Ranking Every NBA Team's Projected Starting 5 After Free Agency

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 4, 2018

Ranking Every NBA Team's Projected Starting 5 After Free Agency

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Breathe it in, basketball junkies—for the majority of NBA fanbases, optimism will never taste sweeter than it does right now.

    Free agency is effectively behind us, meaning offseason reinforcements are (hopefully) in place. For fans of inactive clubs, this is the time to extol the virtues of roster continuity.

    Everyone has a clean slate and therefore a level playing field, right? Wrong. The Association is a league of haves and have-nots, and that disparity is perhaps most evenly captured when weighing all 30 clubs' starting lineups.

    Granted, not every starting five has been assembled yet, but we're taking our best guesses on how they'll look opening night. (That means we aren't magically healing injured players expected to be unavailable by that point.) We're also using data from last season to see how the still-together units failed or predict what's awaiting the new ones.

    All due respect to NBA reserves, but we're only interested in the openers for this piece. Here's where all 30 sit after an active offseason.

Nos. 30-26

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    30. Atlanta Hawks

    PG: Trae Young; SG: Kent Bazemore; SF: Taurean Prince; PF: John Collins; C: Dewayne Dedmon

    Atlanta's present and future are both tied to Young, and this starting group is an extreme example of that. Unless he looks like the phenom who dazzled college hoops for the first half of last season, these five will be wandering aimlessly on the offensive end. Prince is the highest returning scorer from the 2017-18 campaign at 14.1 points per game. Bazemore has the most assists at 3.5.

    Young's upside includes the type of gravitational pull on defenders needed to mask the other four's limited shot-creation chops. But that's a ton to ask of a 19-year-old, let alone who weighs less than 180 pounds and owns a 30.3 field-goal percentage against summer-league defenders.


    29. Sacramento Kings

    PG: De'Aaron Fox; SG: Bogdan Bogdanovic; SF: Justin Jackson; PF: Marvin Bagley III; C: Willie Cauley-Stein

    There's enough youth and athleticism here to excite Sacramento's success-starved fanbase—but only when this quintet can get out and run. This looks like a disaster waiting to happen in the half court without a go-to scorer or top-shelf passer.

    Not counting Bagley's college marks, Cauley-Stein averaged this group's most points last season at 12.8. The center is probably last on the offensive pecking order, but these five will sputter unless Fox suddenly becomes a competent shooter or Bagley displays a much deeper bag of tricks than he showed at Duke.


    28. New York Knicks

    PG: Frank Ntilikina; SG: Tim Hardaway Jr.; SF: Kevin Knox; PF: Mario Hezonja; C: Enes Kanter

    Kristaps Porzingis' absence (ACL) looms large over this ranking, as do the promotions of several unproven commodities. Ntilikina spent ample time off the ball last season, but the Knicks should use this developmental season to fully gauge his abilities there ahead of 2019 free agency. This also assumes New York is comfortable starting both Knox (doesn't turn 19 for a week) and Hezonja (41 starts in three seasons).

    But the Knicks have to treat this as a rebuilding year with Porzingis on the shelf for at least the first half of the campaign, as the strategy will yield both more seasoning for their prospects and a better draft pick next summer. Hardaway and Kanter are potent enough scorers to ease the burden on the youngsters offensively, but they'll also add to the generosity of this defense.


    27. Brooklyn Nets

    PG: D'Angelo Russell; SG: Allen Crabbe; SF: DeMarre Carroll; PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson; C: Jarrett Allen

    The Nets are in good hands with general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson, who are changing the franchise's culture and perhaps pushing it toward relevance as soon as next summer. The problem is that pair might be Brooklyn's best assets, unless Russell discovers how to become a more efficient shooter and more discerning playmaker.

    These pieces fit relatively well, though. Russell, Crabbe and Carroll have enough shooting between them to compensate for the two non-spacers, and there's length and switchability on defense—plus Allen's 7'5" wingspan anchoring the middle. This is yet another unit lacking obvious star power, but Russell has shown enough flashes that it appears to be possible he'll eventually put it all together.


