Predicting Every NBA Team's Starting Lineup and Top Reserves This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2021

Predicting Every NBA Team's Starting Lineup and Top Reserves This Season

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    Let's talk some 2021-22 NBA rotations, shall we?

    This discussion, for the record, will not include conventional depth charts. Sincere apologies to all the traditionalists out there. The obfuscation of positions renders that process a tad archaic.

    Starting-five forecasts and top-10-rotation musings will be our bread and butter instead. Stay tuned for our crack at crunch-time lineups and quirky five-man units we should all be dying to see.

    Building each team's starting five isn't always meant to be a meritocratic process. These lineups are merely what we should expect to see as the most used opening combination when the entire roster is healthy. Players who are expected to miss all or most of the season—think: Kawhi Leonard—won't be included. Anyone who should be back by the midway point or earlier (i.e. Klay Thompson) will be viewed without condition.

    Cobbling together a crop of top reserves is a far more subjective exercise. It seeks to juggle what's most likely to happen with what should happen and what could happen as the season plows on.

    Not every team is beholden to a 10-man rotation. Some are shorter. Others are longer. This is just a stab at which 10 players will lead their team in court time. Because projections are fun, and since everybody loves a good argument, reserves will be listed in order of who we think will receive the most minutes.

    Now, please proceed with an open mind and the best of vibes.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Trae Young
    • Bogdan Bogdanovic
    • De'Andre Hunter
    • John Collins
    • Clint Capela 

    Top Reserves: Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, Danilo Gallinari, Delon Wright, Lou Williams

    Four of the Atlanta Hawks' starting slots seem locked down. They have room to futz and fiddle with the 2-guard position if they prefer Kevin Huerter or Cam Reddish, but defaulting to the five best players on the team is never a bad decision.

    This group probably registers as Atlanta's most-used starting combination in 2020-21 if not for injuries. Instead, these five enter this year having logged fewer than 250 possessions together through the regular season and playoffs.

    Attempting to pin down the Hawks' reserve rotation leads you to a revelation: They have too many good players.

    Someone capable of logging real time will invariably get squeezed, and Atlanta certainly shouldn't be confined to a 10-man rotation when Onyeka Okongwu is healthy and if either Jalen Johnson or Sharife Cooper looks ready. For the most part, though, Atlanta's top eight guys feel like they're etched in stone.

Boston Celtics

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Marcus Smart
    • Jaylen Brown
    • Jayson Tatum
    • Al Horford
    • Robert Williams III

    Top Reserves: Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Juancho Hernangomez

    Now is a good time to remind everyone that preseason remains an extension of training camp—a forum for self-discovery and experimentation. In other words: No, Hernangomez should not be the Boston Celtics' fifth starter.

    Four of the spots are non-negotiable. They belong to Smart, Brown, Tatum and Williams. The finishing touch comes down to Horford, Schroder or Richardson. The latter probably has the weakest case.

    Rolling with Schroder makes some sense, but the Celtics need someone other than Pritchard to make plays from the perimeter off the bench. Horford's inclusion balances out Boston's second-unit offense while also opening up additional minutes at the 4-5, where the team currently sports a potential logjam.  

    Good luck hashing out the Celtics' most-used players after the first seven spots. You can talk yourself into almost anyone.

    Pritchard and Nesmith seem like semi-safe bets based upon Boston's foremost needs. That final spot, on the other hand, is eminently up for grabs. If not Hernangomez, it could be Enes Kanter, Grant Williams or maybe even Jabari Parker. It probably won't be Romeo Langford. How's that for surety?

Brooklyn Nets

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    Starting Five Prediction

    Top Reserves: Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, Nicolas Claxton, LaMarcus Aldridge, Cameron Thomas

    Kyrie Irving's place in the Brooklyn Nets rotation is a non-starter for now. The team announced on Tuesday he will not play or practice so long as he remains unvaccinated.

    Brown is a solid choice to take Kyrie's spot. The Nets don't need to run out another shot creator like Mills when Durant and Harden exist. Defense is more integral. Brown comes with finite range on offense, but this group can play four out with him.

    Brooklyn's center choice is supposed to be a coin toss. Will it be Griffin? Claxton? Millsap? Alridge? Hell, why not Brown? Will head coach Steve Nash go full MLB pitching staff and give each primary big a start every five or six games?

    Beats me. Griffin seems like the least wrong guess given how much stock the Nets have placed in vets—specifically those with bigger names.

    Putting together a larger rotation for the Nets gets absurdly dicey in almost no time at all. Durant, Harden and Harris should be in the top five no matter what. Kyrie receives an auto-nod if he gets vaccinated. Who knows what happens beyond that?

    Mills, Claxton and Millsap seem like they'll have top-10 staying power, even if their order is a little off.  I'm not sure how much run Aldridge gets when he was an 11th-hour addition. The LMA-Millsap frontcourt could become a thing off the bench. Thomas, Jevon Carter and perhaps James Johnson should all vie for top-10 entry if it doesn't.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • LaMelo Ball
    • Terry Rozier
    • Gordon Hayward
    • Miles Bridges
    • Mason Plumlee

    Top Reserves: P.J. Washington, Kelly Oubre Jr., Jalen McDaniels, Ish Smith, James Bouknight

    Washington would've placed inside the starting lineup if this were last season. So far, though, head coach James Borrego has hinted at playing Bridges next to a pure 5 to begin games.

