Predicting the NBA's Most Dangerous Offensive Lineups This Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2021

Predicting the NBA's Most Dangerous Offensive Lineups This Season

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    The most efficient offense in NBA history suited up in 2020-21.

    So did the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and 10th teams on that list.

    The Association is right in the heart of an offensive revolution. There are a number of factors behind the efficiency surge, but smarter shot selection, perpetually improving skills and rule restrictions on defenders all play a not insignificant part.

    Throw a dart at a modern offense, and there's a decent chance it's establishing or at least challenging a franchise mark for execution and precision. The league is in great hands on the game's most glamorous end of the court.

    Saying that, though, a handful of lineups rank above the rest. The following 10 quintets—no more than one per team allowed—look particularly potent ahead of the 2021-22 campaign because of proven production, realistic projections and the old, reliable eye test.

Atlanta Hawks

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    David Dow/Getty Images

    Lineup: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela

    The Hawks are so loaded they have different avenues to put together a powerhouse. It seems strange (and maybe foolish) to highlight a lineup that doesn't include John Collins, who was second on the squad in scoring just last season. It may look equally unwise to exclude De'Andre Hunter if he makes it all the way back from knee surgery given his absurd start to 2020-21 (17.9 points on 51.7/37.5/87.7 shooting his first 17 contests).

    Saying that, it's hard not to love this lineup, which roasted opposing defenses for 129.3 points per 100 possessions last season (albeit in just 19 minutes together).

    The Hawks have two offensive triggers in Young and Bogdanovic, a dynamic pick-and-roll screener in Capela and two lethal long-range shooters in Huerter and Gallinari. All five were double-digit scorers last season. Everyone but Capela bagged at least two triples per night. Young, Bogdanovic and Huerter all dished at least three assists, and Gallinari has approached that number in the past.

    There isn't a weak link in the mix. Sell out on stopping all the snipers, and Capela will gorge on dunks. Overload on Young, and Bogdanovic and Huerter can steer the ship. Throw everything at the guards, and Gallinari will pull bigger defenders out of their comfort zone or back down smaller ones to the post. There is no right answer here.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Lineup: Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin

    Remember that reference on the intro to the most efficient offense in NBA history? You're looking at it right here—to no one's surprise.

    Any offensive puzzle assembled around Durant, Harden and Irving is bound to be ridiculous. That trio had just eight games to find its rhythm together and still produced a gargantuan 119.6 offensive rating.

    But it's not just the Big Three in Brooklyn. There's also Harris, who has paced the league in three-point percentage two of the last three seasons. There's Griffin, the former aerial artist who has always been an underappreciated playmaker and has made himself a quality shooter (38.3 percent from deep across 26 games in Brooklyn). If we had enough room, there's also Patty Mills, the embodiment of this embarrassment-of-riches roster.

    "At full strength, nobody can beat us," Harden told Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated.

    Durant and Harden have seven scoring titles between them. Irving cracked the 50/40/90 club while averaging nearly 27 points per game last season. Harris has a top-10 career true shooting percentage (62.4) among all players who have logged 10,000 minutes. Griffin has five All-NBA selections and three top-10 finishes in MVP voting.

    This might be the greatest collection of offensive talent this league has ever seen.

Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Lineup: Coby White, Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic

    The Bulls finished last season ranked 21st in offensive efficiency. They could (should?) be primed for the category's biggest jump this time around.

    They had a full offseason to figure out how to maximize the potentially explosive LaVine-Vucevic duo, and they made it a Big Three by adding DeRozan to the fold. Ball's arrival scratched a longstanding need for a primary playmaker—DeRozan will help in that department, too—and his pass-first mentality should let White focus on what he does best: shredding nets.

    All five of these players averaged better than 14 points per game last season. All but DeRozan splashed more than two triples per night. No one had fewer than three assists. Ball was the worst free-throw shooter at 78.1 percent.

