The Weakest Link in Every NBA Team's Starting 5
Parsing the details of an NBA team's starting five has never been more of a challenge.
Inclusions in opening lineups carry anecdotal cachet, but they no longer act as functional stamps of approval. Some squads don't roll out all of their best players to begin games. Others tinker with their starting five based on individual matchups. Across the board, coaching staffs are more open to futzing with onset combinations until they find what works.
Starting-five dissections are, in turn, a special kind of difficult. To try contextualizing the weak links of every team's opening-tip arrangement, we'll separate them into tiers:
- Yeah, We're Not Going Here: For various reasons, it isn't worth harping on these starting fives. They are too dominant, exhausting the best options at their disposal, deliberately designed to maximize bench depth or some combination of all three.
- Injury-Affected Starting 5s: A lengthy absence from a notable player has created a void. Specific positions will be emphasized over singular replacements.
- More Fluid Starting 5s: Teams that have experimented with their opening group outside of injuries, including trades, or are liable to do so in the near future. Areas of need will again be the focus over specific players.
- Cemented Starting 5s: Lineups pretty much set in stone that haven't yet been broken up by prolonged absences. This subset will name names.
Certain teams will technically qualify under multiple umbrellas. In these instances, they will be sorted by what best reflects their situation. Let's party.
Yeah, We're Not Going Here
Will Barton's recovery from surgery on hip and core muscles initially tethered Denver to the injury-affected ranks. The small forward rotation didn't look great to begin with, and starting Torrey Craig compromised a lineup already navigating ice-cold shooting from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.
Head coach Mike Malone has since subbed in Juan Hernangomez for Craig, which affords the opening unit a level of unimpeachable cover. The Nuggets are shooting 46.4 percent from deep and outscoring opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays with Harris, Murray, Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap.
Barton remains the more tantalizing fit from the jump. His off-the-dribble spunk simplifies job descriptions for Harris, Millsap and Murray. But the way Hernangomez has shot and defended from the wing spot sets up the starting group for interchangeable dominance about which most teams could only dream.
For anyone concerned: No, Monte Morris' appearance in the starting five during Thursday's win over the Atlanta Hawks is not a permanent thing. Murray is set to reprise his regular role after receiving a one-game slap on the wrist for violating team rules.
Nitpicking the Bucks' opening five is hard. So we won't do it.
Milwaukee is the only team that places in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency (Portland is really close), a juggernaut precedent set by starters Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton. They're not blasting opponents, but they're on balance at both ends despite being jumbled by mid-game substitutions and curbed fourth-quarter usage.
Antetokounmpo remains superhuman even with single-digit efficiency from beyond the arc. Bledsoe is bringing consistent defensive heat. Brogdon is the consummate offensive and defensive accessory. Khris Middleton has cold-turkeyed long twos and is drilling more than 44 percent of his pull-up threes. Lopez has earned the nickname "Splash Mountain" because he's both a Disney World fanatic and dropping in more three-pointers per 36 minutes than any other seven-footer in NBA history.
Something understatedly fun: They're snaring 79.9 percent of opponent misses. Lopez has done an excellent job of tagging other bigs so Antetokounmpo can grab clean rebounds and get Milwaukee into its offense post-haste.
Portland Trail Blazers
Jake Layman and Jusuf Nurkic are the only possible candidates here. Anyone with a heart should struggle to pick either of them.
Nurkic could be warming the starting center's seat for Zach Collins. The latter holds up in space a lot better and remains a gnat around the rim. (Aside: I had my doubts about whether Collins' defense from last season would hold while playing more as the lone big and with Meyers Leonard instead of Ed Davis. He has rendered my concerns futile.) But Nurkic, while still a human seesaw, is playing smarter basketball.
Fresh off signing a four-year, $48 million deal over the summer, he's making more of an effort to space the floor without gorging on long twos. More of his looks are coming at the rim, and though his point-blank accuracy is down, he's doing a better job rolling toward the basket when Damian Lillard gets engulfed by double-teams.
Layman isn't doing much other than launching off the catch. More than 70 percent of his shots come without taking a dribble. There's value in that minimalism. A more expansive arsenal is counterintuitive to building the ideal cast around Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Putting Layman in the starting five has also souped up the Blazers second unit. They don't need to begin games with Seth Curry or Nik Stauskas when he's drilling threes, which has opened the door for an all-bench mob that's deconstructing opponents on defense while providing the occasional offensive spark.