    This decision isn't much telltale of anything. The Charlotte Hornets are still built to subsist on plenty of Washington-at-the-5 units.

    Chiseling out the larger rotation becomes a thinker after the first seven names. Others will opt for another big (Kai Jones?). That's fine. I'm counting on Charlotte to immerse itself in smaller units shortly after the opening tip and, frankly, I'm also penalizing Plumlee because this video exists.

    Barring an extended absence from Hayward, Bouknight has the highest swing potential of the gaggle. The Hornets could be more conservative in his development as they try to tussle with other play-in hopefuls, or his shot-taking confidence, passing potential and defensive energy could land him a bigger role than expected.

    Charlotte doesn't have many party-crashing options outside this 10-man group. Cody Martin is next up, unless the team is more willing than anticipated to unleash Jones.

Chicago Bulls

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Lonzo Ball
    • Zach LaVine
    • DeMar DeRozan
    • Patrick Williams
    • Nikola Vucevic

    Top Reserves: Alex Caruso, Coby White, Derrick Jones Jr., Alize Johnson, Javonte Green

    Though Williams may not be available to start the year as he recovers from a left ankle sprain, he should return with plenty of time to co-headline the Chicago Bulls' most frequented starting five.

    Coming up with his interim replacement is the real challenge. Head coach Billy Donovan is looking for someone who won't be too overmatched at the 4 and doesn't compromise the team's intent to play with pace. Jones or Stanely Johnson are my personal best guesses—that is, unless Donovan is comfortable with the 6'4" Green rumbling opposite large wings and fringe bigs full-time.

    Everyone else is a given. LaVine is the Bulls' best player, Nikola Vucevic is one of roughly two centers on the roster, and neither Ball nor DeRozan makes star money to come off the pine.

    Forecasting the balance of Chicago's top-10 rotation is straightforward through most of the process. Fool around with the order of the first eight as you will, but they should all make the nightly cut.

    Doling out the nine and 10 spots hinges on how you see the frontcourt rotation shaking out. Jones is an easy inclusion if he sponges up some backup 5 reps, otherwise Tony Bradley could earn the nod. Green has a chance to slingshot up this pecking order, but only if the Bulls are committed to playing him up. Ayo Dosunmo has my apologies. Stanley Johnson is a dark horse if he makes the final roster. Troy Brown Jr. is fair game over Green or Alize Johnson.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Darius Garland
    • Collin Sexton
    • Isaac Okoro
    • Evan Mobley
    • Jarrett Allen

    Top Reserves: Ricky Rubio, Lauri Markkanen, Cedi Osman, Dylan Windler, Kevin Love

    Quibbling over this prediction is futile. It's less a forecast than a matter of fact. The Cleveland Cavaliers want to play Allen and Mobley together. Things could get clunky on offense, but Mobley has shown the chops required to cover defensive ground at the 4 in summer league and preseason.

    Sexton pessimists may suggest he come off the bench in a sixth-man capacity. That's funny. And, if we're being candid, stupid.

    Starter designations are overrated, but who are you giving the nod to over him? Osman? Rubio? Kevin Pangos? Dylan "He's Healthy This Time, For Real, I Swear, Double-Triple Promise?" Windler?

    Yeah, no. Cleveland doesn't have the guaranteed spacing in an Allen-Mobley frontcourt, with Isaac Okoro at the 3, to bench Sexton from the jump. Let's move on.

    Cleveland's preseason has offered a pretty clear glimpse into how the first seven spots in their rotation will pan out. Every other one is up for debate.

    Osman and Love are both familiar and fill needs, theoretically anyway, as shooters. They should be staples if they remain on the roster. Windler could lose ground to Pangos or Lamar Stevens. Here's hoping he doesn't. He remains a tantalizing unknown, the depths of which the wing-light Cavaliers have every incentive to plumb.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Luka Doncic
    • Tim Hardaway Jr.
    • Dorian Finney-Smith
    • Kristaps Porzingis
    • Dwight Powell

    Top Reserves: Reggie Bullock, Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber, Sterling Brown, Willie Cauley-Stein

    In the never-ending quest to make Porzingis a center, the Dallas Mavericks are expected to start Powell alongside him to begin the season. Whether that lasts all year is a separate matter. It seems as if the Mavs want to stick with this model. Powell might be ousted at some point, but Cauley-Stein and Kleber can both supplant him.

    Hashing out the rest of the starting group is a breeze. Doncic and Finney-Smith aren't going anywhere. Moving Hardaway to the bench could beef up the second unit's shot creation, but the Mavs are testing fate enough by using KP at the 4.

    Confidence levels with the rest of the rotation should begin to wane right around No. 6 or No. 7. Powell could belong higher if he's going to start beside Porzingis, but his inclusion from the get-go feels ceremonious. At least one of Kleber and 2020-21 net-rating superhero Cauley-Stein should leapfrog him in total court time.

    Identifying players who might crawl into the top 10, failing major injuries, is trickier. Brown's spot could be flimsy, but this presumes the Mavs eventually favor Frank Ntilikina or Josh Green. Boban Marjanovic continues to be a mop-up-duty extraordinaire and shouldn't enter this fray unless something—or some things—go terribly wrong.

