Ranking Every NBA Team's Ideal Closing Lineup in Orlando
Crunch-time lineups are not one-size-fits-all for most NBA teams.
Some squads default to a select group, usually one consisting of their five best healthy players. Many others are more methodical. Head coaches root their decisions in the moment, a response to whom the opposition is closing with or what their own team needs most.
These ideal crunch-time arrangements are presented with this limitation in mind: Not every close-game situation is created equally.
This search is more about identifying the best possible closing units that should see the most court time in tightly contested battles, across all different matchups. A vast majority of the selections are based on recent returns after parsing the clutch groupings deployed by the teams at Disney.
Every so often, though, a lesser-used arrangement will get the nod, either because injuries and inconsistent rotations demand judgment calls or because the lineup in question is too enticing.
Possession counts and net ratings will accompany each choice, but they do not factor heavily into the decision-making process. Most sample sizes aren't large enough to cull airtight conclusions—though it helps when they are—and the league is essentially playing out an entirely different season following a four-plus-month hiatus.
Players sidelined indefinitely are excluded from consideration. Yes, that means Ben Simmons. Injuries not yet deemed severe—like Jimmy Butler's sore right foot or Aaron Gordon's left hamstring—won't prevent those players from making the cut. Anyone nearing a return to action (Eric Gordon) is similarly eligible.
Pitting these fivesomes against one another entails no real science. Sample sizes are too disparate and, for the most part, haven't come against one another. The focus will be on why each team's lineup is assembled a certain way and what it has to offer.
Rankings will be determined by asking the following: Entering the final five minutes of a game in which neither side is ahead or behind by more than five points, which fivesome would you most want on the floor?
22. Washington Wizards: Smith, Robinson, Brown Jr., Hachimura, Bryant
Possessions Played: 43
Net Rating: minus-27.9
Full stop: I don't know what to make of this lineup. Others might want to see Isaac Bonga, Shabazz Napier or Moritz Wagner worked into the fold. I can't bring myself to argue.
I'm also tired of dumping all over the Washington Wizards. They're missing their three best players—Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, John Wall—and defensive worker bee Gary Payton II hasn't joined the team himself. The Wizards aren't supposed to be good. The best they can do is make things fun.
To their credit, they kind of have. This lineup attempts to build off that.
Thomas Bryant is shooting well enough from three for the season (41.7 percent) and at Disney (44.4 percent) for this to qualify as a four-out setup. Troy Brown Jr. (23.1 percent after restart) and Ish Smith (30.8 percent) jeopardize that, but they both have the green light.
Jerome Robinson continues to be a nice surprise. He may yet wreak havoc as a microwave scorer. Let him and Brown run all the pick-and-rolls. And with Bryant dropping in so many threes, let's see more of Rui Hachimura as a screener.
If nothing else, this fivesome will be fast. They're playing at a rate of 113.2 possessions per 48 minutes since the restart. That doesn't guarantee—and hasn't amounted to—efficient small-burst offense, but the prospective entertainment value is off the charts.
21. Memphis Grizzlies: Morant, Allen, Anderson, Clarke, Valanciunas
Possessions Played: 7
Net Rating: Minus-45.2
Jaren Jackson Jr.'s left meniscus tear torpedoes the Memphis Grizzlies' crunch-time stock. A unit that, on paper, would've put together a top-11 case is instead relegated to the AJAW (Area Just Above Washington).
Assembling this lineup is a headache. Ja Morant isn't going anywhere, but the simplicity ends there. Memphis leans heavily on Jackson for offensive floor balance, and almost every combination looks clumpy without him.
Grayson Allen gets the have-to-have nod in his absence. He leads the Grizzlies in three-point makes and percentage at Disney and is draining 42 percent of his triples on the year. No closing lineup makes more sense without him.
Voting for a Brandon Clarke-Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt is the first hiccup. One-big arrangements should have more curb appeal minus Jackson, particularly when neither Clarke (0-of-5) nor Valanciunas (1-of-7) is holding his own from beyond the arc since the restart.
But they both entered the regular-season reboot with a better outside clip, and above all, there's something to just fielding your best talent and letting them figure it out. Clarke and Valanciunas are now two of Memphis' three players.
Utilizing both of them complicates the final choice. Dillon Brooks is the safe inclusion, or at least should be, thanks to his higher-volume three-point shooting. But he's 6-of-28 from deep in the bubble (21.4 percent) and too much of a seesaw for a team that sorely needs more certainty.
