Ranking the Greatest NBA Starting Lineups of the Last 20 YearsApril 3, 2020
Ranking the Greatest NBA Starting Lineups of the Last 20 Years
The NBA's 2019-20 campaign was suspended with over a month left on the original schedule, but the league's 30 teams still trotted out 519 different starting lineups.
Now, imagine how many different starting lineups have taken an NBA floor in the last 20 years. And then imagine trying to whittle that number down to the absolute best.
The league is loaded with talent. The overwhelming majority of the best basketball players in the world are there each year. And we've seen plenty of dominant teams and lineups since 2000-01.
In the interest of brevity, we'll merely share the factors that went into trying to find the best starting fives:
- Raw plus/minus over the last 20 years;
- Net rating (net points per 100 possessions) over the last 20 years;
- Championship points (one point for a championship, none for years without a title); and
- Over 100,000 votes from fans and readers.
Eventually, over 500 lineups from the last 20 years were reduced to 45 finalists by ranking each by the three objective criteria above and then sorting the finalists by the average of those ranks.
Finally, the fan vote was factored in, and extra weight was given to that and championships in settling on a top 15.
Even with that process, the list felt like it was missing some heavyweights from the last two decades. They can be found in the honorable mentions, with the top 15 after that.
Takes deep breath. Let's do one(ish) stat for each of the following honorable mentions.
Divac, Bibby, Webber, Christie, Stojakovic (2001-02 Sacramento Kings)
This 61-21 Kings squad pushed the powerhouse Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
Griffin, Nowitzki, Finley, Bradley, Nash (2002-03 Dallas Mavericks)
The trio of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley was known mostly for its offense, but in 2002-03, this starting lineup allowed just 93.9 points per 100 possessions when it was on the floor.
World Peace, Foster, Tinsley, Miller, O'Neal (2003-04 Indiana Pacers)
In a sample of over 500 minutes, this lineup outscored opponents by an absurd 22.4 points per 100 possessions, while allowing just 89.5 points per 100 possessions.
Lewis, James, Evans, Ridnour, Allen (2004-05 Seattle SuperSonics)
These Sonics weren't far behind the mid-'00s Suns in the three-point revolution. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were third and eighth, respectively, in threes per game in 2004-05.
Williams, Wade, Haslem, O'Neal, Walker (2005-06 Miami Heat)
This starting lineup won a title, but it actually had a negative plus/minus in the Finals. And that remains true when you limit the sample to the four straight games Miami won to secure the championship.
Nowitzki, Terry, Howard, Harris, Dampier (2006-07 Dallas Mavericks)
Fresh off their devastating loss in the 2006 Finals, the Mavericks posted an .817 winning percentage, which remains tied for the second-best mark of the last 20 years.
Ellis, Jackson, Harrington, Davis, Biedrins (2007-08 Golden State Warriors)
That Mavericks team was then upset in the first round by the "We Believe Warriors," who took those good vibes into 2007-08 and got a 14.5 net rating from their starting five.
Carter, Lewis, Barnes, Howard, Nelson (2009-10 Orlando Magic)
This isn't the Magic squad that went to the Finals. There's a case for Hedo Turkoglu and the 2008-09 lineup that posted a 23.7 net rating in relatively limited minutes. But this team was arguably better, at least in the regular season. The 2009-10 Magic led the NBA in simple rating system, and this lineup was plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions in over 700 minutes.
Kidd, Stevenson, Marion, Nowitzki, Chandler (2010-11 Dallas Mavericks)
Like the 2005-06 Heat, this championship-winning lineup had a negative plus/minus during the Finals. I suppose turnabout is fair play (this squad vanquished LeBron James' Heatles in their first year together).
Hibbert, Hill, George, Stephenson, West (2012-13 and 2013-14 Indiana Pacers)
This lineup was third in total plus/minus over the last 20 seasons, outscoring opponents by 716 points in 3,516 minutes.
