NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Every Starting Frontcourt for 2018-19 Season
How high can LeBron James carry the Los Angeles Lakers? What about Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks? Can their individual achievements outweigh the all-around excellence of a frontcourt like the Utah Jazz's, which features quality players at all three positions: Joe Ingles at small forward, Derrick Favors at power forward and Rudy Gobert at center?
Stars reign supreme, but each of the three biggest lineup slots matter for this hierarchy.
Just as was the case for our backcourt rankings, we're diving into plenty of numbers for these expected starters (including their results together from the 2017-18 campaign), but the order of the countdown is derived through a simple process.
First, we're finding each frontcourt member's score in NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball project, which ranks every single player in the Association on a 1-12 scale seen here. (Note: Not all scores have been made public at the time of publication.) Then, we're adding them together to find the number you can see displayed parenthetically next to each grouping of players.
Some teams earn lofty marks because of one standout. Others have average contributors at all three relevant positions.
But only those with elite players at each slot have a shot at frontcourt supremacy.
30-26: Kings, Knicks, Nets, Suns, Hornets
30. Sacramento Kings: Justin Jackson, Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein (10.45)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Perhaps the Sacramento Kings could rise higher in the rankings if Marvin Bagley III proves to be a Rookie of the Year front-runner, overcoming his defensive limitations by scoring from all over the floor and immediately settling in as a go-to option. But even in that situation, the young players surrounding him might not do enough to drag Sacramento out of the basement.
Justin Jackson and Willie Cauley-Stein earned a minus-9.1 net rating in 815 shared minutes last year, and they struggled immensely on defense (111.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). That isn't likely to improve with Bagley added into the mix, especially if the Kings constantly shuffle their rotations to get Harry Giles, Skal Labissiere and Nemanja Bjelica some minutes. Until head coach Dave Joerger settles upon a core, chemistry might be an unattainable goal.
29. New York Knicks: Mario Hezonja, Kevin Knox, Enes Kanter (11.97)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Until we get some confirmation regarding Kristaps Porzingis—i.e., when (if?) he'll take the court in 2018-19—we can't factor him into this analysis. That's a shame, because replacing Kevin Knox with Porzingis would bump the Knicks' score up to 16.19 and move them past the next seven squads in this countdown.
But without the shot-swatting, three-point-swishing 7-footer, the Knicks frontcourt is devoid of defensive potency. Mario Hezonja might have some upside in both transition and the pick-and-roll game, but he's a liability on D. The same is true for Enes Kanter, despite his rebounding and put-back contributions. And while Knox is an exciting upside play entering his rookie campaign, enthusiasm stems more from his ability to light up scoreboards than anything he does to prevent foes from doing the same.
28. Brooklyn Nets: DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jarrett Allen (13.93)
2017-18 results together: 1.3 net rating in 277 minutes
Though this trio didn't spend much time playing together in 2017-18, it has the potential to rise significantly in the coming months. Jarrett Allen has remarkable upside at the pivot, and a better understanding of interior positioning could help him morph the Brooklyn Nets frontcourt into an imposing force on defense.
Just take a gander at ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus for proof.
DeMarre Carroll (1.41; No. 12 among small forwards), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (0.1; No. 40 among small forwards) and Allen (0.87; No. 45 among centers) all graded out as positives, even while the latter two were just trying to gain their sea legs in the Association. They have a chance to form a distinct identity—something most teams in this tier of the rankings can't claim with quite as much confidence.
27. Phoenix Suns: Josh Jackson, Trevor Ariza, Deandre Ayton (14.41)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Just imagine if Josh Jackson performs as he did during the second half of his rookie season, when his flashes of immense two-way upside began to occur far more frequently. After the All-Star break, he averaged 18.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.5 blocks while slashing 43.8/25.0/68.2, and the Phoenix Suns' net rating swelled by 0.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor—far better than the first half of the year, when it fell by 6.3.
In theory, this triumvirate should perform better than its placement here. Jackson is now more comfortable filling his offensive role and should excel defensively, while Trevor Ariza will serve as a three-and-D specialist. Together, they can ease the defensive burdens shouldered by first-year center Deandre Ayton, freeing him to thrive as an inside-outside scoring threat chasing after Rookie of the Year.
