The Weakest Link In Every NBA Bubble Team's Starting 5

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJuly 28, 2020

The Weakest Link In Every NBA Bubble Team's Starting 5

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Before the NBA season resumes Thursday near Orlando, Florida, coaches oversaw Monday and will oversee Tuesday their teams' final scrimmages before deciding on their starting lineups for the final eight games of the regular season.

    While most teams will go with what's gotten them this far, some won't be afraid to remove the weakest link.

    Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni has already done just that, swapping Danuel House Jr. out in favor of Eric Gordon. When asked why he made the change, D'Antonio replied, "He's not as good as the other five guys."

    With all 22 teams in the bubble making final rotation evaluations, here is the weakest link in every starting lineup that a coach may consider replacing.

Boston Celtics: C Daniel Theis

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press
    • PG: Kemba Walker
    • SG: Jaylen Brown
    • SF: Gordon Hayward
    • PF: Jayson Tatum
    • C: Daniel Theis

    The Boston Celtics starting lineup is one of the best in basketball, boasting two 2020 All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, a former All-Star in Gordon Hayward and a third 20-point-per game scorer in Jaylen Brown. While Daniel Theis has been an effective center who complements the other starters, he is the weakest link by default.

    Averaging 9.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in his 23.8 minutes per game, Theis has proved himself as a good defender who can do the dirty work and let shoot-first players such as Walker, Tatum and Brown shine.

    Boston's only other starting center options are Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III. Kanter is the more skilled offensive center and one of the NBA's best rebounders, but the Celtics don't need another scorer in the starting lineup. Williams is the team's best rim protector (8.0 block percentage, compared to 5.0 percent for Theis) but is still raw offensively at age 22.

    Even as the fifth-best starter on the team, Theis deserves his spot until Williams is good enough to take it from him.

Brooklyn Nets: PF Rodions Kurucs

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press
    • PG: Jamal Crawford
    • SG: Caris LeVert
    • SF: Joe Harris
    • PF: Rodions Kurucs
    • C: Jarrett Allen

    While Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen have all proved themselves as quality NBA starters this year, Jamal Crawford or Rodions Kurucs could be the weakest link in the Brooklyn Nets starting lineup.

    Crawford, 40, hasn't played in a game in over 15 months and shot just 39.7 percent overall with the Phoenix Suns in 2018-19.

    Kurucs likely became the team's starting power forward by default after positive COVID-19 tests from Taurean Prince and the freshly signed Michael Beasley. In four starts this season, Kurucs averaged 9.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists in just under 20 minutes per game.

    He proved himself as a capable floor spacer (39.0 percent on catch-and-shoot threes) but isn't going to explode offensively the way Crawford can. The Nets could have one of the NBA's best starting lineups next season, but they have some significant holes for now.

Dallas Mavericks: PF Dorian Finney-Smith

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
    • PG: Luka Doncic
    • SG: Seth Curry
    • SF: Tim Hardaway Jr.
    • PF: Dorian Finney-Smith
    • C: Kristaps Porzingis

    While Luka Doncic is already an All-Star starter, and Kristaps Porzingis is a former (and likely future) All-Star himself, the Dallas Mavericks have filled out their starting lineup with three quality specialists.

    Seth Curry can't be considered a weak link, as his 45.3 percent mark from three ranked second in the NBA behind George Hill's 48.0 this season. His 6-of-6 showing from three with 23 points in the Mavericks' first scrimmage, against the Los Angeles Lakers, was a great sign as well.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. has also developed into an excellent outside shooter (40.7 percent this season), and his 15.8 points per game rank third on the team behind Doncic's 28.7 and Porzingis' 19.2.

    This leaves Dorian Finney-Smith, a 6'7" combo forward who does most of his work defensively. The weak link by default, the 27-year-old is an important member of the starting five given his improved outside shooting (career-high 37.4 percent from three) and willingness to contribute in a number of areas without needing the ball in his hands.

Denver Nuggets: SG Gary Harris

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    • PG: Jamal Murray
    • SG: Gary Harris
    • SF: Will Barton
    • PF: Paul Millsap
    • C: Nikola Jokic

    In the starting lineup that's spent the most time together of any in the bubble (735 minutes this season), Gary Harris' offensive regression over the past few years can't be ignored.