True to his offseason word, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has not treated the starting lineup as a permanent staple. He favors the quintet of Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam when everyone's healthy, but Jonas Valanciunas gets sprinkled in depending on the matchup.
Toronto's perimeter trio is impeccable. Green, Leonard and Lowry promise a mix of everything. The Raptors are torching opponents by more than 20 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time when all three are on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Siakam's shaky three-point shooting would make him a liability at the 4...if he couldn't defend all five positions, attack the rim from every angle off the bounce and fling passes on the move. Also, he's hitting more than 45 percent of his attempts from the corners.
Ibaka at the 5, meanwhile, is an overdue revelation. He's a tidy fit on offense even when he's not putting down threes, and he doesn't look as sluggish when playing half-court defense. The Raptors can get picked apart on the glass with him and Siakam up front, but every other aspect of their most-used, if preferred, starting lineup is on point.
Injury-Affected Starting 5s, Eastern Conference
Atlanta Hawks: Power Forward/Center
John Collins has yet to play this season while rehabbing a left ankle injury, an absence that comes as a crushing blow to Atlanta's frontcourt options. Omari Spellman has started getting reps with the first team beside Alex Len. Before him, the Hawks were starting Vince Carter(!), with Taurean Prince sliding up to the 4.
Neither version has played well on offense. Spellman's outside shooting has translated nicely from Villanova, and Prince-at-the-4 arrangements should eventually unlock serious scoring. But Collins is a sturdier presence on the glass, improved as a screener by the end of last year and remains more of a natural rim-runner.
Granted, that reads more like the description of a center. Collins' future might lie there if Prince-at-the-4 becomes a thing. For now, the Hawks are invested in 25-year-old Alex Len. He's shooting threes, albeit at a sub-30-percent clip, and Collins started beside him to open the preseason.
Take your pick. It doesn't matter. Collins' stay on the shelf has either messed with Atlanta's power forward or center spot. Probably the 4 more so than the 5, but not having him as a small-ball alternative certainly stings, and this space isn't yet prepared to entertain profound criticism of Prince or Spellman.
By the way: Anyone inclined to single out Trae Young can chill. His vision off the bounce is out of this world, he's firing off some of Stephen Curry's greatest hits, and he's finding ways to score while waiting for his three-ball to catch up to his handle.
Brooklyn Nets: Power Forward
Yeah, so, Brooklyn isn't supposed to be in this tier. Years of constant tinkering finally gave way to some quantifiable continuity. DeMarre Carroll would have kicked off the season as the starting 4 if not for a right ankle injury, but the Nets danced around near .500 for the first 13 games while trotting out the same opening five.
Then, they were reminded life isn't fair.
Caris LeVert, their best player, suffered a dislocated right foot during their Nov. 12 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He's expected to play again this season, but the starting five—and offense overall—is worse for wear without him.
Fortunately for the Nets, they have some serviceable stand-ins. Spencer Dinwiddie is an obvious promotion candidate if they prioritize playmaking. He started the second half in lieu of LeVert against the Timberwolves. Carroll or Allen Crabbe, who has LeVert's spot for now, also work if the Nets are looking to surround D'Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen with three shooters.
Power forward is still the most vulnerable point. Jared Dudley is tackling some beefy defensive assignments. He even saw time on Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota. But he's shooting under 31 percent from downtown, and the defensive matchups have not played out to his advantage. If his outside touch doesn't rebound, the Nets are better off handing the reins back to Carroll or reassessing the fit between Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Chicago Bulls: Point Guard
Real talk that is real: Replacing Cameron Payne in the starting lineup with Ryan Arcidiacono makes it tempting to choose power forward, highlight the absences of Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis and bemoan Jabari Parker's open-sesame defense.
"Archie is not scared of anything," Zach LaVine said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "Even if he makes a mistake, he's doing it with effort. And he cares...I love Arch."
Arcidiacono is shooting almost 49 percent from behind the rainbow on more than 4.5 attempts per 36 minutes and grinds his tail off on defense. He tracks down loose balls, works to deny passes and leaves ball-handlers no airspace. He leads Chicago in charges drawn per 36 minutes by a mile.
All of that is great. But the Bulls still sport a bottom-five offense that needs Zach LaVine to do more than get buckets. And whereas the return of Markkanen will—or rather, should—boot Parker from the starting five, Chicago's only alternatives to Arcidiacono are Payne, Kris Dunn (sprained MCL) and Shaquille Harrison.