    26. Orlando Magic

    PG: D.J. Augustin; SG: Evan Fournier; SF: Jonathon Simmons; PF: Aaron Gordon; C: Nikola Vucevic

    Barring a trade, this is the first five Magic fans should expect—it's just probably not the one they'd like to see. Absent from it are Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, the No. 6 picks from the past two drafts. Given Orlando's rebuilding state, one would hope the high-profile prospects would be given the keys sooner rather than later.

    But Vucevic has done nothing to lose his starting spot, having averaged 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game last season. Gordon is obviously an opener after inking a new four-year, $80 million deal. And there are no major threats to unseat the three perimeter players. This isn't a great group—it had a minus-0.4 net rating in 191 minutes last season—but it's the best this roster can do for now.

Nos. 25-21

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    25. Chicago Bulls

    PG: Kris Dunn; SG: Zach LaVine; SF: Jabari Parker; PF: Lauri Markkanen; C: Robin Lopez

    Maybe Parker was on to something when he told the Bernstein and McKnight Show on 670 The Score that teams "don't pay players to pay defense." The Bulls obviously weren't thinking about the game's less glamorous end when they committed $118 million to Parker and LaVine, forming a defensive runway sure to launch several teams to their season-high point totals.

    The hope is there's enough offensive potential to compensate. There isn't—it would take a top-five attack to do so—but there's at least enough point production to avoid the bottom five. LaVine, Parker and Markkanen can all average close to 20 points per game, and this offense would get an extra boost if rookie Wendell Carter Jr. can beat out the solidly unspectacular Lopez.


    24. Phoenix Suns

    PG: Brandon Knight; SG: Devin Booker; SF: Josh Jackson; PF: Trevor Ariza; C: Deandre Ayton

    This isn't the most exciting lineup the Suns can field—swap out Knight for another long-limbed wing, and there's switch-almost-everything potential. But it's hard to imagine Phoenix opening the year without a natural floor general at the helm. And who knows, maybe Knight can rediscover what helped him average 18.1 points and 5.1 assists per game from 2013-16.

    The rest of the this lineup is loaded with intrigue, though. Booker already produces like an All-Star (24.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game), and Ayton should compile Rookie of the Year-caliber stats. Ariza is an ideal complementary piece. But Jackson could be the key. If the Suns get his post-All-Star version (18.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest), they could make this ranking look comically low.


    23. Memphis Grizzlies

    PG: Mike Conley; SG: Dillon Brooks; SF: Kyle Anderson; PF: JaMychal Green; C: Marc Gasol

    The Grizzlies are tricky to evaluate for a couple of reasons. At least two of these spots are up for grabs, with rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. possibly leapfrogging Green and as many as three players pushing for Brooks' spot. Plus, we're a full season removed from seeing a healthy Conley, and Gasol seemed to age in dog years during the 2017-18 campaign (worst player efficiency rating since 2010-11).

    There's potential to outperform this placement. There's also a chance the cumulative effects of injuries and aging leave the Grizzlies struggling to tread water without a star. Brooks, Anderson and Green all grade out somewhere near serviceable. This ranking reflects our confidence level in Conley and Gasol being able to play significantly above that.


    22. Cleveland Cavaliers

    PG: George Hill; SG: JR Smith; SF: Cedi Osman; PF: Kevin Love; C: Tristan Thompson

    These are mostly the remnants of a roster constructed to support LeBron James. Without his transcendent presence, the Cavs have no clear foundation. Love can tally All-Star numbers, but he's never been the focal point of a winner. Everyone else falls under the role player umbrella—only Osman hasn't filled a consistent role before, and both Thompson and Smith struggled to execute theirs last season.

    Outside of Love, head coach Tyronn Lue will probably treat this as a liquid lineup. Rookie Collin Sexton might be in line for a quick promotion if he's ready. Kyle Korver, Larry Nance Jr. and (assuming he re-signs) Rodney Hood are all candidates to crack the first five, along with David Nwaba, who agreed to a deal Wednesday, per Tom Withers of the Associated Press (via NBA.com). But all that means is that without LeBron, Cleveland is painfully light on great options.


    21. Los Angeles Clippers

    PG: Patrick Beverley; SG: Avery Bradley; SF: Danilo Gallinari; PF: Tobias Harris; C: Marcin Gortat

    The Clippers appear to be another starless squad, although they'll hope Harris' growth potential and Gallinari's latest clean bill of health (for now) can mask that. If Harris and Gallinari can lead the way, then Beverley and Bradley can slot in as a tough three-and-D tandem, while Gortat handles the dirty work underneath.

