Ranking Every NBA Starting 5 After Kawhi Leonard, Paul George Bolt for Clippers
The dust is settling after a raucous NBA free-agency period that turned several organizations upside down. And now, with all of the big moves in the rearview, we can start to assess these new-look teams.
Few, if any, teams will trot out the same starting lineups they did last season. Some will look radically different.
Anthony Davis is a Los Angeles Laker. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are Brooklyn Nets. Al Horford is a Philadelphia 76er. Kemba Walker is a Boston Celtic. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are with the Los Angeles Clippers.
We could go on and on.
Instead, let's take a look at how all the pieces will (or at least could) fit together for 2019-20.
To do that, every NBA player's projected 2019-20 wins above replacement (WAR) was extracted from FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO system. Then, the projections for each team's presumed starters were added together.
The Bottom 15
30. Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected Starting Five: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, Larry Nance
Combined WAR: 0.4
There's no guarantee Cleveland will try to play Sexton and Garland together, but considering their lottery status, they may not have a choice.
29. New York Knicks
Projected Starting Five: Dennis Smith, RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Combined WAR: 1.4
This is another one that's up for debate. Elfrid Payton may start over Dennis Smith, or head coach David Fizdale could tinker elsewhere. But this combination gets most of the important core development minutes together.
T-28. Washington Wizards
Projected Starting Five: Ish Smith, Bradley Beal, Isaac Bonga (possibly?), Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant
Combined WAR: 6.7
Yikes. This summer has been a wild one for the Wizards. And it leaves them with all kinds of questions, including, "Who do we even start?"
T-28. Atlanta Hawks
Projected Starting Five: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, John Collins, Alex Len
Combined WAR: 6.7
You could go smaller on this one. Start Cam Reddish at the 3 and bump both Hunter and Collins down a position. That move may be coming down the line, but giving the more experience Len a chance to backup a strong second half of 2018-19 feels appropriate.
26. Charlotte Hornets
Projected Starting Five: Terry Rozier, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller
Combined WAR: 7.2
The drop-off from Kemba Walker to Rozier is likely to feel immense. The addition of Rozier should help Charlotte's defense, but watching this team on the other end could be painful.
25. Sacramento Kings
Projected Starting Five: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley, Dewayne Dedmon
Combined WAR: 7.3
The system is a little lower on the Kings than one might expect. It likes Fox and Hield, but it isn't particularly impressed with forwards Barnes and Bagley.
Bogdan Bogdanovic or Nemanja Bjelica would raise the total WAR, but the big money paid to Barnes and Bagley's draft status could push them into the starting five.
24. Brooklyn Nets
Projected Starting Five: Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan
Combined WAR: 10.0
This is a bit of a surprise as well, though it's not difficult to pinpoint why Brooklyn is so low. If Kevin Durant were going to play, this lineup would be bumping up against the top 10.
23. Indiana Pacers
Projected Starting Five: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
Combined WAR: 10.5
This is another ranking that's heavily influenced by an injury. If Victor Oladipo were included, Indiana would jump to the middle of the pack.
22. Memphis Grizzlies
Projected Starting Five: Ja Morant, Delon Wright, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas
Combined WAR: 10.8
This one's a little wonky. Jackson should probably be the Grizzlies' long-term answer at the 5. Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson both deserve minutes at the 4. And Wright and Morant playing together is maybe a wild guess.
But depending on how quickly Morant and Jackson develop, Memphis could have a relatively painless bounce back from the loss of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
21. Detroit Pistons
Projected Starting Five: Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond
Combined WAR: 10.9
It'll be interesting to see if Derrick Rose can eventually take the starting role from Reggie Jackson. Either way, this lineup is still woefully low on shooting. Blake's probably the second-most reliable threat from outside.
20. Orlando Magic
Projected Starting Five: DJ Augustin, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Combined WAR: 11.4
The Magic are one of the few teams that basically just ran it back. Orlando getting back to the postseason will depend largely on how close Vucevic can come to replicating his career year.
T-19. San Antonio Spurs
Projected Starting Five: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl
Combined WAR: 12.3
The Murray/White dynamic will be interesting to see. Those two and Poeltl should make this a great defensive lineup, but a lack of shooting could lead to their demise.