Props to Justin Holiday for making it so small forward didn't come close to gaining consideration here.
Orlando Magic: Small Forward
Jonathan Isaac most likely doesn't change this diagnosis if he weren't dealing with a right ankle injury. His offense is too much of an unfinished project. His roaming away from the ball and experiments off the dribble have done little to boost Orlando's half-court appeal.
Giving Isaac's spot to Wes Iwundu has sort of galvanized the offense. The Magic are pumping in 119 points per 100 possessions when he takes the floor with D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.
Still, the move is more lateral, at best, than upgrade. The success of Orlando's interim starting five is unsustainable. Iwundu is foul-happy, doesn't rebound like Isaac and often over-extends himself when saddled with working on the ball.
With Augustin doing his damnedest to cover up the point guard vacuum, the Magic's primary wing slot goes unchallenged for this distinction.
Injury-Affected Starting 5s, Western Conference
Golden State Warriors: Center
Effectively filling the starting center position is the Warriors' toughest task, whether they're working with Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney or DeMarcus Cousins. The vaunted "Death Lineup" doesn't even inoculate them against uncertainty in the middle before June. That five-man combo is being outscored by more than 11 points per 100 possessions so far.
Sticking Draymond Green at the 5 still registers on the cheat-code scale. The Warriors have a net rating north of 25 in those minutes this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Head coach Steve Kerr just isn't about that full-time small-ball life.
It generally doesn't matter. Green, Stephen Curry (recovering from an adductor strain himself), Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson can pluck a random fifth wheel off the street and cobble together 50-plus wins, and Golden State isn't exactly deploying chumps at center.
Jones and Looney have been good. Jordan Bell has been meh, but he is still worth more than cash considerations. Cousins will send the Warriors into "Yeah, We're Not Going Here" territory if he returns and doesn't pout about playing time or touches.
Bonus points to whomever sees Green's potty mouth as the starting five's most glaring flaw.
New Orleans Pelicans: Small Forward
Elfrid Payton's return from a right ankle sprain—it has not been a good season for right ankles and feet, FYI—might indirectly stabilize the Pelicans' small forward spot. The starting five with him, Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis is nuking opponents by over 34 points per 100 possessions.
Whether that lineup remains an unflagging fireball isn't up for debate. It won't. Those five have played just 60 minutes together, and using E'Twaun Moore at the 3 isn't a foolproof recipe for defensive survival.
That model worked out last year. It is under more stress now. The Pelicans are coughing up more than 117 points per 100 possessions with Moore at the 3, according to Cleaning the Glass. They'll need to monitor the trade and buyout markets if that doesn't turn. Their in-house options underwhelm.
Wesley Johnson isn't going to shoot a trillion percent from distance forever. Darius Miller actually might, but he's a little too Rodney Hood on defense. Pitting Solomon Hill against starting wings is a guaranteed death sentence on at least one side of the floor.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shooting Guard
More time beside Russell Westbrook (ankle injury) won't cure Terrance Ferguson's jumper. It's a safe bet more late-night gym sessions with him won't, either. He should see if the San Antonio Spurs will loan him assistant coach/jump-shot-whisperer Chip Engelland.
Ferguson his hitting just 25.6 percent of his three-pointers. Any apparent progress invariably proves fleeting. He followed up a 4-of-9 showing from long range against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 8 by going 1-of-8 over his next two games.
The Thunder offense cannot withstand his brick-laying no matter how much he hustles on defense. He works his butt off in the half-court, but he's no Andre Roberson. With Oklahoma City hovering around the bottom five of effective field-goal percentage, Ferguson is more obstacle than asset until he bangs in more than 31.8 percent of his uncontested treys. He's also the team's best stopgap while Roberson rehabs his injured left knee.
Alex Abrines isn't swishing enough of his threes to justify more playing time. Rookie Hamidou Diallo is good for spot minutes, but he's otherwise in the same boat. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is barely allowed in the building. Eventually, starting Dennis Schroder beside Westbrook might be an option, but not an especially palatable one.
San Antonio Spurs: Small Forward
Feel free to isolate the Spurs' point guard rotation. Dejounte Murray won't play this season after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee, and counting on Bryn Forbes and Derrick White (just back from a left foot injury) to check enemy floor generals is not ideal.
But DeMar DeRozan overrides much of the ambiguity at point guard, and Forbes has been better than anticipated on defense. San Antonio is 15th in offensive efficiency and has the tools to climb higher, spacing warts and all.