Denver Nuggets

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Monte Morris
    • Will Barton
    • Michael Porter Jr.
    • Aaron Gordon
    • Nikola Jokic

    Top Reserves: PJ Dozier, JaMychal Green, Jeff Green, Facundo Campazzo, Bones Hyland

    Jamal Murray's absence from this Denver Nuggets starting five looms large—and is only temporary. He suffered a torn left ACL last April, late enough that we must assume he'll miss the vast majority of this season without a concrete timetable stating otherwise.

    Denver has plenty of other options to take his place in the interim. None of them bring Murray's combination of scoring and playmaking, but the team's backup guard situation is better than most.

    Morris seems like the safest bet. The Nuggets outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions whenever he played with Barton, MPJ and Jokic last year, and he's a seamless fit within a lineup that has three to four other players who monopolize possessions. If this lineup needs more defensive juice, it might make more sense to sub out Barton rather than Morris, assuming head coach Michael Malone doesn't care about downsizing as a result.

    Digging further into Denver's reserve pool reveals tougher decisions. They can easily stretch 13 players deep on any night, even without Murray. Leaving Zeke Nnaji and rookie Bones Hyland outside the top 10 doesn't feel good or right. Of the two, Hyland seems to have the best crack at usurping Austin Rivers or Campazzo for regular burn as the season wears on.

    Actually, screw it. Let's just go ahead and make that call now. Hyland over Rivers it is.

Detroit Pistons

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Killian Hayes
    • Cade Cunningham
    • Jerami Grant
    • Saddiq Bey
    • Isaiah Stewart

    Top Reserves: Kelly Olynyk, Hamidou Diallo, Saben Lee, Cory Joseph, Josh Jackson

    There should probably be more starting-lineup drama on a team as unestablished as the Detroit Pistons. Perhaps some develops as the season marches onward.

    Detroit basically has four locks as of right now: Cunningham, Grant, Bey and Stewart. Maybe you prefer Stewart coming off the bench. The Pistons didn't trade Mason Plumlee just so they could agree with you.

    Hayes' inclusion won't win over everyone. His rookie year was wrecked by right hip issues and lackluster efficiency, and the fit between he and Cunningham isn't the cleanest. Detroit needs to give it a go anyway. Cunningham looked fine playing off the ball during summer league, and the Pistons need to see what they have in Hayes, the seventh pick in the 2020 draft.

    Building out the reserve part of Detroit's rotation is more of a free-for-all. Olynyk is the only one of the bunch who should be guaranteed minutes. Everyone else's spot is less of a sure thing.

    To that end, the Pistons did not bring back Diallo and Lee just so they could not play them. One of Cory Joseph and Frank Jackson should be in the top 10. I chose Joseph. Josh Jackson doesn't project as a member of the Pistons' forever core, but their secondary wing depth is spotty.

    Luka Garza diehards have my condolences. Trey Lyles diehards...probably shouldn't be a thing.

Golden State Warriors

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Stephen Curry
    • Klay Thompson
    • Andrew Wiggins
    • Draymond Green
    • Kevon Looney

    Top Reserves: Jordan Poole, Otto Porter Jr., Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, James Wiseman

    Thompson is still working his way back from left ACL and right Achilles injuries, but January has widely been pegged as a realistic timetable for his return. That's concrete enough to include him. Expect Poole to start at the 2 in the meantime.

    The Golden State Warriors' opening lineup is barren of decisions after that. There's a case to start Draymond Green at the 5, because there's always a case to start Green at the 5. But that's never truly been the Warriors' M.O.

    Running out Wiseman would be the bigger-picture investment...and also the wrong call. He's still recovering from a torn right meniscus, and Golden State fared waaay better last season when Green and Curry got the chance to play without him.

    Question marks are papered throughout the rest of the rotation. This projection doesn't suggest rookies Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody will get much run. Golden State is trying to win now, and prioritizing development to that extent risks unnecessary losses.

    Andre Iguodala and Nemanja Bjelica are the actual toughest exclusions. The latter could steal some of Wiseman's minutes if he's hitting his threes and disarming slower bigs off the dribble. Iguodala is more of a 16-game player at this stage of his career, though his familiarity with Golden State's style and secondary ball-handling could maybe land him minutes over Lee or Toscano-Anderson on some nights.

Houston Rockets

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Kevin Porter Jr.
    • Jalen Green
    • Eric Gordon
    • Christian Wood
    • Daniel Theis

    Top Reserves: Jae'Sean Tate, D.J. Augustin, Danuel House, K.J. Martin, Alperen Sengun

    Different iterations of the Houston Rockets starting five can exist. A healthy Gordon and Theis, specifically, don't fit the rebuilding motif.

    Still, starting Theis helps open up backup 5 minutes for Sengun. And Gordon is a much-needed veteran buffer for a team exploring Porter-at-point guard combinations and leaning heavily on a rookie scorer like Green.

    This unit might not run out for the opening tip all season. It probably shouldn't. Gordon is a trade candidate if he stays healthy. But it's the right mix of youth and experience for now.

    Utter anarchy awaits the Rockets rotation beyond the starting five. This reserve projection can be thrown for a whirl if they're committed to giving Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba every-night spots.