Pivoting to De'Anthony Melton would put the Grizzlies at the mercy of similar variance. He's far less of a threat from downtown than Brooks. The same used to be said of Kyle Anderson. Used to. He's 3-of-13 from long range at Disney. His makes aren't as important as the volume. He's gone from attempting just 1.1 threes per game pre-bubble to 3.3 now.
The doors those extra attempts might open are worth the dice roll when he gives them an even-keeled defensive presence on the perimeter.
Taking a chance on Josh Jackson is acceptable, but the Grizzlies, for now, remain a playoff hopeful. They shouldn't be hitching their wagon to so many functional unknowns. Allen provides enough of that after opening the season in less-than-stellar fashion and then missing chunks of time with ankle and hip issues. What Anderson brings—measured defense and playmaking—is more of a constant than Memphis' other options.
20. Brooklyn Nets: LeVert, Temple, Harris, Luwawu-Cabarrot, Allen
Possessions Played: 5
Net Rating: 40.0
Cobble together the Brooklyn Nets' ideal closing five as you please. It won't actually feel ideal.
Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert are immutable inclusions for obvious reasons. Brooklyn doesn't have another high-level shot creator aside from LeVert, and all three would crack other NBA rotations—which is more than we can say for almost everyone else on the roster.
Figuring out the final two spots is a matter of preference. Mismatchy combinations are my true love. Others are free to sub out Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot or Garrett Temple for a wing with more size (Rodions Kurucs, 6'9"; Lance Thomas, 6'8") or a more conventional point guard option (Chris Chiozza, Tyler Johnson).
Screw it, though. The Nets are anything but conventional right now. LeVert averaged over five assists per game from the end of January into the hiatus and is dishing out more inside the bubble than everyone except Chiozza. Hand him the keys he already holds for most of his time on the court.
Using him at point guard hasn't worked out in the past. Whatever. Brooklyn is in all-out experimental mode with the soul of its roster unavailable. Allen will help coax rival offenses into mid-range jumpers no matter which pseudo 4 the Nets place beside him, and the trio of Temple, Harris and TLC—Timothe is shooting 11-of-24 from deep at Disney!—is suited to swish a barrage of threes off LeVert's dribble penetration.
19. San Antonio Spurs: Mills, White, DeRozan, Johnson, Gay
Possessions Played: 30
Net Rating: 11.1
Credit for this selection is owed to Jakob Poeltl's foul trouble at the beginning of the restart. The San Antonio Spurs showed during his minutes on the bench that they were willing to work without a big up front, something they've tested sparingly throughout the season.
Watching it in action felt oddly right, even during their Aug. 3 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Surrounding DeMar DeRozan with four floor-spacers? Yes, please.
Committing to this ensemble entails rendering two uncomfortable verdicts. Acknowledging the Spurs will punt on the rebounding battle isn't one of them. Let it happen.
Reconciling Dejounte Murray's absence is tougher. It also has to be done. The Spurs will miss his frenetic defensive motor, but he doesn't promise enough shooting to jibe with the four-out format.
Choosing between Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV actually proves to be the hardest decision. Walker has more shot creation to his game, not to mention a (slightly) larger sample size alongside the other four members in this lineup.
Yet, while he has played well off the ball at Disney, Johnson is the more natural complementary scorer. San Antonio has enough creation inside this fivesome with DeRozan, Patty Mills and Derrick White, and though both Johnson and Walker stand 6'5", the rookie has the better build for defending 4s.
18. Orlando Magic: Fultz, Ross, Fournier, Gordon, Vucevic
Possessions Played: 471
Net Rating: 5.3
Jonathan Isaac's torn left ACL doesn't leave much to debate. Either Markelle Fultz or Terrence Ross would've found himself outside of the crunch-time clique if he were healthy. They're both necessary to fill out the lineup now.
James Ennis III might've wedged his way into the conversation if he were hitting a nice share of his threes. He's not. He's 3-of-18 since the restart (16.7 percent). D.J. Augustin will deserve a mention here if Gordon's strained hamstring winds up costing him significant time.
Augustin is not the spacing boost he was last year, but he's sinking 40 percent of his treys at Disney. And Fultz (6'3") has the size to play with him in the backcourt if Orlando is willing to go super small on the front line. Playing Augustin in favor of Ross is technically also on the table.
But the Magic needn't get too cute. This exact unit has shown it can score while on the court, and spacing isn't a dire concern. Fultz is the only non-shooter of the five, and Gordon is swishing a palatable number of his standstill threes since the turn of the calendar to 2020 (36.1 percent).
Collectively, in fact, this lineup is 74-of-201 from long distance on the season (36.8 percent) and posting an offensive rating of 122.9—which is bonkers. The defense is shakier but not unsolvable. It's getting burned on threes and fouling too much.