Still, growing pains are inevitable with two young pieces playing prominent roles, and that'll grow doubly true if Ariza cedes major minutes to some combination of TJ Warren, Dragan Bender, Mikal Bridges and Ryan Anderson, all of whom are either defensive liabilities or youngsters waiting to overcome hurdles of their own.
26. Charlotte Hornets: Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller (14.59)
2017-18 results together: 6.0 net rating in 34 minutes
The Charlotte Hornets looked great with Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller on the hardwood during the 2017-18 campaign, but that happened far too infrequently because of the relentless injury bug. It bit Cody Zeller most significantly, limiting the efficient big man to only 33 appearances, during which he played just 19 minutes per game.
With Dwight Howard no longer in the Queen City, the center reins now belong to Zeller. And given the per-minute success he's experienced on both ends of the floor in previous seasons, that could be a good thing for the two-way upside of this frontcourt.
Said group may not have dizzying reserves of untapped potential, and the most prominent member (Nicolas Batum) is clearly on the decline. Nevertheless, filling roles capably around Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb is the most important task, and they're prepared to do so with defensive ability, floor-spacing acumen and passing chops littered throughout the bigger positions.
25-21: Hawks, Bulls, Trail Blazers, Cavaliers, Grizzlies
25. Atlanta Hawks: Taurean Prince, John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon (14.67)
2017-18 results together: minus-8.6 net rating in 526 minutes
Though these three players might not have jelled during their first year together, the individual talents are enough to provide some hope for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks. And though Dewayne Dedmon's shooting ability and defensive instincts make him an intriguing veteran, we're going to intentionally overlook him here because he isn't a part of the long-term core.
During the second half of the 2017-18 season, Taurean Prince exploded. Taking over as arguably the Hawks' most effective player, he averaged an impressive 19.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 44.3 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from downtown and 89.2 percent from the stripe. Meanwhile, John Collins averaged 15.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.6 swats per 36 minutes while connecting on 57.6 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Even after looking past the rising sophomore's penchant for thunderous slams and eye-popping feats of athleticism, only six qualified players matched those per-minute numbers in 2017-18: Clint Capela (the lone one to exceed his field-goal percentage), Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, Dwight Howard and Jusuf Nurkic.
24. Chicago Bulls: Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen, Robin Lopez (14.97)
2017-18 results together: N/A
First, the bad news: Even with Robin Lopez or Wendell Carter Jr. cleaning up on the interior, the Chicago Bulls defense is unlikely to overcome the porosity of the Jabari Parker-Lauri Markkanen combination at the forward spots, especially with Zach LaVine also logging minutes at the 2. The former isn't a natural 3 and struggles on defense regardless of position, and the latter needs to bulk up and improve his reads before he becomes even a passable stopper.
Now for the good news: Markkanen was a historically potent shooter for his size and age last year, and he should only be more comfortable in his second go-round. He and Parker are capable of drawing plenty of attention from the opposition, and they could prove capable of carrying the Chicago offense to heights it hasn't reached in a few years.
Unfortunately, the good outweighing the bad is an unlikely proposition. For now, at least.
23. Portland Trail Blazers: Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic (15.09)
2017-18 results together: 7.9 net rating in 589 minutes
On the surface, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic appear to be a solid trio providing the skills typically desired from the bigger positions in a lineup. Nurkic is a hulking presence who can thrive on either end for short durations and could morph into a legitimate star if he develops more consistency while improving his discipline. With Aminu blossoming from beyond the arc (36.9 percent on 4.9 attempts per game in 2017-18), the other two have the combination of shooting and defense necessary to thrive.
But how much of the success is a direct result of sharing the floor with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Let's turn to more lineup numbers:
- Lillard on and McCollum on: 6.5 net rating in 456 minutes
- Lillard on and McCollum off: 17.1 net rating in 87 minutes
- Lillard off and McCollum on: 1.5 net rating in 41 minutes
- Lillard off and McCollum off: 32.2 net rating in five minutes
Perhaps these three need to be considered more than ancillary pieces supporting the Rip City backcourt. The samples aren't exactly sizable, but they more than held their own even when operating without the All-Star-caliber guards who comprised our No. 3 backcourt.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers: Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson (16.18)
2017-18 results together: 1.4 net rating in 10 minutes
Will we witness a throwback to the Minnesota Timberwolves version of Kevin Love? Without LeBron James donning a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, the ball should be in Love's hands far more frequently, allowing him to resume functioning as a go-to offensive force who can use his physical frame on the interior before stepping out to splash in a triple.