    Christopher has a better shot at such regularity. He's more of a wild card than Augustin, but Houston has the luxury of playing for the future, and this isn't an instance in which the veteran option is guaranteed to be more valuable than the rookie.

Indiana Pacers

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Malcolm Brogdon
    • Caris LeVert
    • T.J. Warren
    • Domantas Sabonis
    • Myles Turner

    Top Reserves: Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, Torrey Craig, Oshae Brissett, Chris Duarte

    Injuries to LeVert (stress fracture in his back), Brogdon (left shoulder sprain) and Warren (stress fracture in left foot) put a damper on the Indiana Pacers' immediate starting-five projection, but their long-haul place inside the opening lineup is collectively implicit.

    Some will clamor for head coach Rick Carlisle to choose between Sabonis and Turner and start only one big. That's more of a crunch-time decision, if it's even a crunch-time decision. There's something to be said for using your five best players at once.

    More openings than normal appear to exist within the rest of the Pacers' rotation. Holiday, who is currently dealing with a left ankle injury, has minutes on lock. Ditto for McConnell. Brissett should land somewhere in the top 10 as an imitation third big unless Goga Bitadze or rookie Isaiah Jackson get the vote of confidence.

    Filling two spots with Craig, Jeremy Lamb and Duarte is a headache. Indiana presumably didn't sign Craig so he could see scant playing time and needs his defensive presence on the wings. Lamb is the vet, and Carlisle likes those. My gut still tells me to pick the rookie, Duarte. You know, upside and draft equity and all that.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Reggie Jackson
    • Eric Bledsoe
    • Paul George
    • Marcus Morris Sr.
    • Ivica Zubac

    Top Reserves: Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum, Luke Kennard, Serge Ibaka, Justise Winslow

    Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue has for now quashed any inquiries into the starting five. Bledsoe is getting the green light over Batum and the newly extended Mann. Let's see if that holds all year.

    Most of the Clippers' reserve rotation is caps-lock obvious. Batum and Mann are starters, adjacent. Los Angeles does not have enough ball-handling without Kawhi Leonard—who could miss the season with a partially torn right ACL—to keep Kennard on a short rope for another year. Ibaka is pretty much the team's lone reserve big when healthy.

    Things get somewhat juicy looking at the 10th spot. It could go to whomever the Clippers keep between Isaiah Hartenstein and Harry Giles III. Do they give Keon Johnson or Brandon Boston Jr. some burn?

    Smart money is on Winslow. The Clippers have slotted him across a bunch of different roles, including as a makeshift big.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Starting Five Prediction

    Top Reserves: Carmelo Anthony, Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn

    Four of the Los Angeles Lakers' starting spots appear locked in. Davis, James and Westbrook are "um, duh" inclusions, and despite initial indications that AD would be deployed as a full-time 5, it now sounds like Jordan will get the ritualistic starting nod.

    Anyone worried what this says about the Lakers' overarching plans needn't worry. They will close with Davis at the 5, and he probably winds up tallying a lion's share of his possessions at center anyway.

    Hammering out the fifth spot could be a fluid process. Kent Bazemore gets my endorsement, as one of the few theoretical three-and-D wings on the roster. Some have told me Horton-Tucker will get consideration. For the sake of half-court spacing, I hope that's not true. Also: He just had surgery on his right thumb.

    Sorting through the Lakers' reserve ranks provides a wealth of options. Ariza will be a staple—and perhaps a starting-five candidate—when he returns from right ankle surgery. Carmelo didn't finally link up with LeBron just so he could ride the bench. THT may realistically leapfrog Melo as the Lakers' most-used reserve given how much defensive talent the team surrendered over the offseason.

    Monk needs to crack the top-10 rotation after missing roughly zero threes during the preseason. Nunn caps off this hierarchy. Barely. Paying him more than the minimum infers a surefire role, but the Lakers have a lot of dudes who will expect to play. Nunn has to hit his threes at a higher clip to assure himself a spot, otherwise Dwight Howard (squeezed by AD-at-the-5 units) or Wayne Ellington are better guesses. Rajon Rondo is not.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Ja Morant
    • Dillon Brooks
    • Kyle Anderson
    • Jaren Jackson Jr.
    • Steven Adams

    Top Reserves: Desmond Bane, De'Anthony Melton, Xavier Tillman Sr., Tyus Jones, Ziaire Williams

    Predicting the Memphis Grizzlies' starting five might incite a mental tug-of-war. Will they start Jackson at the 5? Sub in Bane over Anderson or Brooks (still recovering from a broken left hand)? Or maybe even Melton?

    All fair questions. They're also inquiries more pertinent to the overarching rotation. Memphis is the quintessential example of a team that won't necessarily rely on its starting five during the longest or most crucial stretches.

    Devising the rest of their rotation isn't what you'd call smooth sailing. Bane and Melton have to play. One might start. The givens end with them. Jones seems like a quasi-lock since Melton isn't a conventional backup floor general. Tillman is the more likely third big over Brandon Clarke when going off last season.

    Penciling Williams into the top 10 is akin to stepping out on a limb. The Grizzlies can go with more proven shooting in John Konchar and, if they don't want to carve out Jackson-at-the-5-minutes, still have Clarke. Oh, hey: Jarrett Culver is on this roster, too.