Sustaining their half-court efficiency to date is the bigger problem. Gordon has beefed up his playmaking, Nikola Vucevic remains crafty and Fultz is shooting—*checks notes*—58.1 percent from mid-range since the All-Star break. But both this lineup and Orlando's roster still want for someone who can capably, continually put pressure on defenses from every level.
17. Sacramento Kings: Fox, Hield, Bogdanovic, Barnes, Bjelica
Possessions Played: 138
Net Rating: 9.9
Most will be inclined to rearrange this lineup to feature Richaun Holmes. That's not unfair. He's ranked among the Sacramento Kings' most impactful players when healthy and is a better defensive option at the 5 than Nemanja Bjelica, who's allowing opponents to shoot 71 percent at the rim this season.
But is giving into this voice of reason all that reasonable?
Holmes will not change the entire tenor of the Kings defense on his own. They stand to make up more ground on the offensive end by surrounding De'Aaron Fox with four shooters. He might miss Holmes' rim runs, but Bjelica can replace some of that. And having a roll man isn't nearly as important when everyone on the floor can chuck threes.
(Aside: Bjelica is holding opponents to a 50 percent conversion rate at the basket since the restart. Take that for what it's worth and with a grain of salt.)
Buddy Hield's three-point rut might dissuade some from going this route. Don't let it. His 27.3 percent clip will normalize (he was shooting 39.5 percent prior to the restart). Plus, why deprive ourselves of the fun factor? These five can play at warp speed.
There might be a drop-off in half-court execution without Holmes on the floor to finish passes and putbacks, but that's a risk head coach Luke Walton should be willing to take. Sacramento can play super fast with Holmes, but its offensive pinnacle should be appreciably higher with this lineup design.
16. Indiana Pacers: Brogdon, Oladipo, Holiday, Warren, Turner
Possessions Played: 63
Net Rating: 12.7
Color me shocked the Indiana Pacers haven't trotted out this lineup more often in the bubble. This group has outscored opponents by 16 points in 26 minutes on the season while shooting a ridiculous 63.3 percent inside the arc and downing 38.9 percent of their three-pointers, but it has made only one appearance since the restart.
Absences from Brogdon and Oladipo have capped aggregate availability, but that doesn't totally explain the brief exposure. Indiana is instead favoring an even smaller makeup, with Aaron Holiday (6'0") in place of his brother Justin Holiday (6'6").
Both variations represent the most intriguing version of the Pacers in which they surround just one big with four perimeter players. They don't have the bandwidth to cut loose as many of these arrangements when they have a healthy Domantas Sabonis. That's not to say he's a problem; he's an All-Star. Four- and five-out combinations are merely sexier.
Dropping this lineup so far comes across as sacrilegious given T.J. "Bubble Jordan" Warren's general incandescence. Recency bias works against this fivesome more than anything.
The Oladipo experience remains relatively unpredictable as he continues working his way back from the right quad injury he suffered last season that almost prevented him from joining the team in the bubble, and neither Brogdon (31.6 percent) nor Justin Holiday (16.7 percent) has found his range from distance.
Replacing one Holiday with the other might give this alignment a little more panache. It also complicates the defensive pecking order on the wings. Aaron doesn't have the three-position range Justin does, so wrenching the latter leaves Warren as the only operable option against opposing 4s.
15. New Orleans Pelicans: Ball, Holiday, Ingram, Zion, Favors
Possessions Played: 664
Net Rating: 18.6
Thoughts of Zion Williamson-at-the-5 arrangements, with Josh Hart in Derrick Favors' stead, almost swayed me. Spread pick-and-rolls between him and Brandon Ingram are nearly too tantalizing to resist, and the New Orleans Pelicans have demolished opponents during the stretches Zion has occupied the middle.
Make that teensy-tiny stretches. Zion has spent under 115 possessions as the de facto center, and only about half of those have come next to Ingram. The Pelicans are averse from going nano for long periods of time, and it's tough to blame them. Zion is better off roaming around the perimeter than as the last line of defense at the rim, and putting Ingram's slight frame on 4s when he's not consistently using his length to disrupt plays exacerbates the situation.
Favors provides a steadying presence at the less glamorous end—or at least he should.
New Orleans is allowing just 96.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays beside Ingram, Zion, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday but has been outscored by 20 points in the 42 minutes this group has tallied at Disney.
Strong shooting from the floor remains this lineup's saving grace. It's connecting on 41.2 percent of its threes and more of its twos (54.5 percent) than free throws (52.2 percent). The latter is temporary. Probably. Ball, Favors and Zion are hitting a combined 46.9 percent of their looks from the charity stripe.
