Predicting Every NBA Team's Best Closing Lineup

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2021

Predicting Every NBA Team's Best Closing Lineup

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Crunch-time lineups are not one-size-fits-all for every NBA team.

    High-stakes moments don't always lend themselves to continuity. Different matchups call for different five-man combinations down the stretch.

    For some teams, it really is as simple as deploying their starting lineups or five best players. Others have the vast majority of their crunch-time unit etched in stone with a spot or two up for grabs. A handful of squads exist in a state of nongovernment; their closing-time arrangements have scant few non-negotiable inclusions and will vary often, if not wildly.

    This batch of crunch-time suggestions is presented with those caveats in mind. It's an attempt to identify which lineups will or, in some cases, should be used most with the game on the line.

    Every fivesome is built operating under the assumption the team is at full strength. Players who are expected to miss most or all of the season (i.e., Kawhi Leonard) won't be included. Anyone who should be back by the midway point or earlier (i.e., Klay Thompson) will be eligible for inclusion.

    Space will not be wasted explaining the inarguable. The LeBron Jameses and Giannis Antetokounmpos of the Association belong in every one of their team's closing-lineup permutations. The end.

    To the head coach's armchair!

Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Recycling the Atlanta Hawks starting unit is both boring and the right call. Play your top five guys and all that.

    Atlanta may want to finish some games on the smaller end, with Collins at the 5 and another wing on the court. But Capela is either their best or second-best defender, depending on how you feel about Hunter. Yanking him from crunch time shouldn't be the standard and definitely won't be the default.

Boston Celtics

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    Best Closing Lineup

    • Dennis Schroder
    • Marcus Smart
    • Jaylen Brown
    • Jayson Tatum
    • Al Horford

    Putting the Boston Celtics' four best perimeter players on the court in crunch time is not a controversial decision. Dropping in Horford at the 5 is a different story.

    Head coach Ime Udoka could very well go with Robert Williams III, the younger and more pogo-sticky option. But Horford is, as of now, the more disciplined defender and allows Boston to play five-out without punting entirely on size.

    Schroder's inclusion is yet another nongiven. Boston could go with Josh Richardson if it's getting enough offense from the Smart-Brown-Tatum triad. It can even go dual-big, with Horford and RWIII.

    I'd staunchly vote against that look if everyone's healthy. Schroder's north-south pressure in the half court should be paramount down the stretch.

Brooklyn Nets

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     Best Closing Lineup

    Let's begin with the obligatory "Kyrie Irving currently isn't with the Brooklyn Nets" disclaimer. And then let's move on.

    Few changes must be made to the Nets' projected starting five when they need to navigate crunch time. The Harden-Harris-Durant trio is hell on defenses, even without Kyrie. Squared.

    Those final two spots aren't as certain. Brooklyn can keep with its offensive theme and go with Mills and Blake Griffin. It can lean defense with Claxton and Bruce Brown.

    Bet on the Nets splitting the difference, if only because I refuse to believe Claxton won't regularly make the cut. In all likelihood, Brooklyn will vary the fifth wheel to close games. But Claxton should verge on a staple. He is matchup-proof on defense, and the Nets don't need to steer into five-out arrangements when their four other players are so deadly from distance.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Best Closing Lineup

    • LaMelo Ball
    • Terry Rozier
    • Gordon Hayward
    • Miles Bridges
    • P.J. Washington

    Bringing Washington off the bench to begin games might create the illusion he's not a crunch-time mainstay. Don't fall into the trap. This will be the full-strength Hornets' most-used lineup. Period.

    Kelly Oubre Jr. could sneak into the mix if Hayward is out or failing to hold serve on defense. But this group, as currently constituted, is both five-out and features Charlotte's five best players.