Small forward presents a more unsolvable problem. Rudy Gay missed a few games with a right heel injury and isn't the cleanest fit next to DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Dante Cunningham has turned in some nice minutes, but the Spurs are finding out he, as expected, stands up better at the 4.
White's return lays the groundwork for DeRozan to log more minutes at small forward. And yet, the results on that shift defy common sense. San Antonio's offense has stalled and the defense has thrived in the 50-plus minutes Forbes, DeRozan and White tallied together.
Not known for shaking things up midseason, the Spurs are left to hope that trio coalesces into something special. Or they'll need rookie Lonnie Walker IV to light it up when he returns from his torn meniscus. Or they'll need to revisit Gay. Or they'll need to cross their fingers they luck into aid on the buyout market.
More Fluid Starting 5s, Eastern Conference
Cleveland Cavaliers: Point Guard
To be honest, the Cavaliers have earned a category to themselves. Their starting rotation has been affected by injuries (Kevin Love, Cedi Osman), shifting priorities (giving up the chase for the 10-seed), more injuries (Sam Dekker, George Hill) and general inexplicability (JR Smith is currently a starter).
Injuries have mucked up their situation more than anything else. Their youth movement is thin on youth, and they probably wouldn't have ever moved away from their original combination of Hill, Love, Osman, Rodney Hood and Tristan Thompson if given the option.
But the Cavaliers are set to fiddle with their approach this side of the Tyronn Lue era. He was fired at least in part because general manager Koby Altman wanted him "to give more playing time to the younger players acquired over the past several months," according to The Athletic's Joe Vardon.
Perhaps the Cavs continue to showcase veterans like Hill, Love and Kyle Korver as they get healthy in hopes of drumming up their trade value. But a large portion of this season will be dedicated to testing out what few worthwhile prospects they have on the docket.
Regardless, point guard figures to stay Cleveland's biggest wart. Hill picked up his play in the six games prior to his right shoulder injury, but he's no premier playmaker. Asking Jordan Clarkson to direct the offense is a great tanking mechanism, and nothing more.
Rookie Collin Sexton, the present starting point guard, has shown flashes as a scorer. But he has a little, and thus too much, Clarkson in him. Among the 86 guards averaging at least 25 minutes, he ranks 51st in passes and 63rd in potential assists per game.
Detroit Pistons: Point Guard
Spotlighting the Pistons' starting wings will suffice. Their quest to surround Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin with shooters is never-ending.
Reggie Bullock has a lock on one of the two slots. The other comes down to Stanley Johnson and Glenn Robinson III, who has started a lion's share of Detroit's November games. Subbing in Luke Kennard, a starter on opening night, once he returns from his right shoulder injury also looms as a possibility.
At the least, the Pistons have a bunch of different directions they can go in there, though. None of them are perfect, or even the answers, but they have options. They have no wiggle room at point guard.
Reggie Jackson is Detroit's third-highest-paid player. Moving him to the bench for Ish Smith would trigger a rumor-mill detonation. The Pistons are lucky he only sometimes goes rogue now while ceding status to Griffin.
Planning around Jackson's defense is a chore on its own. He is not adept at surveying the actions around him and doesn't parlay his length into enough steals. His aggression on the ball comes and goes.
Tracking data is imperfect, but opponents are shooting 10.3 percentage points above their average when he's the closest defender—the fifth-worst mark among 123 players facing more than six attempts per game, and one that aligns with the eye test. Detroit's overall defense is at its worst with him in the lineup.
Jackson's offensive performance isn't making up the difference. He is shooting 30.8 percent on pull-up jumpers and a combined 29.1 percent on open and wide-open threes. The Pistons will have no other choice than to look at a drastic change if this keeps up. A demotion or trade remains unlikely, but playing him with Smith from the get-go would diversify an unspectacular offense.
Miami Heat: Power Forward
Sliding Justise Winslow into the starting lineup is not having the effect Miami intended. He's dishing out nearly five assists per game since leaving the second unit but slashing a chilly 36/29/71 from the floor.
The Heat are being waxed by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Winslow on the court during this stretch. Their most recent opening unit of Winslow, Goran Dragic, Rodney McGruder, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside is posting a defensive rating north of 110 on the season.
Changing out Winslow for another option doesn't guarantee anything. The Heat kind of had something with Richardson and Derrick Jones Jr. working in tandem at the 3 and 4. Going back to that should be on the table.
