NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Every Team's Starting Five

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 17, 2018

NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Every Team's Starting Five

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    When the referee throws up the rock at midcourt to begin an NBA game, only 10 players matter. 

    Sure, backups come into play once time has elapsed. Closing lineups can vary in tight situations, as Fred VanVleet and Lou Williams serve as primary examples of important second-stringers. But the starters typically receive the most minutes and prestige. 

    Starting gigs are coveted for a reason, after all. 

    We've already gone through the backcourt rankings. Ditto for the countdown toward the Association's leading frontcourts. Now, with slight alterations based on preseason revelations and injuries, we're mixing them together and taking a look at the starting fives. 

    As was the case for those previous portions, 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 was derived through a simple process.

    First, we found each starter's score in NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball project, which ranked every player in the Association on a 1-12 scale seen here. Then, we added them to find the number you can see displayed next to each grouping of players.

    But before we start at the bottom, a quick word of caution: These aren't necessarily the starting fives teams will use opening night, but rather the ones we expect squads to settle into once they find rhythms and make all the informed decisions. 

30-26: Knicks, Kings, Bulls, Hawks, Nets

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    30. New York Knicks: 19.15

    Starters: Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Lance Thomas, Kevin Knox, Enes Kanter

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    This lineup could change massively throughout the season. Maybe the coaching staff turns to Frank Ntilikina as the starting point guard and gives him the long leash he deserves. Perhaps Mario Hezonja and Mitchell Robinson work their way into more prominent roles. Kristaps Porzingis could even return from his ACL tear, rather than sitting out the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign. 

    But only that final possibility would make a significant impact on these rankings. The Knicks are devoid of established high-end talent, instead turning to veteran castoffs and stat-stuffers such as Enes Kanter to fill the glaring hole left by the Latvian 7-footer. Still, throw Porzingis into the mix at the expense of Knox (who's struggled during the preseason), and the score rises to 23.37, pushing New York out of the basement and into the No. 27 position. 


    29. Sacramento Kings: 19.57

    Starters: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson, Marvin Bagley, Willie Cauley-Stein

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Don't be surprised when this lineup makes a leap. 

    De'Aaron Fox already looks steadier at point guard, more confident in his shot selection and operating with relative autonomy within the Sacramento Kings' schemes. Couple that with Buddy Hield's shooting and Marvin Bagley III's takeover ability at the 4, and you have the recipe for significant improvement—not a bad thing for a squad that finished 2017-18 at No. 29 in offensive rating

    But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Though improvement is inevitable, we're still dealing with a four-man incumbent core (Fox/Hield/Justin Jackson/Willie Cauley-Stein) that earned a minus-7.3 net rating in 127 minutes last year. Bagley won't help shore up the 117.9 defensive rating, either. 


    28. Chicago Bulls: 22.34

    Starters: Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Justin Holiday, Jabari Parker, Robin Lopez

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    We miss you already, Lauri Markkanen. 

    While the Finnish forward's elbow remains immobilized and keeps him on the bench throughout the season's opening salvo, the Chicago Bulls will have to scramble. Sure, Jabari Parker will get a chance to play at his natural spot, but that's still taking away the team's most reliable offensive option, one who was primed to explode heading into his sophomore campaign. 

    This five-man grouping still has plenty of talent (and that will remain true if Robin Lopez cedes the starting job to Wendell Carter Jr.), but defense could persist as a glaring issue for a unit that features massive liabilities at both the 2 and 4. Even if the scoring comes courtesy of a resurgent LaVine-Parker pairing, it might not be enough without significant—and unexpected—point-preventing breakthroughs. 


    27. Atlanta Hawks: 22.37

    Starters: Trae Young, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Kudos to the Hawks for committing to the full-scale rebuild and handing opportunities to Trae Young alongside the rest of this intriguing young core. The team may be lacking in established star power, but each member of this quintet is promising. 