Living in transition helps offset the foul-line woes, ensuring opportunity in volume. Much less scientifically, this group just includes so much darn talent.
Zion hasn't looked spectacular since rejoining the team, but in the macro, he, Holiday and Ingram arm the Pelicans with a trio of top-30 players—two of whom, in Holiday and Ingram, can comfortably create their own shots. If this group—and the team at large—can do a better job of cutting off dribble penetration and protecting the basket, its crunch-time ceiling stands to climb noticeably higher.
14. Philadelphia 76ers: Milton, Burks, Richardson, Harris, Embiid
Possessions Played: 21
Net Rating: 30.2
Ben Simmons' dislocated left kneecap set fire to the Philadelphia 76ers' initial placement, which was comfortably inside the top 10. Without a timetable for his return, they are now even more of a mystery.
Cobbling together their crunch-time lineup is simultaneously streamlined and too complicated. The first four inclusions are unequivocal: Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Shake Milton and Josh Richardson. Their fifth spot could go so many—too many—different ways.
Al Horford might be the overwhelming favorite. He's back in the starting lineup, and Philly's offense is smoking hot when he and Embiid play without Simmons. But those returns come in just 295 possessions—and with a 113.8 defensive rating (27th percentile). Horford's claim to the closing five is miles from impugnable. He won't help the Sixers negate as much of Simmons' offensive role when they're already riding Embiid in the post and doesn't have the defensive range to replace his defensive utility. Only four players have spent more time guarding No. 1 options, according to data compiled by BBall Index's Krishna Narsu.
Turning to Matisse Thybulle has its merits when weighed against the defensive workload that must be dispersed. But he doesn't add any ball-handling or shooting beyond standstill looks. Glenn Robinson III might work his way into the discussion if he returns from a left hip injury that's kept him sidelined for the entire restart. Furkan Korkmaz has been lights out on catch-and-launch threes this year (not so much in the bubble), but doesn't help fill the initiation void.
Alec Burks is the pick of yours truly. Philly suddenly becomes mortal-sized on defense, but the upside he provides as a secondary ball-handler and shooter is more necessary down the stretch, when optimizing the half-court offense should take precedence.
13. Phoenix Suns: Rubio, Booker, Bridges, Johnson, Ayton
Possessions Played: 201
Net Rating: 25.3
Break. Up. The. Disney. World. Suns.
I'm only half-kidding.
Phoenix is having a moment, the kind that feels more like a manifestation than stopgap. Devin Booker has put distance between himself and the empty-calories trope a while ago, but the restart is his springboard to consensus stardom, in which the assumption now becomes, as it should have already been, that he can spearhead a really good team.
Anyway, this lineup stands as a nice gauge for the Suns' outlook, both present and into next season. The four-player framework of Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Ricky Rubio is a yearlong bright spot, having so far outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions across a sizable sample. Cameron Johnson is their fifth by default, unless Kelly Oubre Jr. returns from a right knee injury that has sidelined him since February. (Related: He might. Even if he does, these five are probably still the better option given his shaky outside touch.)
Dynamite shooting from beyond the arc and finishing at the rim has fueled this lineup's success on the season. They're not as efficient since the season re-tipped off, but they're better suited to navigate the half-court trenches around Booker with Rubio hitting his wide-open triples and Ayton downing the occasional one himself. Bridges' downhill passing also serves as nice complement to playmaking from Booker and Rubio, and this unit has done well goading opponents into mid-range jumpers during their limited run.
Maybe this fivesome deserves a larger benefit of the doubt. Reading into the Suns' performance at Disney is fun and, to an extent, warranted. But they still seem a player, Ayton mini leap or Cameron Payne miracle away from checking the crunch-time shot-creation box. Until then, the burden placed upon Booker remains a little too great.
12. Dallas Mavericks: Curry, THJ, Doncic, Finney-Smith, Porzingis
Possessions Played: 314
Net Rating: 10.9
Placing the Dallas Mavericks outside the top 10 is not an overly skeptical view of their outlook. This team, this lineup, makes so much sense during the first 43 minutes of action.
Things get hairier thereafter.
Dallas is 15-23 in games that enter crunch time, with the league's third-worst offensive rating. That's harrowing for any team, but even more so when said squad ranks first in points scored per 100 possessions overall.
Supplementary shot creation remains the Mavericks' Achilles heel. They're entirely too dependent on Luka Doncic, who has done a better job varying up his shot selection since the restart but is still shooting just 15.8 percent from three (6-of-38) during clutch play.
