—and spacing is at a premium with only Ingram (39.3) and Caldwell-Pope (35.7) clearing 33 percent outside.

    Only an expert table-setter could put all the pieces in place, and Ball was on the right path when he was healthy. His passing propensity and vision serve as the group's identifying feature, and he puts others in prime position to score more often than not. Still, this lineup features one of the league's least efficient shooters, and it isn't exactly brimming with stoppers.

              

    22. Phoenix Suns

    Lineup: Elfrid Payton, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, TJ Warren, Dragan Bender

    As fun as the Booker-at-point-guard experiment could be, it highlighted the Suns' glaring need for an upgrade (and muted the sharpshooter's greatest strength). Payton isn't special for a starting point guard, but he might feel that way given what preceded him.

    "He is a smart player," Bender said, per Bright Side of the Sun's Dave King. "He knows how to play basketball. His IQ is high. His head is always up."

    Assuming the Suns roll out this quintet—they've always started Tyson Chandler when he's healthy but might want to see Payton with the other youngsters—there's no shortage of intrigue. It could use more shooting, but Booker and Bender is a good start there. It's heavy on youth and athleticism, doesn't have a lot of talent overlap and will mix in enough highlights to make the inconsistency easier to stomach.

                 

    21. Chicago Bulls

    Lineup: Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Justin Holiday, Lauri Markkanen, Robin Lopez

    This might feel high when it features two veteran placeholders, but the potential for the Dunn-LaVine-Markkanen trio is realand it's spectacular.

    Dunn is a gritty lead guard who sets the defensive tone and spreads the basketball around. LaVine is an electric scorer with gravity-defying hops and a fiery three ball. Markkanen is on his way to claiming a spot on what should be a stacked All-Rookie first team.

    Chicago has the NBA's third-worst net efficiency overall (minus-6.1). But in the brief time Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen have logged together, the Bulls have played closer to the middle of the pack (plus-0.8, would be 14th). That number should only increase as their shared experience does.

20-16. Clippers, Jazz, Heat, Hornets, Pistons

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    20. Los Angeles Clippers

    Lineup: Milos Teodosic, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, DeAndre Jordan

    It's no small miracle the Clippers are competing for a playoff berth after losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin over the past eight months. But the resulting lack of top-shelf talent both lowers the organization's ceiling and keeps it near the back portion of our rankings.

    There are a lot of adequate pieces here but nothing approaching greatness. If this group has an overwhelming strength, the identity of it remains a mystery. Harris is probably the most important player of the five, and he's on his fourth team in seven seasons.

              

    19. Utah Jazz

    Lineup: Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert

    Good luck finding many five-man groups that are more ferocious on the defensive end. Through a mixture of suffocating length, elite athleticism and superb coaching, this ensemble silences opposing offenses of all styles. Its defensive rating is a minuscule 99.3, a rate that would pace the league by more than a point per 100 possessions.

    But there are two sides of the basketball court, and the offensive end has been such a disaster that this group's net efficiency sits in the red (minus-0.4). Ingles is the only above-average sniper, and Mitchell is the sole supplier of 13-plus points per game. This group's offensive rating is a meager 98.9, nearly two points per 100 possessions behind Sacramento's worst-rated attack.

               

    18. Miami Heat

    Lineup: Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Hassan Whiteside

    It's hard marrying Miami to any specific starting five when it has rolled out 19 different combinations already. And it isn't easy to assume the recently returned Dwyane Wade will remain in a reserve role the rest of the way. But this looks like the best realistic bet to maximize the Heat's two-way prowess.

    If this ranking feels low, keep a couple of things in mind. For starters, categories like point differential (20th) and net efficiency (20th) aren't nearly as bullish about the Heat as winning percentage is (tied for 14th). Also, Miami's strength comes from the collective, not specific individuals. Remember, the Heat didn't have an All-Star until Dragic became the Eastern Conference's second injury replacement.

              

    17. Charlotte Hornets

    Lineup: Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard

    Charlotte's issues are neither small nor easily solved. But the starting five is a mostly bright spot, even if it's overpriced and not getting any younger.

    With these five on the floor, the Hornets outscore opponents by 4.0 points per 100 possessions. For context, only three clubs have a net rating north of that number. There isn't much self-sufficient scoring here outside of Kemba, but at least Howard is bouncing back after a three-year slide.

