The Weakest Link in Every Projected NBA Playoff Team's Starting 5

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2019

The Weakest Link in Every Projected NBA Playoff Team's Starting 5

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Ready. Set. Go...nitpick the starting lineups of NBA playoff teams.

    Try not to take each player's inclusion here as an insult. Some starting fives have actual problems that warrant change. Other situations are more complicated. 

    Certain teams are so strong at their other four spots that we have no choice but to single out a valued fifth wheel. A few starting lineups are so dope from top to bottom that we will hate ourselves for having to pick a weak link at all.

    Injuries will be glossed over when projecting starting lineups unless timetables for return spill past the beginning of the postseason. Malcolm Brogdon, for example, is not included for the Milwaukee Bucks. But Blake Griffin, who is day-to-day with a knee injury, remains part of the Detroit Pistons' calculus. 

    For instances in which a team's starters aren't quite clear, the nod will be given to either the most recent or most played combinations—whichever makes more sense.

    Our mission is not to predict failure or demand squads to explore alternatives. This is just an important FYI leading into the playoffs, when starting fives are more responsible than ever for setting and carrying the tone amid tighter rotations and higher stakes.

Playoff Teams That Haven't Clinched

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Brooklyn Nets: Rodions Kurucs

    Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has expended ample brainpower trying to establish effective continuity within the starting lineup. He still hasn't found it.

    Brooklyn's latest iteration—Jarrett Allen, DeMarre Carroll, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and D'Angelo Russell—is minus-9.8 points per 100 possessions since earning the title. Kurucs isn't the driving force behind its issues, but he's a rookie logging limited minutes who has seen his shooting percentages plummet over the past few weeks.

    Bringing both Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert off the bench is a great way to maximize depth, but rotations tend to shrink during the postseason. Expect the Nets' starting five to undergo more change if and when they clinch a playoff appearance.

    Detroit Pistons: Bruce Brown

    Bruce Brown is pivotal to the Pistons' defensive structure. Detroit doesn't get away with playing Wayne Ellington and Reggie Jackson together so easily without him drawing the toughest backcourt assignment.

    But the Pistons' defensive model has more to do with a stellar shot profile. They've done a nice job limiting looks at the rim and coaxing offenses off the three-point line. That approach doesn't rely on any one player. 

    Brown's shooting is tougher to reconcile even when Ellington, Jackson and a healthy Blake Griffin are splashing threes. He's making just 26.3 percent of his threes since the All-Star break and still struggling to finish around the rim. 

    The Pistons are smart not to overcompensate with a major change—for now. When the playoffs roll around, they may want to experiment with Luke Kennard in place of Brown. That lineup has torched opponents by 41.5 points per 100 possessions in 53 minutes of court time.

    Miami Heat: Dion Waiters

    Taking stock of the Heat's starting five is difficult. Injuries have warped their lineup choices, and head coach Erik Spoelstra isn't above making changes.

    The big question: Will Goran Dragic return to the bench once Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow are ready to rock, or might Miami move Dion Waiters to the second unit?

    If Dwyane Wade's comments are any indication, the Heat won't want to break up the chemistry they have going among the backups. As he said, per the Miami Herald's Anthony Chiang:

    “You come off the bench with this team, it's fun. We got starters coming off the bench. It's no major drop off. It's not even like you're starting or coming off the bench because you're not playing with bench players. ...Goran and H[assan Whiteside] and everyone who is coming off the bench right now, guys are just doing whatever needs to be done. Our goal is to get in the playoffs. When you get afraid and it's not looking good and you may not make it, you're willing to do anything."

    For our purposes, we'll assume the Heat default to Richardson, Waiters, Winslow, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk at full strength. Waiters has to be our choice. His highs can be absurdly high, but his lows are untenably low—especially in crunch time.

Boston Celtics: Aron Baynes/Marcus Morris*

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    It might be pointless to harp on a singular weak link within the Boston Celtics' starting five. Head coach Brad Stevens has subbed in Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris but considers his opening lineup a daily decision.