    That said, shot creation will be a grind. Harris and Gallinari both have career scoring averages right around 15 points per contest, as they've been more support scorers than featured ones. Harris paced these five in assists last season with only 3.1. It's hard to find anything special about this offense, and the same could be said of the frontcourt defense.

Nos. 20-16

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    20. Dallas Mavericks

    PG: Dennis Smith Jr.; SG: Luka Doncic; SF: Harrison Barnes; PF: Dirk Nowitzki; C: DeAndre Jordan

    While The Athletic's Saad Yousuf opined there's "a real possibility" Nowitzki comes off the bench, we're guessing the Diggler keeps his opening gig, at least through the early portion of the season. There isn't enough defensive resistance for this to work as the closing group, but the pieces fit well enough for the first six minutes or so of each half.

    Smith and Doncic will wreak havoc together in transition and with Jordan out of pick-and-rolls. Barnes is the bail-out option when everything else breaks down, and Nowitzki remains as deadly as ever from distance. But there are hiccups here too. Nowitzki might play several speeds slower than everyone else—which could necessitate a change—and the perimeter defense will bleed pretty regularly.


    19. Charlotte Hornets

    PG: Kemba Walker; SG: Nicolas Batum; SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; PF: Marvin Williams; C: Cody Zeller

    As far as personnel goes, the Hornets haven't done a bad job of building a complementary core around Walker. They've grossly overpaid to do it, of course, but at least the puzzle forms a coherent picture. Walker can aggressively seek his own shots with Batum chipping as a secondary playmaker, Williams provides the spacing Kidd-Gilchrist can't, and Zeller is a screen-setting savant.

    But the glass-half-empty lens shows a lineup with shaky non-Walker scoring options, limited rim protection and only two league-average perimeter shooters from last season (Walker and Williams). Charlotte desperately needs Batum to consistently perform like a $24 million player, but that's been a challenge he's yet to solve.


    18. Detroit Pistons

    PG: Reggie Jackson; SG: Reggie Bullock; SF: Stanley Johnson; PF: Blake Griffin; C: Andre Drummond

    There's a best-case scenario where this group chases a top-four seed in the East. Griffin has looked MVP-like as a featured player before. Drummond's size (6'11", 279 lbs) and athleticism help him inhale everything around the rim. Jackson has an 18-point, six-assist season in his not-so-distant past. And if Johnson leaps forward the way Bullock did last year, Detroit may have solved its wing dilemma.

    But there's also a disastrously low floor, which only grows more worrisome when coupled with the massive cash commitments to the Pistons' point guard and twin towers.

    "Griffin is 29, has at least one surgery every year, has missed 107 games over the past four seasons and is in obvious athletic decline," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "Drummond is a dinosaur at center, and Jackson is a mid-tier starter who has missed 70 games in his three full seasons with the team."


    17. Miami Heat

    PG: Goran Dragic; SG: Dion Waiters; SF: Josh Richardson; PF: Kelly Olynyk; C: Hassan Whiteside

    Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has multiple ways to bend his opening lineup, but this is theoretically the best fit. It's unpredictable in a good way. Dragic, Waiters and Richardson can all initiate offense or spot up off the ball. Olynyk and Whiteside can both be effective screeners for different reasons, with Olynyk popping out to launch from distance and Whiteside steamrolling to the rim.

    This group is prone to offensive droughts, though, as there isn't a consistently reliable half-court option. The Olynyk-Whiteside pairing is wonky defensively, and the backcourt is prone to breakdowns. It's also unclear how many of the Heat's best players are present here, especially if Dwyane Wade runs it back. Miami has impressive depth, but the top-level talent is lacking.


    16. Portland Trail Blazers

    PG: Damian Lillard; SG: CJ McCollum; SF: Maurice Harkless; PF: Al-Farouq Aminu; C: Jusuf Nurkic

    Given the obvious strengths and weaknesses of the Lillard-McCollum pairing, this isn't a bad frontcourt to deploy alongside them. Harkless and Aminu can both make open shots and defend multiple positions. Nurkic brings brute force to the interior, and he's a potent enough scorer (career 17.4 points per 36 minutes) to function as a change-of-pace third option.