Starting Whiteside makes it hard to believe in anything else. That isn't to say he should be up for relegation. He's gobbling up rebounds and swatting shots at historic rates without playing like an offensive deviant. His lack of operable range is just difficult to match. (For what it's worth, he's 2-of-10 from three and shooting 41.7 percent on low volume between 10 and 16 feet.) He needs a frontcourt running mate who can bombs away.
Winslow isn't that guy. Playing Bam Adebayo and Whiteside together is a no-go. Miami runs into similar, albeit more manageable spacing bumps, with Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson (recovering from hernia).
New York Knicks: Point Guard
Knicks head coach David Fizdale continues to futz with his point guard rotation, searching for answers that may not be there.
Trey Burke began the season as the starting 1, with Frank Ntilikina playing beside him. Five games later, Ntilikina grabbed ahold of the point guard spot, while Burke was consigned to inconsistent bench duty. And now, Emmanuel Mudiay is the choice of the hour.
"I've said this a lot: I really do believe [Mudiay] is our best passer," Fizdale explained before Wednesday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. "He can get certain guys going in certain ways in that starting lineup, maybe get us off to a faster start from a pace standpoint. Again, that comes down with what fits each other, what players fit, what players don't. I'm really trying to evaluate that."
Don't expect the beta-testing to stop anytime soon. New York is putting up 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Mudiay on the floor, the best mark on the entire team, yet he's no sure thing. He's shooting under 27 percent from three and just 42.9 percent around the rim, and he doesn't move the defensive needle in the right direction.
Ntilikina is the closest the Knicks come to a point guard with an established identity. He can cut his teeth against the toughest defensive assignments, but his hot three-point shooting has faded, and he remains indecisive captaining half-court actions. Burke is the most dependable attacker of the three, but his jumper has fallen flat, he's not getting him to the line, and the Knicks don't have the personnel to effectively hide him on defense.
Philadelphia 76ers: Power Forward
At long last, some respite for Markelle Fultz.
JJ Redick has taken the sophomore's place in the starting five following the Jimmy Butler trade. The Sixers had no other hand to play. They could not afford to field so many ball-dominant playmakers at once. Redick is a spacing crutch. Between him, Fultz's demotion and Butler's arrival, Philly has managed to upgrade the opening lineup's shooting even after losing Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
Wilson Chandler's efforts at the 4 will be a determining factor. He knocked down 38.2 percent of his standstill treys last season with the Denver Nuggets, but he's seldom touted as a marksman. He is a career 34.2 percent shooter from three and has been less than automatic off the catch in the past.
It helps that Chandler isn't following up a tough act. Saric's efficiency took a nosedive after a spectacular 2017-18. Chandler improves the offense's outlook if he flirts with league-average accuracy on triples.
More Fluid Starting 5s, Western Conference
Los Angeles Clippers: Center
This defaults to Marcin Gortat. The Clippers' latest starting five featuring him, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris holds its own, but Gortat is showing his age.
Aside from a couple rebounding sprees, he hasn't much affected the Clippers. His 48.6 percent clip inside the arc is the second worst of his career, and he's shooting a career-low 61.5 percent around the rim. He still sets a mean screen, but the aftereffects have lost luster. Switchier defenses neutralize his rolls toward the basket.
There is an element of deliberateness to this weakness. Montrezl Harrell is closing games at center, but head coach Doc Rivers clearly prefers bringing him off the bench. When he yanked Gortat from the starting five for a three-game beat, it was Boban Marjanovic who took his place.
Inserting Harrell makes a ton of sense if the Clippers are open to increasing Mike Scott's minutes at the 5. Or Marjanovic could get the nod again. Either way, Los Angeles' starting-center situation remains unsettled.
Rivers made a point before Gortat rejoined the opening unit to say nothing is permanent. Another change could come soon. That change just shouldn't include pulling Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has played well enough to keep his own starting role even after Avery Bradley returns from an ankle injury.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Shooting Guard
Trading Jimmy Butler leaves the Timberwolves rotation in some kind of flux, but their defining flaw is constant.
Continue starting Robert Covington at small forward (as they should), and Andrew Wiggins is the biggest headache. Butler's departure leaves him with more shot-creation duties, which doesn't bode well for Minnesota. Among every player jacking at least five pull-up jumpers per game, his 30.7 effective field-goal percentage ranks dead last.