    Young is the Hawks' best chance for a quick leap to prominence, so long as his dazzling combination of shooting and passing translates from Oklahoma to the sport's highest level. But a roller-coaster ride should be expected as he endures typical rookie struggles, likely following ostentatious performances with brickfests. Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince give Atlanta an intriguing wing pairing made up of underrated players with two-way skills, while John Collins' eye-popping athleticism and Dewayne Dedmon's two-way play could keep the Hawks out of the standings' bottommost portion. 

    And yet, expectations still shouldn't rise too high for a team without a realistic All-Star candidate in the weakened East. 


    26. Brooklyn Nets: 23.46

    Starters: D'Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jarrett Allen

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 12.9 net rating in 85 minutes

    Though the sample is small, this group of young Brooklyn Nets experienced quite a bit of success together. We can't draw too many conclusions from an 85-minute experiment, but the lineup does—in theory—make some sense. 

    D'Angelo Russell gives the team a primary ball-handler capable of showing off his passing flair in a number of situations. Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll provide floor-spacing acumen from the wings. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the slasher supreme who thrives on defense, while Jarrett Allen can capably protect the rim and show flashes of stretch-5 ability with his sporadic three-point efforts. 

    Much like the Hawks and the other franchises near the bottom of the pile, the Nets don't have a go-to star. They do, however, feature a cohesive fivesome that checks so many of the boxes indicative of quality play.

25-21: Suns, Magic, Cavaliers, Hornets, Clippers

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    25. Phoenix Suns: 23.97

    Starters: Elie Okobo, Devin Booker, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Imagine if the Phoenix Suns had acquired a reliable starting point guard. Picture this lineup with Patrick Beverley (only one of many potential examples) subbed in for Elie Okobo, gracing the desert-based organization with his sharp-shooting skills and defensive ferocity. But that's not the scenario with which we're dealing. 

    Intriguing as the Devin Booker-Deandre Ayton combination may be alongside the veteran forward tandem of Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson—particularly because Ayton has looked like a No. 1 overall selection during preseason action—the Suns can't help but be held back by the deficit at the point. Okobo could grow into the long-term starter, but he isn't ready to lead a playoff push in the brutal Western Conference. 

    That won't change if we give the starting spot to De'Anthony Melton or Isaiah Canaan, either. Nor will it if recent signee Jamal Crawford goes from the waiver wire to the starting lineup in spite of his defensive porosity and trouble with maintaining efficiency.

    Phoenix could shuffle the lineup in a number of ways, even featuring TJ Warren, Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges or Dragan Bender in the opening five. But in any scenario, the weakness at the smallest spot will constrain them.


    24. Orlando Magic: 24.01

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

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: minus-0.1 net rating in 191 minutes

    The point guard problems don't stop when we slide up one spot in the rankings. 

    Even though the Orlando Magic had money to play with in free agency and a lottery pick to use in the 2018 NBA draft, they instead brought back core pieces and added Mohamed Bamba. Now, they'll still have to turn to D.J. Augustin as the starting floor general until (unless?) Jerian Grant, Isaiah Briscoe or Troy Caupain blossoms quickly. 

    Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic remain the Magic's leading figures, though Bamba or Jonathan Isaac could change that if granted enough opportunity. That trio produced a 0.6 net rating in 845 minutes last year. 

    But they can't play three-on-three basketball, which means the lackluster backcourt play has to matter. 


    23. Cleveland Cavaliers: 24.73

    Starters: George Hill, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    The key has to be Kevin Love.

    Even if George Hill bounces back to his Utah Jazz levels while Rodney Hood remembers how to shoot and Cedi Osman breaks out, the Cleveland Cavaliers will rise and fall with the play of their lone All-Star candidate. Love alone pushes the defending Eastern Conference champions out of the bottom tier, but is he still capable of thriving without a star of LeBron James' caliber? 

