Projecting Every NBA Team's Opening Night Starting 5
Whether players want to admit it or not, there's a certain cachet that comes along with being an NBA starter.
And at the dawn of another regular season, there are still a few starting spots around the league to be determined.
Who'll get a shot at filling Kevin Durant's size-18 shoes for the Golden State Warriors? Who starts at center for the Boston Celtics? Will the Los Angeles Lakers really start LeBron James at the 1? Will players like Eric Bledsoe and Dwight Powell be fully recovered from injuries in time for opening night?
These questions and more will be answered in a matter of weeks. In the meantime, we'll take a whirl at answering them ourselves.
Below, you'll find projected starting fives for each of the NBA's 30 teams, sorted by record projections from FiveThirtyEight's new RAPTOR system.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 30. New York Knicks
B/R Projected Starting Five: Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Dennis Smith Jr. has only recently been upgraded to "full participant at practice" status. Even if he was fully healthy, though, Payton might have the inside track on the starting job.
Over the last two seasons, Payton has significant advantages in box plus/minus, true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage and assist rate. And with Barrett and Randle in the starting five, there's plenty of usage already accounted for.
Morris provides some toughness (and he sure seems out to prove it this preseason), and Robinson may be the most intriguing player here.
Among rookies with at least 1,000 minutes, Robinson's box plus/minus ranks sixth all-time.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 29. Cleveland Cavaliers
B/R Projected Starting Five: Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
Sexton, Osman, Love and Thompson have already started multiple preseason games together. Coach John Beilein hasn't gone all-in on the dual-point guard alignment with Sexton and Garland yet, but consider this a prediction that he gets there before opening night.
If both are in the organization's long-term plans, they need to be able to coexist. And there's no reason to delay trying.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 28. Charlotte Hornets
B/R Projected Starting Five: Terry Rozier, Dwayne Bacon, Nicolas Batum, Miles Bridges, Cody Zeller
This is the group Charlotte has been trotting out in the preseason, and boy, could it have a tough time scoring.
The Hornets' two leading scorers in 2018-19, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, are gone. Last season, the team scored nearly seven fewer points per 100 possessions when both were off the floor, per PBP Stats. Their replacements are Rozier, who has career highs of 11.3 points and 39.5 percent from the field, and Bacon, who's entering his third season after averaging 7.3 in Year 2.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 27. Atlanta Hawks
B/R Projected Starting Five: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, John Collins, Alex Len
Atlanta has one of the most exciting young trios in the league with Young, Huerter and Collins. Alex Len posted a career high in points per game in his first season with Atlanta. And if either Hunter or Cam Reddish pops, the future gets even more exciting.
Eventually, the ideal frontcourt should probably be Reddish, Hunter and Collins. But it may take coach Lloyd Pierce a bit to get to that.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 26. Washington Wizards
B/R Projected Starting Five: Ish Smith, Bradley Beal, Justin Anderson, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant
This is a lineup that puts a lot on Beal's shoulders. Unless Hachimura is way ahead of schedule, there just aren't a lot of other options on the roster who can put real pressure on a defense.
General manager Tommy Sheppard has so far rebuffed any notions that Beal will be made available, but a few months watching this team could soften his stance on tanking.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 25. Memphis Grizzlies
B/R Projected Starting Five: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jae Crowder, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson
Morant's playmaking chops look NBA ready. And putting them on display with Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson is going to make the Grizzlies a sneaky League-Pass darling. Even if Brooks can't get back on track after his injury-plagued sophomore campaign, Memphis has the makings of an up-and-comer.
Now, the question here is what happens in the frontcourt. Jonas Valanciunas would likely be the starting 5, but his status for the opener is in question following Memphis shutting him down for the rest of the preseason.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 24. Sacramento Kings
B/R Projected Starting Five: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley, Dewayne Dedmon
If I had my druthers, the Kings would go a little smaller with Barnes at the 4 and Bagley at the 5. Bogdan Bogdanovic needs plenty of minutes too.
But in the midst of the positionless revolution, even the most progressive teams have been hesitant to start games with their more positionless players.