Bringing Covington off the bench spares the Timberwolves from part of the Wiggins experience. He would move to the 3, while Derrick Rose slides next to Teague.
The problem? Minnesota is letting up almost 126 points per 100 possessions with that backcourt duo on the court outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Phoenix Suns: Point Guard
Poor Devin Booker.
Phoenix's offense is an exercise in how long he's able to break down defenses on his own. Deandre Ayton and TJ Warren can spell him as shot creators, and Trevor Ariza is throwing the occasional on-the-move dime, but Booker is very much his team's point guard.
That's not going to fly long term. The Suns are 30th in offensive efficiency. Booker isn't someone who should be the primary scorer and distributor. There should be a clear-cut second in command to relieve him.
The Suns don't have that help in them. Elie Okobo and De'Anthony Melton are rookies. Jamal Crawford isn't point guard material. Current starter Isaiah Canaan is the best option of the bunch, but he doesn't put enough pressure on defenses.
Short of a trade, Phoenix should milk the youth. Canaan (27) and Crawford (38) aren't forever fits, and getting more information on relative unknowns like Okobo and Melton is paramount to crafting the right offseason wish list.
Sacramento Kings: Small Forward
Sacramento's rotation has not hosted much change to begin the year. It hasn't needed to. De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Iman Shumpert, Nemanja Bjelica and Willie Cauley-Stein have started all but four games, and they're outstripping opponents by more than eight points per 100 possessions.
Breaking up this platoon shouldn't be on the agenda. The Kings are way better than expected. Even if they don't stay above .500, their first-round pick is getting sent to Philly or Boston. They have the incentive to collect as many wins as possible.
But Bogdan Bogdanovic's return throws a wrench in their short-term rise. He was considered a starting-lineup mainstay before his left knee injury. Head coach Dave Joerger has him coming off the bench for now. Whether he'll keep Bogdanovic in that role remains to be seen.
Putting him in the starting lineup forces the Kings to choose between Hield and Iman Shumpert. It won't be an easy decision. Hield is generating Most Improved Player buzz and more of a cornerstone, but using Shumpert has proved crucial on the less glamorous end. Though Sacramento's defensive rating blows past 110 with him on the floor, lineups featuring him at small forward are getting the job done, per Cleaning the Glass.
Leaving Bogdanovic in the second unit is a distinct possibility. Super-subs are not without clout, and Sacramento has a cleaner line to moving him around four different positions when he's squaring off versus backups.
Wherever the Kings land on this, it won't turn their small forward slot into a care-free bastion. Shumpert has been a roller coaster his entire career, and they can't hope to play Hield and Bogdanovic without bracing for defensive repercussions. Starting Justin Jackson, meanwhile, is a good way to make people riot.
Cemented Starting 5s, Eastern Conference
Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward
No surprises here. Gordon Hayward is working his way back after missing basically an entire season. The return from a fractured leg and dislocated ankle was never going to be seamless—especially when he has never really played with these Celtics.
Hayward's offense will come around in some capacity. His off-the-dribble edge could be gone for good—though it's too early to say—but Boston isn't begging him to be his 2016-17 self. More than half his looks are coming without burning a dribble, and over two-thirds of his attempts are going uncontested. He's not shooting better than 41 percent within either context. Those numbers will come up.
Defense presents different, less navigable problems. Opponents are attacking Hayward and exploiting his limited mobility on switches. Rival offenses have seen their half-court numbers surge whenever he's in the game, per Cleaning the Glass.
Waiting for Hayward to recapture form wouldn't be so much of a drag if the Celtics weren't laboring through a larger-scale identity crisis on offense. They've picked it up in recent games—holy Kyrie Irving, and hello again, Jayson Tatum—but their starting five isn't yet averaging 93 points per 100 possessions.
Hayward is open to coming off the bench, which might help. Marcus Morris has played well with the other starters, so Boston has that in its back pocket. But turning him into a reserve is a regular season's venture. The Celtics need him at his new peak to maximize their title chase. They better hope this isn't it.
Charlotte Hornets: Marvin Williams
Oof, this hurts my soul.
Marvin Williams is one of the most underappreciated players in the league. He does more on the defensive end both inside and out than he receives credit for, and his three-point shooting has long been a frontcourt safety valve for Charlotte's offense.
This season, his 14th, has not been as kind to Williams. He's making a lot of the same defensive plays, but his struggles from three-point land (27.9 percent) and at the foul line (58.3 percent) have amounted to the lowest true shooting percentage of his career.
