Reality Check: NBA Starters That Need to Move to the Bench

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2018

Reality Check: NBA Starters That Need to Move to the Bench

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    There will be no need to wait for the start of the NBA's regular season to call for certain players to cede their places in starting lineups. We're doing it now.

    This exercise should not be interpreted as a series of haphazardly doled out potshots. In most cases, the push for demotion is less about the player being singled out and more about a team's general make-up.

    Take all suggestions here with a snifter of skepticism. Preseason noise is everywhere. Many teams haven't settled on a definitive starting five. Some may never reach that point. We've attempted to weed out the most uncertain situations, but these players are not assured of permanent spots in their squad's opening unit.

    Nor should they be.

Probably Impermanent Starters to Monitor

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    JaMychal Green, Memphis Grizzlies

    Assuming their starting frontcourt is set in stone, the Grizzlies get a relative pass...for now. They're chasing a playoff berth in the ultra-unforgiving Western Conference...for now. Jaren Jackson Jr.'s promotion can wait...for now.

    Memphis must be prepared to shift course on a whim. A failure to keep pace in the postseason race or a hot start for Jackson should be met with immediate change.


    Robin Lopez, Chicago Bulls

    Having Wendell Carter Jr. come off the bench is fine to begin the season. Starting wouldn't necessarily equate to more playing time. The Bulls are flush with frontcourt prospects and projects even after Lauri Markkanen's elbow injury—related: Holy Preseason Bobby Portis—and Robin Lopez is a quality center who makes rebounding easier on his teammates.

    Not all A-list rookies need to start right away, either. Taking reps with the second unit should help Carter find his defensive bearings at the NBA level, and he'll have more freedom to test the depth of his playmaking on the offensive end. 

    This moratorium shouldn't last long. The Bulls are not the Grizzlies. They're not catering to veteran presences in hopes of stealing a postseason bid. They're going to be bad. And terrible teams have a responsibility to the future. 

    Like Markkanen, Carter is the future. He should be in the starting five (long) before Christmas.


    Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Lakers

    Rajon Rondo's tenure as the Lakers' starting point guard is being painted as a temporary venture. He is, the thinking goes, a luxury—someone who affords Lonzo Ball the benefit of a gradual, pressure-free recovery from left knee surgery.

    And hey! That's great. But Ball won't be on the mend forever. The Lakers will have to make a more permanent call in the near future.

    Demoting Rondo won't be much of a problem if they're not sitting near the top of the Western Conference. It becomes a different brand of difficult if they're humming along and exceeding their relatively modest expectations.

    Wins and losses and LeBron James-sized shadows shouldn't matter. Ball is more important to the big picture than Rondo. He needs to be given the vote of confidence that accompanies beginning (and closing) games. The Lakers can look at starting Ball and Rondo together if they're not sold on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Josh Hart at the 2, but even that would be disingenuous to the larger plan.


    Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Jimmy Butler drama has opened the door for Timberwolves coach-president Tom Thibodeau to play Derrick Rose beside Jeff Teague. Tyus Jones deserves more of a look in dual-point guard lineups, but whatever.

    One of the returning pieces from the inevitable Butler trade will slide into the starting lineup. Butler himself will re-enter the fold if Thibs doesn't move him before opening night. This Rose experiment isn't forever. Correct?

    Even if the Timberwolves don't acquire a wing in the Butler deal, they'll pivot to Luol Deng, Keita Bates-Diop, Josh Okogie or literally anyone else. Right?




    Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

    The Magic aren't doing anything sinister by starting Nikola Vucevic. He's the closest they come to an offensive hub when looking at their point guard situation. He's a necessity if they're trying to win games.

    Except, they shouldn't be focused on winning games. They're not built to make the playoffs. Exploring Mo Bamba's fit with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, who should also start, needs to be the larger priority.

    Rolling with Vucevic in the interim works if Orlando is hoping to drum up his contract-year trade value. But the transition to Bamba should come sooner rather than later.  

Ryan Anderson, Phoenix Suns

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Ryan Anderson doesn't look too out of place in the Phoenix Suns' starting five right now. That won't last long.

    Devin Booker will displace someone from the opening lineup after he recovers from right hand surgery. It should be Anderson. Trevor Ariza can take on power forward assignments, and playing smaller offsets some of the deficit from a lackluster point guard carousel.

    But Josh Jackson is the more likely lineup casualty of Booker's return. The Suns acquired Anderson from the Houston Rockets with the intention of starting him, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Head coach Igor Kokoskov could always do away with traditional constructs and run out Booker at the 1. He'll be charged with a lion's share of the offensive table-setting anyway. But the Suns fired general manager Ryan McDonough at least in part because he failed to trade for a conventional point guard, according to Woj. They're not tripping over themselves to use Booker in a positionless vein.

    That leaves Jackson—unless Phoenix is paying Ariza $15 million to headline the second unit. So, um, yeah: That leaves Jackson. 