                 

    16. Detroit Pistons

    Lineup: Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond

    It's fair to question how high this revamped lineup can take the Pistons. Shooting is alarmingly scarce, the defense has no anchor and two of the top three players have terrifying injury histories (Jackson and Griffin). But Detroit looks better with Griffin than without, and for now that's probably good enough.

    "Maybe super-mediocrity, with multiple playoff appearances in the middle of the Eastern Conference, is OK for the Pistons," Lowe wrote. "...They are struggling to fill a new arena, at risk of missing the playoffs for a second straight season. Being the Joe Johnson-era Hawks might be a great outcome for them."

    The Griffin-Drummond duo might be the best we've seen in these rankings so far, and Jackson can be fun when he's healthy. This might be a coming-of-age season for both Bullock and Johnson. Still, the dearth of spacing might derail their offensive activity, and they aren't scaring anyone at the defensive end.

15-11. Pelicans, Pacers, Blazers, Wizards, Bucks

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    15. New Orleans Pelicans

    Lineup: Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis

    It shouldn't be possible for a lineup featuring Davis to be located this low. The 24-year-old has the fifth-highest player efficiency rating (27.6) plus top-10 rankings in points (27.1, third), blocks (2.1, tied for third) and boards (10.7, ninth). When the Brow takes a seat, New Orleans' net efficiency tumbles by 7.1 points per 100 possessions.

    But once you start assessing the other players listed, it's no small miracle Davis carried New Orleans this high. Rondo was left for dead before the season. Moore looked like a forgettable journeyman. Holiday and Mirotic have never been viewed among the top options at their position. Yet, with Davis as the focal point and Moore as a surprising net-shredder, this lineup miraculously makes the top half.

               

    14. Indiana Pacers

    Lineup: Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner

    Speaking of surprises, nothing suggested the Circle City would have an above-average opening group once Paul George skipped town. But Oladipo's All-Star ascension guaranteed that honor, and none of the four support pieces have disappointed.

    With all five players averaging at least 12 points on 47-plus percent shooting, this functions as an offensive wrecking ball. Its 109.1 offensive rating would only trail five teams on the season-long rankings. But this unit is so generous the other way (108.8 defensive rating, would be 28th) that it struggles keeping its head above water (plus-0.3).

                

    13. Portland Trail Blazers

    Lineup: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic

    This isn't always Portland's preferred opening group, but it's becoming the popular choice now that Harkless appears back in the rotation. It's probably the best way to get length, athleticism and complementary versatility around the primary trio of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic.

    Overall, this unit has struggled to a minus-2.9 net rating. But it's buoyed by one of the Association's top scoring tandems (Lillard and McCollum) and loaded with upward mobility for the stretch run. McCollum, Nurkic and Harkless are all shooting worse than they did last season, losing a combined 9.3 field-goal percentage points.

               

    12. Washington Wizards

    Lineup: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat

    Washington's failure to launch into the realm of elites has often been tied to lackluster reserve play. But this season's bench improvements haven't moved the bottom line, because the starting unit is trending the wrong direction. The Wizards' openers, while still a top-half group, haven't been the same.

    Their net efficiency (plus-6.4) is down from last season (plus-8.1), and each player is missing something. Morris and Gortat have seen their playing time hacked. Porter is shooting worse from the field and outside. Wall's points, assists and rebounds are all down. And even though this will be remembered as Beal's first All-Star campaign, he was a more accurate shooter from all three levels last season.

                 

    11. Milwaukee Bucks

    Lineup: Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, John Henson

    Assuming Parker's legs hold up for his second ACL recovery, this should be one of basketball's better five-man groups. Highlighted by all-purpose superstar Antetokounmpo, it offers everything from scoring and distributing to length and versatility. Milwaukee has played 379 minutes with Tony Snell in Parker's place and thrashed opponents by 15.0 points per 100 possessions.

    If Parker returns to second-option status—he was a 20-point scorer and 49 percent shooter before the injury last season—the trickle-down could help everyone outperform their role. Middleton is lethal as a No. 3, and Bledsoe is a handful as a discerning No. 4. The 23-year-old Antetokounmpo is already on the short list of the NBA's premier players.

10. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Lineup: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic

    Last summer's signing of Millsap was supposed to be the event that pushed the Denver Nuggets over the top. That could still prove to be the case, but it seems everyone miscalculated the impact of Murray's sophomore surge.

    The No. 7 pick of 2016 lacks consistency as both a scorer and a playmaker. But the 20-year-old has already authored 18 20-point outbursts and cleared the 30-point threshold seven times. He's flashing more often and with greater intensity than he did during his freshman campaign, and each breakout performance bumps Denver's ceiling a little higher.

    "Murray simply looks more comfortable on the attack this season," The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti wrote. "It's like he's unpacked all the boxes in his new house and can finally settle in."

    Tack on continued growth from Jokic and Harris, and the Nuggets just keep getting better. There might be another acclimation period for Millsap once he returns, but they're starting with a stronger base than some might realize. This group logged 224 minutes together before his injury and ravaged opponents by 12.0 points per 100 possessions.

    There are significant question marks on the defensive end, and Chandler could not have timed his decline any worse. But the Murray-Harris-Millsap-Jokic quartet is good enough to have a shot at being great, which helps Denver slide into the top 10.

9. San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Lineup: Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Davis Bertans

    If Kawhi can ever solve his nagging quadriceps problem, the San Antonio Spurs could make this ranking appear comically low. But with Leonard only available for nine games so far, this might be giving too much credit to San Antonio's past achievements.

    Aldridge leads the list of Alamo City positives by a mile. He returns to the All-Star festivities after a one-year hiatus and hasn't pumped in this many points since vacating the Pacific Northwest (22.4 on 50.1 percent shooting).

    The Spurs have tried ushering in new blood to predictably rocky results. Murray and Bertans have both had their moments, but their production rarely carries over from one night to the next. Green has continued on his recent trajectory, which is unfortunate when San Antonio needs him to bounce back to his days of 40-plus percent three-point shooting.

    But this all comes back to Kawhi. He's a top-five player when healthy, capable of both steering this attack and silencing the opponent's primary option. He also hasn't been healthy since perhaps last postseason, having made just nine appearances in this campaign and only clearing 30 minutes once. No one would generate a bigger second-half spike than a healthy Leonard, but who knows when he'll return or how he'll fare when he does.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Lineup: Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid

    Raise the cat, trust the process and do whatever else is necessary to believe the Philadelphia 76ers' starting five is for real.

    Don't take our word for it; just ask the stat sheet. There hasn't been a more efficient, high-volume lineup this season. When Philly's fantastic five has stepped inside the lines, the Sixers have amassed a whopping advantage of 19.3 points per 100 possessions over their opponents. As unsightly as the tanking may have been, we're seeing why the organization OK'd a few backward steps in order to eventually spring forward.

    "The last four years have not only yielded the picks that became Embiid, Simmons and Saric, but also the development of Covington, an undrafted player signed by Sam Hinkie in 2014," John Schuhmann wrote for NBA.com. "That's four-fifths of what has been one of the league's best lineups this season."

    This unit's dominance boggles the mind. It features three players who will partake in the upcoming Rising Stars Challenge (Simmons, Saric and Embiid) and doesn't include reigning No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz. The 6'4" lead guard could goose this group with extra scoring and playmaking, but instead he's trying to work around a shoulder injury no one seems to understand.

    Not that Philly is hurting without him, of course. The Sixers have two transcendent talents—Embiid, a modernized Hakeem Olajuwon; and Simmons, a 6'10" point guard who's a nightly triple-double threat—and three ideal complements.

    Redick is a relentless shooter, Covington boasts three-and-D skills and Saric can mold his game to whatever's needed. There is so much to like here, even if the turnover column can be frightening.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Lineup: Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns

    Only one lineup in the league has topped 700 minutes. It's this one, and it's logged a remarkable 1,019 minutes together.

    Yes, Tom Thibodeau does coach the heavily taxed quintet in question. But no, that doesn't explain it entirely. The Minnesota Timberwolves' bench has been abysmal (23rd in net efficiency). And their first five has been a buzzsaw, blitzing opponents with a net efficiency only topped by the defending world champs (plus-8.4).