Playing too much power forward could be at the crux of his struggle. He can still be of net-neutral value at the 4, which is a compliment to his mobility, but he's more of a 5 in this space-sloshed era.
The Hornets are getting him some run in the middle and look good when they do. Suggesting they replace him with Miles Bridges or a three-guard hybrid featuring Malik Monk is probably too radical at the moment. The starting five is playing well as constructed. But it might be a change they look at making down the line if Williams' shooting doesn't recover.
Indiana Pacers: Darren Collison
Darren Collison has gone from shooting a league-leading 46.8 percent from long range last season to downing just 31 percent of his treys this season. That on its own is enough to land him here.
In a way, this is backhanded praise. His outside touch is too important to simply flame out. The Pacers are not throwing up threes in bunches or feasting upon frequent trips to the charity stripe. They need his shooting to augment their floor balance and eke out room around pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs.
His shot profile isn't helping things. More of his looks are coming from no-man's land (between 10 feet and just inside the arc), and he doesn't see his dribble attacks through. Of the 100-something players averaging at least five drives per game, only D.J. Augustin is passing more frequently.
Collison's stock cannot weather the faintest offensive regression. He isn't a defensive pick-me-up. He's undersized at 6'0", and his half-court contests are, shall we say, half-hearted. Indiana should look to use his expiring contract as a trade chip and divvy up his minutes between Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph if his individual offense doesn't turn.
Washington Wizards: Markieff Morris
This one was hard, and not because the Wizards have too many options. Everyone needs to cut Otto Porter Jr. some early-season slack. He's playing better. And pretending Washington doesn't need John Wall, the player, is wrong. (John Wall, the salary-cap number, is a different story.)
Zooming in on the center position has merit. The Wizards need a floor-spacing rim-runner with hot-potato feet. They have Dwight Howard, Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith. And Jeff Green!
Markieff Morris gets the green light in the end. Washington needs something more from the power forward position when looking at its center carousel. Morris' spacing isn't holding up its end of the bargain. He's draining just 34 percent of his threes and under 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks. That he's no longer a patented mismatch at the 4 hurts, too.
Pairing Morris with another big has returned mostly yucky results, though he and Mahinmi were getting by early on. Putting him at the 5 unburdens the offensive awkwardness and is something the Wizards continue to examine, but they of all teams cannot afford the defensive trade-off. They're allowing over 124 points per 100 possessions when he's the man in the middle, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Barring a redressed center rotation, Washington should entertain moving Morris to the second unit. It would give him more time on the ball, and a Porter-Kelly Oubre or Wall-Bradley Beal-Austin Rivers partnership in the starting five is worth a more comprehensive probe.
Cemented Starting 5s, Western Conference
Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr.
Harrison Barnes is getting the benefit of the doubt.
Hamstring injuries can be difficult to return from, and he's trying to find his sweet spot within an offense that is undergoing a pecking-order shift for the third consecutive season. He's getting to the line more than ever. The rest of his offense will even out with time.
Wesley Matthews is a special kind of frustrating. There should be a cartoonish sound effect that booms over the PA system whenever he tries doing too much off the dribble. But he's knocking down his threes, and no one else in the starting five can juggle his defensive workload—an oddity in itself with a torn left Achilles and right leg fracture in his rear view.
DeAndre Jordan might be rubbing teammates the wrong way behind the scenes, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon, and his defensive impact is notoriously overstated. He's not this starting five's weak link. And Luka Doncic—well, he's already the Mavericks' best player.
That brings us to Dennis Smith Jr. He continues to intrigue as an off-guard option alongside Doncic. He's hitting 39.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. But his finishing around the rim is erratic, he's making minimal strides with his pull-up jumper, and his turnover rate has skyrocketed. He doesn't look the part of someone who can pilot an offense on his own.
Working beside Doncic is a boon for Smith's trajectory. A hybrid role suits him, and he's not yet 100 games into his professional career. In the meantime, the Mavericks are 19 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the bench, the largest discrepancy among their everyday players.
Houston Rockets: James Ennis
Default pick alert!
James Harden and Chris Paul have been up and down, but, um, yeah. No. PJ Tucker is a defensive godsend and, to date, Houston's most consistent player. On-off splits are not in love with Clint Capela, but we know better.
Ipso facto, we have James Ennis.