Millsap, Horford, Teague, Carroll, Korver (2014-15 Atlanta Hawks)
On February 4, 2015, the Hawks announced: "Our starting 5 will share East Player of the Month honors for January!" This starting five led a remarkable 17-0 January.
Paul, Redick, Jordan, Griffin, Barnes (2014-15 Los Angeles Clippers)
In 2014-15, when the Warriors' half-decade dynasty kicked off and the Hawks won 60 games, this Clippers lineup had, by far, the best raw plus/minus (plus-449, compared to Golden State's second-place plus-330).
Simmons, Redick, Covington, Embiid, Saric (2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers)
This lineup's plus-268 point differential led the NBA in 2017-18 and was nearly 100 points better than second place.
Paul, Tucker, Gordon, Harden, Capela (2018-19 Houston Rockets)
The Rockets, and this lineup specifically, deserve credit for going toe-to-toe with the Warriors at the peak of their powers, while several other franchises opted to wait them out. When these five were on the floor, Houston scored 114.4 points per 100 possessions.
Siakam, Lowry, Gasol, Green, Leonard (2018-19 Toronto Raptors)
Another lineup with a relatively small sample, this title-winning starting five was plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions in all regular-season and playoff minutes.
Lopez, Matthews, Bledsoe, Middleton, Antetokounmpo (2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks)
This lineup was an otherworldly plus-19 points per 100 possessions this season. It attempted 38.7 threes per 100 possessions and had a 55.2 effective field-goal percentage. The league-average effective field-goal percentage was 52.8.
Exhales...and now, on to the top 15.
15. Marion, Richardson, Johnson, Stoudemire, Nash (2004-05 Phoenix Suns)
Despite having just one season together, this lineup is sixth in total plus/minus over the last 20 years.
It also helped usher in today's NBA. When these five were on the floor, 29.2 percent of their shots were from three. The league-average three-point-attempt rate that season was 19.6.
14. Bowen, Duncan, Jackson, Parker, Robinson (2002-03 San Antonio Spurs)
The 2002-03 campaign was David Robinson's swan song. And while his role was reduced significantly for the playoffs, ending his Hall of Fame career with a title felt fitting.
This lineup started 23 of a possible 24 playoff games that year and had a negative plus/minus in those contests (something of a developing theme for title winners).
But they were dominant in the regular season, registering a 15.5 net rating and holding opponents to 94.6 points per 100 possessions in over 600 minutes.
13. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Roberson, Adams (2014-15 and 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder)
During two seasons as the starters for OKC, this lineup outscored opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculous number to come from a sample of more than 1,000 minutes.
While these five were on the floor in those two seasons, Kevin Durant averaged 27.3 points per 75 possessions with a 54.3 effective field-goal percentage that was over four points better than the league average for those years. Westbrook averaged 22.0 points and 11.8 assists per 75 possessions as part of this lineup.
12. Chalmers, James, Bosh, Wade, Haslem (2011-12 and 2012-13 Miami Heat)
This lineup finished fifth in the fan vote and of course received credit for winning a title, but merely good (rather than mind-blowing) marks in total plus/minus and net rating held it back.
Of course, 2012 was the year LeBron broke through and won his first title. After averaging just 17.8 points per game in a losing effort against the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, he put up 28.6 on the way to dismantling the Thunder in five games in 2012.
11. Smith, Bowen, Duncan, Parker, Robinson (2001-02 San Antonio Spurs)
The aforementioned OKC lineup and these Spurs are the only starting fives in the top 15 that didn't have any championships to lift their average rank.
But this team went 37-9 (a 66-win pace) in games in which this group started. The lineup's net rating was a whopping 18.5.
Tim Duncan scored 26.7 points per 75 possessions when he shared the floor with these four. Steve Smith, who had his last double-digit-scoring season in 2001-02, averaged 17.0 points per 75 possessions and shot 47.1 percent from three when he was on the floor with the starting five.