    Shifting the components for the sake of extra defense doesn't appear to be on the table. The Hayward-Bridges-Washington frontcourt held up quite well on the less glamorous end last season, despite a dearth of rebounding, and the Hornets aren't exactly teeming with better stoppers outside this quintet. Cody Martin is a better alternative than Oubre if that's their concern, which it won't be, because this is the lineup.

Chicago Bulls

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    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Deviating from the Chicago Bulls' projected starting five is tough.

    Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are crunch-time locks. Rounding out the group with a healthy Williams and floor-spacer or quality defender should tempt head coach Billy Donovan. But does he have the hutzpah to bench DeRozan? His overall stock is debatable, but he's also one of the team's two best shot creators.

    Alex Caruso or Troy Brown Jr. would arm the Bulls with more defensive might. A healthy Coby White ensures a more open floor in the half court. Any of their inclusions likely comes at the expense of Williams before Derozan.

    Forced to choose, the assumption must be that Chicago's starting five spills over into crunch time. Williams hit enough of his threes as a rookie for this lineup to qualify as four-out, adding Caruso results in too much ball-handling, and Brown must splash more threes to be a viable alternative.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Best Closing Lineup

    • Darius Garland
    • Collin Sexton
    • Isaac Okoro
    • Lauri Markkanen
    • Jarrett Allen

    To answer your question: Yes, I have subzero confidence in this pick. The Cavs are a team that should dabble later in games. They can play Markkanen and Evan Mobley. Or stick with Allen and Mobley. Matchups will dictate a lot.

    Defaulting to an Allen-Markkanen front line promises the most balance. It outfits Cleveland with three shooters and four ball-handlers, assuming you believe in Okoro's initiation ability (you should) and Markkanen's floor-game potential (eh).

    Nothing should be up for debate elsewhere. The Cavs don't have the residual wings to sub out Okoro, and the spacing tradeoff inherent in replacing Garland or Sexton with Ricky Rubio isn't worth the resulting defensive nudge.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Luka Doncic
    • Tim Hardaway Jr.
    • Reggie Bullock
    • Dorian Finney-Smith
    • Kristaps Porzingis

    This might be awkward for Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd, because Porzingis is neither the power forward nor small forward nor shooting guard. But he should be closing most, if not all, tight games at the 5.

    Three of the other starters will join him. Doncic is this team's end-all, and Dallas needs both Hardaway's shooting and Finney-Smith's defensive bandwidth.

    Risk-takers will think about pushing for Jalen Brunson during crunch time, a move that would jazz up the Mavs' complementary creativity around Doncic. Bullock is the more sensible option. Three-and-D wings are terrific defaults, and Dallas needs to see what Porzingis looks like defensively before shifting THJ up to the 3.

Denver Nuggets

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    AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Messing with the Denver Nuggets' should-be starting five during high-stakes moments is mostly needless.

    Jamal Murray will be inserted for Morris if and when he returns from his torn left ACL. Any other changes probably come at Barton's spot. P.J. Dozier (or even Facundo Campazzo) can be plugged in if the Nuggets want more defense next to Porter and Jokic.

    Gordon's place could theoretically be up for grabs if he's not making an offensive dent. Denver will never want for scoring at full strength, but the occasional drought will be on the table without Murray and if MPJ doesn't take yet another significant step forward.

    Much better alternatives to Gordon aren't available in excess. Will head coach Michael Malone trust rookie Bones Hyland? Campazzo isn't a scorer. Dozier is good for light pick-and-roll work. Crunch time is different. Austin Rivers is likely the answer in that scenario—which, just so we're clear, shouldn't be an especially common one.

Detroit Pistons

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    Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Cade Cunningham
    • Jerami Grant
    • Saddiq Bey
    • Kelly Olynyk
    • Isaiah Stewart

    Not much, if anything, should change for the Detroit Pistons when it's gut-check time. This quintet features all of their should-be starters, with Olynyk subbed in for Killian Hayes on the basis of his experience and proven floor-spacing.