Help isn't on the way. Pretty much everyone relies on Doncic to set up their three-pointers. J.J. Barea is the only other player whose unassisted triples account for more than 21 percent of his looks, and Tim Hardaway Jr. ranks second on the team in pull-up attempts. Kristaps Porzingis has the size to shoot over the top of defenders but isn't launching off-the-dribble treys and also isn't effective down low. He is shooting 37.3 percent on post-ups and just 33.1 percent on turnarounds, and he doesn't put a ton of pressure on the rim.
This isn't meant to imply the crunch-time Mavericks are all doom and gloom. This fivesome surrounds Doncic with four viable three-point marksmen and owns an offensive rating north of 120. Assuming Seth Curry's right leg isn't a recurring issue, they are made to go boom at any time, including in the clutch—provided more of their non-Doncic looks fall.
11. Miami Heat: Dragic, Butler, Robinson, Crowder, Adebayo
Possessions Played: 60
Net Rating: 7.8
Caveats abound for the Miami Heat's crunch-time chorus. Mainly, this presumes Jimmy Butler's sore right foot and Goran Dragic's left ankle injury don't become long-term issues. It also suggests head coach Erik Spoelstra won't be compelled to close with Andre Iguodala or Kelly Olynyk.
Excluding Olynyk might be the bigger gamble. He's been molten since just after the trade deadline, canning 50.7 percent of his triples and turning in the occasional dimes-drunk outing. His shooting specifically could prove pivotal if Butler's jumper doesn't start finding nylon more often.
Going smaller at the 4 still seems to be the Heat's best bet. The Olynyk-Bam Adebayo frontcourt hasn't done wonders for the rim protection, and Jae Crowder is on one himself from deep since coming over from Memphis (42.5 percent).
More to the point, though, this crunch-time iteration spares Miami from its potential shortcomings.
Using Iguodala comes at the expense of shooting—and might be a non-starter if he needs to guard 4s. Playing Derrick Jones Jr. definitely torpedoes the spacing. Pairing Adebayo with Olynyk or Meyers Leonard doesn't assure the necessary defensive returns. The Heat are built to limit opportunities at the rim. It's stopping opponents once they get there that's most challenging.
Leaning on this fivesome projects as the most effective middle ground. Miami can include Iguodala instead of Dragic and test out Adebayo-plus-four-wings, but the 34-year-old point guard, if healthy, is the team's most reliable perimeter shot-maker.
10. Utah Jazz: Conley, Mitchell, Ingles, O'Neale, Gobert
Possessions Played: 159
Net Rating: 31.9
Bojan Bogdanovic's season-ending wrist injury renders the Utah Jazz's closing five a non-decision. They'll finish with Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neale and Rudy Gobert. End of story.
Evaluating this fivesome against the field isn't nearly as easy.
Sure, they're set up to defend against pretty much every offense. Gobert is nowhere near the traffic cone NBA Twitter often paints him to be versus small-ball lineups. But this group's offense is more touch-and-go.
Utah has not fared well when Mitchell plays without Bogdanovic. This lineup stands as one of the few exceptions and helped by an untenably high 47.5 percent clip (28-of-59) from downtown. Mitchell needs a half-court safety valve to be at his best, and for his supporting cast to swish wide-open threes. Bogdanovic's absence should arguably rip the Jazz's best clutch lineup from top-10 consideration.
On the flip side, a healthier Mike Conley changes the calculus. He is the quintessential No. 2 at his best and looks more in his element over his first four games out of the hiatus. Bogdanovic is the more efficient shooter, but Conley can shoulder more off-the-bounce volume and serve as an actual floor general. Indeed, at his peak, he may bring the Jazz closer to theirs, even if only by a hair.
9. Portland Trail Blazers: Lillard, McCollum, Trent Jr., Melo, Nurkic
Possessions Played: 50
Net Rating: 10.4
The Portland Trail Blazers' crunch-time crew can take a number of different forms. Maybe they play Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic together. Perhaps they give a look-see to Collins-at-the-5 units. They can downsize and deploy a three-guard lineup that features Anfernee Simmons.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, really, are the only forever inclusions. From-scratch buckets mean everything down the stretch of tightly contested tilts, and they're two of the league's best shot generators. Lillard has limitless range on his off-the-dribble three, and McCollum burns defenders with a mixture of fakes, floaters, pull-ups and changes of pace.
Tossing in Nurkic is almost given. He's moving well following his return from compound fractures in his left leg, and the synergy he forged with Lillard and McCollum on offense persists. It does seem like he's still finding his defensive bearings, and that's fine. The optionality he affords on offense as a passer and short roller is worth the trade-off, and his absolute best includes making better reads than Hassan Whiteside away from the basket.