Getting anything from Ennis outside standstill situations is proving difficult. His shot profile is very Rockets, but he's barely clearing a 52 percent conversion rate at the rim. He isn't bad for Houston, just different. He's burying more than 40 percent of his threes and is one of the Rockets' most capable defenders. He just doesn't have the functional fitness of last year's helping-hand wings, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Unlike Mbah a Moute, he shouldn't be tasked with badgering smaller ball-handlers. And unlike Ariza, he's not built for battle versus most 4s.
Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram
There will be a push to spotlight Lonzo Ball. As a (still proud) property owner in Brandon Ingram County, I urge you to resist it.
Ball's deference is a problem. He's almost trying too hard to fit alongside LeBron James. He's hitting a higher percentage of his threes, yes, but he continues to pass up makable looks, and his drives are down at a rate that far exceeds his dip in court time.
Ingram's lack of change next to James is still the heavier letdown. He's binging on tough looks and jab-step long twos, and neither his three-point volume nor playmaking has turned a corner. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"The Lakers are scoring only 0.78 points per possession when Ingram shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or dishes to a teammate who shoots right away -- one of the lowest marks in the league, per Second Spectrum. Only 16 percent of ball screens for Ingram have led to those one-pass-away shots for teammates -- the fourth-lowest figure among 174 ball-handlers who have run at least 20 pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum.
"In other words: Ingram is either taking blah shots after slithering around picks, or making unproductive passes. He's barely snagging rebounds. He needs to do more stuff."
Add "forgetting about shooters in the half-court" to Ingram's list of transgressions as well.
The Lakers won't bench Ingram. Nor should they. Giving him more me-time without James should be on their to-do list, but Ingram remains their highest-ceiling prospect. Unless he's plainly phoning it in (he's not), sending him to the second unit sends a weird message. Besides, he's a LeBron favorite. This is a matter of enhancing Ingram's decision-making rather than hunting down a replacement.
Memphis Grizzlies: Kyle Anderson
Certain lineups can work around a player who is neither a threat in spacing nor volume. The Grizzlies' starting five isn't one of them.
Kyle Anderson still has plenty of utility. He's a methodical prober, nifty passer and resourceful defender. But the offense craters when he's in the game, in no small part because he cannot leverage the threat of his own shot. He doesn't attempt threes, and his mid-range jumper isn't falling this year.
Really, Anderson doesn't shoot, period. His 7.3 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes are the lowest of his career. This non-volume would be fine if he weren't taking up valuable space inside the arc.
Fewer of Memphis' looks are coming at the rim and from beyond the arc when he's in the lineup, per Cleaning the Glass. Anderson's 1-of-5, 1-of-3, 2-of-5, etc. nights make the Grizzlies predictable, and the breathing room he sponges up in the half-court inhibits the expansion of Jaren Jackson Jr.'s arsenal.
Again: Anderson is a useful player if put in the right situation. Starting at small forward isn't it. Memphis should look at turning him into a full-time 4 as a member of the second unit. He's more of a matchup problem for borderline and traditional bigs, and someone like Dillion Brooks (when he returns from his left knee strain) or Wayne Selden can be run out in his place.
Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio
Calling Favors the weakest link still goes too far. He's having a strong individual season, one that includes converting 35.3 percent of his three-pointers on a career-high 2.1 attempts per 36 minutes. His is more a story of muted impact. He shouldn't be playing power forward yet cannot ferry the burden of a No. 1 option as a second-unit center.
Utah has miscast him because it doesn't have the personnel to properly complement him. That can't totally be on Favors, not after he's tried tweaking his offensive biography to more thoroughly meet the demands of a contemporary power forward.
Ricky Rubio has been worse. He's missing bunnies at the rim, and last season's three-point uptick is this year's bedtime fairytale. He's shooting a combined 32.6 percent on looks inside five feet and from behind the arc.
Carrying lineups isn't his bag, a real problem for a point guard. The Jazz almost never dare to use him without at least two of Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Alec Burks on the floor. He needs a buffer or three, just like Favors.
Rampant turnovers have always been the concession offenses make when playing Rubio, and his ball control is plumbing all-time lows. His straight kick-outs are mostly fine, but he's erratic out of screens and throws too many wild passes with his feet set. Of the 119 players finishing at least 20 percent of their team's plays, Rubio is 116th in turnover rate.
Before the Jazz pull the plug on Favors' starting spot, they may want to explore point guard alternatives, be it through Dante Exum or by tabbing Mitchell as the officially official floor general.