    As he told reporters following Boston's March 26 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers:

    "I said it the other day, one of our things that we've wanted to do was play bigger more, and we just haven't been able to with Al [Horford] and Baynes out, you know, a lot. That will be a game-to-game decision on who we start. I told our two guys today, and you need guys like Morris who are flexible like that. I thought Morris came in, and I thought his two threes in the late third, fourth, whatever it was, were huge. But when we can start double big, we certainly clog things up the way we need to on that end of the floor."

    Stevens has every reason in the world to tinker. Boston has wanted for chemistry all season, and the previous starting five has underwhelmed for the past couple of months. That group is getting waxed by 5.5 points per 100 possessions since the start of February.

    Inserting Baynes has helped. The Celtics have barely been at full strength since making the change, but they have a net rating of 53.4 during the (admittedly brief) time he's spent with the other four starters on the season.

    That doesn't render him a patented strength. Opposing teams can mismatch him out of the starting five or off the floor shortly after opening tip. And the Celtics cannot count on Morris to bail them out in those situations. His shooting percentages have cratered since the middle of January.

    Don't be surprised if any subsequent changes from Stevens include starting Jaylen Brown and/or Gordon Hayward.

Denver Nuggets: Will Barton

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Will Barton's inclusion is hardly an indictment of the Denver Nuggets' starting lineup. The five-man arrangement of him, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray is among the team's greatest strengths.

    Denver's starting lineup is outscoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions through 19 appearances and 343 minutes together. That doesn't seem like much, because it's not. But it sure as hell beats last year, when injuries—mainly to Millsap—limited them to 65 minutes across 16 games.

    Barton is the default weak link—a victim of the success around him, as well as some crummy shooting splits since the end of January.

    Anyone brazen enough to pick Nikola Jokic because of his defense needs to watch Nikola Jokic play defense. Jamal Murray has gone boom for basically his past 30 games. Millsap remains one of the league's most underappreciated defenders and offensive safety valves. 

    Gary Harris would've been a candidate weeks ago. His offense suffered while he battled hamstring and hip issues. He's fine now. He's shooting roughly 1 zillion percent from deep since the All-Star break (but actually 44.6 percent).

Golden State Warriors: DeMarcus Cousins

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    DeMarcus Cousins deserves some credit for his performance with the Golden State Warriors. He isn't the cleanest fit, but he's not yet a half-season into his return from a ruptured Achilles and can still get buckets. He's averaging more than 22 points per 36 minutes.

    Golden State's opening group has also stabilized after a rocky start to the Boogie era. It's outpacing opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions with a respectable defensive rating.

    That progress doesn't come close to sparing him.

    For one, he's surrounded by too many other stars. He was never going to transcend the importance of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson. Beyond that, he is not a billboard for consistency.

    Rival offenses are getting out in transition more often with him on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, and he's not generating points at an especially efficient clip. He's putting down just 25 percent of his three-point attempts, shooting under 41 percent on drives and ranks in the 44th percentile for points scored per possession on post-ups.

    Giving Cousins a relative pass is fine. He's on a new team and working his way back from a serious injury. He still poses more of a matchup issue than anyone else. 

    Filter out garbage time, and the Warriors are far more effective on offense with Green or Kevon Looney jumping center, per Cleaning the Glass. When the games start to matter, Cousins could be third in line to man the middle during crunch time.

Houston Rockets: Eric Gordon

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Much is being made of Chris Paul's, ahem, decline. Too much.

    Paul's scoring efficiency is down. He's posting the third-lowest true shooting percentage of his career, and his accuracy at the rim and on pull-up jumpers is more human than not. He has settled into more of a groove since returning from his hamstring injury but continues to play through weird and unsettling 4-of-13- and 7-of-18-type nights.

    Picking him here still takes his drop-off too far. He remains capable of ruining lives on defense. The Houston Rockets spare him from the glitziest backcourt covers when they can, but opponents are less inclined to attack or shoot with him on the case. Barely 12 percent of the possessions from the 10 players he's spent the most time guarding have ended in a field-goal attempt.  

    Eric Gordon is more of a wild card. His three-point clip dwelled in the gutter for much of this season, and he's seventh from the bottom in NBA Math's defensive points saved.