T-19. Chicago Bulls
Projected Starting Five: Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Thaddeus Young, Lauri Markkanen
Combined WAR: 12.3
The Bulls can go the "let's play the veterans and be competitive" route seen above. Or, they could start Coby White at the 1 and Markkanen and Wendell Carter in the frontcourt. By doing so, they could let the young guys take their lumps and hopefully be better off for it down the line.
17. Phoenix Suns
Projected Starting Five: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton
Combined WAR: 12.5
Phoenix has had a busy offseason, and CARMELO seems to approve. After years of toiling away at the bottom of the Western Conference, the system thinks the Suns now have a middling starting five, which is a step in the right direction.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected Starting Five: Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, Karl-Anthony Towns
Combined WAR: 13.6
Towns is doing some heavy lifting here. He's projected to finish tied for 13th in the NBA in WAR next season, and for good reason. Bob McAdoo and David Robinson are the only players in NBA history who matched Towns' averages for points, rebounds, assists and blocks through their first four seasons.
Covington is no slouch here, either; the CARMELO system pegs him as a top-40 guy in 2019-20. If Wiggins and Bell outperform expectations, the Timberwolves may make some noise.
15. Toronto Raptors
Projected Starting Five: Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Combined WAR: 14.0
The Toronto Raptors didn't just lose Kawhi Leonard, though that's the most devastating bit of news for them. The other starter on the wing, Danny Green, is gone too.
Now, with little cap flexibility, the Raptors are forced to adjust on the fly. They have a couple of young, interesting options to fill those roles. Powell and Anunoby still have some promise, but it'll be borderline impossible for them to make fans forget about Leonard and Green.
As things stand now, another leap for Siakam might be the only thing that can push the reigning champions to 2020 contention.
14. Miami Heat
Projected Starting Five: Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Bam Adebayo
Combined WAR: 14.5
Outside of Dragic, this lineup could be very switchable on defense. And on the other end, Butler gives Miami something it's needed since Chris Bosh's career ended prematurely.
Over the last three seasons, Miami's combined offensive rating (points per possession) ranks 20th.
Butler's offensive rating swings (difference in the team's points per possession when the player is on or off the court) over the same span, according to Cleaning the Glass: 92nd percentile in 2016-17, 86th percentile in 2017-18, 71st percentile for the 76ers in 2018-19.
Now, when things get bogged down, the Heat will have a player who can consistently create efficient offense for himself or others.
13. Portland Trail Blazers
Projected Starting Five: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside
Combined WAR: 14.6
The presence of Lillard and McCollum remains a constant, but the rest of this lineup has been drastically overhauled.
Hassan Whiteside will try to hold down the center position until Jusuf Nurkic recovers from a broken leg. Rodney Hood will hope to replicate his recent playoff performance. And Zach Collins may have to move to the 4 full time. He played 46 percent of his minutes there this past season.
The key here could be Collins. He may not have the mobility to do a ton of attacking off the dribble and from the perimeter, but the form on his jumper suggests he could be a consistent shooting threat from deep. If he develops there, this lineup will likely feel much more balanced.
12. Dallas Mavericks
Projected Starting Five: Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell
Combined WAR: 14.9
This feels like a huge jump, and you can largely thank Luka for it. That player KAT is tied with for 13th in projected WAR? It's Doncic.
Fresh off a rookie campaign in which his raw totals were matched only by Oscar Robertson, Doncic appears primed to be one of the game's top point forwards.
And he has some frontcourt mates who should be pretty tough to stop, too. FiveThirtyEight pegs Porzingis as a top-50 player next season, and Powell is top-75.
11. Boston Celtics
Projected Starting Five: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter
Combined WAR: 17.0
Last season, Kemba was 10th among point guards in real plus-minus, while Kyrie Irving was seventh. It's just one metric, but the suggestion that Walker isn't leaps and bounds behind Irving checks out. And he's yet to experience the Brad Stevens statistical bump point guards like Irving and Isaiah Thomas have enjoyed under Boston's head coach.
Even as he heads into his age-29 season, there's a chance Walker finds a new level, and that's likely to come without the drama Kyrie brought.
If that means bounce-back seasons for Brown, Tatum and Hayward, there's a chance this team is even better than it was in 2018-19.