    Supporting that swap is hard. Anderson is the Suns' highest-paid player and a floor-spacing upgrade, but starting him is a decidedly shortsighted move from a team that hasn't yet completed its rebuild. And in no universe should one of the NBA's youngest squads have Jackson, Mikal Bridges and TJ Warren all coming off the bench.

Trey Burke/Emmanuel Mudiay, New York Knicks

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Go ahead and consider this a plea for the New York Knicks to start Frank Ntilikina.

    Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay have both curried favor over the 20-year-old Frenchman to begin 2018-19, which doesn't make much sense. Ntilikina is the one with three years left on his rookie-scale deal. New York should be more invested in his future. 

    To be fair, the Knicks are not playing Burke or Mudiay more than Ntilikina. And to be even more fair, head coach David Fizdale has deemphasized the importance of securing a spot in the starting lineup.

    "All these guys are competing and nobody is flying out in front," he said, per's Chris Iseman. "Ultimately the final decider may be what combinations work the best. To be honest with you, there's not going to be anybody playing much more than 28 minutes a game anyway. Guys are going to get a lot of minutes whether they're starting or coming off the bench."

    Fizdale's sentiments are beyond valid—and, if you're a beleaguered Knicks fan, positively refreshing. But bringing Ntilikina off the pine pigeonholes him to a complementary role. Either Burke or Mudiay will be joining him, and he'll have contract-year Mario Hezonja to fend with as well.

    Granted, monopolizing ball control doesn't get any easier in the starting five. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kevin Knox will dominate the rock. But Ntilikina would at least get the opportunity to hone his pick-and-roll playmaking alongside superior and, in the case of Hardaway and Enes Kanter, more experienced weapons.

    If nothing else, the Knicks have enough offensive firepower in the projected starting five. Playing Burke and, to a lesser extent, Mudiay next to Hardaway, Kanter and Knox creates redundancies. Ntilikina is more equipped to leave a dent on the defensive end than his fellow point guards.

Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs

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    Drown this selection in caveats. Pau Gasol is not a shoo-in for the San Antonio Spurs' starting lineup. Head coach Gregg Popovich doesn't know how he'll proceed in the aftermath of Dejounte Murray's likely season-ending ACL injury.

    "We'll figure out how we want to move forward in the sense that nothing's in stone," he said, per The Athletic's Jabari Young. "LaMarcus [Aldridge] is going to start."

    DeMar DeRozan is going to start, too. Every other spot is up for grabs. 

    Gasol no doubt has the inside track on the center slot. The Spurs treasure continuity, and they're thin on it elsewhere. Their four most valuable defenders from last season—Murray, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard—are either on different teams or out of the rotation. Gasol is at least a familiar face.

    But Murray's absence should motivate San Antonio to pivot into something new. The Aldridge-Gasol frontcourt doesn't hold up defensively without him. It was on shaky ground to begin with following the departures of Anderson, Green and Leonard.

    In the 153 possessions Aldridge and Gasol played without all four last season, the Spurs posted a defensive rating north of 112, according to Cleaning The Glass. Small-sample B.S. could be at play, but only by so much.

    Cobbling together league-average stopping power will be easier with the more mobile Jakob Poeltl jumping center. And if that doesn't fly, the Spurs should seek to soup up the offense by moving Aldridge to the 5 with Davis Bertans or Rudy Gay as his frontcourt partner.

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors

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    Hashing out an everyday starting frontcourt isn't something that particularly concerns the Toronto Raptors.

    "It's not to me," first-year head coach Nick Nurse said when asked if he especially cared about assembling a consistent opening five, per the Toronto Sun's Mike Ganter. "Nope, not to me. It’s not at all."

    Specific matchups seem as if they'll dictate the Raptors' starting five more than anything. One trend that has emerged in the preseason, though? A commitment to small-ball arrangements.

    Two of their first three tilts have featured one big in the starting lineup, and the Serge Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas combination has yet to work from the opening tip. This could be telltale of nothing, but enviable wing depth infers a certain permanence.

    Valanciunas is the natural choice for relegation. Ground-and-pound towers are more of an asset when they're allowed to beat up on second-stringers. But Valanciunas is more nimble and rangy on offense than the typical plodder, and having both him and Greg Monroe on the bench forges unnecessary overlap.

    Stashing Ibaka with the backups instead also helps the Raptors survive on the glass when leaning on four non-bigs. They outscored opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions with him at center last year, but their rebounding numbers cratered, according to Cleaning the Glass. They preferred to use Poeltl or Pascal Siakam as a buffer when he logged time without Valanciunas.

    Toronto's drop-off on the glass wasn't nearly as dire when Valanciunas played without Ibaka. And while identifying him as the main center costs some shooting and defensive utility, Ibaka wasn't inspiring in either department last year. Valanciunas' rebounding brings more overall balance to the starting five.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.