Fleshing out the other two spots is a more debatable exercise. Gary Trent Jr. is doing his damnedest to change that. He's downing 62.9 percent of his threes since the restart (22-of-35), including 50 percent of his pull-up triples (9-of-18), and Portland doesn't have a better wing defender without Trevor Ariza (opted out of the season) and Rodney Hood (Achilles) in tow.
To include Carmelo Anthony, or not to include Carmelo Anthony? That is now the question. Let's go with yes. He guarantees more outside shooting than Collins—he's drilling 39.4 percent of his catch-and-fire threes—and counts as another creator, even if he's not the most efficient post player or pull-up sniper.
It is this abundance of guys who can put the ball on the floor and manufacture their own looks that carries the Blazers above teams behind them. The first 90 percent or so of the game isn't up for consideration here. When the pace of play ebbs more than it flows, they have three veterans comfortable with hunting square-one buckets. Their crunch-time threat level is higher than meets the eye, undeniable defensive vulnerabilities and all.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder: CP3, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, Adams
Net Rating: 30.1
What's not to like about the Oklahoma City Thunder's Fab Five?
Four players who can put the ball on the floor. Three who are shooting better than the league average from deep. A center who is both the calm and storm, this amalgam of force and finesse who revels in the dirty work and cannot be readily schemed off the floor. It all just clicks.
Little about this success feels unsustainable. This specific lineup's sample isn't huge, but three-guard arrangements have beaten the pants off opponents all year. (Dennis Schroder is currently outside the Disney campus following the birth of his second child.) Scorching-hot shooting is always a cautionary tale across limited reps, but the Thunder are schooled in draining the looks defenses want to let up. They're shooting 54.8 percent on two-pointers outside the paint during crunch time, which makes sense, because Chris Paul is both a clutch and mid-range god.
Granted, this reliance on a 35-year-old when it matters most could act as a limitation in certain situations. Paul's crunch-time usage rate is nearly 10 points higher than Schroder's No. 2 mark, and no one aside from he or Danilo Gallinari is shooting especially well from distance down the stretch of tight games.
The extent to which this hurts the Thunder is minimal. Scant few teams traffic in crunch-time variety. They have one of the best closers alive. That matters more than anything. And though they're ceding some ground to smaller-sample combinations, which are buoyed by ideas of what they might do rather than tangible evidence, their proximity to the league's top contenders says a great deal.
7. Denver Nuggets: Murray, Harris, MPJ, Millsap, Jokic
Possessions Played: 9
Net Rating: 32.2
Michael Porter Jr.'s performance since the restart is earning him membership in the Denver Nuggets' ideal closing five. Four games is four games, but he's averaging 26 points while slashing roughly 58/50/94, and this detonation has hardly comes out of nowhere. He flashed a world of scoring wizardry during abbreviated spin beforehand.
Working him in is still a risk. Head coach Mike Malone is his biggest fan now, but that could change when Will Barton, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are all available. Together, with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, they form the Nuggets' most used lineup, an ensemble that has outpaced opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions across a meaningful sample size.
Inserting Porter means removing Barton or Harris. Jokic is a crunch-time beast, Murray represents Denver's best face-up weapon and Millsap is too friggin' important to the defense. (Calls for Jerami Grant to replace Millsap aren't unfounded in theory, but the on-off splits don't remotely support it.)
Harris is comparably indispensable to the defense and the closest this team gets to a full-on three-and-D wing. That leaves Barton on the outskirts and yours truly with sub-zero confidence in this decision.
Forced to choose, I'd wager, heavily, on Malone sticking with Barton (and Harris) over MPJ. That's not coaching malpractice. MPJ is a rookie, and postseason crunch time is high stakes. That doesn't make for the cushiest learning curve, not when the Nuggets, rightfully, fancy themselves championship contenders.
And yet, I approached this dilemma by asking the following question: Does the more seasoned lineup give Denver a higher ceiling? I lean no. Porter's brand of shot-making seems like the bigger swing factor. The crunch-time Nuggets have a higher probability of outperforming this spot if he's in the fold.
6. Houston Rockets: Westbrook, Harden, Gordon, RoCo, Tucker
Possessions Played: 93
Net Rating: 10.7
Eric Gordon is on track to return from his left ankle sprain before the playoffs begin, which bodes well for the Houston Rockets' microball experiment. He's not shooting well from three this year—31.9 percent overall and 33.2 percent since his return from right knee surgery—but he promises an extra layer of off-the-dribble movement and greater comfort with super-deep triples than the alternatives.