Now, that's obviously a lot of hypotheticals, and the step down from Al Horford to Enes Kanter is significant. But considering what else could've happened this summer, the Celtics had a nice recovery.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected Starting Five: Russell Westbrook, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andre Roberson, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams
Combined WAR: 17.9
Losing Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers hurts. In fact, prior to that move, the projections had OKC all the way up at No. 3. But this trade sets the Thunder up for a bright future as Westbrook approaches the end of his prime.
Gilgeous-Alexander has star potential, and the Clippers are sending five first-round picks and two pick swaps, according to Wojnarowski.
This haul of assets may be even more intriguing for a team that once assembled one of the best young cores we've ever seen through the draft by landing Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
Projected Starting Five: Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors
Combined WAR: 18.0
Lady Luck offered support in the form of the draft lottery, but New Orleans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin deserves all the praise he's getting for assembling a very intriguing roster in the wake of Anthony Davis' demanding to be traded.
The lineup above could be very cramped. JJ Redick can certainly help that, but the defensive potential here is enormous. Holiday and Ball are two of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Ingram has great length. Williamson was terrific on defense at Duke. And Favors was an underrated cog in Utah's consistently stout defenses.
On the other end, the idea of 4/5 pick-and-rolls with Zion and Favors is intriguing. This particular lineup could have playmaking everywhere but the center spot.
8. Denver Nuggets
Projected Starting Five: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Combined WAR: 19.6
One of the few teams that will mostly run it back, the Nuggets look poised to contend in the suddenly wide-open Western Conference.
Last season, when Murray, Millsap and Jokic were all on the floor, Denver was plus-8.6 points per 100 possessions (92nd percentile), per Cleaning the Glass.
Then in the playoffs, Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.
As his supporting cast continues to develop, the Nuggets are going to give opponents serious trouble.
7. Utah Jazz
Projected Starting Five: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert
Combined WAR: 20.5
Utah went with continuity in summer 2018, and it mostly paid off. The Jazz won 50 games and finished fourth in the NBA in simple rating system (point differential combined with strength of schedule).
Then, they got steamrolled by the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. This summer, they made some drastic changes.
Utah has, in some ways, withstood basketball's recent revolution. Starting Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert together would've been normal for most of NBA history, but it felt rebellious in this era.
Still, the team showed glimpses of more modern basketball when Jae Crowder played the 4. And this season, glimpses will give way to far more small ball.
6. Golden State Warriors
Projected Starting Five: Stephen Curry, D'Angelo Russell, Alfonzo McKinnie, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney
Combined WAR: 21.8
With the departure of Kevin Durant, the Warriors could have been stuck in a pretty tight spot. With Curry and Green's deals still on the books and Klay Thompson's max incoming, there was no cap space or conceivable route to a Durant replacement.
Working a sign-and-trade to get Russell is huge, even if the long-term fit for him and Curry isn't perfect.
With Klay recovering from a torn ACL, Curry and Russell should both get plenty of possessions next season. And if things don't work out, Golden State now has a trade asset it can use to acquire a wing who plays a position closer to Durant or Andre Iguodala's.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Projected Starting Five: Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Sterling Brown, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Combined WAR: 22.6
The loss of Malcolm Brogdon certainly hurts, but Milwaukee still figures to be a title contender. Having the reigning MVP helps in that regard.
In 2018-19, Antetokounmpo averaged his fewest minutes per game since 2014-15. Despite that, he posted career highs for points, rebounds and assists per game. He also posted the 17th-best box plus/minus of all time and the 17th-best average for win shares per 48 minutes of all time.
His pace and playing time-adjusted numbers are absurd: 29.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals per 75 possessions.
And, for the most part, Milwaukee retained a supporting cast that accentuates Giannis' strengths.
Last season, the Bucks were plus-11.3 points (96th percentile) when Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Lopez and Bledsoe were on the floor without Brogdon, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Those four with George Hill created a lineup that ranked in the 100th percentile, though with a minuscule sample size.
While starting Hill over Brown would bump Milwaukee up to No. 3 on this list, that feels more like a finishing group than a starting one.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Projected Starting Five: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Montrezl Harrell
Combined WAR: 23.0
The Clippers shocked the basketball world overnight Friday. Not only did they land this summer's biggest prize, Kawhi Leonard, but they more than swung for the fences in trading for George.