As Joe Vardon detailed for Cleveland.com, the expectations are much higher now:
"With James gone, Love has got to become an older, wiser, better version of Minnesota Kevin. He'll get more shots, and presumably more will come from closer to the basket than where he's been shooting as a Cav (5.7 attempted 3s per game here, way higher than his average with the Wolves), but he also still needs to be a floor spacer for Collin Sexton, Rodney Hood, and Cedi Osman.
"Oh, and Love has to stay healthy. He's missed substantial time in each of the last two years (costing him All-Star appearances both seasons), and there is no LeBron to keep the Cavs afloat if he gets hurt again."
Somewhat encouragingly, the Cavaliers mustered a 4.3 net rating last year in the 62 minutes featuring Love and Tristan Thompson with no James.
21. Memphis Grizzlies: Kyle Anderson, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol (16.33)
2017-18 results together: N/A
What an unorthodox trio this should be.
Marc Gasol was clearly trending in the wrong direction throughout the 2017-18 campaign, but the return of Mike Conley and some new roster additions should help reduce his responsibilities on both ends. If he can focus on defense while keeping adversaries off balance with his dual ability to score from everywhere and pass to open teammates, he'll factor into the All-Star conversation yet again.
And while JaMychal Green didn't quite break out last year, both he and Kyle Anderson are unique commodities with skill sets belied by their frames. The former is a do-everything power forward who can function as an ultimate glue guy, while the latter overcomes his slow-footed nature with tremendous passing skills, patience in the pick-and-roll game and smothering length on defense.
This may be a relatively anonymous group, but it could be dangerous if the pieces establish chemistry.
20-16: Heat, Clippers, Mavericks, Wizards, Pacers
20. Miami Heat: Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside (16.48)
2017-18 results together: minus-4.6 net rating in 534 minutes
Though this lineup should be an imposing trio with quality stoppers at every spot, that wasn't the case in 2017-18. It could only muster a 108.3 defensive rating, which would've ranked No. 22 in the season-long standings. But what happens if we remove Hassan Whiteside from the equation?
Sans the ostensible starting center, the Josh Richardson-James Johnson duo earned a minus-0.4 net rating while ceding 109.9 points per 100 possessions. That mark would've placed No. 29 in the league hierarchy.
Confused? You should be, because these Heat are a conundrum. Whiteside, in particular, is a tough evaluation, as his actual skills often run counter to his on-court impact. Maybe he'll remain the starter. Perhaps he'll fall behind Bam Adebayo, which happened a bit more during the second half of the big man's rookie season.
Richardson is a tremendous three-and-D talent. Johnson is a walking mismatch with the physical tools necessary to shut down multiple positions. Whiteside can look like the game's best center one night and then play his way onto the pine the next. And yet, the results just haven't been there.
Good luck figuring this one out.
19. Los Angeles Clippers: Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, Marcin Gortat (16.69)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Danilo Gallinari struggled through injuries during his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Tobias Harris arrived in late January after the Detroit Pistons shipped him out in the package for Blake Griffin. But since new starting center Marcin Gortat will likely attempt to become a DeAndre Jordan simulacrum on his best nights, how did the two fare while paired with the big man who departed for the Dallas Mavericks in free agency?
The three spent 208 minutes together and were outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. That's...less than ideal, particularly because the number could trend in either direction moving forward.
While Gortat is one of the league's best screeners, he isn't nearly as talented as Jordan when rolling to the hoop or protecting the interior. On the other, a healthy Gallinari makes a big difference through sheer versatility, as does an on-the-rise Harris ready to build synergy with his new teammates in his first full season as a Clipper.
18. Dallas Mavericks: Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, DeAndre Jordan (16.74)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Finally, everyone is playing the right position after the arrival of DeAndre Jordan, who should immediately settle in as a spectacular pick-and-roll partner for the backcourt combination of Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. This could change if the Dallas Mavericks attempt to pigeonhole Wesley Matthews into the starting lineup, moving Doncic up to the 4 and bringing Dirk Nowitzki in off the bench. Head coach Rick Carlisle has indicated this might be the case, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon, and a Matthew-Doncic-Jordan frontcourt would earn a score of 16.48, thereby falling behind the Clippers in our rankings.