    It took some time for things to click, as Minnesota scrambled to get its new Big Three in order. But with Butler firmly in the driver's seat (25.6 points on 16.7 shots since Dec. 1; 17.5 on 14.2 before), it's easier for Towns and Wiggins to mature at their own rates. Gibson keeps thriving as a glue guy, and Teague hasn't forced the issue with his lowest field-goal attempts average since 2011-12 (10.7).

    Opponents can score against these five, and they need to given how the 'Wolves spin the scoreboard at the other end. Wiggins is a hot streak away from giving Minnesota the NBA's second trio of 20-plus-points-per-game scorers.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Lineup: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

    In three of the last four seasons, the Toronto Raptors enjoyed their best year in franchise history. This looks like another standard-raising campaign, thanks to stylistic tweaks based around a desire to modernize and the Association's best bench.

    It's hard to say how much the latter will help, since rotations typically shorten come playoff time. And for our purposes, we're not digging deeper than the first five.

    It looks similar to the group that ran out of steam last postseason, only with the rookie Anunoby occupying DeMarre Carroll's old spot. But the Raptors play smarter now. Comparing this unit to Toronto's most utilized lineup of last season, there are clear priorities on increasing pace (from 95.52 to 100.85), ball movement (48.8 assist percentage to 58.3) and three-point shooting (12.9 attempts per 36 minutes to 23.5).

    "We've made some progression as far as how we want to play and our style of play," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "I'll also say there's a lot of areas where we can get better within what we're doing defensively."

    There doesn't have to be a cap on Toronto's progress. There also doesn't have to be a buy-in from the basketball world that this means anything until the postseason. The Raptors have had good teams that faltered at the wrong time before. Even if this one bucks the trend, it might not go with this two-big lineup during the most critical moments.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Lineup: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Aron Baynes

    The Boston Celtics have a pair of All-Stars in Irving and Horford, and Gordon Hayward could have made it a trio had he avoided injury. They'll have an All-Rookie first-teamer in Tatum, who will team with Brown for the U.S. side of the Rising Stars Challenge. 

    There's an abundance of front-line talent, and somehow the unheralded Baynes is a clear catalyst. He leads the regulars with an on-court net rating of plus-6.8, a figure that falls to plus-1.9 when he sits. He anchors Boston's best high-usage lineup (this group is a plus-14.4 over 295 minutes) and is the notable absence on its worst (replace him with Marcus Morris, and the net rating plummets to minus-11.9).

    "When he's on the floor, defensively we're really an elite team," Horford said of Baynes, per Nick Metallinos for ESPN.com. "He does a great job protecting the rim. ... He's been a big difference."

    Baynes' ability to execute his role—set hard screens, crash the boards, bang underneath—is what makes this a top-five lineup and not merely a strong quartet. This unit has a little of everything, and when all else fails, there's a top-10 isolation scorer in Irving (3.9 points per game on isolations, tied for sixth-most).

    Baynes' offensive limitations hold this group back a bit, as do the youngsters' inconsistencies and Horford's occasionally passive play on offense. But all the pieces fit tightly together, and head coach Brad Stevens does a masterful job of manipulating them.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Lineup: George Hill, Rodney Hood, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson

    Despite having an uber-active deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers haven't seen similarly sweeping changes to their starting five. Hill is the lone newcomer to open a game with the Cavs, but Hood's higher two-way ceiling should eventually get him the nod over the consistently inconsistent Smith.

    "In a season where Cavaliers star LeBron James has yearned for secondary scoring, Hood seems to be just what he needs," Tony Jones wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune after Hood's 15-point debut. "He got to the basket and scored off the dribble. He was efficient in catch-and-shoot and shooting on the move."

    On the year, Hood is averaging 21.9 points per 36 minutes on 42.6 percent shooting and 39.2 percent outside. Those numbers trounce Smith's respective marks across the three categories10.0, 39.5 and 36.7. Hill's season-long shooting rates (46.7 overall, 45.5 from three) show an even bigger spike over what Cleveland had been getting from his predecessor, Isaiah Thomas (36.1 and 25.3).

    Assuming Cleveland goes back to a two-big lineup upon Love's return from a fractured hand, this lineup should cover all bases. Hill (46.7 percent), Love (39.3) and Hood (38.8) are all knockdown catch-and-shoot three-point snipers, necessities around James. And when Thompson is active, he does the dirty work on the glass and offers defensive versatility from the center spot.