The Kings are no exception, and Dedmon's a pretty good reason to stick with a traditional 5. Among those with at least 300 three-point attempts over the last three seasons, Karl-Anthony Towns is the only player who matches or exceeds Dedmon's true shooting percentage, rebounding percentage and block percentage.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 23. Phoenix Suns
B/R Projected Starting Five: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton
The Suns may still be a long shot for the playoffs (FiveThirtyEight gives them a 12 percent chance), but they shouldn't be quite as much of a schedule "gimme" as they have been in years past.
Rubio takes a little pressure off Devin Booker as a ball-handler, even if defenses might ignore him when he's off the ball. Cameron Johnson looks every bit the outside marksman he was advertised to be. Dario Saric still has potential as a playmaking 4 and is a good theoretical fit alongside Ayton.
And speaking of Ayton, his rookie campaign was overshadowed by Luka Doncic and Trae Young, but he has a good shot to be special. Among rookies with at least 1,500 minutes in the three-point era, Ayton's 22nd in average game score. And everyone in front of him played significantly more minutes.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 22. Detroit Pistons
B/R Projected Starting Five: Reggie Jackson, Bruce Brown, Tony Snell, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond
Griffin was 16th in the NBA in threes per game last season. His evolution from human highlight reel to stretch 4 has been nothing short of remarkable. The success or failure of this lineup still feels dependent on the rest of the bunch hitting shots, though.
Reggie Jackson's career-high 36.9 percent from deep last season is encouraging, but his career mark (33.3) is worrisome. Tony Snell will help (38.2 percent from three in his career). But the inclusion that seems obvious, Luke Kennard starting at the 2, has yet to happen this preseason. Perhaps Dwane Casey prefers a potential flamethrower off the bench.
Regardless of how they start games, the Pistons will need as much shooting around Drummond as possible.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 21. Chicago Bulls
B/R Projected Starting Five: Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr.
Satoransky is exactly the kind of ball-moving, floor-spacing, positionless 1 the Bulls should start alongside LaVine. Those two instantly make up one of the league's most athletic and switchy backcourts.
Chicago could continue that trend at the forward spots with Otto Porter and Thaddeus Young, reserving the 5 spot for Markkanen. But, as is the case with Sacramento, it feels like a more traditional look is on the way. And the Markkanen/Carter combination is probably the long-term solution at power forward and center.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 20. Brooklyn Nets
B/R Projected Starting Five: Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen
Brooklyn has actually been a little experimental with its starting frontcourt. Rodions Kurucs and Prince have both started at the 4 this preseason. DeAndre Jordan and Allen have both started at the 5.
There are probably arguments for most combinations, but the youth of Allen and the secondary playmaking of Prince win out here.
There may be some question over Kyrie's facial injury, but if he's good to go, he starts. The other two spots, those belonging to LeVert and Harris, have been chalk this preseason.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 19. San Antonio Spurs
B/R Projected Starting Five: Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl
Aldridge, DeRozan and Forbes were mainstays of the starting five last season. With Murray and Derrick White both in the mix this season, there is a temptation to bump Forbes, but his shooting (42.6 percent from deep last season) will be desperately needed in a unit that has almost none.
Swapping Rudy Gay for Poeltl might help in that regard, but he picked up most 2018-19 starts down the stretch, and then started every Spurs postseason game. And finally, Murray over White is what the team has been doing this preseason.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 18. New Orleans Pelicans
B/R Projected Starting Five: Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors
The biggest question for this starting five was whether J.J. Redick would start. But when the Pelicans have had everyone available, this has been the alignment.
Shooting is a concern with this group, but enough fast breaks and Zion's "way ahead of schedule" off-ball IQ should mitigate some of that.
Plus, mixing Redick and Nicolo Melli early will help.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 17. Portland Trail Blazers
B/R Projected Starting Five: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside
Collins is better suited to play center, but Portland really doesn't have a lot of options at the 4 after letting Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu go.
Perhaps smaller lineups with Hood at the 4 would make sense, but that's just begging for trouble defensively.
Even with Collins and Whiteside inside, that end of the floor might be a problem. The hope is that Lillard and McCollum can provide enough offense to offset the weaknesses.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 16. Miami Heat
B/R Projected Starting Five: Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo
Point Winslow was a fun story last season, but it's tough to imagine Miami going all-in on that if Goran Dragic is all the way back (at least not to start games).