10. Bynum, World Peace, Gasol, Fisher, Bryant (2009-10 to 2011-12 Lakers)
Over the last 20 years, there haven't been many starting lineups that lasted more than a season together. Even 2000s and 2010s mainstays like the Lakers, Spurs, Heat and Warriors shuffled through plenty over the last two decades, often in the midst of winning back-to-back titles.
But L.A. started the majority of its games over three seasons with Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In 2,403 regular-season and playoff minutes, the lineup outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions.
And of course, it went 16-7 in the 2010 postseason on the way to Kobe's fifth and final championship.
"I just wanted it so bad. I wanted it so, so bad," Bryant said after beating the Boston Celtics in seven games, per Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, then of the New York Times. "Just got one more than Shaq. You know how I am. I don't forget anything."
Bryant's legendary competitiveness was on vivid display in this lineup and that Finals. He shot 6-of-24 from the field in the deciding game, but he didn't let an off shooting night derail his chance at that fifth ring. The 15 rebounds he grabbed were just one off his career high.
This lineup also featured Fisher, who is in the top 20 in Lakers history in win shares. His timely shooting and willingness to play off the ball made him an ideal complementary 1 to Kobe.
Then there was World Peace, who was clearly past his prime by the time he joined the Lakers but still shot 33.5 percent from three and ranked 33rd among non-bigs in defensive box plus/minus during his time in L.A.
Gasol, meanwhile, led the Lakers in wins over replacement player (though Kobe had more in the playoffs) during the seasons in which this starting five was deployed.
"The reality is I wouldn't win those two championships without Pau," Kobe said of his No. 2 at the 2018 Oscars. "L.A. wouldn't have those two championships without Pau Gasol. We know that. Everybody knows that."
And finally, there's Bynum, whose unusual departure from the league may overshadow just how good he was in this era. In 2011-12, he averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game and was named Second Team All-NBA.
With all five together, the Lakers were big, physical and experienced. And there was no question as to where the offense would typically funnel. Surrounding Kobe with this kind of lineup at the end of his prime helped secure that fifth title and the lead over Shaq.
9. Wallace, Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Wallace (2003-04 to 2005-06 Pistons)
This Detroit Pistons team is often held up as the example for winning without a superstar. And there may be a hint of truth to that, but the numbers over the three seasons in which Detroit deployed this starting lineup suggest the Pistons weren't hurting for talent.
From 2003-04 to 2005-06, Chauncey Billups was 14th in the NBA in box plus/minus, Ben Wallace was 24th, Rasheed Wallace was 39th, Tayshaun Prince was 69th and Richard Hamilton was 92nd.
During those three seasons, when those five were all on the floor, Detroit was plus-1,042 across all regular-season and playoff minutes. The No. 2 lineup in that stretch (the Suns group detailed earlier) was plus-493, less than half of the Pistons' total.
This Pistons lineup was extremely well-balanced—especially for the era in which it played. In the 2000s, when games were often grind-it-out, defense-first affairs, a lineup anchored by the stopping power of four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace—and supplemented by Rasheed Wallace and Prince—had a leg up on most others.
On the other end, they got just enough offense from Hamilton's mid-range and off-ball game, Billups' ahead-of-his-time floor spacing and generalship and Rasheed's ability to pull opposing bigs out of the paint.
All the pieces fit together so well. And wins followed. From 2003-04 to 2005-06 (and including the postseasons), when Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Wallace and Wallace started, the Pistons went 166-61. That's a 60-win pace over three years.
8. Duncan, Splitter, Green, Leonard, Parker (2012-13 to 2014-15 Spurs)
For years, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has tinkered with lineups, rested established players and relied on the depth of the rosters assembled by R.C. Buford and the rest of San Antonio's front office.
But from 2012-13 to 2014-15, there was pretty good stability in terms of what the starting five would be. In those years, most games began with Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.
The results were an average of nearly 60 wins per season, two trips to the Finals and one of the game's ultimate revenge titles.