    But the offense is a tad too reliant on Lillard and McCollum—which the New Orleans Pelicans exploited during their first-round sweep of Portland—and that pair can't mask its defensive deficiencies. These have been more playoff problems than regular-season worries (this quintet had a plus-7.7 net rating last season), but the degree of difficulty increased again this summer in the overloaded West.

Nos. 15-11

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    15. Indiana Pacers

    PG: Darren Collison; SG: Victor Oladipo; SF: Bojan Bogdanovic; PF: Thaddeus Young; C: Myles Turner

    Indiana's team ranking would check in higher than 15th, but the starting lineup alone looks mediocre without a second star to complement Oladipo. Turner has all the tools to become one, but his per-36-minute numbers say he's yet to take the leap his promising rookie season suggested was imminent.

    That should make Oladipo a stealth MVP candidate, as last season's breakout saw him become just the sixth player in the 2000s to average at least 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. But Indy would prefer if he didn't have to do so much heavy lifting. This group needs another threat to rise above league-average.


    14. New Orleans Pelicans

    PG: Elfrid Payton; SG: Jrue Holiday; SF: E'Twaun Moore; PF: Nikola Mirotic; C: Anthony Davis

    Swap out Payton for Rajon Rondo, and you have the lineup that saved the Pelicans' 2017-18 season. Over 204 minutes together, that five played at a blistering pace (105.2, faster than the team's league-high 102.7 season-long rate) and posted elite marks on offense (114.1 points per 100 possessions) and defense (97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). Assuming New Orleans sees Payton as a Rondo facsimile, there will be hope this becomes an elite grouping again.

    But it's possible head coach Alvin Gentry will pick a different unit with Julius Randle and/or Solomon Hill factoring into the frontcourt rotation. More concerning, though, is the possible regression awaiting Holiday and Moore, who both had outlier performances last season. There's also little evidence that Payton and Mirotic can be consistent contributors. At least Davis is MVP-caliber, though. 


    13. Washington Wizards

    PG: John Wall; SG: Bradley Beal; SF: Otto Porter Jr.; PF: Markieff Morris; C: Dwight Howard

    The Wizards will enter 2018-19 with similar depth worries (although the bench looks better than it has) and lingering chemistry concerns. But they should also have one of basketball's better starting sets again. With Marcin Gortat in Howard's place, this unit posted a plus-6.0 net rating over 484 minutes last season.

    This five is solid; the challenge will be making it special. Wall wasn't himself last season, fighting both injuries and inconsistent shooting. Beal and Porter both seemed to stagnate a bit. And Howard was productive, but not in a way where the Hornets wanted to keep him around. The Wizards look good on paper, but that's been the case for several seasons now.


    12. San Antonio Spurs

    PG: Dejounte Murray; SG: DeMar DeRozan; SF: Rudy Gay; PF: LaMarcus Aldridge; C: Pau Gasol

    Flipping Kawhi Leonard for an established star in DeRozan meant the Spurs avoided a complete collapse. (Whether that was the right strategy is a debate for a different day.) But is there enough talent to overcome deep deficiencies in critical contemporary areas? If this is the first five, it will rank as one of the worst perimeter shooting starter units and have one of the slowest 4-5 combinations.

    That said, this is still a lot of skill and smarts for Gregg Popovich to have at his disposal. DeRozan and Aldridge were All-Stars last season, Murray made All-Defensive second team, and both Gay and Gasol have transitioned smoothly into supporting roles. It doesn't make the most sense in theory, but neither did last season's group which had the NBA's fourth-best defense and seventh-highest net rating.


    11. Milwaukee Bucks

    PG: Eric Bledsoe; SG: Malcolm Brogdon; SF: Khris Middleton; PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo; C: Brook Lopez

    As frustrating as the Bucks could be last season, some of their most utilized alignments were magical. Take the first four players here and plug John Henson into Lopez's new spot, and that group bulldozed opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions. Given the upgrades of moving from Henson to Lopez and former coaches Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty to Mike Budenholzer, it's hard not to anticipate even better results.