    Well, the Cavs only submitted a minus-2.4 net rating in his meager 196 minutes without James during the 2017-18 season. But on the flip side, the power forward averaged 27.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 55.0 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from downtown. If he can maintain those numbers while surrounded by bounce-back versions of his primary running mates, this placement could look pessimistic by the time we're flipping calendars to 2019. 


    22. Charlotte Hornets: 26.62

    Starters: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: minus-49.2 net rating in four minutes

    It's tough to view those 2017-18 results as gospel when they came during a whopping four minutes and Cody Zeller was fighting through injuries for much of the campaign. The big man, who assumes the starting mantle after Dwight Howard's departure, only suited up 33 times, never opened a game and played just 19 minutes per appearance. 

    That's about to change, which should be good news for a team that could use his well-rounded skill set. Zeller might not be a new-age stretch 5, but he's a savvy roll man who plays with efficiency and more than holds his own on the preventing side. Already, we've seen him fit in nicely during preseason action, rarely forcing the issue but making the Hornets better with his willingness to play within the offensive flow. 

    Charlotte essentially begins a new tier in these rankings, one filled with solid but unspectacular units. We can't poke many holes, even if bringing back the same leading quartet with a different man at the 5 doesn't allow for much excitement. 


    21. Los Angeles Clippers: 26.7

    Starters: Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, Marcin Gortat

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Beverley only suited up in 11 games in 2017-18 before he succumbed to season-ending knee injury. Avery Bradley never seemed like he was playing at 100 percent, whether he was wearing a Detroit Pistons or Los Angeles Clippers uniform. Danilo Gallinari similarly fought against the injury imp, while Tobias Harris was forced to undergo a midseason adjustment after he changed teams in the Blake Griffin swap. 

    Continuity isn't a thing here, and that extends to the free-agency addition since Marcin Gortat hasn't operated without John Wall in quite some time. But while the widespread uncertainty makes predicting Los Angeles' level of success a perilous task, it also allows for optimism. Just take a gander at the best three-point numbers each of the non-centers has submitted during one of the last two seasons: 

    • Patrick Beverley: 40.0 percent on 5.5 attempts per game
    • Avery Bradley: 39.0 percent on 5.0 attempts per game
    • Danilo Gallinari: 38.9 percent on 5.1 attempts per game
    • Tobias Harris: 41.1 percent on 5.6 attempts per game

    Now, close your eyes. Dream of what might happen if each rediscovers his stroke. 

20-16: Mavericks, Heat, Grizzlies, Spurs, Pistons

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    20. Dallas Mavericks: 26.92

    Starters: Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Luka Doncic, DeAndre Jordan

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Will the Dallas Mavericks stick with this unorthodox look and allow Luka Doncic to function as a point forward during his rookie season? Will they capitalize on his 6'7" size by playing him in the backcourt alongside Dennis Smith Jr. while Dirk Nowitzki slides back into the opening quintet? 

    Either way, the Mavericks would boast a similar amount of talent in the starting five. A group made up of Smith, Doncic, Harrison Barnes, Nowitzki and DeAndre Jordan would have a score of 27.18, which would place them at No. 19. Even if the German 7-footer is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, he's no longer a game-changing presence. 

    Instead, the excitement comes from the youngsters. Smith could become a popular pick for Most Improved Player if the trials and tribulations he endured as a rookie pay off, and both he and Doncic should form tremendous pick-and-roll partnerships with Jordan. 

    If they live up to the hype, they won't finish in the bottom half of these rankings. 


    19. Miami Heat: 26.96

    Starters: Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 34.4 net rating in 34 minutes

    The Miami Heat's depth creates issues, if only because head coach Erik Spoelstra has the tools to tailor his starting lineup to his foes' strengths and weaknesses. Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow, Wayne Ellington, Dwyane Wade and Kelly Olynyk could draw sporadic starts, and that's saying nothing of Bam Adebayo's ability to eventually relegate Hassan Whiteside the bench. 