    To his credit, Gordon has not enjoyed simplicity on the less glamorous end. He has matched up with some difficult assignments, aided in part by Paul's early-season absence. His outside shot has started finding nylon, as well. He's banging in 42.2 percent of his treys since the All-Star break.

    This is more of a Will Barton-in-Denver situation. Houston's starting five is teeming with value, so this exercise defaults to Gordon.

Indiana Pacers: Wesley Matthews

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    Victor Oladipo's absence harshed the Indiana Pacers' offensive vibes, but Wesley Matthews hasn't helped matters. He remains a solid three-point shooter but is an unreliable finisher around the rim, and his on-ball possessions are often rife with excess—particularly ill-advised shot attempts.

    If the NBA handed out a "Doing Too Much" award at the end of each season, Matthews would be an annual contender.

    What's more, the Pacers' starting five is feeling the defensive squeeze with him in tow. No one was ever going to replace Oladipo. He can tackle the flashiest guards, chase around some wings or play free safety off more idle covers.

    Holding a 32-year-old Matthews, or anyone else, to that standard is beyond pointless. And the Pacers benefit from his overall activity. They're scoring an additional 5 percent of their points off turnovers when he's on the court.

    But Matthews' general inconsistency can be maddening. At times, Indiana has looked better on both sides of the floor with Tyreke Evans in his stead. Seriously. And with Darren Collison shooting so well since the start of December, Matthews' spot here is sealed.

Los Angeles Clippers: Ivica Zubac

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Choosing a weak link from the Los Angeles Clippers' starting five is a great way to indulge in self-loathing. The league has better five-man gaggles than Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, but few are exceeding expectations by wider margins.

    Los Angeles' quintet is plus-10.2 points per 100 possessions through 18 appearances and getting peak performances from pretty much everyone.

    Gallinari would be an All-NBA candidate if the league had a Fourth Team. That is not a joke. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of this year's two or three best defensive rookies and beginning to look more comfortable firing off the dribble. 

    Beverley is more meeting expectations than obliterating them, but he's not an exploitable member. His defense has returned to its usual kill-or-be-killed ruggedness, and he's gone supernova from beyond the arc over his past 25 games.

    Shamet stands out as a potential selection at first blush. He is a lethal shooter and budding cutter, but his defense has holes. He shouldn't be pestering true wings and isn't the guy you want matched up with strong one-on-one scorers.

    Yet the Clippers are getting by when he plays the 3. They toggle his defensive assignments accordingly, but that's hardly a knock.

    They're allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions with him at small forward, according to Cleaning the Glass, and the 10 opponents he's spent the most time guarding since arriving in Los Angeles are shooting a combined 32.2 percent against him overall and just 23.1 percent from distance.

    With all due respect to Zubac, we land on him. He's a viable defensive anchor at the rim, but he can be schemed off the floor versus small-ball lineups, and Montrezl Harrell is by far the Clippers' best big. Zubac's playing time reflects as much, and Los Angeles' crunch-time lineups do, too.

Milwaukee Bucks: Tony Snell*

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    Asterisks. Asterisks, everywhere.

    Malcolm Brogdon is out indefinitely with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot, which has thrown the Milwaukee Bucks' starter ranks off balance. Nikola Mirotic appeared to be his replacement, but he then suffered a fracture in his left thumb, and it isn't clear whether he'll be ready for the playoffs or named a starter if he's back.

    Tony Snell is next up. He has missed the past few games with a sprained left ankle, but unlike many of his battered teammates, he's at least a day-to-day concern.

    Having him as the fifth starter is nowhere near a doomsday scenario for the Bucks. The offense is blander without another off-the-bounce creator, but Milwaukee is a net plus in the minutes he's played with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton. 

    The logic doesn't change if Snell's ankle doesn't get right in time for the playoffs. This selection then defaults to Sterling Brown or Pat Connaughton. Milwaukee's four other mainstays are appreciably more important than any fifth-wheel alternative.

    Plucking out a weak link becomes a brain-splitting migraine once Brogdon rejoins the fold. He might be the pick depending on how he looks following his recovery. Assume he's at full strength, and the unflattering designation goes to Lopez. He's done wonders for Milwaukee's spacing and is a stout stopper around the basket, but his lack of lateral mobility can be problematic against smaller and faster frontlines.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Terrance Ferguson

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Someone, somewhere, will claim they're courageous enough to identify Russell Westbrook as the weak link in the Oklahoma City Thunder's starting five.