One of the lasting images (perhaps the lasting image) of the 2013 Finals is Ray Allen's Game 6 buzzer-beater that preserved the Heat and delayed the presentation of the championship trophy to San Antonio for over a year.
Zach Lowe, then of Grantland, summed up how perfectly everything came together for the Spurs over the next 12 months:
"The Spurs' fifth championship symbolizes everything we've been bringing up all year: the triumph of the NBA's beautiful game; the crowning achievement for three stars who took less money to stay together; a cathartic response from perhaps the most crushing defeat in NBA history; and the end point of the franchise's evolution from pound-the-post bully ball to a fast-paced, triple-happy style of play that put them ahead of almost every other team in adapting to the NBA's newer rules."
The Spurs as a whole adapted to—and in many ways, were at the forefront of—the new style of basketball. Ball and player movement were critical. Threes were more common.
But this particular lineup, which played few minutes compared to other starting groups, was still something of a throwback.
San Antonio's three-point-attempt rate over the three seasons in which this was the primary starting five was 16.4 when this lineup was on the floor. The league average of the time was 25.7.
That the Spurs started with a lineup that could grind opponents down, before throwing Manu Ginobili or Boris Diaw out there, was like a boxer looking to establish control of a fight before unleashing the haymakers.
It worked to masterful effect, thanks in large part to this lineup that helped secure the final title of a dynasty that lasted over 20 years.
7 and 6. A Pair of Shaq-and-Kobe Lineups
7. Horry, Fox, O'Neal, Fisher, Bryant (2001-02 Lakers)
This group only started two games in the 2001-02 season, but it still earned points for the title in the ranking exercise because it started 14 of a possible 19 playoff games (including all four Finals games).
When Fisher, Kobe, Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Shaquille were all on the floor that postseason, L.A. scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions and was plus-15.6 points per 100 possessions.
Beyond the numbers, this was the year Shaq and Kobe won their final title together. And the passing of the torch seemed to be on the way. O'Neal led the Lakers in playoff scoring in 2002, but Bryant led the team in both minutes and field-goal attempts per game.
6. Grant, Fox, O'Neal, Fisher, Bryant (2000-01 Lakers)
One year earlier, the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers started most of their postseason games with four of the five players listed above. The only difference was Horace Grant at the 4.
Another similarity to 2001-02 is the fact that the playoff starting five was not the most-used starting five in the regular season. It's almost as if coach Phil Jackson was sitting on an ace in the hole and slow-playing his hand.
Whether intentional or not, the switch to this lineup for the 2001 playoffs worked about as well as possible. It started all 16 games and went 15-1 on the way to the organization's second straight title.
Kobe was predictably brilliant during the playoff run, averaging 29.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game, and Shaq was right there with him. The big man averaged 30.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.4 blocks per game on the way to his second (of three) Finals MVPs.
5. Love, Irving, Thompson, James, Smith (2015-16 and 2016-17 Cavaliers)
There is one 73-win team in NBA history. And there is one team in NBA history to beat a 73-win team in the playoffs.
Yes, some will insist that Draymond Green's suspension for Game 5 serves as an asterisk on this title run, but as The Athletic's No Dunks podcast pointed out, we can play that game with plenty of championship teams.
A championship is a championship. And one that includes coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the team with the single-season wins record deserves all the credit it gets.
In that Finals, Cleveland was plus-11.4 points per 100 possessions when Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were on the floor. And that number ballooned to plus-28.1 over the three-game winning streak that secured the title.
For the series, LeBron averaged a seemingly impossible 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. Cleveland was plus-26 in the 292 minutes he played and minus-22 in the 44 minutes he sat.
LeBron gained his championship mettle in Miami, but this is the run that should make basketball historians think twice about declaring Michael Jordan the no-brainer GOAT.
"That one right there made me the greatest player of all time," LeBron said on More Than an Athlete. "That's what I felt."