    But when Dion Waiters has working ankles and everyone else is healthy, this quintet makes the most sense. It already began to have success in 2017-18 (admittedly in a limited run), and the theoretical cohesion of four ball-handling options with ace defenders at each of the three biggest positions could help propel Miami toward the Eastern Conference playoffs. 

    Just don't be surprised when the Heat cycle through different opening bunches on a nightly basis, as they did last year while using 25 different starting lineups


    18. Memphis Grizzlies: 27.4

    Starters: Mike Conley, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Though JaMychal Green, barring post-hype development, might serve as little more than a place holder for Jaren Jackson Jr., he still helps make this Memphis Grizzlies unit one of the NBA's most unorthodox. Featuring an elite passer at the 5 (Marc Gasol), a versatile distributor at the 4 (Green) and a slow-footed small forward who's comfortable running pick-and-rolls (Kyle Anderson), head coach J.B. Bickerstaff can get creative with his half-court sets. 

    But even if he doesn't, a healthy Mike Conley and Gasol will ensure the Grizz aren't just lottery fodder for the second consecutive season. A playoff berth might be asking too much in the loaded Western Conference, but these bears won't be easy outs. 

    Still, it's hard to rise too high when you're straddling a rebuild (impossible with the Conley-Gasol connection still on the books) and a commitment to the future. 


    17. San Antonio Spurs: 27.67

    Starters: Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Had Dejounte Murray not torn his ACL—an injury that will keep him out for 2018-19—the San Antonio Spurs would have fared much better. Elevated by his long arms and preternatural defensive instincts, the lineup score would've risen to 30.59 and bumped the squad above the next team in the rankings. But uncertainty reigns supreme, especially after Derrick White suffered a foot injury that will keep him out six to eight weeks, per's Michael C. Wright

    DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are All-NBA talents. Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol are serviceable starters, so long as head coach Gregg Popovich allows them to play to their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses—something he's never had much trouble with. 

    But is White ready for a starting gig when healthy? Will Patty Mills earn the job, or will Bryn Forbes hold on to it while the team uses Mills as a bench weapon? Can the Spurs overcome a quintet with so many defensive liabilities scattered throughout the half-court set?


    16. Detroit Pistons: 28.01

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

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 24.2 net rating in 32 minutes

    Count me among the believers in the Griffin-Andre Drummond pairing. 

    The two logged 594 minutes together during the 2017-18 season, and they outscored opponents by a sturdy 2.5 points per 100 possessions. That should be sustainable, given the blend of skills from the perimeter-dwelling power forward and the rebound-eating center who thrives in putback situations. Sure, Griffin's presence takes away from Drummond's development as a ball-handling big, but he still gives the Motor City more toys with which it can play. 

    But can everyone else elevate the duo? Reggie Jackson is an up-and-down point guard. Reggie Bullock is an ideal fit at the 2, given his floor-spacing and off-ball acumen. Stanley Johnson will work if he develops a more reliable shooting stroke, but it also wouldn't be surprising to see him used as a super-sub. 

    In other words, we'll have to wait and see. 

15-11: Lakers, Pacers, Blazers, Thunder, Pelicans

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    15. Los Angeles Lakers: 30.6

    Starters: Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, JaVale McGee

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    The Los Angeles Lakers are a conundrum. On one hand, James is typically capable of elevating any lineup into playoff position. On the other, he's another year older and surrounded by a group of players who haven't emerged as reliable floor-spacing options—the archetype with which the 33-year-old's had the most success in recent seasons. 

    They could blow away the expectations, especially if Brandon Ingram morphs into a star. They could fall short during a pseudo-rebuilding year, focused more on biding time until the 2019 free-agency class than making a late-season charge. All the options are still available. 

    So rather than focusing on the expected level of play from this purple-and-gold-clad bunch, let's instead see what would happen if we made a few lineup tweaks. Should James slide down to the 3 and let Kyle Kuzma start while Ingram comes off the bench, the Lakers' diminished score of 29.53 would keep them stagnant in these rankings. Conversely, swapping Rajon Rondo for Lonzo Ball (already better and in possession of significantly more upside) would propel Los Angeles ahead of the next two squads with a score of 32.3. 