    While this fails to match the firepower and star presence of the West's best, this puts Cleveland back ahead of the Eastern Conference pack.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Lineup: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Josh Huestis, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams

    Before defensive specialist Andre Roberson went down with a ruptured patellar tendon, he was called a lot of things—few of them remotely favorable. But the stat sheet always held him in high regard, as he had the widest on/off splits among the Oklahoma City Thunder's regulars (plus-10.0 with him, minus-0.8 without).

    Replacing Roberson, then, isn't as easy as his atrocious shooting numbers would suggest. But again, statistics provide clarity. When Huestis suits up with the four starters, OKC has an elite plus-10.9 net rating. When the fifth Beatle is Terrance Ferguson (minus-11.3) or Alex Abrines (plus-2.4), the numbers aren't even close.

    Let's assume Huestis gets the nod if for no other reason than we can shift our focus to where it's really warranted: the stacked core four.

    Westbrook remains a walking triple-double, and his field-goal percentage is comfortably ahead of his MVP rate. George is playing like the two-way star we're used to seeing (and shooting a personal-best 42.8 percent from three). Lightening Anthony's load should up his efficiency (he's been unreal when playing between 20 and 29 minutes), and Adams is a steady source of solid screens, explosive rolls and interior toughness.

    "This team has a frighteningly high ceiling," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote after OKC's 20-point drubbing of the defending champs. "Because even amid a stretch of uninspiring play and underwhelming defense, OKC still mustered the orneriness necessary to a bully a Warriors team coming off a loss—one that should have been dialed in."

    It's sort of absurd to think there are two superior starting units. But OKC doesn't have the consistency or the completeness of the following two lineups.

2. Houston Rockets

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Lineup: Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela

    The arguments for the Houston Rockets as a top-two starting five make themselves.

    They might have the NBA's best backcourt, with Harden and Paul delivering 50.7 points, 17.2 assists and 3.6 steals on a nightly basis. Paul and Harden rank first and second, respectively, in real plus-minus—no other duo sits inside the top 10 (minimum 20 minutes per game). Harden is clearing his career rates from all three levels; Paul is topping his from the field and the stripe.

    "We're just always in attack mode," Harden told Eastbay Blog's Chris Wolff. "We're coming at you for 48 minutes and you've got to be on your heels. We keep the defense on their heels the entire game, and when you make a mistake against us, you're going to pay for it."

    When Harden and Paul play together, the Rockets rout opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions. It helps that Houston's remaining trio provides almost optimal support. Both Anderson and Ariza combine volume and efficiency from three, with the latter adding relentless defense to the mix. Capela is an explosive player around the rim and an 87th percentile finisher as a pick-and-roll screener.

    There's so much to like here. There are also just enough faults to deny Houston the top spot. Anderson is such a drag defensively, and he's only as valuable as he is accurate from downtown. Ariza and Capela mostly stay within themselves, but that's in part because they can't create their own shots. This might be nitpicking, but that's the only way to separate great lineups from extra-great ones.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia

    Apologies for the lack of suspense, but the Golden State Warriors belong in this spot for a litany of reasons.

    It's not just the fact this quintet holds four All-Stars—a distinction no other lineup shares. It's that two of those All-Stars are MVP candidates (Curry and Durant). Two of them might be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year (Durant and Green). One of them could get love in the Most Improved Player race if voters place a lot of stock in shooting percentages (Thompson).

    Durant is a charity-stripe hot streak away from a 50/40/90 slash. If Curry catches a mini-fire from the field, he'd be in the same company. Thompson has never been more accurate from the field (49.6 percent) or from three (45.5). Green is one of two players averaging at least seven assists, seven rebounds, one steal and one block—LeBron is the other.

    "No one is stopping these Warriors in 2018," SB Nation's Tom Ziller wrote. "If you need something different, you'd better just skip the rest of this season and hope for the best in the future. There's no avoiding what comes this June."

    It's debatable that the Dubs could leave Pachulia's spot open and still claim the top spot. Maybe that rings hyperbolic, but it doesn't matter. Golden State's burly center is a part of this lineup, which has outscored opponents by 10.4 points per possession this season, even though it's probably guilty of coasting through portions of it. The collective talent is undeniable and superior to that put forth by the league's other 29 teams.

              

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball ReferenceNBA.com and ESPN.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.