The rest of the NBA reacted appropriately.
"What it do babyyyyyy," Rudy Gobert added.
"This League is different man....," Trae Young chimed in. "Always something happening!!!"
And those quotes are just the tip of the iceberg.
The Clippers' series of moves changes the landscape of the league. Instead of the Raptors returning the entirety of a reigning championship team, there's a new contender in Los Angeles. Instead of the feeling of inevitability that may have come with Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis, there's now a battle for dominion over the Staples Center.
This is as wide-open as the NBA has felt in years. Perhaps even decades.
On the Clippers front, the lineup above features shooting at four positions around Harrell's smash-and-crash style inside. George and Leonard may be the most terrifying perimeter defense duo we've seen. Throw in Beverley, and opposing offenses could be in for nightmares this season.
Los Angeles could even go bigger and more switchable by moving PG and Kawhi down positions and starting Mo Harkless at the 4. Ivica Zubac could start the 5, maintaining the reserve attack of Lou Williams and Harrell.
The Clippers have options. Really good ones. And after a year of being the plucky underdog, this team is now a legitimate title contender.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Projected Starting Five: Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins
Combined WAR: 24.2
The Lakers' wait didn't end with the LeBron/AD/Kawhi Big Three. They shouldn't be kicking themselves too hard over that, though.
If there was even the slightest chance of landing Leonard, they had to see that through. And even without him, the Lakers may have the best top two in the league.
LeBron and AD pick-and-rolls, flanked by Green's shooting (40.4 percent from three for his career) or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope off the bench (36.5 percent from three over the last two seasons), are going to be nearly impossible to stop.
And the frontcourt pairing of AD and Boogie was just starting to develop some chemistry in New Orleans before the latter went down with an Achilles injury in January 2018.
While the Lakers may have missed out on a few good fits while waiting on Kawhi, there were still solid options on the market to fill out the supporting cast.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Projected Starting Five: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid
Combined WAR: 27.6
Even without Jimmy Butler, the jumbo 76ers have a chance to be title contenders this season.
Consider the heights and the position-specific ranks of each starter in defensive real plus-minus.
- Ben Simmons: 6'10", 18th
- Josh Richardson: 6'6", 18th
- Tobias Harris: 6'9", 32nd
- Al Horford: 6'10", 17th
- Joel Embiid: 7'0", 4th
Those five will stifle opponents. And the ability to have a top-tier center on the floor at all times means that stifling can go on for all 48 minutes.
Last season, Philadelphia cratered without Embiid. The team's defensive rating was 7.6 points worse and its net rating 14.4 points worse when he was off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. That net rating swing ranked in the 97th percentile.
The addition of Horford brings a lot to Philadelphia too.
"Not only is he an exceptional defender, but his ability to shoot from deep and clever passing make him an ideal fit with Simmons when Embiid is on the pine," The Ringer's Ben Detrick wrote. "With every meaningful center minute occupied by an All-Star-caliber wide-body, Philly should see a significant uptick in consistency and have ample opportunities to rest each."
If coach Brett Brown effectively staggers Horford and Embiid's minutes, Philly should be among the league's best defensive squads.
There's plenty of offensive potential, too. Harris, Horford and Richardson can spread the floor. If Embiid ever gets to around average from three, that'll help too. And Simmons' ability to get to the rim should create plenty of open looks for all four.
1. Houston Rockets
Projected Starting Five: Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, James Harden, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela
Combined WAR: 28.9
Back in June, Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill reported the relationship between CP3 and Harden had been deemed "unsalvageable."
For what it's worth, Houston general manager Daryl Morey refuted the report. But if there's any truth to it, those two better get to salvaging.
After years as the second fiddle to the dynastic Warriors, the West is Houston's for the taking.
Even without any significant changes, the Rockets' talent stacks up with just about any other team in the league. But the roster is dependent in the extreme on the one guy at the top.
Harden is projected by FiveThirtyEight to lead the NBA in 2019-20 WAR. And his individual projection accounts for over half of the combined team total.
The four other players in the lineup are certainly key, but Houston isn't reaching this ceiling without another historic season from Harden.