    These five could be magical on offense. Defenses probably take their chances with White—chosen over Patrick Williams for extra volume shooting and off-the-dribble attacking—but 2019's No. 7 pick already has 30 20-plus-point outbursts in his career, so it's more of a pick-your-poison scenario than a calculated risk.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

    Lineup: LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward, P.J. Washington

    This might be the choice that sets off the comments section the most. The Hornets had a bad offense last season (23rd in efficiency), and choosing them meant leaving off teams with potentially compelling arguments, like:

    • The Denver Nuggets, if they get a healthy Jamal Murray back.
    • The Los Angeles Clippers, if they get a healthy Kawhi Leonard back.
    • The Los Angeles Lakers, if Russell Westbrook's transition attacks offsets potential spacing issues.
    • The Philadelphia 76ers, if the Ben Simmons swap nets them their missing perimeter shot-creator.
    • The New Orleans Pelicans, if new coach Willie Green strikes the right balance around Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
    • The Miami Heat, if Tyler Herro makes a leap and one of Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo makes shots.

    Those arguments have their merit. Other clubs can present their own cases.

    So, why the Hornets? Because the team's struggles weren't brought fourth by this five, which routinely torched defenders in the brief run it received. In 16 games, this lineup erupted for 120.7 points per 100 possessions. In case you need the refresher, yes, that is a more efficient mark than the Durant-Harden-Irving trio managed.

    Ball, Rozier and Hayward can all take turns creating shots or setting themselves up. Bridges has unlimited bounce and, as of last season, a 40 percent three-point stroke. Washington is a masterful shape-shifter who molds his versatile talents to whatever the game dictates. Ball (20 years old), Washington (23) and Bridges (23) definitely haven't played their best basketball yet, and Rozier (27) hasn't necessarily either.

    To borrow a phrase from Hornets chairman Michael Jordan, the ceiling is the roof for this group.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Lineup: Jalen Brunson, Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Kristaps Porzingis

    Give Doncic control of any offense, and it's probably going to hum. He is 22 years old, three seasons into his NBA career and already testing the limits of hyperbolic language. Go as grandiose with his praise as you want, and it will probably still ring true.

    "He can do whatever," then-Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said in March, per Mavs.com's Eddie Sefko. "He can score, he can pass, he makes his teammates better. Where he goes from here—he can be an all-time great. There's no question."

    Doncic is quickly becoming an offensive player with no flaws, and there is no greater reason to be excited about the Mavs. But there's more to this lineup, which features Brunson as a second shot-creator, Hardaway and Kleber as catch-and-shoot snipers and Porzingis as the coveted stretch 5. Say what you will about Porzingis' playoff woes, he still finished last season averaging 20.1 points on 47.6/37.6/85.5 shooting.

    The only question with Dallas' inclusion on this list was how to finish the five: with Kleber or Dorian Finney-Smith. Credit to Finney-Smith, once a defensive specialist, for making this a close call, but Kleber gets the nod for having better numbers on catch-and-shoot triples and corner threes.

Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Lineup: Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Otto Porter Jr., Draymond Green

    Admittedly, there are questions about how Thompson will look after losing consecutive seasons to leg injuries: an ACL tear in his left knee during the 2019 Finals, and then a torn right Achilles' tendon last November. But the question marks hanging above the now-31-year-old reside almost exclusively on the defensive end.

    As former teammate JaVale McGee put it, "Ain't nothing wrong with his arm, so that boy's gonna shoot," (h/t Essentially Sports).

    The return of Thompson will again give Golden State the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history. Curry keeps aging like wine, a two-time MVP who somehow keeps raising the bar (he posted career highs in points and threes per game last season). Letting those two operate around Green is a formula that revolutionized basketball.

    That trio effectively gets Golden State on this list, as it's not entirely clear how the final two spots should be filled. We'll go with Poole as an extra shot-creator and Porter as a high IQ shooter, but Andre Iguodala, Andrew Wiggins, Damion Lee, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga or even James Wiseman could force their way into the conversation.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Lineup: Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis

    The defending champs were obviously landing on this list, the only question was how.