    After averaging 17.5 points with 39.6 percent shooting from three in 2017-18, Harris is down to just 10.4 points with a 33.3 percent clip this season. That he still holds a spot in the Denver Nuggets lineup is a testament to his defense, as he ranks fourth among shooting guards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus.

    Still, in a lineup that features an All-Star in Nikola Jokic, a young star guard in Jamal Murray, a still-productive Paul Millsap and a do-everything small forward in Will Barton, Harris is the weakest link.

Houston Rockets: SF Eric Gordon

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    With Eric Gordon entering the starting lineup in favor of Danuel House Jr., the small forward spot continues to be the weak point of the Rockets starting lineup.

    Houston arguably has the most talented backcourt in the league with former MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker are talented defenders who are good enough three-point shooters to keep driving lanes open.

    While Gordon may be a better player, the Rockets starting lineup has been better with House in it. Houston's net rating is plus-10.7 with House and the four full-time starters, compared to plus-7.1 with Gordon.

    Regardless of who gets the nod, both players have their weaknesses. Gordon has had knee issues for years and was shooting just 37.0 percent overall before the season was suspended. House has to rely on others far more to set up his offense (73.1 percent of his two-pointers and 95.6 percent of his three-pointers come off assists), but he can affect the game in other areas without needing the ball.

Indiana Pacers: SF Aaron Holiday

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press
    • PG: Malcolm Brogdon
    • SG: Victor Oladipo
    • SF: Aaron Holiday
    • PF: T.J. Warren
    • C: Myles Turner

    While the Indiana Pacers seem likely to have Victor Oladipo for the restart after originally stating he wouldn't play, Indiana has lost its other All-Star in Domantas Sabonis because of a foot injury.

    Aaron Holiday, a first-round pick in 2018, would have likely taken Oladipo's spot in the backcourt. With Sabonis' injury, the Pacers will use him in a three-guard starting lineup alongside Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon.

    If the Pacers stick with their version of small ball, Holiday stands out as the most inexperienced member of the group. The 23-year-old is averaging 9.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists and shooting 39.4 percent from three in his 23.6 minutes per game.

    In a lineup with two on-ball guards, Holiday will likely play more of a spot-up shooter role as he fills in for Sabonis.

Los Angeles Clippers: C Ivica Zubac

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press
    • PG: Patrick Beverley
    • SG: Paul George
    • SF: Kawhi Leonard
    • PF: Marcus Morris Sr.
    • C: Ivica Zubac

    The Los Angeles Clippers have arguably the best starting five in the NBA, registering a net rating of plus-19.4 after trading for Marcus Morris Sr.

    Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are perennial MVP candidates, Patrick Beverley remains one of the league's toughest defensive guards, and Morris is a multipositional talent on both ends who's averaging a career-high 17.4 points per game.

    This leaves Ivica Zubac as the weak link, though the 23-year-old is quite good in his own right. Per 36 minutes, Zubac is giving the Clippers 15.9 points, 14.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while shooting 60.1 percent overall.

    His lack of outside shooting is an area for growth, and the Clippers typically close games with backup center Montrezl Harrell instead, but Zubac is still a good, young big man to build around.

Los Angeles Lakers: SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
    • PG: LeBron James
    • SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
    • SF: Danny Green
    • PF: Anthony Davis
    • C: JaVale McGee

    No Avery Bradley means a starting job for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who battled JaVale McGee for owner of the weakest link title.

    Despite being the team's fourth-leading scorer behind Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope actually has a negative on-off rating this season (minus-1.6).

    McGee deserves some honorable mention here as well, as backup Dwight Howard has been the better rebounder (20.9 rebound percentage to 18.8 percent for McGee) and more efficient finisher around the rim (81.5 percent from zero to three feet for Howard; 75.3 percent for McGee).

    James and Davis are two of the very best players in all of basketball, and Danny Green is still a good defender and spot-up shooter at age 33.

Memphis Grizzlies: SF Kyle Anderson

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press
    • PG: Ja Morant
    • SG: Dillon Brooks
    • SF: Kyle Anderson
    • PF: Jaren Jackson Jr.
    • C: Jonas Valanciunas

    After Justise Winslow waited months to make his Memphis Grizzlies debut following a trade from the Miami Heat, he suffered a hip injury in practice—which means he'll be out until the 2020-21 season.