Really, the Rockets can go any which way with their fifth wheel. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker are the non-negotiables. Almost anyone else on the roster, within reason, can be placed beside them. (It probably shouldn't be Jeff Green, despite his long-distance success at Disney.)
Choosing Gordon is neither a compromise nor preference. It is merely the most informative. This lineup typifies the "Play your five best guys" motif, and Houston is better off going that route when surrendering so much size in the frontcourt.
That's the kabillion-dollar question for this squad: Does ultra-small-ball work?
The Rockets defense has held up whenever Westbrook, Harden, Covington and Tucker run together, but they're getting bulldozed on the glass, and the jury on whether this model schemes opponents into submission is still out. Then again, Houston appears on to something, even if only because truly problematic mismatches don't exist.
Perhaps the Los Angeles Clippers are built to play the Rockets' style better than them. Maybe the Los Angeles Lakers pose a unique conundrum because Anthony Davis is a thing. That's the extent of the potential mega issues. Fair or not, Houston isn't losing sleep at the prospect of going small versus Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic or Kristaps Porzingis.
Nor should it. Playing four-out has unlocked Westbrook's best stuff. Combine that with a more rested Harden following the hiatus, and the Rockets, while not necessarily matchup-immune, have finagled a measurably better outlook than they enjoyed prior to the trade deadline.
5. Los Angeles Lakers: Caruso, Green, LeBron, Kuzma, AD
Net Ratting: 27.7
And here we have one of those trademark placements that at once seems too low and too high.
Anthony Davis, Danny Green and LeBron James, no matter how much he's struggling on offense right now, give the Los Angeles Lakers an elite crunch-time base. Finding the other two might-be constants is harder—more than ever with Avery Bradley opting out of the restart.
Adding another big is out of the question. The Lakers are infinitely more terrifying with Davis at the 5 as opposed to the 4. Pre-pandemic Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have a leg up on the competition, but his outside touch hasn't yet arrived at Disney. Markieff Morris could be in consideration if you trust his shooting, which, right now, you shouldn't.
Alex Caruso is a virtual no-brainer, even as he's bricking threes since the restart (1-of-9). For one, Caldwell-Pope (3-of-14) and Morris (1-of-9) and JR Smith (0-of-5) and Dion Waiters (3-of-22) aren't faring any better. Mostly, though, he replaces more of Bradley's defensive pluck than the list of potential alternatives.
Kyle Kuzma is right there with Caruso. The Lakers would probably always need the idea of his offensive ceiling to close games, but he's making that decision exponentially easier by shooting 46.2 percent from downtown (12-of-26) and defending his butt off since the league reopened its doors. His 6'8" frame also allows the Lakers to futz around with frontcourt assignments more than they can by going smaller.
Few conclusions can be gleaned from the court time this quintet has already logged, other than that head coach Frank Vogel used them to close against their reopening night win over the Los Angeles Clippers. But the absence of reps does little to derail the intrigue. If LeBron's groin injury isn't a long-term issue and Kuzma keeps splashing in his spot-up triples, the Lakers will have a crunch-time monster on their hands.
4. Milwaukee Bucks: Bledsoe, Hill, Middleton, Giannis, BroLo
Possessions Played: 30
Net Rating: 20.7
Gee whiz, is it tempting to deviate from this lineup. Giannis Antetokounmpo-at-the-5 compilations are nuking opponents this season and warrant more exploration, if for no other reason than they pave the way for the Milwaukee Bucks to plow along with fewer than three below-average shooters at once.
Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez are at the heart of this...let's call it an inkling. Bledsoe is hitting just 34.9 percent of his wide-open treys and has seen his outside accuracy implode through two postseason appearances with Milwaukee. Lopez is knocking down 29.6 percent of his uncontested triples, the worst mark among every player to attempt at least 150 treys with a defender six or more feet or away. The second-lowest clip on that list belongs to Antetokounmpo.
Something about this dynamic seems fragile—solvable for certain teams. Ignore that gut feeling. It amounts to little more than a hunch. The Bucks are straight obliterating squads when Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe and Lopez share floor. Crunch-time banter allows for some wiggle room but isn't an invitation to rewrite the book on the league's best team.
Sticking George Hill in the closing five instead of Wesley Matthews or Donte DiVincenzo helps alleviate many of the spacing concerns. His 47.2 percent clip from deep leads the Association, and the Bucks still have Mr. Almost 50/40/90 himself, Khris Middleton.