    14. Indiana Pacers: 31.1

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

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 3.2 net rating in 826 minutes

    The Indiana Pacers are the first team for which we have a legitimate baseline. This exact quintet played 826 minutes together in 2017-18 and experienced solid results, so why should we expect anything different?

    Volatility won't come from the backcourt, where Darren Collison remains one of the league's more underrated options as an efficient ball-handler and sharp-shooting threat. Victor Oladipo, despite the out-of-nowhere breakthrough that established him as one of the league's All-NBA threats, isn't a significant regression candidate, either. 

    The uncertainty, however, might stem from the frontcourt. And that's not a bad thing. We know who Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young are, but Myles Turner, after spending the offseason improving his physical condition, could follow in Oladipo's footsteps with a surge up the Association's individual hierarchy. 


    13. Portland Trail Blazers: 31.8

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

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 6.5 net rating in 456 minutes

    Steadiness is the name of the game, as we know what to expect from the Portland Trail Blazers' starting five. The frontcourt pieces alongside the two standout guards might not have All-Star upside, but they're capable of filling their roles well while providing one-game jolts when they catch fire. 

    Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum continue to function as the lifeblood of the Rip City outfit—the former through silky smooth mid-range jumpers, and the latter through all-around offensive excellence that makes him a yearly threat for All-NBA recognition. But it may be the lesser names who elevate the team's ceiling and push this group into the top 10. That could happen if Jusuf Nurkic develops consistency on the offensive end or Al-Farouq Aminu proves he's developed his shooting stroke enough to draw constant off-ball attention. 

    Don't count out the latter development. Not after Aminu connected on his 4.9 triples per game last year at a 36.9 percent clip. 


    12. Oklahoma City Thunder: 32.56

    Starters: Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 47.7 net rating in 11 minutes

    Let's pour one out for Andre Roberson. 

    Per's Royce Young, the defensive ace won't be available for quite some time. A setback in his recovery from a ruptured left patellar tendon will keep him out for at least two months, at which point he'll be re-evaluated. That's a massive loss, considering the four-man pairing of him, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams posted a 14.2 net rating in 583 minutes last year. 

    Sure, Terrance Ferguson, a raw wing prospect with jaw-dropping athleticism, has plenty of upside. If he and Jerami Grant click with the three lineup leaders, the Thunder will once again compete for a top seed in the Western Conference. But replace Ferguson with a healthy Roberson, and the lineup score rises to 35.97, allowing them to fall in at No. 4 in this countdown. 

    Again, that's a massive loss. 


    11. New Orleans Pelicans: 32.86

    Starters: Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Elfrid Payton should be able to fill the role Rondo vacated upon his departure to the Los Angeles Lakers, which is notable because the New Orleans Pelicans toppled their foes by an even 18 points per 100 possessions in the 204 minutes played by Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis. The hometown point guard can fill that pass-first, focus-on-defense job description, and the spacing provided courtesy of the Holiday-Moore-Mirotic troika will make up for his shooting deficit. 

    But rather than focusing on how well the supporting cast complements Davis during what could be an MVP campaign, let's instead highlight the team's second legitimate star. 

    After DeMarcus Cousins went down for the year Jan. 26 with a ruptured Achilles, Holiday averaged 19.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from downtown and 76.0 percent at the stripe. Better still, he did so while playing ferocious, hounding defense, particularly in on-ball situations. 

    Should that continue, the Davis-Holiday tandem will wreak havoc regardless of opponent. 

10. Washington Wizards: 33.03

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Starters: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    If Dwight Howard can adequately fill the role Gortat occupied during the 2017-18 season, focusing on defense, rebounding and screen-setting within the pick-and-roll game, the Washington Wizards shouldn't have a problem moving up the Eastern Conference standings. 