    Williams is the bigger swing, and after Memphis spent the offseason prioritizing its long-term future over immediacy, getting him somewhat regular reps should make their most pressing to-do list.

Miami Heat

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Kyle Lowry
    • Jimmy Butler
    • Duncan Robinson
    • P.J. Tucker
    • Bam Adebayo

    Top Reserves: Tyler Herro, Victor Oladipo, Markieff Morris, Dewayne Dedmon, Max Strus

    Find a team with a starting five more likely to piss off their opponent. I dare you.

    This also happens to be a starting five with zero debates. The Miami Heat could stir in Herro over Tucker if they want to prioritize shooting, but Butler shouldn't have to guard 4s from the outset.

    Determining the five most-used reserves is just as easy, albeit not in the most convenient way. Herro is cemented as the sixth man. Oladipo should be around the seventh or eighth man if he returns from a right quad injury this season—which he's expected to do. (By the way: A healthy Oladipo has the chance to change the complexion of the Eastern Conference pecking order.)

    Morris and Dedmon are formalities themselves, in no small part because the Heat are thin on backup 4s and 5s who aren't assistant coaches taking up a roster spot, a mystery box out of Turkey or one of the Martin twins.

    Speaking of which: Caleb Martin has a claim for the 10th spot. So does Gabe Vincent, especially in Oladipo's absence. Strus has seen more looks in the preseason—Vincent is banged up—and won't be as redundant when (if?) Oladipo gets healthy.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Jrue Holiday
    • Donte DiVincenzo
    • Khris Middleton
    • Giannis Antetokounmpo
    • Brook Lopez

    Top Reserves: Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, George Hill, Grayson Allen, Semi Ojeleye

    Mustering up a discussion about the Milwaukee Bucks' starting five is pointless unless you believe they prefer to use DiVincenzo off the bench when he returns from his left ankle injury.

    Conversation-starters are more pronounced when looking at their reserves. Portis makes the sixth spot easy. Everything else feels kind of undefined.

    Head coach Mike Budenholzer will never quit Connaughton. Hill isn't back on an above-minimum deal to play less than Jeff Teague. That's two more spots down.

    Milwaukee probably acquired Allen for a reason. Even at his worst, he can really stroke it. Rodney Hood has devolved into enough of a wild card that Allen wins out in an either-or battle.

    Granted, this may not be a pick 'em situation. The Bucks don't have to play Ojeleye. But he's the closest they get to a P.J. Tucker facsimile. If they still want to use Giannis Antetokounmpo as a primary big without compromising floor balance or manipulating the two-time MVP's defensive role, Ojeleye is their guy over Thanasis Antetokounmpo and most likely the better option than Hood.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • D'Angelo Russell
    • Anthony Edwards
    • Jaden McDaniels
    • Jarred Vanderbilt
    • Karl-Anthony Towns

    Top Reserves: Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Taurean Prince, Naz Reid, Josh Okogie

    Spend time arguing in favor of Beasley getting the starter spot over Vanderbilt if you're so inclined. It's immaterial. The Minnesota Timberwolves so far favor Vanderbilt to begin games; Beasley will almost surely be the one closing them. No one should have bones to pick with the other four spots.

    Not many decisions await Minnesota when looking at its reserve rotation. It has four dudes who are absolutely, positively going to play. (Stay tuned for more Towns-Reid pairings.) The 10th inclusion is more of a toss-up.

    Okogie will be higher up on other rotation projections, so I feel obligated to give him the final nod. Jordan McLaughlin would be listed if the Timberwolves didn't acquire Beverley. Could Leandro Bolmaro or Jake Layman creep in here? Yours truly is a Nathan Knight believer, but that's an unrelated tangent I work in to every Minnesota discussion.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Devonte' Graham
    • Nickeil Alexander-Walker
    • Brandon Ingram
    • Zion Williamson
    • Jonas Valanciunas

    Top Reserves: Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Trey Murphy III, Jaxson Hayes, Naji Marshall

    Ending up at this New Orleans Pelicans starting five is mostly migraine-free. Overthink it, and you might find there could be something to bringing Graham off the bench to juice the secondary shot creation. But it'd be weird if the Pelicans paid him as they did to lead the backups, and if he agreed to join New Orleans at all without having the starter duties on lock.

    Poring over the reserve hierarchy is no picnic. The mindless decisions begin and end with Hart.

    How devoted the Pelicans are to chasing a play-in bid likely shapes how they tackle the backups. I've blended the warring timelines, not because I exist on a higher plane of thinking, but because I have little sense for what they will do and believe this is a situation that'll be puttered around with a few times over.

    Murphy at least feels like a second given. Hell, he could start over NAW. He combines three-position defense with knockdown shooting and has very much looked the part during preseason. Hayes showed enough flashes toward the back end of last year, and once he's healthy, his inclusion over Willy Hernangomez is more bland than salty.

    Satoransky and Marshall are iffier choices. The Pelicans still need to see what they have in Kira Lewis Jr., a human blur, but they'll get enough learning-curve rockiness from NAW and could use Satoransky's steadiness. I firmly believe Marshall will flirt with top-10 reps on this team, even though the easy default is Garrett Temple.

    Keep an eye on Herbert Jones. He is wired for the Pelicans to indulge weirdness and could displace a name if they have the gall to keep using him at the 5.