    And so Kyle Anderson will return to the starting lineup, a position he held for 20 games before the league went on hiatus.

    Though the Grizzlies were 8-3 with Anderson in the starting lineup along with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks, the five-man unit itself has a terrible net rating of minus-11.3 in 126 minutes.

    Anderson can help Morant with playmaking duties, but the 6'9" forward is an awful three-point shooter (25.8 percent) and plays better off the bench.

Miami Heat: PF Meyers Leonard

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
    • PG: Kendrick Nunn
    • SG: Duncan Robinson
    • SF: Jimmy Butler
    • PF: Meyers Leonard
    • C: Bam Adebayo

    It's tough to pinpoint a weak link in the Miami starting lineup—or in its rotation as a whole.

    Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are All-Stars, Duncan Robinson is fourth in the NBA in three-point shooting (44.8 percent), and Kendrick Nunn is third among rookies in scoring at 15.8 points per game.

    This leaves Meyers Leonard, a solid role player and excellent outside shooter. As great as his 42.9 percent mark from three is, it's still only third on the Heat behind Robinson's and Kelly Olynyk's 43.2. Switching Leonard out of the starting lineup for Derrick Jones Jr. hasn't made an impact on the team's success, as Leonard's lineups have registered a net rating of plus-13.4 compared to plus-11.4 with Jones.

    Given the success of the other lineup members, Leonard's 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game make him the easiest player to replace.

Milwaukee Bucks: SG Wesley Matthews

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    • PG: Eric Bledsoe
    • SG: Wesley Matthews
    • SF: Khris Middleton
    • PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
    • C: Brook Lopez

    One player stands out as a weak point in the Milwaukee Bucks' otherwise soul-crushing starting five, and even he brings a lot to the table.

    Wesley Matthews is averaging a career-low 7.5 points per game at age 33 and is shooting just 39.7 percent overall. While it seems only to be a matter of time before he's switched out for Donte DiVincenzo, Matthews has proved his worth on the defensive end.

    Ranked second in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus among shooting guards, Matthews is also connecting on 37.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes.

    While his traditional stats scream backup at best, Matthews is still making an impact for the first-place Bucks.

New Orleans Pelicans: C Derrick Favors

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press
    • PG: Lonzo Ball
    • SG: Jrue Holiday
    • SF: Brandon Ingram
    • PF: Zion Williamson
    • C: Derrick Favors

    The New Orleans Pelicans have the best net rating (plus-26.3) of any starting five in the bubble, and it's nearly impossible to choose a weak link.

    Zion Williamson is improving the team by 13.6 points per 100 possessions and is the leading scorer among all rookies at 23.6 points per game. Jrue Holiday is an all-world defender, talented scorer and good passer who also serves as the heartbeat of the team.

    Brandon Ingram is the group's lone All-Star (Holiday was one back in 2012-13), and Lonzo Ball has greatly improved his outside shot to complement his already impressive passing and defensive game.

    This leaves Derrick Favors, who plays his role perfectly as a rebounder and defender who doesn't need the ball in his hands. He has the second-best on/off rating on the team outside of Williamson (plus-10.9), and leads the Pelicans with 9.9 rebounds and 1.0 block per game.

    Picking Favors seems unfair, though everyone else is even more valuable to New Orleans.

Oklahoma City Thunder: SF Luguentz Dort

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
    • PG: Chris Paul
    • SG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
    • SF: Luguentz Dort
    • PF: Danilo Gallinari
    • C: Steven Adams

    While it's difficult to locate a weak link in some starting lineups, this doesn't hold true for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nothing against the 21-year-old Luguentz Dort, but he's not on the same level as his OKC teammates.

    Chris Paul is a future Hall of Famer and 2020 All-Star, despite only being the team's fourth-leading scorer. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the future of the franchise, and Steven Adams is arguably the toughest player in the league who's helped the team weather the losses of Kevin Durant, Paul George and Russell Westbrook.

    Danilo Gallinari is also enjoying a terrific season in a contract year, averaging 19.2 points per game and shooting 40.9 percent from three.

    This leaves Dort, a rookie who's averaging 6.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.7 assists in his 22.0 minutes per game. OKC has been at its best this season when using a three-guard lineup also featuring Dennis Schroder, making Dort, Terrance Ferguson or whomever else is starting at small forward the weak link.