And there's some evidence to back those feelings. If you're among those who favor longevity over peak, LeBron's resume is already hard to ignore. It's going to be even more difficult by the time he retires.
Despite what some of those numbers might suggest, LeBron didn't single-handedly win this series.
Kyrie's 19.1 average game score over those seven contests towered over Stephen Curry's 13.1. Kyrie's 27.1 points per night were huge, but they only scratch the surface of the impact he made in that series. His sidestep three in Game 7 may well have been the nail in the coffin.
If that wasn't it, Love's stellar defense on Curry might have been. For much of the series, Love looked unplayable against the speed of the Warriors and the way they spread the floor. He averaged just 26.3 minutes and 8.5 points in the seven games. But he came through in his most important moment.
LeBron's performance in the 2016 Finals was legendary, but this entire lineup pitched in. Thompson's 10.1 rebounds and Smith's 2.3 threes per game helped too. This starting five represents one of the most memorable titles in league history.
4. Bogut, Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green (2014-15 and 2015-16 Warriors)
Yes, I just tried to discount the arguments many make about Draymond's being suspended in the middle of the 2016 Finals, but that doesn't mean they can't still be made.
It's not unreasonable to think that Warriors team might have gone down as the greatest of all time had Green refrained from hitting LeBron below the belt in Game 4.
They won an NBA-record 73 games in the regular season. Curry had arguably the greatest individual offensive campaign of all time. And the Warriors were plus-23 in the 240 minutes Draymond played in the Finals, compared to minus-27 in the 96 minutes he sat.
Imagine how much differently NBA history could've unwound without that suspension and had Golden State avoided that three-game skid (not a given, but certainly more likely with Green available for Game 5).
Now, this starting five is known for a lot more than that 2016 Finals. So, let's look at the historic two-year run it went on.
In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Green and Andrew Bogut was an NBA-best plus-526. The Warriors had a 56.7 effective field-goal percentage with that lineup on the floor, nearly seven points better than the league average of the time.
Curry was the superstar who won two MVPs, including the only unanimous MVP in league history, but all five starters made critical contributions.
Thompson's off-ball movement and picture-perfect (and lightning-fast) release scrambled defenses, allowing Curry and Green to attack mistakes. He also provided invaluable perimeter defense, often against the opposition's point guard, which allowed Curry to give more on the offensive end.
Barnes was a switchable defender who shot 39.4 percent from three over those two seasons.
He didn't get a Defensive Player of the Year win until 2016-17, but Green was one of the game's most versatile players on that end throughout these two years. His point forward skills made the high pick-and-roll with Curry one of the most dangerous sets we've ever seen.
And then there's Bogut, whose defense and passing were underappreciated at the time. Over these two seasons, he had a 7.1 net-rating swing. And he averaged 12.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.7 blocks per 75 possessions.
Like most of the other lineups listed here, all five of these players fit together seamlessly. And over the two seasons and playoffs in which it was Golden State's primary starting five, the team went 110-21 (a 69-win pace).
3. Pierce, Rondo, Perkins, Garnett, Allen (2007-08 to 2009-10 Celtics)
It's a shame that a divide seemingly remains between Ray Allen and many of the Boston Celtics of this era, because few groups across history fit so well (and so quickly) on the floor.
In the summer of 2007, Boston acquired both Allen and Kevin Garnett, who were 25th and ninth, respectively, in box plus/minus the previous season. Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen attempted to contextualize the haul:
"Boston is banking on the two trades turning into the most triumphant off-season makeover since the Lakers' in 1996. That summer L.A. acquired the rights to first-round pick Kobe Bryant in a draft-day deal and then signed free agent Shaquille O'Neal a few weeks later, an arranged marriage of superstars that produced three championships before an ugly divorce. Though it is paying $58.5 million to Allen, Garnett and Pierce this season alone—more than the entire payrolls of four NBA teams—Boston would gladly accept a similar scenario. 'In this league if you really want to make something happen, you can,' says Trail Blazers forward James Jones. 'It's just that teams normally don't have the motivation to pull something off like the Celtics did.'"