    Though Howard hasn't logged a minute alongside the four incumbent starters, they teamed up with Gortat to produce a 7.0 net rating in 484 minutes. And that was during a down year as Otto Porter Jr.'s shooting regressed (slightly) and John Wall struggled in the search for consistency while fighting through a number of injuries that allowed Tomas Satoransky to spend far more time on the hardwood. 

    In other words, that should be considered the baseline. 

    For the sake of reference, this lineup score would've stood at 32.37 if Gortat had remained in the nation's capital, though locker room concerns might have been even more prevalent. With Howard, we're no longer dealing with any established toxic relationships, and his 4.2 screen assists per game (No. 6 in the league) stood just behind Gortat's 4.5 per contest (No. 4 in the league). 

    Howard can ensure that this quintet is a top-10 unit. The question is whether he will, as opposed to demanding post touches and hampering the flow of the half-court schemes. 

9. Minnesota Timberwolves: 33.55

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

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 5.9 net rating in 1,196 minutes

    The Minnesota Timberwolves will eventually trade Jimmy Butler. 




    But until that happens and they receive prominent pieces in return, we can't tell what the starting five will look like.

    Will they throw out Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Richardson, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns after a deal with the Miami Heat? That lineup would earn a score of 30.33 and fall behind six more teams in this countdown. It might decline further if the 'Wolves come to terms with the Houston Rockets or swap Butler for future draft picks, though that situation seems unlikely with the win-now Tom Thibodeau involved as head coach and decision-maker. 

    We won't speculate recklessly. All we'll do is say the incumbent quintet is a dominant lineup with a shot to rise high in the Western Conference standings if bridges can somehow become unburned. 

8. Milwaukee Bucks: 33.59

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Starters: Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Even the incumbent Milwaukee Bucks should improve significantly under head coach Mike Budenholzer's new offense. They'll cut down on mid-range looks in favor of attacks at the basket and three-point attempts, just as we've seen throughout the preseason—a far cry from the scattershot offense employed by former signal-caller Jason Kidd. 

    But Brook Lopez's arrival will also have a noticeable impact. Even if he continues to morph into a role player who specializes in taking (and making) triples while dragging opposing bigs out of the painted area, that will open space for the drives of Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

    Any lineup featuring the Greek Freak will be solid. Milwaukee, after all, outscored its opposition by 3.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But we also know just how advantageous the Bledsoe-Malcolm Brogdon-Khris Middleton-Antetokounmpo quartet can be. 

    When those four men were on the floor in 2017-18, the Bucks posted a 7.8 net rating in 329 minutes. And that was with a hapless Thon Maker, a struggling Tyler Zeller, a limited John Henson and other subpar pieces at the 5 or in small-ball lineups. Lopez is a far better fit, despite his occasional defensive woes. 

    With him in tow, this offense might occasionally verge on unstoppable. 

7. Toronto Raptors: 34.55

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Starters: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Everything depends on Kawhi Leonard. 

    Kyle Lowry should remain a top-tier point guard, even though Father Time's effects may be imminent for the point guard who'll celebrate his 33rd birthday in March. Serge Ibaka is a shot-blocking, floor-spacing power forward, while Jonas Valanciunas is one of the NBA's steadier forces at center—a strong starting option without takeover upside. 

    But those pieces will rise and fall with the offseason addition, and we're not talking about Danny Green's three-and-D abilities. If Leonard shows signs of decline after he missed all but nine games last year when dealing with a quadriceps injury, the Toronto Raptors won't keep pace with the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics in the new-look Eastern Conference. If he can rekindle his 2016-17 efforts, though...

    "I want to do great things, so I'm going to make sure that I put all my effort on the court, each and every night," Leonard told the Associated Press during the preseason (h/t Yahoo Sports). Now, he just has to improve upon his exhibition shooting struggles, which saw him produce a miserable slash line of 38.7/12.5/60.0. 

    Don't fret if the small forward takes a little while to knock off the rust and adjust to his new teammates. Keep optimism alive, because this lineup has all sorts of two-way potential if he can turn back the clock. 