New York Knicks

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Kemba Walker
    • Evan Fournier
    • RJ Barrett
    • Julius Randle
    • Mitchell Robinson

    Top Reserves: Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Taj Gibson

    Disagreements with the New York Knicks starting five are limited to Robinson and relatives of Elfrid Payton. If anyone is brazen enough to use Gibson over Robinson when the latter returns from his right foot injury, it's head coach Tom Thibodeau. I doubt it gets to that point. Robinson still has an All-Defense ceiling.

    Divvying up minutes amongst the reserves should be a good kind of problem. Rose-Quickley reps must survive the Knicks' offseason retooling. That's not up for debate. Burks hit a handful of big-time fourth-quarter shots last year and didn't get two guaranteed years in free agency to fall outside the top 10 of the rotation.

    Awarding the final two spots to Gibson and Noel isn't the afterthought decision it should be. Hell will freeze over, defrost into a tropical paradise and then freeze over again before Thibs bounces one of them for a perimeter youngster like Quentin Grimes or Deuce McBride. Should Obi Toppin be viewed in the same vein?

    My official stance is no. He should play. But the Knicks aren't so much straddling two timelines as going for it now. Toppin's staying power in a full-strength rotation likely dips outside the top 10 unless Thibs falls out of love with Noel. (Thibs and Taj are forever.)

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
    • Josh Giddey
    • Lu Dort
    • Darius Bazley
    • Derrick Favors

    Top Reserves: Theo Maledon, Kenrich Williams, Aleksej Pokusevski, Ty Jerome, Isaiah Roby

    Full disclosure: I aim to remain informed enough so that I can be one of the least insufferable national blogboys in existence. The Oklahoma City Thunder are testing my ability to meet that bar. Their setup is maddeningly confusing.

    Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort are their two best players. They will start. Their center rotation is shallow, they're short on proven veterans, and they'll presumably try to flip Derrick Favors for additional value. He should start.

    Giddey was just drafted at No. 6. Bazley is now one of the longest-tenured players on the roster. They're good starting bets, even if I'm tempted to pick Pokusevski or Williams over Bazley.

    Both Poku and Williams should assume prominent reserve roles. Meldon, who has the chance to be a legitimately impactful floor general, is right there with them. Roby is included because Mike Muscala is not, and I'm guessing there are limits to how often head coach Mark Daigneault will go to Kenrich-at-the-5 setups.

    Tre Mann received heavy consideration for the final top-10 spot. But Oklahoma City has less time to evaluate Jerome before making a decision on his future. Perhaps Mann is good enough to overturn that logic by season's end. We'll see.

Orlando Magic

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Starting Five Prediction

    • Markelle Fultz
    • Jalen Suggs
    • Gary Harris
    • Jonathan Isaac
    • Wendell Carter Jr.

    Top Reserves: Terrence Ross, Chuma Okeke, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton, Mo Bamba

    The Orlando Magic's rotation is yet another melee of options. Their starting five has some assurances when everyone's healthy. Isaac is a must-include once he's back from his torn left ACL. He joins Suggs, a top-five pick and potentially already Orlando's second-best player, and Carter, the team's most promising center, as the should-be locks.

    Harris makes the cut mostly as an idea. He should hit threes while offering hard-nosed wing defense. Including Fultz, who is also working his way back from a torn left ACL, registers as a stab in the dark. The Magic have a ton of other guards from which to choose, but the second unit will be devoid of outside shot creation without Anthony or Ross. Plus, Orlando is paying Fultz like a starter.

    Anthony and Ross should rank as two of the top reserves if neither one is in the starting lineup. Okeke is in the same boat (when healthy). He defends his butt off, can sink threes and might have more ball skills to explore.

    Migraines start to hit when fathoming the final two spots. Don't kill yourself trying to rebuke my (probably wildly) wrong guesses. The Magic are in self-discovery mode. Their rotation should span deeper than 10 guys at full strength.

    Robin Lopez can feasibly jump Bamba. Orlando just has more of a long-term incentive to figure out what Bamba can be. The Bamba-WCJ frontcourt the Magic tried in the preseason could plausibly open up room for all three bigs. Picking Hampton over Franz Wagner or Michael Carter-Williams isn't idiot-proof, but he's (much) more of a floor general than Wagner and a better shooter/fit beside Anthony than MCW.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Ben Simmons
    • Seth Curry
    • Danny Green
    • Tobias Harris
    • Joel Embiid

    Top Reserves: Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang, Andre Drummond

    Simmons surprised the Philadelphia 76ers by showing up to their facility on Monday. Emphasis on surprised, because that's hysterical. Crystal-balling how his situation plays out is impossible, but if he's with the team and healthy enough to play, the assumption should be that he will—and that he'll start.

    Nothing else is up for discussion within the Sixers' opening five. Thybulle would have to go nuclear from three to replace Green, or Green himself would need to incur a stark drop-off. (For the record: "He struggled to defend Trae Young" does not qualify as a stark drop-off.)

    Thybulle and Maxey should be Philly's most-used reserves by a long shot. And for all we know, Maxey might be elevated to starting duty if Simmons randomly stops showing up or refuses to play in home games or whatever.