There are also options for a smaller-ball 4, including James Johnson, who recently returned to practice intent on "earning my respect back," per David Wilson of the Miami Herald.
In the preseason, Meyers Leonard has been getting the nod. And if Olynyk still isn't ready to go for opening night, Leonard may continue to start.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 15. Orlando Magic
B/R Projected Starting Five: D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic
In an offseason packed with player movement, the Magic were one of the only teams that came close to standing pat.
That makes predicting their starting five fairly easy. Al-Farouq Aminu may have an argument to get into the first unit, but going with last season's lineup is the safe bet.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 14. Indiana Pacers
B/R Projected Starting Five: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, TJ Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
Somebody's getting bumped when Victor Oladipo returns from injury, but this lineup is a pretty natural fit right now.
The obvious talking point is Sabonis and Turner playing together. Traditional frontcourts are rare these days, but there's enough shooting and playmaking to get by on offense. The bigger question is who's more willing and able to defend the perimeter.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 13. Minnesota Timberwolves
B/R Projected Starting Five: Jeff Teague, Jarrett Culver, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Karl-Anthony Towns
The only question mark is the fifth spot, occupied here by Culver. He has yet to start a game this preseason, but he is the team's leading scorer through three games.
His role would be a little different alongside the rest of the starters, but he's shown enough already to get his chance with that group.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 12. Toronto Raptors
B/R Projected Starting Five: Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Following Danny Green's and Kawhi Leonard's departures, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby have giant snow shoes to fill for the Raptors. Of course, they don't have to be stars, but any shot at successfully defending their title largely depends on those two breaking out.
Increased responsibility for Siakam and Lowry (who's been there before) will be huge, as well.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 11. Boston Celtics
B/R Projected Starting Five: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis
Positions 1 through 4 are pretty obvious for Boston. Enes Kanter, Robert Williams and Theis all have a shot at starting at the 5, though.
Kanter seems best served as a heat-check guy off the bench. Williams is still fairly raw. That leaves Theis, who's a solid positional defender and shot 38.8 percent from three last season.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 10. Dallas Mavericks
B/R Projected Starting Five: Delon Wright, Tim Hardaway, Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell
I'm as surprised as you that the Mavericks rose this high in FiveThirtyEight's projection model. But all five of the players listed here are forecast for at least three wins above replacement. Doncic is projected for 9.2, which puts him at No. 19 leaguewide.
For the most part, the fit between all five is fairly seamless. Some may want to push Porzingis to the 5, which makes plenty of sense, but Powell moves well enough to guard playmaking 4s outside.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 9. Oklahoma City Thunder
B/R Projected Starting Five: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andre Roberson, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams
Another surprise ranking from FiveThirtyEight, though it maybe shouldn't be. The system doesn't account for the possibility of a midseason fire sale. And if that doesn't happen, OKC might just be good.
CP3 finished first in the NBA in real plus/minus as recently as 2017-18. SGA appears to have star potential. Gallo was 11th in offensive real plus/minus last season. And Adams seems poised for an explosion in rebounding numbers now that he's no longer the primary box-out man for Russell Westbrook.
The question in the starting five, of course, is Roberson. After missing all of last season, he's been day-to-day throughout the preseason. If he's ready to go for opening night, his defense feels like an ideal fit in a lineup that should have plenty of scoring from Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 8. Los Angeles Lakers
B/R Projected Starting Five: LeBron James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
There's been some talk about finally designating LeBron as the actual point guard. Given the makeup of the roster, the Lakers may have to do just that, especially if AD continues to insist on being a power forward.
Between those two, Kyle Kuzma and Jared Dudley, L.A. has four rotation players who should log the bulk of their minutes at the 4. LeBron is the one who makes the most sense elsewhere.
With him in place at the 1 and AD at the 4, everything else just sort of falls into place. Green's an almost perfect complement to those two. KCP can be, as well. Between those two, the Lakers have one of the league's best 3-and-D wing combinations.