    Making that call isn't a one-and-done decision. This is a lineup Detroit can tinker with depending on matchups and the development of its kiddies. Hayes might eventually play his way into the fold as a sorely needed playmaker if he puts some distance between himself and a forgettable, if not lamentable, rookie season.

    In the interim, this group profiles as one of the bigger "4.5-out" setups around the league. Bey is the shortest of the gaggle, at 6'7", and Stewart dipped his toe into the three-point waters last year just enough for this to almost qualify as a five-out blueprint.

Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Stephen Curry
    • Jordan Poole
    • Klay Thompson
    • Andrew Wiggins
    • Draymond Green

    The Golden State Warriors don't have much to think about when Thompson rejoins the rotation, which he's expected to do around January. He joins Curry and Green as crunch-time givens. Wiggins is in there, as well, because he makes a lot of money and was rock-solid defensively last year. If his spot hangs in the balance, this season has probably gone off the rails—or Otto Porter Jr. is in fantastic shape and turning back the clock.

    Also a given: Green playing the 5. The Warriors can spare him from center duty to start games, but not at the end of them. Using Kevon Looney is not the best way to weaponize their offense, and playing James Wiseman, once he returns from his torn right meniscus, isn't helping win basketball games.

    Poole or another bigger wing? That's the real question.

    Porter deserves consideration if he's playing well. You'll never catch me advocating against Juan Toscano-Anderson. Maybe it's Andre Iguodala in the playoffs. But Poole has been setting fire to the world since approximately the second half of last season, and the Warriors aren't exactly drowning in secondary shot creators beside Curry.

    If Poole is really this good, Golden State should steer into his offense and fiddle with Wiggins' crunch-time slot as necessary.

Houston Rockets

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    Best Closing Lineup

    • Kevin Porter Jr.
    • Jalen Green
    • Danuel House Jr.
    • Jae'Sean Tate
    • Christian Wood

    Decisions abound for the Houston Rockets in crunch time. There neither feels like a wrong nor correct answer.

    It's best to pin down the every-iteration inclusions. Green and Wood meet that criteria. For the time being, so does KPJ. Houston has a vested interest in his development at point guard and, well, doesn't have a lot of point guards with John Wall out of the fold.

    Plenty of names fit into the final two spots. Eric Gordon and Daniel Theis are the picks if the Rockets want experience. Maybe they skew toward the bigger picture and look at playing Alperen Sengun and Josh Christopher.

    Gordon is the biggest snub on paper. Houston can easily throw him into House's spot. But the defense needs life. Green is inexperienced, KPJ isn't a stopper, and Wood is roughly average in the middle on his best nights.

    Tate should be a given. He's both a defensive scrapper and seemingly part of the Rockets' long-term plans. House looms as a midseason trade candidate, but he's more three-and-D, at the moment, than Kenyon Martin Jr. or David Nwaba.

Indiana Pacers

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    Best Closing Lineup

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

    This should be the Indiana Pacers' starting lineup when LeVert (stress fracture in his back), Brogdon (left shoulder sprain) and Warren (stress fracture in left foot) are all healthy. Many, if not most, won't peg it as the top crunch-time lineup. "Staggering Sabonis and Turner has to be a thing!" they'll say.

    They might be right. But I am tired—tired of the constant deliberation over the Sabonis-Turner fit. Perhaps they can work together indefinitely. Or maybe they can't. It's time to choose, Pacers. Either they are both part of your core, or you need to pick one.

    My stubbornness will remain in effect so long as both are on the roster. Indy should close with its five best players rather than sub out Sabonis or Turner for Justin Holiday, because the idea of not closing with your five best players, when all of them are top-100-or-better guys, is inane.

    And if you can't do it, or won't do it, or would prefer not to do it, then break up the frontcourt partnership consigning you to that dilemma instead of letting the situation remain so damn fluid—which in this case is just a vaguer way of saying unresolved.