    Mapping out the next three spots isn't thaaat difficult. Korkmaz is probably going to initiate more pick-and-rolls than he did last year. Drummond's spot in the rotation will go unchallenged barring head coach Doc Rivers deciding to play small in Embiid-less minutes.

    Foisting Shake Milton outside the top 10 is borderline criminal. But if Simmons is an active member of the team, the player who doesn't win the backup-point-guard gig figures to get squeezed, and Philly sorely needs Niang as depth on the frontline—doubly so if it embraces no-big configurations. Let's also take a moment to shout-out Isaiah Joe for being the best (preseason) three-point shooter alive.

Phoenix Suns

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Starting Five Prediction

    • Chris Paul
    • Devin Booker
    • Mikal Bridges
    • Jae Crowder
    • Deandre Ayton

    Top Reserves: Cameron Johnson, Cameron Payne, JaVale McGee, Landry Shamet, Adbel Nader

    Non-decisions, non-decisions, non-decisions.

    No team enjoys more rollover minutes from last season than the Phoenix Suns. Compiling their starting five takes zero lift if you're not trying to knife out a path to Johnson eclipsing Crowder.

    Phoenix's reserve carousel is almost identical in ease. Johnson is hitting off-the-dribble jumpers now. Payne deserved more Sixth Man of the Year love last season; the Suns won the minutes he logged without both Booker and Paul.

    McGee's role as the primary backup 5 is air tight with Dario Saric recovering from a torn right ACL and Frank Kaminsky being Frank Kaminsky. Phoenix didn't trade Jevon Carter and the No. 29 pick to bury Shamet Langston-Galloway-feet deep. The offense can use another motion shooter.

    Split decisions could await at the 10th spot. Jalen Smith can possibly help the Suns retain access to five-out units if he's in the middle. Nader is too good for me to assume Phoenix goes this route without injuries forcing its hand. He is a capable defender and shooter and puts traditional pressure on the basket. Play him, Suns.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Starting Five Prediction

    Top Reserves: Larry Nance Jr., Tony Snell, Anfernee Simons, Cody Zeller, Nassir Little

    Starting-five politics don't exist for the Portland Trail Blazers. This is their group, because it has to be their group, because it should be their group.

    Fashioning the reserve rotation only gets a little complicated when trying to discern who nets the most floor time. Nance should be the sixth man. Simons is the more conventional first-player-off-the-bench candidate, but the Blazers have guards to spare in their starting lineup. Their top sub doesn't need to be one.

    Slotting a healthy Snell ahead of Simons looks blasphemous at first glance, but Portland needs secondary wings. Simons' playing time will be intrinsically capped by having Lillard, McCollum and Powell in front of him. That changes if the Blazers want to trot out four guards. (Related: Do it!)

    Zeller is the sole other pure 5 on the roster aside from Nurkic. Nance should get some tick at center, but Zeller will receive plenty of looks if his body holds up. That's a big if. The 10th spot is tinged with some uncertainty.

    Ben McLemore can be deployed as an actual wing. Dennis Smith Jr. has looked pretty good in the preseason. Little offers more positional malleability on defense, and if he's healthy, the Blazers owe it to themselves to give him first crack at mainstay status.

Sacramento Kings

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Starting Five Prediction

    • De'Aaron Fox
    • Tyrese Haliburton
    • Harrison Barnes
    • Marvin Bagley III
    • Richaun Holmes

    Top Reserves: Buddy Hield, Davion Mitchell, Maurice Harkless, Tristan Thompson, Terence Davis

    Sacramento Kings head coach Luke Walton has essentially intimated that only three starters are sewn up: Fox, Haliburton and Barnes. Really, it's four. I don't care that he hinted Thompson could start at center. He should be fired if Holmes isn't beginning games in the middle.

    Three players ostensibly have a chance at that last spot: Bagley, Harkless and Hield. The latter gets it if you're going by pure talent and trying to field your best five players. Harkless is the defense-first option. Bagley is the middle ground. The Kings still don't have a firm hold on his status quo, and he should look best running alongside their top-four guys. Starting him also ensures Sacramento isn't absent a higher-end offensive option in the second unit (Hield).

    Four of the top-five reserve spaces seem solidified, as well. Hield will be one of the two primary backups if he's not starting. Mitchell, a rookie who picks up defensive assignments at their front door, will be the other. Harkless or Thompson could get slightly squished if Bagley doesn't start. Then again, if he's not playing for the opening tip, Harkless might be.

    Putting a bow on the top 10 comes down to Davis or Louis King, both of whom have pretty handedly cleared Robert Woodard II on the intrigue scale. Sacramento is hard up for truer wings, which bodes well for King, but Davis remains the better marksman and can guard bigger players fairly well for someone standing 6'4".

San Antonio Spurs

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Starting Five Prediction

    • Dejounte Murray
    • Derrick White
    • Doug McDermott
    • Keldon Johnson
    • Jakob Poeltl

    Top Reserves: Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell, Thaddeus Young, Bryn Forbes, Josh Primo

    The San Antonio Spurs have so many lineup options at their disposal. It won't be a surprise if the starting five shifts regularly throughout the regular season.

    Most signs point to this quintet beginning the year. White might get a quick hook as head coach Gregg Popovich tries to stagger his best playmakers, but the time has come for the Spurs to gauge his fit beside Murray.