    Please, for the love of everything, don't be the person who mistakes stupidity for bravery.

    Oklahoma City's sorest spot is actually easy to pinpoint. It has to be Terrance Ferguson.

    Westbrook's shooting slashes are swimming in sewage, but he terrifies defenses by sheer force. Plus, he's notched more respectable clips from the floor since the All-Star break. The free-throw line? Not so much.

    Paul George is a top-four MVP candidate. Steven Adams is a dirty-work defender, solar-eclipse screener and smooth-floater extraordinaire. Jerami Grant wouldn't be the choice even if he weren't an expert lob-finisher and, now, a 38.8 percent shooter from downtown. He's among the scant few who can genuinely switch across all five positions on defense.

    Ferguson has turned in quality spurts, but he's not what the Thunder can call dependable. Even after a protracted hot streak, he's shooting just 30.6 percent from long range since the All-Star break. And while he's a scrapper on defense, he's too slight of frame to hold up against many of the matchups he'll pull in the postseason.

Philadelphia 76ers: JJ Redick

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    More self-loathing!

    The Philadelphia 76ers' starting five is still in its infancy as a unit but is already a nightmare for enemy defenses. Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons are plus-17.6 points per 100 possessions in just over 160 minutes of action. Small samples do not always inform normals, but this lineup has the look and feel of a superpower.

    Redick is not the weak link by default. A nuanced case can be made for Tobias Harris. He doesn't share Redick's offensive responsibility or blend of high-volume and scorching three-point shooting, and his 6'9" frame makes him easier to hide, even if he's not a defensive asset.

    Still, the Sixers usually go out of their way to stash Redick on the less glamorous end. They have thrown him to the wolves on occasion—he's seen plenty of reps on Stephen Curry, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, etc.—but his small-time wingspan becomes a problem when he's not blanketing non-shooters and spot-up specialists.

    Again: Calling anyone in the Sixers' starting five a weak link is worse than nitpicking. Redick has the Kyle Korver gene, in that he tries on defense and more than offsets his physical limitations with an offensive arsenal that's heavier on pick-and-roll initiation and pull-up jumpers than many realize.

Portland Trail Blazers: Enes Kanter

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    This decision was made for us the moment Jusuf Nurkic suffered compound fractures in his lower left leg. He is spelled by Enes Kanter, and the Portland Trail Blazers are worse for wear because of it.

    Cobbling together a league-average defense is almost impossible with Kanter jumping center. CJ McCollum's left knee strain hasn't allowed him to log extensive time with the other starters, but Portland is coughing up 113.3 points per 100 possessions whenever Kanter plays the 5, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Offenses are going to attack him in the pick-and-roll. He doesn't have the mobility to hang in space on switches, and dropping him back only invites a parade of layups. Opponents are shooting 71.2 percent against him at the rim since he made his Blazers debut—a bottom-eight mark among 81 players averaging at least 3.5 point-blank challenges per game during this span.

    Kanter's defensive splits won't improve as he faces off against more starters. Nor will anyone else on the Blazers devolve into more of a vulnerability.

    Head coach Terry Stotts yanked Jake Layman from the starting five in favor of Rodney Hood for Portland's April 1 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. That changes nothing even if the alteration sticks. Ditto for Maurice Harkless remaining a starter if McCollum's injury grows into a long-term problem.

San Antonio Spurs: Bryn Forbes

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    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    This decision is predicated on the San Antonio Spurs sticking with a starting lineup of LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Bryn Forbes, Rudy Gay and Derrick White. They probably will.