It is likewise a testament to Lopez's defensive utility that yanking him from clutch consideration feels icky. Opponents are shooting just 46.1 percent against him at the rim—one of the three stingiest marks among everyone challenging at least three such looks per game, company he shares with Antetokounmpo—and his low-to-the-ground, wide-armed stances can hold up on switches.
3. Boston Celtics: Kemba, Smart, Brown, Hayward, Tatum
Net Rating: minus-16.2
Selecting the Boston Celtics' small-ball lineup goes against how they've actually played. Head coach Brad Stevens has unleashed this Kemba Walker-Marcus Smart-Jaylen Brown-Gordon Hayward-Jayson Tatum arrangement only in brief spurts, primarily as a means of forcing mismatches.
As Celtics Blog's Adam Spinella wrote:
"Look no further than the December 28th home game against the Toronto Raptors. Toronto was without Marc Gasol or Pascal Siakam, playing Serge Ibaka as their only 5-man. Ibaka had a nice game (20 points, 10 rebounds) and had a hot start, with nine points and six rebounds in the first quarter. The Raptors jumped to a 36-25 lead after the first frame.
"In the second quarter, Stevens used a super-small lineup to play Ibaka off the floor. A non post-up threat, there was little chance of Ibaka successfully mismatch posting one of the Celtics’ guards and punishing them for going small. On the other end, the Celtics would go to a simple high ball screen with whoever Ibaka was guarding, force a switch to get him on Kemba, and go at him one-on-one."
Pay no attention to the numbers. This group hasn't played nearly enough possessions. At the same time, would it work against a team with, say, Joel Embiid in the middle? Or Bam Adebayo? Or Pascal Siakam? Or Brook Lopez?
Subbing in Daniel Theis for Smart is perfectly cool. The resulting fivesome is outscoring opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, with a sturdier presence on the glass, and would still place in the top three here. But Theis isn't some behemoth. He's listed at 6'8". This lineup has a higher ceiling because it features Boston's five best players.
2. Toronto Raptors: Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, Gasol
Possessions Played: 711
Net Rating: 15.6
The largest sample size of any lineup in the field definitely helps the Toronto Raptors float such a finish, but they're standing also aligns with the makeup.
Good luck finding a defensive weak point. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet make for an undersized backcourt, but both defend with the horsepower of players much taller. That OG Anunoby, perhaps the NBA's best on-ball stopper right now, and Pascal Siakam essentially have five-position range ensures Toronto can more meticulously cater to individual matchups.
Impressions of this lineup will vary depending on how you feel about its half-court offense, and if Marc Gasoll should be a crunch-time staple. Try not to worry about the latter. Gasol is harder to run off the floor than Serge Ibaka at this point.
Focusing on the half-court offense is a fair concern. This group, like the Raptors in general, has put a bunch of pressure on the rim without finishing particularly well. That's not ideal when considering how much time they spend in transition.
Still, this fivesome includes four of Toronto's best passers, and everyone can let 'er rip from deep. It will continue to generate enough clean looks to hover at or above the league's average half-court offense. Failing that, the Raptors can always default to Siakam-at-the-5 arrangements with Terence Davis or Norman Powell that, frankly, wouldn't place much lower.
1. Los Angeles Clippers: Beverley, PG13, Kawhi, Morris, Green
Possessions Played: 12
Net Rating: 8.3
Settling on one closing lineup for the Los Angeles Clippers flirts with the impossible. They more so than any other team are built to shape-shift depending on their matchup.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are must-haves. Everyone else after that is up in the air.
Marcus Morris Sr. can play the 5 in smaller combinations. Lou Williams can get run if they're hard up for shot creation. Montrezl Harrell, assuming he returns to the bubble, makes sense if they need to increase the fury factor up front. Landry Shamet becomes relevant if they're looking to roll with all wings or trying to supersize the point guard spot.
This quintet comes the closest to actually being one-size-fits-all. They're five-out on offense without sacrificing a ton of size at the other end; four of the members stand 6'7" or 6'8". JaMychal Green hasn't logged a ton of time at center this season—170 possessions—but using him at the 5 worked during last year's playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors, and the defensive talent around him has only improved.
Leaving off both Harrell and Williams strives for better offensive balance. Morris is most comfortable with the ball in his hands, and Beverley and Green have two of the Clippers' lowest usage rates. The offense will get enough shot creation and table-setting from George and Leonard while allowing Morris more agency.
Tinker with this combination as you please. It won't change the final finish, lest you actively seek to assemble a worse arrangement. Any lineup that includes both George and Leonard has the chance to be a two-way terror, and the Clippers' versatility beyond their one-two punch dwarfs that from every other contender.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into Friday's games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.