Orlando Magic: SF James Ennis III

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
    • PG: Markelle Fultz
    • SG: Evan Fournier
    • SF: James Ennis III
    • PF: Aaron Gordon
    • C: Nikola Vucevic

    Changes may soon be coming to the Orlando Magic starting lineup, as Jonathan Isaac has returned from a knee injury that's kept him off the court since Jan. 1.

    For now, Isaac will be on a minutes restriction as Orlando plays it safe with its franchise star, Josh Robbins of The Athletic reported.

    That likely means some more time for James Ennis III in the starting lineup, a spot he's held since two weeks after coming over via trade from the Philadelphia 76ers in early February.

    Ennis is giving the Magic 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists while shooting just 30.3 percent from three in 23.1 minutes per game. When Isaac is ready, he'll join Aaron Gordon as one of the team's two forwards, moving Ennis to a reserve role.

Philadelphia 76ers: PG Shake Milton

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
    • PG: Shake Milton
    • SG: Josh Richardson
    • SF: Tobias Harris
    • PF: Ben Simmons
    • C: Joel Embiid

    The Sixers' starting lineup contains two All-Stars, a $180 million small forward and the Miami Heat's best player in 2018-19. All of this leaves Milton, the team's new starting point guard, as the weak link.

    This may be an unfair net to cast over the second-year guard, but he's now trying to fill the shoes of a 6'10" elite passer and defender, as Simmons has been moved to power forward to expand his overall skill set.

    Milton was averaging 9.5 points and 2.2 assists (32 games, 16 starts) before the league went on hiatus, although his 45.3 percent mark from three leads the team. Playing point guard on a team with so many mouths to feed will be a thankless job, but luckily Philly fans are quite patient and definitely won't expect a deep playoff run this year.

Phoenix Suns: PF Dario Saric

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
    • PG: Ricky Rubio
    • SG: Devin Booker
    • SF: Mikal Bridges
    • PF: Dario Saric
    • C: Deandre Ayton

    Booker and Ayton are the cornerstones of the franchise, Rubio is third in the NBA in assists (8.9 per game), and Bridges could win a Defensive Player of the Year award one day.

    This leaves Saric, the team's stretch 4 who is only shooting 34.1 percent from three this season.

    Acquired in a 2019 draft-day trade that made the Suns move back from the sixth spot to No. 11, Saric hasn't done enough this year to warrant a big payday in restricted free agency. Phoenix is worse when he's on the court (minus-2.1 on/off rating), and at 6'10" he isn't a particularly good rebounder.

    While Saric should find a long-term job in the league as a reserve, the Suns need Kelly Oubre Jr. (torn meniscus) back to take his spot in the starting lineup.

Portland Trail Blazers: PF Zach Collins

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
    • PG: Damian Lillard
    • SG: CJ McCollum
    • SF: Carmelo Anthony
    • PF: Zach Collins
    • C: Jusuf Nurkic

    Picking a weak link on the Blazers comes down to Collins or Anthony, one just returning from injury and the other forced to play a new position.

    Lillard would be a serious MVP candidate if the Blazers had a better record, and McCollum has become one of the most consistent offensive shooting guards in the NBA. Nurkic is already showing his pre-injury form (17 points, 13 rebounds, five assists in his second scrimmage), and starting him next to Hassan Whiteside shouldn't be a long-term plan this season (we hope).

    This leaves Anthony, who at age 36 averaged 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and shot 37.1 percent as the team's starting power forward, now forced to adjust his game on the wing. While this may mean more three-pointers and fewer rebounds, he should still be an effective scorer that may struggle on defense.

    Collins is more of an unknown in his return from shoulder surgery, and he'll likely be left with scraps on the offensive end after all four other starters have had their turns to eat.

    While Collins holds more value to Portland's future than Anthony, he may be the team's weak link in the bubble.

Sacramento Kings: F Harrison Barnes

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
    • PG: De'Aaron Fox
    • SG: Buddy Hield
    • SF: Bogdan Bogdanovic
    • PF: Harrison Barnes
    • C: Richaun Holmes

    The Kings' starting lineup is still up in the air, as the team is just getting Barnes (COVID-19) and Fox (ankle) back but will be without Marvin Bagley III (foot sprain).