    Cranky rant over.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Reggie Jackson
    • Terance Mann
    • Paul George
    • Nicolas Batum
    • Marcus Morris Sr.

    Including Ivica Zubac as the closing center was the first inclination. He's really good—quicker on his feet at the defensive end than credited. But the Los Angeles Clippers played without a true big last season for a little over 8 percent of their total possessions. That's high enough to nudge them toward the no-center option in crunch time.

    Kawhi Leonard's absence while recovering from a partially torn right ACL could change that calculus. Playing Mann in his stead registers a monster defensive drop-off. Eric Bledsoe might creep into the no-center mix if he defends better than he did with New Orleans.

    This is still the pick. Batum, George and Morris offer plenty of defensive switchability. Mann is big enough to move across parts of the positional spectrum. Batum and Morris can grind against conventional bigs if the other team doesn't downsize.

    And hey, the results speak for themselves...on one end. The Clippers posted an offensive rating north of 130 in no-center lineups last year. This group specifically didn't log much time together, but they all shot above 40 percent from deep. This assembly has merit.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    Constructing the Los Angeles Lakers' best crunch-time unit gets difficult after moving beyond their three stars. Some might argue only two of said stars—Davis and James—should be formalities. Great. Benching Westbrook down the stretch of tight games is unrealistic.

    Hashing out the next two spots was an extremely scientific process: I threw some stuff at the wall and am seeing if it sticks.

    Ariza is a quality guess to scamper into the 4 spot when he returns from right ankle surgery. Davis is going to close games at the 5, and the Lakers lost three of their five most important defenders—Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma—over the offseason. Getting away with Carmelo Anthony at power forward is much tougher when high-end stopping power is no longer implicit.

    Awarding the fifth spot is tougher. The Lakers could go mega big and pander to marquee-name power and include Melo. Monk isn't giving them much, if any, more defense. Kent Bazemore potentially offers the best of both worlds but isn't nearly as automatic from distance. Monk is a human microwave, and if Los Angeles' defensive integrity is up for debate, it must do everything possible to optimize the spacing around two shaky-shooting entities like AD and Russ.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Ja Morant
    • De'Anthony Melton
    • Dillon Brooks
    • Kyle Anderson
    • Jaren Jackson Jr.

    Go ahead and hate me for leaving off Desmond Bane. I hate me, too. But if the Memphis Grizzlies are going to close tight games with Jackson at the 5 (they should), they need to extract the most defense possible from the 2, 3 and 4 slots.

    Bane could improve enough at guarding swingmen and slower wings to work his way into the equation. His shooting will be invaluable. The floor shrinks for this fivesome if Anderson (36 percent) and Melton (41.2 percent) don't hit as many of their threes.

    Facing that much offensive uncertainty will be enough for people to go with Bane outright. I get it. It's not wrong. Do it. But Jackson is going to bomb threes at a better clip than he did during his abbreviated 2020-21 campaign, and I'm counting on a long- and mid-range spike from Morant.

Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    There's no real need for the Miami Heat to shuffle up their starting five when the clock strikes clutch. 

    Yes, the spacing of this quintet remains somewhat of a concern if Butler's three-point volume doesn't get bumped up. But they're constructed to defend their collective butts off. They may lead the league in technical fouls drawn from opposing players.

    Head coach Erik Spoelstra can pull Tucker for Tyler Herro if he finds the offense is craving off-the-dribble pizzazz and additional volume from behind the rainbow. Victor Oladipo, who is expected to play this season, can do the same but with more defense—provided his right quad injury doesn't cost him any east-west mobility.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    If it ain't broke...then just leave it the damn hell alone.

    The Milwaukee Bucks outscored opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions across a huge sample size with this fivesome on the floor last season. It is their starting lineup and their best crunch-time answer once DiVincenzo is all the way back from his left ankle injury.

    Replacing Lopez with Bobby Portis will appeal to many. It isn't an egregious line of thinking. Lopez is 33, and Porter wasn't mutilated when defending in space last year.