6. Philadelphia 76ers: 34.8

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    Starters: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Markelle Fultz might have struggled during his rookie season, but let's not write him off. If he proves he can knock down even the occasional jumper from outside the painted area, he'll add a new self-creating dynamic to the Philadelphia 76ers offense—the primary reason he's moving into the starting five rather than JJ Redick, who will still play a massive role. 

    But even in Fultz's best-case scenario as a sophomore, he may have trouble becoming anything more than a fifth wheel. That's not a knock on him, so much as a compliment to the other four starters. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are All-Star and All-NBA candidates for 2018-19, while Robert Covington and Dario Saric are top-tier complementary options. 

    In fact, the Sixers outscored their adversaries enough to earn a whopping 19.2 net rating with those four incumbent starters on the floor. A staggering 601 of the 815 relevant minutes came with Redick as the fifth member of the lineup (20.4 net rating), and Fultz never logged even a single possession in this situation. But the change could still make sense if the dynamic guard proves he's ready to put the rookie struggles behind him. 

    Of course, this will still be a dominant grouping even if he proves no such thing.

    The team leaders are that good. 

5. Denver Nuggets: 35.18

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    Starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 35.7 net rating in 65 minutes

    The fact that the Denver Nuggets dominated with this lineup is somewhat staggering. Paul Millsap never got a chance to build chemistry with his fellow starters, suffering a wrist injury early in the campaign that kept him out of action until the season's stretch run—exactly when the team couldn't afford to go through growing pains. 

    And yet, everything worked. 

    We're dealing with a minuscule sample, but the Nuggets scored a mind-numbing 129.7 points per 100 possessions when Millsap joined Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Nikola Jokic. Even though their 94.0 defensive rating would've also topped the season-long standings, they were that much more impressive on the scoring side. 

    That offensive number, of course, isn't sustainable. Neither is the defensive one. 

    But the stage is set for two-way success with a quintet that checks all the boxes. Denver will always feature a potent scoring unit with Jokic on the floor, as he passes players open and provides his own scoring with ceaseless efficiency. If Millsap can be the center's perfect defensive counterpart while Harris shuts down tough wing assignments, the point-preventing crew will be good enough to propel the Mile High City up the Western Conference standings. 

4. Utah Jazz: 35.23

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

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

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 13.3 net rating in 537 minutes

    How are you supposed to score on this lineup? 

    Rudy Gobert is the NBA's best rim-protecting presence, capable of not only swatting shots from those who dare enter his domain but also preventing opponents from testing him in the first place. He forces the opposition to undergo dramatic scheme changes to avoid having to beat him in the painted area. 

    Derrick Favors is a quality big-man defender who can help replicate what Gobert does in a pinch. Joe Ingles is an ace on the wings, as he proved by shutting down Paul George in a first-round playoff battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, his point-preventing prowess was already clear well before that, if only to those who consistently watched the Utah Jazz. Ricky Rubio, meanwhile, has quick hands and steal-chasing instincts, which plays perfectly with Gobert behind him to clean up mistakes that stem from aggressive gambles. 

    So what happens if Donovan Mitchell lives up to the defensive reputation he earned at Louisville? 

    This lineup already ceded just 100.3 points per 100 possessions. And that was with Mitchell learning how to play in the NBA and carrying an immense scoring burden. If he's more comfortable with expending energy on both ends of the floor and picks up a few second-year tricks, the sky may be a limit that's far too reachable—in other words, not a limit at all. 

3. Houston Rockets: 36.53

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Starters: Chris Paul, James Harden, James Ennis, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    We shouldn't have a reason to doubt the efficacy of this lineup, despite the glaring fact that these five men have never shared the court during games that count. We will, however, note this lineup could be subject to change if head coach Mike D'Antoni feels pressured to start Carmelo Anthony rather than bringing the spot-up forward off the pine, as he should. 