    Part of me wonders whether Vassell could get the power forward nod over Johnson. I'm repressing that pang. Walker could be an option to unseat McDermott if Coach Pop prioritizes shot creation over complementary spacing.

    Both Walker and Vassell will factor heavily into the reserve rotation if they're not among the starting mix. Young should have a hold on plenty of minutes at the 4 and 5—until he's inevitably traded.

    Guesstimating the final two spots demands a couple of small leaps. San Antonio needs more ball-handlers following the departures of DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills. At least one of Forbes and Primo should clinch a slot. I'm going with both.

    Drew Eubanks is a quality backup big and the Spurs seem to like Jock Landale, but Young should cannibalize some center reps. Forbes has the luxury of being a veteran and former Spur.

    Primo is a shot in the dark. The rookie has tantalized for small spurts in preseason. The safe play is still Eubanks. And if not him, it could be Tre Jones after his left ankle sprain heals. And if it's not him, there's always Zach "Doesn't Sound Like He's Returning in 2021" Collins. I'm feeling reckless and pandering to the bigger picture and going with Primo anyway.

Toronto Raptors

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    Mark Blinch/Getty Images

    Starting Five Prediction

    • Goran Dragic
    • Fred VanVleet
    • OG Anunoby
    • Pascal Siakam
    • Chris Boucher

    Top Reserves: Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Malachi Flynn, Precious Achiuwa, Yuta Watanabe

    A lot remains unsettled for the Toronto Raptors...just not inside the starting lineup. Anunoby and VanVleet are formalities. Siakam joins them once he's back from his left shoulder injury. I'm inclined to believe Boucher will, as well, after rehabbing his surgically repaired left middle finger. Because, continuity and whatnot.

    Toronto can take the final spot (and, truthfully, Boucher's) in a number of different directions. Dragic makes the most sense. He can replace much of what Kyle Lowry did on-ball at the offensive end, and it frees up the Raptors to chisel out more minutes for Flynn off the bench.

    Trent and Barnes will be the top reserves if the starting five settles in with this quintet. The bigger takeaway there: Barnes looks ready to play. A lot.

    Flynn is the natural No. 8 if Dragic starts. The No. 9 and No. 10 slots are thinkers. One will belong to Achiuwa or Khem Birch. Achiuwa gets the edge by virtue of better aligning with Toronto's positionless model. Maybe both he and Birch crack the top 10. More likely, we're looking at a Watanabe or Svi Mykhailiuk.

    Choosing Watanabe might be agenda-driven; I'm all-in on him. But he, too, fits the Raptors' positionless theme. Mykhailiuk will have to swish threes like it's 2019-20 to gain the clear advantage. Either way, this team is going to be fun. They might not spend a single possession in the half-court all year. (I'm kidding...I think.)

Utah Jazz

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Mike Conley
    • Donovan Mitchell
    • Royce O'Neale
    • Bojan Bogdanovic
    • Rudy Gobert

    Top Reserves: Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside, Jared Butler

    Nine of the Utah Jazz's top-10 rotation spots profile as non-decisions: This is effectively their vintage starting lineup, Ingles and Clarkson are basically co-sixth men, Gay is going to move around the positional spectrum, and Whiteside will absorb most of the center minutes Rudy Gobert does not.

    Butler's name is written into that 10th spot with pencil. He has shown out during the preseason, and with Conley and Ingles both on the wrong side of 34, the Jazz should want to inject another ball-handler and shot-maker into the rotation.

    Ticketing a rookie for minutes on a contender is still risky. Butler's offensive cadence and control are worth stepping out on that limb. Besides, he's not ousting someone integral. Eric Paschall has a stronger case if the Jazz favor smaller bench-heavy units (possible!), in which case that could eat into Whiteside's floor time.

    Elijah Hughes or Miye Oni also loom if Utah is hell bent on spicing up their wing rotation. And yet, the Jazz's best path to winning the non-Gobert minutes will always lie on the offensive end. (See: last season.) Butler fits within that motif. In fact, don't discount him playing so well that Utah suddenly pokes around the Jordan Clarkson trade market...

Washington Wizards

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    Starting Five Prediction

    • Spencer Dinwiddie
    • Bradley Beal
    • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
    • Rui Hachimura
    • Daniel Gafford

    Top Reserves: Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans, Thomas Bryant, Aaron Holiday

    Hachimura is the sole wild card within the starting lineup. He just reported to the Washington Wizards after a leave of absence. They could simply go with Kuzma in the 4 spot. But that oozes transience. Washington's bench needs another potential shot-creator. Kuzma hasn't enjoyed that license in a few years. The Wizards have the flexibility to give it to him.

    Concocting the primary-reserve rotation is quasi-messy. Kuzma and Avdija have to be there given the relative rawness of Aaron Holiday and atypical skill set of Raul Neto. Bertans makes too much money to fade into obscurity if he's healthy and bombing threes. Holiday's spot could be surrendered to Neto, a defensive gnat, if Washington doesn't deem his downhill fuel a necessity.

    Bryant isn't yet back from his torn left ACL. The Wizards will have a decision to make when he rejoins the fracas: him or Montrezl Harrell? The answer could be both. But only one should land in the top-10 rotation. Bryant stretches the floor and promises slightly more defensive-rebounding oomph. He gets the imaginary badge of honor.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.