    San Antonio tested out a dual-big frontcourt with Jakob Poeltl playing beside Aldridge, and the results weren't pretty. As Jesus Gomez wrote for Pounding the Rock near the end of March: 

    "It seems like the obvious issue of bad spacing—that unit has just one plus shooter and takes just 15 threes per 48 minutes—is having a huge negative impact in the rest of the attack. The new starting unit gets a bigger percentage of its points from mid-range than in the paint, despite its size. It barely attempts free throws, so it can’t really make up for it from the line. The only easy points come after opponent turnovers and on putbacks. The lack of efficient scoring combined with a snail's pace that limits offensive possessions makes every shot important. If the stars are hitting their tough mid-rangers, then the unit will do fine. The best example might be the Portland game, in which DeRozan and Aldridge scored 21 of the team's 23 first quarter points, but there were plenty of first and third quarters during the streak in which those two simply carried the offense. When they struggle, the offense typically does as well."

    Gregg Popovich ditched this experiment prior to the Spurs' April 1 loss at the hands of the Sacramento Kings. That's a smart move. The starting lineup with Poeltl has an offensive rating south of 100 and is a net negative. Using Gay at the 4 and Aldridge at the 5 hasn't yielded huge offensive returns but is in the green overall.

    Rolling with Forbes is not about the Spurs having a better alternative. He is critical to their spacing. He's fourth on the team in three-point attempts per 36 minutes and draining 39 percent of his pull-up treys. But he doesn't score with enough volume to make San Antonio pine any less for a defensive difference-maker.

    That's not on Forbes, either. His defensive problems are overblown. His is more of a size issue. The Spurs' starting five is surviving with him on defense, but he's not universally translatable. Teams with bigger guards can play him into submission, and San Antonio cannot move him around as freely when DeRozan is on the floor.

    There might be a case for picking DeRozan himself. His playoff track record isn't the best, and he places constraints on their style at both ends. He almost entirely avoids three-pointers, and his penchant for getting caught out of position off the ball persists. But picking him is too much of an extreme. He serves as San Antonio's primary playmaker and is a more accomplished from-scratch creator than anyone else on the roster.

Toronto Raptors: Marc Gasol

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    The Toronto Raptors should have no regrets about moving Marc Gasol into the starting five. His passing is best served by all the shooting that lineup has around him, and head coach Nick Nurse can stagger his minutes to make sure he captains the offense whenever both Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry are catching breathers.

    Split hairs, and Gasol gets roasted solely because the Raptors are more schemeable with him in the middle.

    He holds up around the rim and can contest stationary bigs on the perimeter, but offenses with 5s who can attack off the dribble have a path to mismatching him out of the game. The starting lineup that features him is giving up more than 110 points per 100 possessions. Toronto's offense is just so damn good during these minutes it doesn't matter.

    This doesn't equate to "Gasol is a problem." But Toronto will have playoff games in which it's better off closing with someone else at the 5. Gasol isn't alone in that concession. Serge Ibaka is right there with him. 

    Units with Pascal Siakam at the 5, while sparingly used, are lightning bolts. The Raptors have a net rating of 19 in the 410 possessions he's tallied at center, per Cleaning the Glass. He is their matchup-proof big and should see more time in the middle as the stakes increase.

    Gasol is only guilty of not unlocking Toronto's most tantalizing cheat code.

Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Imagine what the Utah Jazz's offense would look like with a point guard who commanded defensive attention in the half court, like, at all.

    Donovan Mitchell's job would get exponentially easier. Lineups with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert would get new life. Small-ball combinations would be that much more terrifying.

    Ricky Rubio closed last year looking like that point guard. Defenses didn't shy from leaving him unattended, but he made them pay. He knocked down 35.5 percent of his open and wide-open threes, as well as 37.6 percent of his catch-and-fire triples.

    Rubio's pleasantly sweet shooting has not carried over to this season. He's converting 32.1 percent of his open and wide-open treys while hitting 33.7 percent of his spot-up threebies. His numbers have fallen even further since the All-Star break.

    Utah doesn't really have anywhere else to turn. Playing Mitchell at point guard should be more of a focus but isn't a full-time solution. Dante Exum is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his right knee—and head coach Quin Snyder wouldn't favor him over Rubio anyway.

    Zeroing in on Favors instead is a mistake. The Jazz are most dangerous when playing smaller, but Favors does not compromise the defensive identity. His partnership with Gobert also wouldn't sap as much firepower from the offense alongside a point guard who decongests Utah's half-court spacing.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on April. 2. 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 SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.