    Of course, this is assuming Budenholzer starts Brogdon instead of Tony Snell, Middleton builds off his breakout year, Bledsoe fixes whatever went wrong in the playoffs and Lopez is more relevant than he was to the 47-loss Los Angeles Lakers last season. The Bucks require one too many breaks to jump into the top 10, but having competent pieces around all-galaxy superstar Antetokounmpo gets them right on the cusp.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    PG: Jeff Teague; SG: Jimmy Butler; SF: Andrew Wiggins; PF: Taj Gibson; C: Karl-Anthony Towns

    All fans will recognize this lineup because it was last season's most played quintet at 1,131 minutes. (Never change, Tom Thibodeau.)

    Timberwolves fans will remember it as a mostly successful set. It wasn't quite dominant, but a plus-8.5 net rating is nothing to dismiss. Spacing concerns proved accurate, as only Towns (42.1 percent) and Teague (36.8) cleared the league-average rate from three, but the collective talent still yielded the fourth-best attack. The bigger issues came on defense, where the Wolves ranked 20th, although this unit played better.

    There are whispers that not everyone is happy in the Gopher State, and these five never seemed to be greater than the sum of their parts. The puzzle pieces don't fit as tightly as they could. There's some overlap between Butler and Wiggins, too many defensive missteps by Towns and not enough passing by anyone (25th in assist percentage).

    The upside is there to crack the top five at some point. Butler and Towns are All-Stars, Teague has been one before, and Wiggins has the tools to take that leap. But the concerns are also grave enough that it's possible to envision them falling out of the top 15.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    PG: Jamal Murray; SG: Gary Harris; SF: Will Barton; PF: Paul Millsap; C: Nikola Jokic

    Millsap arrived last summer as the Nuggets' biggest free-agency signing in years, but he needed time to settle in and lost a lot of it to wrist surgery. As a result, Denver never got a great look at what it had.

    That should change next season. There's no more introductory period needed for Millsap, and everyone else in this group will be entering at least his third year in the Mile High City. That continuity will help, as will the fact that these skill sets seemingly align in exciting ways.

    Murray is a better scorer than playmaker, which is fine when Millsap and Jokic might be the best passing frontcourt in basketball. Barton has a tendency to get too aggressive at times, but playing him with the starters will mean he won't have enough touches to get carried away. Harris is an ultra-high-level role player, who's ostensibly a three-and-D wing but one who goes for 17.5 points per night.

    Defensive limitations prevent this unit from climbing any higher—the Nuggets have ranked 23rd or worse in defensive efficiency over Jokic's three seasons—but the offense is elite. Millsap, a four-time All-Star, was the worst scorer of the five last season with 14.6 points per game. There might not be a traditional No. 1 option in the mix, but all of them are triple-threat players.

8. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    PG: Lonzo Ball; SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; SF: Brandon Ingram; PF: LeBron James; C: JaVale McGee

    While the front office's handling of the non-LeBron portion of free agency deserves scrutiny, that's not our focus here. McGee is the only other newcomer to crack the opening group, given our assumption that Ball will beat out Rajon Rondo both for Ball's importance to the franchise and better fit in Luke Walton's preferred uptempo, quick-passing system.

    Even still, this is a strange way to surround James. He's had his most success when surrounded by shooters. Ingram barely launches threes (1.8 attempts per game last season), Ball rarely makes them (30.5 percent) and Caldwell-Pope has been more average than good in his career (34.5). There's obvious hope for internal improvement, but there's also a different design for James.

    "The other key to his new vision for James and the Lakers is a recognition that his game will need to change as he ages over the next four years," ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne wrote. "James, who will turn 34 in December, had studied the careers of all-time greats such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and noted how they moved from the wing to the post as they approached their mid-30s."

    Of course, if James moves more to the post, he'll still need shooters to give him breathing room. He also might be reluctant to yield touches to Ball and Ingram if the youngsters don't prove ready for them.

    This lineup has question marks at both ends (McGee is not a sturdy defensive anchor), which makes a top-10 ranking feel generous. But it also has James, who feels foolish to rank outside the top five in anything.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    PG: Russell Westbrook; SG: Andre Roberson; SF: Paul George; PF: Patrick Patterson; C: Steven Adams

    George's first season alongside Westbrook in the Sooner State was a quiet success. The final results didn't show it—48 wins, first-round exit—but OKC's fate could have been dramatically different had Roberson not ruptured his patellar tendon.