Boston eventually experienced a similarly ugly divorce, but not before having plenty of success.
Adding Allen's shooting and off-ball movement, as well as Garnett's defense, leadership and all-around game to Paul Pierce instantly made a juggernaut of the Celtics.
They went 66-16 in the first year and won a title. They were 47-12 (and 16-9 in the playoffs) in games that Rajon Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Kendrick Perkins started.
During the three years in which this was Boston's primary starting five, the Celtics were plus-1,062 (plus-13.3 per 100 possessions). They made two trips to the Finals and won one championship.
And the balanced production from all five players—not just the Big Three—during the minutes in which the starters were on the floor laid something of a blueprint for the superteams that followed.
- Pierce: 19.9 points per 75 possessions
- Garnett: 20.9 points per 75 possessions
- Allen: 17.9 points per 75 possessions
- Rondo: 9.3 assists per 75 possessions
- Perkins: 10.3 rebounds per 75 possessions
The connectivity of this group on both ends made it a nightmare for opponents to face for three years.
2 and 1. Curry and KD's Warriors
2. Durant, Curry, Thompson, Green, Pachulia (2016-17 and 2017-18 Warriors)
Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Zaza Pachulia made up Golden State's primary starting five in 2016-17 and 2017-18. It won the title in each of those two seasons and outscored opponents by 16.8 points per 100 possessions when those five were on the floor.
The offense of that group was absurd. It scored 123.1 points per 100 possessions and had a 61.3 effective field-goal percentage. The league's average offensive rating was 108.6 in 2017-18 and 110.4 in 2018-19. The average effective field-goal percentage over both seasons is 52.3.
The individual numbers of Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green were similarly impressive. When this lineup was on the floor during the aforementioned seasons, the stars shined:
- Durant: 23.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists per 75 possessions, 66.5 true shooting percentage
- Curry: 22.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 3.8 threes per 75 possessions, 68.1 true shooting percentage
- Thompson: 22.6 points, 3.9 threes per 75 possessions, 63.8 true shooting percentage
- Green: 10.8, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists points per 75 possessions
There has arguably never been a collection of talent and skill, particularly with this much shooting, like the one that came together for this Warriors team.
Curry had to be defended from pretty much the moment he crossed half court. Thompson, again, was one of the best we've ever seen at moving off the ball. Durant can score from anywhere. And few players across history were as effective as Green at being a lineup's gap-filler. Even Zaza was an above-average player, according to box plus/minus, during these two seasons.
This lineup was loaded. And we may never see another one like it.
1. Durant, Curry, Thompson, Green, Iguodala (2017-18 and 2018-19 Warriors)
Coach Steve Kerr didn't resort to starting this so-called "Hamptons 5" lineup a single time in 2016-17, Durant's first season with the Warriors. And it never started a regular-season game in the three years all five players were on the roster.
But it started enough games in the 2018 and 2019 postseasons to qualify for this exercise. And it was dominant enough in the minutes it played over all three seasons and postseasons to secure the top spot. And this is one of those occasions when the numbers and eye test are in harmony.
Take all of the attributes of Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green detailed above, and add Andre Iguodala's defense and playmaking to the mix and you have a basketball-playing nightmare for the NBA's other 29 teams.
During Golden State's Durant era, the Warriors were plus-17.7 points per 100 possessions when the Hamptons 5 was on the floor.
It's impossible to know if that level of efficiency could've been maintained over a more significant sample size, but there's no question this is among the most talented lineups any NBA team put on the floor over the last 20 years. And, at least according to this exercise, it's the best.
But is it the greatest starting lineup since 2000-01? Again, there were a lot in this era. Feel free to offer your arguments in favor of any other order. Reasonable ones are out there.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Lineup data courtesy of PBP Stats.