The Barnes-Nowitzki-Jordan trio, meanwhile, would run counter to the numbers.
Harrison Barnes was slightly more effective at power forward than small forward last year, but that should change with a more traditional group of teammates surrounding him. He's a far better defender at the 3, and his offensive game lends itself toward efficiency at small forward as opposed to forcing the issue out of the post when playing up in small-ball lineups. Nowitzki, meanwhile, followed the exact same pattern.
In other words, the numbers indicate that the Mavericks were better with Barnes and Nowitzki functioning as the biggest players on the floor. (They still weren't good.) But that was with last year's roster, and this new-look outfit, if used, should find more success with a more traditional alignment.
17. Washington Wizards: Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard (16.88)
2017-18 results together: N/A
In an ideal world, Dwight Howard won't demand post-up touches with the Washington Wizards. He'll be content to thrive as a rebounding deity who expends most of his energy in the pick-and-roll game when he isn't busy stifling the opposition's looks at the rim. He'd basically be a Marcin Gortat replacement, appeased while filling the same nondescript but vital role previously occupied by the man who the Wizards shipped off to the Clippers this summer.
After all, the Wizards outscored their adversaries by a respectable 3.6 points per 100 possessions when Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Gortat were all on the floor in 2017-18. Even in the 767 minutes during which only one of the starting guards played alongside them, they maintained a positive net rating.
Morris remains a behind-the-scenes glue guy, and is Porter an advanced-stats darling. So long as Howard fills his role advantageously, not much should change in the nation's capital.
16. Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner (16.95)
2017-18 results together: 5.2 net rating in 1,337 minutes
Though it can be tough to remember while Victor Oladipo is blossoming into a full-fledged superstar and gaining the lion's share of the national spotlight earned by the Indiana Pacers, this outfit is much more than a one-man wrecking ball. That'll become more commonly recognized if Kevin O'Connor's writing for The Ringer proves prophetic:
"Remember last summer when Victor Oladipo got swole one month into the NBA offseason? Probably not. I didn’t care until the regular season when Oladipo made a leap and we learned that his training improved his flexibility and biomechanical range, which made him visibly more dynamic on the court. Oladipo’s teammate, center Myles Turner, is undergoing a similar physical transition turning from doughy to jacked while changing his diet and using yoga to improve his pliability.
"Turner has always had skill: He was an elite high school recruit who had shooting range, natural instincts in the post, and rim-protection ability. Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis are the premier bigs from the 2015 draft class, but Turner, drafted 11th, is good in his own right. He’s just never made the leap from good to great as a rebounder or an interior scorer, which is partially due to his lack of strength. The hope is the work he’s done this summer helps him make tougher plays, hold box-outs, and finish through contact. If it helps him even 75 percent as much as it did Oladipo, Turner might finally be in line for the type of season fans have been waiting for the past two years."
Even if it helps him only 75 percent as much, that's great news for a frontcourt that also includes the ever-underrated Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic's potent offensive skills while Domantas Sabonis waits for more opportunities.
15-11: Magic, Spurs, Rockets, Pistons, Thunder
15. Orlando Magic: Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic (16.98)
2017-18 results together: 0.6 net rating in 845 minutes
Does anyone know what the Orlando Magic plan to do?
They seem intent on continuing to feature Aaron Gordon as the franchise centerpiece, but will they keep forcing him to line up as an oversized small forward even after he struggled immensely throughout the second half of the 2017-18 season? Will they run with the trio comprised of their three best players, who combined to earn that 0.6 net rating you can see listed above? Are they going to move Evan Fournier into a super-sub role or trade Nikola Vucevic so they can open up more opportunities for Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba?
Even if they won't open the season together, the Gordon/Isaac/Bamba triumvirate should be the frontcourt of the future. Just keep in mind that their current scores would give the Magic a composite mark of 14.8, which would drop Orlando to No. 24 in this countdown.
2017-18 results together: minus-10.7 net rating in 100 minutes
The San Antonio Spurs were a disaster during the few appearances made by this trio, playing like the league's No. 25 offense (103.1 offensive rating) and No. 30 defense (113.9 defensive rating)—the latter coming with room to spare. Perhaps that's just because the Spurs were originally counting on Kawhi Leonard to fill a far bigger role, and the void left in his absence caught the coaching stuff unprepared and scrambling for on-the-fly solutions. After all, it's uncharacteristic for the Spurs, an organization that typically depresses the magnitude of on/off splits, to experience something quite like this.