That just leaves the question of who plays center. At this point in their careers, McGee is the much more dangerous roll threat and is probably easier to trust defending the perimeter too.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 7. Golden State Warriors
B/R Projected Starting Five: Stephen Curry, D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney
After being the league's foregone conclusion for each of the last three seasons, the Warriors enter 2019-20 without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. And while that obviously makes them worse, it also rockets them up the intrigue leaderboard.
How will Curry and Russell coexist? Can Draymond be playoff Draymond for a full season? Who starts at the 3 and 5? And perhaps most intriguing, what are the chances of a return for 2015-16 Curry?
If Golden State gets those versions of Curry and Draymond, the rest of the starting five may not matter all that much. Those two alone would keep the Warriors in the picture of legitimate contenders.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 6. Utah Jazz
B/R Projected Starting Five: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O'Neale, Rudy Gobert
There are a few ways Utah could go with the forward positions. Joe Ingles and Bogdanovic provide the most shooting. Jeff Green with either of them is strong on offense and might put a little more pressure on the rim.
O'Neale, theoretically, provides the shooting (38.6 percent from deep last season) and is probably the best defender of the bunch. Plus, he's a low-usage player, which leaves plenty of scoring opportunities for Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic and Gobert.
And Ingles as the backup playmaker is a role Utah has found success with in the past.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 5. Philadelphia 76ers
B/R Projected Starting Five: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid
In his annual League Pass rankings, ESPN's Zach Lowe rattled off a number of the questions that make his most watchable team so fascinating:
"I have so many questions. How will their Gigantor starting five of Josh Richardson, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Horford and Joel Embiid play on each end? Can Simmons and Embiid find a pace that suits each of them? Where is Simmons standing and moving when he doesn't have the ball -- especially when Embiid is posting up? Will we see more Simmons-Embiid pick-and-rolls?"
The so-called "Gigantor" lineup is the most intriguing aspect of this team. As the league has trended more and more toward positionless basketball, plenty of lineups have naturally gotten smaller.
But Philadelphia has a number of players who show the potential of center-sized guys with perimeter skills.
Horford's combination of defense, playmaking and shooting have made him one of the game's most unique bigs for years. Embiid's the closest thing to a traditional big here, but even he likes to take the ball outside more often than his predecessors from the '90s.
And then there's Simmons.
"The truth is Simmons has spent his first two NBA seasons playing out of position," the Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote. "He's not a point guard; he's a center."
So, what do you do with three centers in one starting five?
It helps that all three can pass. And, in theory, two can shoot. Defense shouldn't be a huge issue either. Simmons and Horford can both cover multiple positions.
But if Simmons can't force defenses to pay attention to him outside when he doesn't have the ball, things could get crowded inside the three-point line.
Richardson and Harris should stretch the floor a bit. They're plenty switchable on defense, as well.
Even with all the fair questions this lineup and team inspire, the level of sheer talent is off the charts. And in the end, talent answers an awful lot of questions.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 4. Los Angeles Clippers
B/R Projected Starting Five: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Kawhi Leonard, JaMychal Green, Montrezl Harrell
Even before Paul George comes back, the Clippers have one of the best, and most balanced, starting fives in the league.
In many ways, it's the same formula that just worked famously for the Raptors: Kawhi Leonard as the clear No. 1, surrounded by loads of two-way talent.
No one above is on Lowry's level, but Beverley's probably a step up on defense. Shamet will provide floor spacing for Kawhi. Ditto for Green, who shot 40.3 percent from three last season. And Harrell had a Siakam-like breakout, going from 11.0 points in 2017-18 to 16.6 last season while staying well above the .600 mark in true shooting.
Then, of course, there's the superstar it all revolves around in Kawhi.
"The two-time Finals MVP is near the top of our list not just because he embodies everything you want from a No. 1 offensive option and might be the best perimeter defender of all-time, but because of his steely resolve," CBS Sports' James Herbert wrote of Kawhi's spot at No. 2 on the site's top 100. "Everything he does is at his own pace, and, in the playoffs, if you need someone to stop a run or keep everybody composed, there is no one better."