    Putting Antetokounmpo at center is all kinds of fun. Letting Brook Lopez fire away from distance has its own merit.

    But after the season Portis just produced, how could we go any different direction? Sure, he almost certainly won't shoot 47.1 percent from three again—his previous best was 39.3—but everything else could sustain. His 19.8 points and 3.3 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes were in line with his career marks, and his 1.9 assists lagged behind them.

    Outside of the center spot, though, this selection is straightforward. Antetokounmpo belongs in every best-player-on-the-planet debate, Middleton deftly handles second scoring duties before rising to the occasion in the clutch, Holiday offers ideal versatility for a third option and DiVincenzo checks all the glue-guy boxes. That quartet thrashed opponents for 119 points per 100 possessions across 590 minutes last season.

Phoenix Suns

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    Jim Poorten/Getty Images

    Lineup: Chris Paul, Cameron Payne, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton

    No quartet logged more minutes together than Paul, Booker, Bridges and Ayton last season. Few who came close matched their offensive output of 118.3 points per 100 possessions.

    Everything about that number checks out.

    Paul is the ultimate conductor on offense with an innate understanding of when (and where) to feed his teammates and when to pick his spots. Booker makes the short list of the league's most ignitable scorers. Bridges pairs a lethal long ball (42.5 percent last season) with the ability to zip around aggressive close-outs and finish at the basket. Ayton always threatens as a roller (92nd percentile) and can find points through both power and finesse.

    Phoenix has options for the fifth spot with Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson both high on the list. But after investing in Payne (three years, $19 million), the Suns might have bigger plans for Paul's understudy. Playing them together—which Phoenix did for 84 minutes last season (posting a 126.6 offensive rating in the process)—with Booker gives the squad a shot-creating surplus, and since all three are knockdown shooters, they can each play off of one another.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Lineup: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Larry Nance Jr.

    There are reasons the Blazers have been unable to escape the first round in four of their last five postseason trips. Offensive precision isn't one of them.

    The Lillard-McCollum backcourt burns as hot as any in basketball. Lillard just completed his sixth consecutive season of at least 25 points per game; the only player matching that streak is LeBron James. McCollum is on a six-year run with 20-plus points per game—a feat matched by only eight other players—and appeared headed for his best season yet before a foot fracture slowed him down in January.

    That combined scoring punch is the biggest reason the front office hasn't abandoned belief in this core.

    Portland supplemented it by adding Powell at the trade deadline (then giving him $90 million in free agency) and forcing opponents to worry about a third scoring threat. Covington is a three-point bomber who's an effortless fit with just about anyone, and while the offseason trade for Nance might be most felt on defense, the newcomer can boost the attack with explosiveness, complementary playmaking and improving outside shot.

Utah Jazz

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    Justin Ford/Getty Images

    Lineup: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gay

    The exclusion of Rudy Gobert might be interpreted as a direct shot at the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. That's not the intention. Gobert is great at what he does, ranking among the very best screen-setters in the business and pacing the league in field-goal percentage twice in the last three years.

    But Gobert's range doesn't reach far beyond the restricted area, which limits the frontcourt's flexibility. Gay, the club's biggest offseason addition, can stretch things out—so long as Jazz skipper Quin Snyder signs off on small-ball-center minutes for the newcomer.

    Going five-out with this attack would give Conley and Mitchell countless driving lanes to exploit. Not to mention, all five are comfortable finding their own shots, and Conley, Mitchell and Ingles all qualify as impact playmakers. Utah could drum up countless pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop combinations, and any player in this group can take advantage of a mismatch.

    There are other combinations Snyder can explore—running out Clarkson with Conley and Mitchell in an even smaller alignment, swapping in Royce O'Neal for a wing, using Eric Paschall as the small-ball center—but this feels like the best combo of scoring, distributing and long-distance shooting.

                  

    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Stathead unless otherwise noted. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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