But they should improve in 2018-19, even if the offseason departures of Leonard and Kyle Anderson could leave Rudy Gay playing far too many minutes at the 3. LaMarcus Aldridge (coming off a career year) and Pau Gasol should remain entrenched at the biggest spots, and the onus is on Gay to change the outcomes.
Let's not overlook that San Antonio outscored its opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions last season when the two bigs were on the floor without Gay. They're talented enough to carry the load.
13. Houston Rockets: PJ Tucker, Carmelo Anthony, Clint Capela (17.34)
2017-18 results together: N/A
If Carmelo Anthony's words at media day were any indication (via Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle), he and head coach Mike D'Antoni are seeing eye to eye after their failed time together with the New York Knicks.
"I think when Mike was trying to run his system in New York, the timing wasn't right. That's something that we both acknowledge...
"The good thing... I liked about having that conversation with Mike was the simple fact that he made it very loud and clear—I am much more mature, he is more mature. He's older, I'm older. We both are out of New York, which could be a very intense situation, and now there's opportunity to start a new chapter. We both put it behind us and where we were at our careers at that time and what was expected of us and what we didn't do and the stresses and the confusion that comes along with being in New York at the time."
So, will Anthony accept a spot-up role that would maximize the talents of PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and Houston's All-NBA guards? Will he even be in the starting five? Those are the unanswered questions for a franchise that could feasibly trot out James Ennis III, Gerald Green or Marquese Chriss as part of its opening quintet instead of Anthony.
12. Detroit Pistons: Stanley Johnson, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond (18.87)
2017-18 results together: 7.6 net rating in 337 minutes
Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond work together. It's that simple.
Maybe the addition of the ex-Los Angeles Clippers star takes the ball out of Drummond's hands and prevents him from showcasing the facilitating gains he made during the early portion of the 2017-18 campaign, but their strengths still complement each other nicely. They can score from all over the court, dominate on the glass, balance each other out on defense and are now both comfortable operating with the rock. They posted a 2.5 net rating together last year, regardless of whether Stanley Johnson joined them.
Johnson does help, too. He'd help even more if he became a competent perimeter shooter, rather than functioning almost entirely as a basket-crashing small forward who expends most of his energy on defense. That mold works, but it still leaves room to grow.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams (20)
2017-18 results together: 8.7 net rating in 389 minutes
Speaking of dynamic duos...
Paul George remains one of the Association's most impactful presences, capable of performing like an All-NBA candidate on either end of the floor. A deflection magnet, he may well be the league's preeminent three-and-D force, although he's so much more. Steven Adams doesn't have nearly as glamorous of a game, but that's partially because he's ceded touches to the bigger names surrounding him on the Oklahoma City Thunder. He's content to remain an uber-efficient option who specializes in setting hard screens to free his running mates while locking down opponents on every possession.
If Jerami Grant can continue playing athletic, springy defense while knocking down way more than 29.1 percent of his triples, the sky—not top-10 placement—may well be the limit for this threesome. If he can't, Patrick Patterson might take over as the starting 4, dropping OKC's score to 19.48 in the process.
10. Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas (21.15)
2017-18 results together: N/A
This isn't about Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, although they're both productive enough that we'd be remiss to avoid talking about them entirely. The former might not be the shot-swatting Defensive Player of the Year contender he once appeared likely to become with the Thunder, but his combination of interior defense and floor-stretching acumen remains valuable. And though the latter doesn't provide glamorous scoring tallies, his physicality on both ends ensures a consistent and prominent spot in the rotation.
But once more, this isn't about Ibaka and Valanciunas. Toronto's top-10 status centers around the addition of Kawhi Leonard, who the Raptors acquired in an offseason deal that shipped franchise icon DeMar DeRozan (and important reserve center Jakob Poeltl) to the Spurs for the two-way small forward and Danny Green.
During his final season with the only franchise he has ever played for, Leonard suited up only nine times while dealing with a mysterious quadriceps injury. Even while on the floor, he didn't appear to be operating at full strength...and yet, he still engaged in stifling defensive action while scoring 16.2 points per contest on 46.8 percent shooting. That's a far cry from the height of his powers, but it's still a level higher than many can dream.