    The Westbrook-George-Roberson-Adams quartet was a demolition crew. It outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions, thanks in no small part to an absurd 94.9 defensive rating (last season's best was 101.5).

    That's outstanding stopping support for a powerhouse offensive pairing like Westbrook and George (47.3 points and 13.6 assists combined), who'd benefit from having a low-maintenance spacer like Patterson. This is assuming Thunder coach Billy Donovan picks Patterson over Jerami Grant, which feels like the right choice to offset that Roberson and Adams aren't shooters and Westbrook isn't an accurate one.

    This should be a stone wall once again, although Grant would have made it less penetrable than it will be with Patterson. It's less clear how good this unit will fare the other way. There's always a quantity-over-quality feel with Westbrook's attacks, and George disappeared at times last season. On nights when the two stars aren't shining, the others' limitations will be glaring.

6. Utah Jazz

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    PG: Ricky Rubio; SG: Donovan Mitchell; SF: Joe Ingles; PF: Derrick Favors; C: Rudy Gobert

    Is No. 6 too high for an All-Star-less starting unit? Not if you've paid any attention to Salt Lake City, it isn't.

    There isn't a more disruptive defense in the NBA. From Jan. 19—when Gobert returned from his second knee injury—through the end of the season, the Jazz surrendered just 97.5 points per 100 possessions. No one else allowed fewer than 101.1 over that stretch, a fact that surely helped the 7'1" Frenchman collect 89 of 101 first-place votes while winning Defensive Player of the Year honors.

    Scoring can be a struggle for this squad, but this lineup best navigates the offensive end. Mitchell has a fluorescent green light to attack, and the other four can share the scoring load depending on whose hand is the hottest. It may not sound like the most reliable strategy, but it was good enough to give these five a 108.0 offensive rating and a plus-10.0 net rating over 455 minutes last season.

    We're slightly skeptical about the viability of this offense, when Mitchell isn't the most efficient shooter (43.7/34.0/80.5 slash) and the other four can't consistently create shots. That said, its margin for error is relatively high because of the defense's dominance.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    PG: Ben Simmons; SG: JJ Redick; SF: Robert Covington; PF: Dario Saric; C: Joel Embiid

    No, the Sixers didn't find their coveted third star this summer, but they'll still return one of the NBA's best young rosters. This was a 52-win team last season, closing the campaign with 16 consecutive victories. No matter how this offseason went, they were poised to enter 2018-19 with sufficient momentum.

    "When my season ended, there was a lot of talk about adding [top free agents]," Embiid said, per ESPN's Ian Begley. "I literally did not really care because I want to get better. I want to be better than those guys that were mentioned [Kawhi, LeBron], if I'm not already better than them."

    Embiid is already a star. Last year was his first healthy(ish) season—he still missed 19 outings—and he put up 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 blocks per contest. Simmons is on his path to stardom, too. He might not have a jump shot yet, but he does have a Rookie of the Year award and a freshman stat line only previously produced by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson.

    The other three are ideal role players—Redick as a deadeye sniper, Covington as a three-and-D wing and Saric as a do-it-all glue guy. Altogether, this group played 600 minutes last season and walloped the opposition by 21.4 points per 100 possessions.

    As the second-round showed, this lineup still has weaknesses. Shooting can be scarce if Covington is off, Redick can be exploited defensively and the non-Embiid scoring options aren't always reliable. But there's a ton of talent here and sufficient upside to boot.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    PG: Kyle Lowry; SG: Danny Green; SF: Kawhi Leonard; PF: OG Anunoby; C: Jonas Valanciunas

    When new Raptors head coach Nick Nurse says his club has "six starters," per TSN's Josh Lewenberg, it's not a matter of miscounting. No fewer than six players should be in the running to open their games—the five listed above and career starter/$21.6 million man Serge Ibaka.

    But this is as modern as the dinosaurs can get.

    The Green-Leonard-Anunoby trio looks like it was manufactured in a small-ball factory. All three stand between 6'6" and 6'8" and each sports a wingspan at least four inches longer than his height. Plus, they all own career three-point percentages between 37.1 and 39.5. It almost doesn't matter who's filling the other two spots; these three are perfect complements to just about anyone.