    Fox and Hield will once again carry the offensive load, and Bogdanovic and Holmes were exceeding expectations prior to the hiatus for a Kings team still carrying some playoff hope.

    This leaves Barnes. At 28, Barnes is the perfect example of what an average NBA player looks like. He can play multiple positions, defend at a decent enough level and score when called upon. Barnes isn't terribly good in any one area and likewise doesn't possess any major weaknesses in his game, either.

    Even his averages (14.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 45.9 percent shooting) scream mediocrity. If the weak link in a Sacramento lineup is an average NBA player, however, that's a step up from much of the last two decades.

San Antonio Spurs: C Jakob Poeltl

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
    • PG: Dejounte Murray
    • SG: Derrick White
    • SF: Lonnie Walker IV
    • PF: DeMar DeRozan
    • C: Jakob Poeltl

    With no LaMarcus Aldridge (shoulder surgery) or Trey Lyles (appendectomy), the Spurs have been going small thus far in the bubble.

    The strategy of using DeRozan and the team's best young players in the starting lineup seems like a "why not?" move at this point, and players like Murray, White and Walker need to learn to play together eventually.

    While all three have strong potential, Poeltl has been little more than a backup center in his first four seasons. The Spurs have been quite good when he's been on the court (plus-7.4 points per 100 possessions compared to when he's off the court), although they shouldn't be ready to hand over a full-time starting job just yet.

    With DeRozan tasked with carrying a damaged Spurs team to the playoffs and preserve the streak, Poeltl's lack of floor spacing won't be giving him much help.

Toronto Raptors: C Marc Gasol

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
    • PG: Kyle Lowry
    • SG: Fred VanVleet
    • SF: OG Anunoby
    • PF: Pascal Siakam
    • C: Marc Gasol

    Calling Gasol a weak link in anything seems unfair, as he proved himself as the best player in Memphis Grizzlies history before winning a title as the Raptors' starting center.

    Perhaps this is more of a testament to the rest of the starting lineup, as Siakam is an All-Star starter and Lowry serves as the most accomplished player in Toronto basketball history.

    VanVleet has transformed himself from key reserve to quality starter, and Anunoby is already a great defender who's shooting 50.7 percent overall this season.

    This leaves Gasol, whose 41.9 percent shooting is a career low. While he's still a good passer, leader and outside shooter, at age 35 he has taken a step back.

Utah Jazz: PF Royce O'Neale

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press
    • PG: Mike Conley
    • SG: Donovan Mitchell
    • SF: Joe Ingles
    • PF: Royce O'Neale
    • C: Rudy Gobert

    Losing a player as good as Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist surgery) would typically make a team's starting lineup considerably worse, but Ingles is good enough to keep the small forward spot an area of strength.

    Mitchell will probably have to increase his already career-high 24.2 points per game, and he will be entering his third postseason already at age 23. Gobert remains the NBA's best defensive center, leaving only Conley and O'Neale as weakest link candidates.

    While Conley struggled in his new surroundings to begin the season, he was averaging 16.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists and shooting 44.4 percent from three over his final 13 games before the league hiatus.

    If Conley can continue to play at this level, O'Neale will be the weakest part of the Jazz starting five. While his stats won't wow anybody, O'Neale is a versatile defender who has improved Utah by 7.6 points per 100 possessions this season. Nothing weak about that.

Washington Wizards: SG Jerome Robinson

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press
    • PG: Shabazz Napier
    • SG: Jerome Robinson
    • SF: Isaac Bonga
    • PF: Rui Hachimura
    • C: Thomas Bryant

    Washington's starting lineup could change by the day, and quite frankly, it probably won't matter who the Wizards use in their opening five.

    With no Bradley Beal, John Wall or Davis Bertans, Hachimura will likely become the team's leading scorer by default. Bryant offers upside as a shot-blocker and three-point shooter, and Bonga was shooting 52.2 percent overall and 40.0 percent from three mostly as a starter before the league was suspended.

    Napier is a veteran point guard who averaged 12.0 points and 4.4 assists in 15 games with the Wizards. This leaves Robinson, the team's likely starter at shooting guard.

    Following a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers, Robinson averaged just 6.1 points on 36.3 percent shooting overall. On a team with a few candidates for weakest link, Robinson takes the cake.