This ranking hinges on the belief that Leonard can rekindle his pre-injury magic. That he can show off his remarkable hands and make an All-Defensive squad while carrying the Raptors offense with his takeover scoring ability. That he reminds the world why he was a popular pick for MVP prior to the 2017-18 season.
If he can, the new-look Raptors frontcourt will be elevated to this upper tier. If he can't, instead of operating like a low-end All-Star capitalizing on the weakness of the Eastern Conference (or—gasp—worse), Toronto might be lucky to remain in the top half of these rankings.
9. New Orleans Pelicans: E'Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis (21.26)
2017-18 results together: 12.3 net rating in 619 minutes
Perhaps the New Orleans Pelicans frontcourt could become a bit fungible by the end of the season. E'Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis should be opening the year in the starting lineup, but only one of them is a lock to remain there.
Spoiler alert: It's Davis.
But what if Julius Randle, newly arrived after a season filled with improvements for the Los Angeles Lakers, pushes his way past Mirotic, relegating the clean-shaven power forward to a role as a sharpshooting option off the pine? What if Darius Miller or Solomon Hill catches fire and overtakes Moore, who's easily the most replaceable option in this grouping? Those hypotheticals aren't guaranteed to happen, but they're possible.
And yet, this trio still makes the most sense for the time being.
Moore's shooting (42.5 percent on 3.7 attempts per game in 2017-18) is vital for spacing purposes, and the same can be said of Mirotic's efforts. He and Davis complement each other well at the two biggest positions, and they earned an 11.6 net rating in 577 shared regular-season minutes. They also helped the Pelicans outscore their foes by 2.7 points per 100 possessions in 269 playoff minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors, the latter of whom are sure to drag down any net rating.
Davis is a do-everything superstar, but surrounding him with potent marksmen is a key to success. This trio accomplishes that.
8. Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, JaVale McGee (21.41)
2017-18 results together: N/A
LeBron James changes everything for the Los Angeles Lakers, immediately imbuing the organization with championship upside it hasn't possessed in quite some time. But even if he continues functioning at a best-player-in-the-world level as an individual, questions remain.
Mostly importantly come concerns about the structure of this lineup. Even though the alleged plan was carried out, it contains a distinct dearth of shooting—that's troublesome when James' latest stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers proved how much more effective he was when surrounded by quality snipers.
JaVale McGee isn't bringing any three-point marksmanship to the proverbial table, while the rest of the shooters (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart notwithstanding) have yet to prove themselves in high-volume roles from beyond the rainbow.
But let's say it works. James is such a singular talent that he can warp convention, even in today's NBA.
Then the questions shift to focus on personnel.
We've chosen the most talented frontcourt grouping by adjoining Brandon Ingram (an up-and-coming forward with extensive ability on both ends) and McGee to the King's coattails, but that may not be the direction in which head coach Luke Walton goes.
He could bring Ingram off the bench while starting James at the 3, and that would likely push Kyle Kuzma (tremendous on offense but...not so tremendous on defense) into the starting frontcourt. If that's the case, Los Angeles' score in this analysis would drop to 20.34, pushing it behind the New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors.
Either way, James is doing the heavy lifting while surrounded by untapped potential.
7. Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert (21.63)
2017-18 results together: 9.6 net rating in 889 minutes
How do you score against this trio?
Joe Ingles is a defensive menace at the 3, possessing the athleticism and foot speed necessary to remain between his man and the basket against even the toughest of wing assignments. He proved that throughout the Utah Jazz's first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, containing Paul George and getting under the All-Star's skin with a ceaseless barrage of trash-talking and excellent defensive play.
Derrick Favors is an explosive athlete capable of lining up at either power forward or center, but he's also become an increasingly intelligent defender over the years, fully aware of proper positioning and rarely finding himself in the wrong spots. Perhaps he hasn't achieved the level of stardom expected from him while completing his collegiate career at Georgia Tech, but he's become a solid big man who rarely lowers the organizational floor.
Rudy Gobert, of course, is the clear-cut standout. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he's one of the few men who shut down the interior so thoroughly that basket-attacking guards often won't dare enter his domain for fear of rejected and drastically altered shooting attempts.