There was a feeling of inevitability that followed Kawhi throughout the 2019 postseason. And there's no reason to believe it'll abandon him with the Clippers.
He can score at all three levels. He and Beverley might be the best perimeter defensive tandem in the league (just think about what happens when George is added to that). And he even showed some playmaking chops in the preseason, dishing out six assists in 11 minutes against the Denver Nuggets.
If that gets added to Leonard's repertoire, there really are no weaknesses in his game.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 3. Denver Nuggets
B/R Projected Starting Five: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
When he's the foundational piece of a lineup, it's almost guaranteed to be good. That at least three other members of the starting five—Murray, Harris and Millsap—should all be pluses makes this one of the NBA's top first units, even with a major question mark at the 3.
Last season, Barton posted a below-replacement-level box plus/minus. Torrey Craig provides more defense, but he struggles to spread the floor. Juancho Hernangomez has had issues with consistency. And Malik Beasley may be a little undersized to defend some of the game's bigger wings.
Right now, Barton seems to have the spot almost by default. Could Michael Porter Jr. eventually snag the spot?
He hasn't looked as fluid athletically as anticipated, but Porter has produced this preseason. If he can work out the kinks that were a natural result of basically two years out of the game, Porter could raise the ceiling of an already title-contending starting five.
Over the last two seasons, the Nuggets are plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions when Murray, Harris, Millsap and Jokic are all on the floor, according to PBP Stats.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 2. Milwaukee Bucks
B/R Projected Starting Five: George Hill, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Milwaukee is coming off a 60-22 campaign in which Giannis averaged an absurd 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists in 32.8 minutes.
The only major (in name) loss from last season's starting five is Brogdon. But despite his stellar individual numbers, the loss may not be as significant as some think.
Last season, the Bucks were plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions when Brogdon and Giannis shared the floor. That number jumped to a whopping plus-13.2 when Giannis was on the floor without Brogdon.
The standard lineup caveats apply, including the level of competition faced, but the Brogdon-less alignments actually logged over 1,000 minutes. That's a decent sample size.
Does that necessarily mean that Matthews, Pat Connaughton, Hill or some other Buck can make up for Brogdon's 15.6 points on 50-40-90 shooting splits? That's still a pretty big ask, but the level of talent throughout the rest of the starting five should mean Milwaukee will be fine.
When Giannis has the ball, there's still plenty of shooting from Middleton, Lopez and the rest of the supporting cast to pad his number of kickout assists. And if defenses don't want to collapse on those drives, Antetokounmpo will just go ahead and yam on the single coverage.
Now, there is one potential surprise in the projected starting five. As of the date of this story's publishing, the start of the regular season is in jeopardy for Eric Bledsoe, who suffered a cartilage fracture between his ribs. At this point in his career, Hill isn't on the same level as Bledsoe defensively, but he is a solid floor-spacer for a team that has the ball dominated by a forward.
FiveThirtyEight Projection: 1. Houston Rockets
B/R Projected Starting Five: Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, James Harden, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela
Yes, they played together in OKC. Yes, they've both posted gaudy assist numbers that suggest a willingness to share. But there will almost certainly be an adjustment period for Russ and Harden.
Westbrook has the highest single-season usage percentage of all time. Harden is second on that list. Between the two of them, they have three of the top four, four of the top 10 and seven of the top 40 usage seasons ever recorded.
If each finds the necessary balance between ball-dominance and ball movement, this team is going to be devastating offensively.
When Westbrook drives are flanked by Harden, Gordon and Tucker outside, as well as Capela in the dunker's spot, defenses are going to be forced into all kinds of difficult decisions.
And more catch-and-shoot opportunities for the already efficient Harden might bump his effective field-goal percentage even higher.
The biggest question is probably what defenses do with Westbrook when Harden is on the ball. The natural inclination would be to sag off. Westbrook probably won't make too many defenders pay for that with threes. But attacking defenders mid-closeout or getting a three- or four-foot running start could make Westbrook's drives more difficult to stop.
Defensively, the two superstars aren't going to lock many people down on the perimeter, but Capela, Tucker and Gordon are all plus defenders.
When you put it all together, this is clearly one of the league's top starting fives, if not the outright best.