    Chris Paul and James Harden were potent when they operated in harmony. They tormented foes with their ball-handling ability and shot-creation skills, allowing the Rockets to generate offense in myriad manners. Overplay one, and the other can easily do damage off the ball—or on it after a quick set of passes to swing the rock around the horn. 

    With the two All-NBA guards logging minutes, Houston posted a 12.4 net rating. Bring Clint Capela into the mix, replete with pick-and-roll excellence and sturdy interior defense, and the Rockets still outscore foes by an impressive 11.9 points per 100 possessions. As PJ Tucker turned the trio into a quartet with his ferocious, physical defense and willingness to assume all the tiny responsibilities that don't necessarily show up in a box score, the net rating remained in double figures (10.6). 

    Those four men played 658 minutes together during the playoffs and regular season combined, and they were joined at various stages by Trevor Ariza (7.3 net rating), Luc Mbah a Moute (20.1), Eric Gordon (16.8), Gerald Green (16.7), Ryan Anderson (minus-14.3) and Joe Johnson (50.0). (Warning: Some of those samples are tiny.)

    James Ennis might not be a standout. He may not even be on the same level as Ariza, Mbah a Moute or Gordon. But his wing defense and willingness to perform in off-ball situations make him an ideal fit who should maximize the surrounding talents. 

2. Boston Celtics: 39.64

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Starters: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 19.1 net rating in five minutes

    All we know is the Boston Celtics were playing well before Gordon Hayward's season ended before they gained any steam. They had a lead in the season opener when he went down with a horrific ankle injury. 

    Except...that's not really all we know. 

    Based on the individual merits of these players, this type of success should be sustainable.

    Kyrie Irving remains one of the game's deadliest creators, and he's joined by four more players who can get buckets for themselves. Defenses won't have any idea how to account for his ball-handling wizardry while also keeping Hayward in check, preventing Brown from displaying his jaw-dropping athleticism, corralling Jayson Tatum's on- and off-ball skills and making sure Al Horford can't change the game in any manner necessary. It's a pick-your-poison lineup in the truest sense of the phrase. 

    Oh, and defense won't be an issue for anyone operating under the supervision of head coach Brad Stevens, much less a lineup that features possible plusses at four of the five spots. Irving is the only exception, except he filled his role nicely and showcased plenty of improvement throughout his first Beantown campaign. 

    Boston might not have a true MVP candidate, which makes the team an exception within the top three of these rankings. But if a lineup is only as potent as its weakest link, that's great news for the surging Celtics. 

1. Golden State Warriors, 40.82

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Starters: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Damian Jones

    Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

    Let's stick with the weakest-link concept. 

    Until DeMarcus Cousins returns from the Achilles injury that ended his 2017-18 efforts and tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Golden State Warriors will scramble to find an answer at center. Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney could get minutes there, but head coach Steve Kerr seems likely to settle on Damian Jones, even if that means he has to endure a roller coaster ride of athletic showings and mental lapses. 

    Jones received the lowest individual grade among the 150 players featured as starters in this article. Frankly, it wasn't even close: 

    1. Damian Jones, Golden State Warriors: 1.7
    2. Justin Jackson, Sacramento Kings: 2.52
    3. Bryn Forbes, San Antonio Spurs: 2.56
    4. Elie Okobo, Phoenix Suns: 2.56
    5. Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City Thunder: 2.63

    And yet, the Dubs earned the top spot with room to spare.

    Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are just that good, giving the defending champions four top-20 players every time they take the floor. While that quartet caused nightmares for opponents, Golden State posted a 12.0 net rating in 2017-18, including both the regular season and playoffs. 

    That's stellar enough. But just to satiate your curiosity, this lineup score would rise to an astronomical 48.36 with a healthy Cousins at the 5. For perspective, that means the gap between them and the No. 2 Boston Celtics would be larger than the separation between the C's and the No. 14 Indiana Pacers. 


    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference,, PBPStats.comNBA Math or