Ingles produced a 1.36 DRPM last year, sitting at No. 13 among small forwards. Favors was down at No. 31 among power forwards, but he still landed one spot ahead of Serge Ibaka with a distinctly positive 0.99 DRPM. Gobert led the entire league, not just centers, in the metric (5.06).
In fact, the gap between the French center and No. 2 Andre Roberson (4.34) was slightly larger than the difference between Roberson and No. 8 David West.
Any defense would be great when helmed by Gobert. But this one, thanks to the other pieces operating in harmony with the Stifle Tower, is exceptional.
6. Philadelphia 76ers: Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid (21.76)
2017-18 results together: 15.1 net rating in 979 minutes
Just for fun, let's compare a set of mystery figures.
Player A averaged 12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks and 2.3 turnovers per game while shooting 41.1 percent from the field, 31.1 percent from downtown and 78.2 percent at the stripe. He had a 12.8 player efficiency rating, a 50.8 true shooting percentage, a minus-2.2 box plus/minus and a minus-1.87 RPM while earning 0.023 win shares per 48 minutes.
Player B averaged 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks and 1.9 turnovers per game while slashing 45.3/39.3/86.0. He posted a 15.8 PER, a 58.2 true shooting percentage, a 1.4 BPM and a 0.33 RPM while earning 0.137 win shares per 48 minutes.
You'd rather have the latter contributor, right? Easily? The advanced metrics point to that clear a consensus?
Well, it's a bit of a trick question.
Player A is Dario Saric during his rookie season, while Player B is the Croatian forward in 2017-18. He grew immensely despite posting largely similar per-game lines, becoming a superior shooter, a more developed passer, a sturdier defender and so much more, even if he only received enough votes to tie Joe Ingles and Tobias Harris for 20th place in the Most Improved Player race.
Saric doesn't enjoy the high profile earned by the ever-outgoing Joel Embiid, whose two-way skills are already becoming the stuff of legend. But he's already matured enough that he should be viewed as a legitimate centerpiece in the Philadelphia 76ers frontcourt, joining Robert Covington's three-and-D profile to make these Eastern Conference contenders all the more dangerous.
5. Denver Nuggets: Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic (21.99)
2017-18 results together: 11.2 net rating in 484 minutes
The Denver Nuggets have to be thrilled that this trio already produced such sterling results with so much working against them.
With Paul Millsap coming aboard as a free-agency addition, the beginning of the 2017-18 season was supposed to be a testing ground of sorts—a chance for him to build chemistry with Nikola Jokic and set the stage for Herculanean efforts later in the year.
But a wrist injury ended that dream just 16 games into Millsap's Mile High City debut, and he wouldn't suit up again until the stretch run. By the time he came back in late February, the Nuggets couldn't afford to take steps backward while in the midst of a competitive playoff race.
The timing just worked against this frontcourt pairing, even if it allowed Will Barton to blossom into an offensive force while Jokic continued pushing toward celestial status. But that didn't prevent the threesome from experiencing success, and that's in large part because Millsap demonstrated a level of altruism that you don't always see from All-Stars not yet at the twilight of their careers.
As Zach Lowe penned for ESPN.com, "Paul Millsap is the ultimate fill-the-gaps big who nudged Jokic—by way of a late-season heart-to-heart, team sources say—into undisputed alpha dog position."
Five games into Millsap's return Feb. 27, following a brief adjustment period, Jokic caught fire. From that contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers through the end of the calendar, he averaged 24.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while slashing 53.8/47.6/88.5.
Imagine if that continues. Better yet, imagine if that's only the new baseline, setting the stage for even greater heights.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns (22.78)
2017-18 results together: 8.9 net rating in 1,607 minutes
Yes, this looks like a tremendous frontcourt. For now.
At this point, the world knows the partnership between Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler has an expiration date. The question isn't whether the All-NBA swingman will be traded but when. Even the last-ditch overtures of head coach Tom Thibodeau aren't working.
"Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau met with All-Star forward Jimmy Butler on Monday to try to convince him to rejoin the team in the preseason, league sources told ESPN," Adrian Wojnarowski reported. "Butler declined, sources said."