    But their shared shooting helps open the floor for Lowry to attack. And their thicket of long limbs eases the defensive pressure on Valanciunas, who quietly rolled to a career-best 20.4 points per 36 minutes last season. Leonard is a nightly threat for 30 points, Lowry and Valanciunas can consistently clear 20 per contest, and even Green and Anunoby can get there on nights when their long bombs are dropping.

    Toronto has a chance to be really good, and it starts with the opening lineup. It's just that three other groups boast superior star pairings, better balance or both.

3. Houston Rockets

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    PG: Chris Paul; SG: James Harden; SF: Carmelo Anthony*; PF: PJ Tucker; C: Clint Capela

    Forty-two wins and just three losses. Forty-two wins and just three losses. One more time for emphasis: Forty-two wins and just three losses.

    Unbelievable as this sounds, that was the Rockets' record when Paul, Harden and Capela played together last season. So, no matter what you've heard about Houston's offseason—losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute didn't help—just keep in mind the three architects of a 42-3 record remain in Space City.

    Figuring out what else will be around them is tricky. For now, we're plugging in Anthony and Tucker, even though Anthony hasn't signed yet (he's expected to soon) and Tucker only opened 34 of the 82 games he played last season. It's debatable if Anthony should start by merit, but his ego might need the distinction. Tucker, meanwhile, best replicates the outside shooting and versatility formerly supplied by Ariza.

    This isn't Houston's best five, but it makes the most sense of the possible starting groups. Besides, any unit with Paul, Harden and Capela on it has freight-train potential. In addition to that pristine 42-3 mark, the trio enjoyed a plus-12.1 net rating over 736 minutes in 2017-18.

2. Boston Celtics

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    PG: Kyrie Irving; SG: Jaylen Brown; SF: Gordon Hayward; PF: Jayson Tatum; C: Al Horford

    It seems odd saying this about the second-ranked lineup, but this is the likeliest to have all five members make the All-Star Game. Irving and Horford were both selected last season, Hayward went the year before, and both Brown and Tatum appeared All-Star-like in the playoffs, where they combined for 36.5 points per night and steered the Celtics within one win of the NBA Finals.

    (Add in the state of the two conferences and the time DeMarcus Cousins is likely to miss, and Boston becomes the only five-star possibility.)

    This collection has just about everything a coach could want. Irving, Hayward and Tatum can all be No. 1 scoring options. Irving, Hayward and Horford can be primary playmakers. There isn't a bad shooter among them. Brown, Hayward, Tatum and Horford can all guard multiple positions, and Irving can badger opposing point guards when he's engaged.

    It might take these five a little while for everyone to find their niche, since Hayward missed all but five minutes last season and the youngsters wound up filling much bigger roles than expected. There also isn't quite as much elite-level talent as the No. 1 team on our ranking. But Boston might have the league's second-highest floor and ceiling with this collection.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    PG: Stephen Curry; SG: Klay Thompson; SF: Kevin Durant; PF: Draymond Green; C: Jordan Bell

    There are potentially fun debates about which player should get the fifth starting spot while DeMarcus Cousins recovers from a torn Achilles, or even if Boogie deserves the gig once he's healthy.

    But the truth is it doesn't matter. Add any NBA player to the first four names listed, and you'll probably have one of the greatest talent collections ever assembled.

    "The Warriors are stacked better than virtually every team in NBA history: Four likely Hall of Famers, two MVPs...and a Defensive Player of the Year," Ben Golliver wrote for SI.com.

    Curry and Durant have both won scoring titles and gained entry into the uber-exclusive 50/40/90 club. Green not only captured a Defensive Player of the Year award, he also did so on the heels of consecutive silver-medal finishes. Thompson is one of the most accurate three-point gunners the NBA has ever seen and one of the primary keys to Golden State's switch-everything defense.

    No matter how these four were surrounded last season, they produced a plus-13.3 net rating over 758 minutes. They might actually boost that number by swapping Bell (or Kevon Looney) into Zaza Pachulia's old spot. And if the gig ever goes to Cousins, we should expect statistical silliness.


    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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