We won't waste your time analyzing a trio that won't play together again, and we have no idea how it'll shift since the front-runners for Butler's services are amorphous and the expected returns unknown. Just know that this grouping would've been a supremely talented one worthy of top-five placement—a status justified by the 8.9 net rating earned last year with extreme volume.
3. Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez (23.15)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the unquestioned superstar for the Milwaukee Bucks, capable of filling every role imaginable. Given his scoring chops, defensive intensity, facilitating prowess, rebounding acumen and ability to do so many of the little, hidden things on the hardwood, the 23-year-old is already a primary challenger to LeBron James' throne atop the Association's individual hierarchy.
According to FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model, Antetokounmpo earned 9.2 wins above replacement for his 2017-18 efforts. But he's projected to rise all the way to 9.8 during the coming season, which is enough to make him worth a monstrous $73.7 million contract—earned all in 2018-19, not over a multiyear duration.
Middleton, meanwhile, is "only" worth $25.9 million, per CARMELO. Determined to bring back the mid-range game with his high release and the silky jumper that finds twine from all over the half-court set, he's settled in nicely as a fringe All-Star candidate with a two-way game. And when he and Antetokounmpo shared the floor in 2017-18, the Bucks outscored their foes by 4.2 points per 100 possessions (4.5 in the regular season alone).
But will Brook Lopez help or hurt?
The veteran center is an impressive offensive talent who can knock down a wide variety of shots from the blocks and display three-point range (34.5 percent on 4.4 attempts per game during his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers). He's also a defensive liability whose molasses movements could hinder the Bucks' schemes, especially if they continue playing aggressively and allowing more opportunities on the interior.
Ultimately, Lopez is talented enough that he should prove more effective than the incumbent centers he's battling for playing time (Thon Maker, John Henson and Tyler Zeller). Just don't expect him to drastically elevate the level of this frontcourt trio because his strengths are at least somewhat mitigated by his shortcomings.
2. Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford (23.92)
2017-18 results together: 19.1 net rating in five minutes
Don't be fooled by those 2017-18 results, as they came in the smallest possible sample. Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford opened the season together against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but just over five minutes of action elapsed before an alley-oop attempt went awry. Hayward collapsed with a season-ending injury, while Jaylen Brown picked up the loose ball and made a quick layup to push the Boston Celtics to a 12-9 lead.
That's it. That's all the information we have about the successes and failures of these three men when operating simultaneously. We do, however, have reason to expect myriad positives moving forward.
Assuming Hayward makes a full recovery from that devastating blow to his lower extremities, all three of these frontcourt starters should factor into the Eastern Conference All-Star conversation. But who becomes the best player is anyone's guess.
It could be Hayward, who proved throughout his tenure with the Utah Jazz that he's a proficient go-to scorer capable of impacting the game in so many other ways. Horford, 32, might continue to stave off Father Time, operating as a secondary facilitating hub and defensive anchor who doesn't need to score in order to provide substantial value. Tatum may have more upside than anyone else in Beantown, especially coming off a postseason in which he thrived as a No. 1 option who could get buckets in both on- and off-ball scenarios.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter. All three are talented enough to give the Celtics as much frontcourt upside as anyone, save the No. 1 finisher.
1. Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Jordan Bell (24.13)
2017-18 results together: 19.1 net rating in 212 minutes
Kevin Durant is among the NBA's most dangerous offensive players, and he's also an improved, versatile defender who can make plays for his teammates when he's not calling his own number. Draymond Green is among the NBA's most dangerous defensive players, and he's one of the best frontcourt passers in the league, as well as a shooting threat from the perimeter.
Those two alone are so good that their combined score of 19.65 in this analysis would rank No. 12 without the benefit of a third member. And yet, they still have access to Jordan Bell, who thrived during his limited minutes as a rookie, showing off his jaw-dropping athleticism as he made plays on both ends of the floor.
Bell didn't spend much time alongside Durant and Green as a first-year contributor; head coach Steve Kerr instead deployed him against second units. That should change moving forward, though. Until DeMarcus Cousins is fully recovered from the Achilles injury that ended his 2017-18 efforts (as well as his tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans), Bell should function as the starting center. And the Golden State Warriors, still a dynastic force, have no reason to rush his rehabilitation.
But when he returns? Assuming he fits in (something I covered in detail here), Cousins would elevate the team's score from 24.13 to 27.21, making this an absolute blowout.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.