    Don't overthink this exercise. These are Milwaukee's five best players, and Lopez does more to protect the back line than Portis. If the Bucks want to pull BroLop, they should gamble on true Giannis-at-the-5 compilations.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

     Best Closing Lineup

    • D'Angelo Russell
    • Anthony Edwards
    • Malik Beasley
    • Jaden McDaniels
    • Karl-Anthony Towns

    Call this lineup "Malik Beasley plus all the Minnesota Timberwolves starters except for Jarred Vanderbilt," because that's exactly what it is.

    Exploring alternate routes will ring hollow. These should be the Timberwolves' five best players. They can try subbing in Patrick Beverley or Josh Okogie for D-Lo if they're hard up for defense, but tethering one of your two max players to the bench during crunch time isn't great optics.

    Russell's creation is too important to replace with a non-initiator anyway. Minnesota needs to make sure Edwards is ready to shoulder that type of jumpstart-the-offense workload, and Beasley is a secondary off-the-dribble option.

    Defense could be a red flag, but it will almost always be a red flag for Minnesota's core. Edwards can make all the strides in the world, and the team is still built to finish inside the bottom 10 of points allowed per possession. Milking the offensive peak of this quintet is more in tune with the Wolves' overall identity.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Devonte' Graham
    • Brandon Ingram
    • Trey Murphy III
    • Zion Williamson
    • Jonas Valanciunas

    Crunch time for the New Orleans Pelicans should be more matchup dependent than it is for most. Valanciunas is their best center, by a mile, but facing off against offenses that have downsized can be a real problem. New Orleans has Jaxson Hayes, Herbert Jones and, of course, vaunted Zion-at-the-5 looks. The latter would be my own personal default, but the Pellies have yet to enthusiastically bang that drum.

    Healthy Zion is playing in the clutch either way. The same goes for Ingram. At least one other spot should be a given. Murphy's comes close. The Pelicans need all the big wing defenders they can squeeze into lineups with Zion, Ingram and, in many cases, Valanciunas.

    Graham isn't must-have when both Zion and Ingram can initiate the offense. New Orleans could try someone who offers more defense, like Josh Hart or Naji Marshall. It can also favor a slightly bigger initiator in Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Tomas Satoransky. Graham skates into the final slot thanks to his battle-tested catch-and-shoot three, a half-court spacing weapon that, for now, is without a clear rival on the roster.

New York Knicks

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    Steven Freeman/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Staying with the New York Knicks' projected starting five is the way to go. It offers three creators, with the potential for a fourth in Barrett, and everyone except Robinson can rip threes.

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau might trust Derrick Rose to close games over Walker. A lot rests on the state of Kemba's left knee but also how much being one of Thibs' Guys matters.

    If this is a meritocratic process and Kemba is healthy, his track record of converting off-the-bounce threes and draining gut-check mid-rangers makes for an easy call. Thibs can also technically try playing both together should Fournier's offense not outperform his defense.

    A healthy Robinson who isn't battling foul trouble should have some iota of crunch-time assurance. Then again, Thibs has endless faith in Taj Gibson. That's not tongue-in-cheek. Thibs Guys is a real thing. It wouldn't shock me if Gibson catches some consideration.

    Now, as for the mythical Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt the Knicks will probably never try (save for the few preseason ticks it got): If they ever close a tight game with that, someone please tag me on Twitter because I'll need to see that unicorn with my own eyes.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Best Closing Lineup

    • Theo Maledon
    • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
    • Josh Giddey
    • Lu Dort
    • Kenrich Williams

    [Insert unoriginal joke about how assembling an Oklahoma City Thunder crunch-time unit implies they'll actually be trying to win games, and then finish it off by noting you're only, like, half-kidding.]

    Configuring a clutch lineup for the Thunder bends the brain. Unknowns litter their roster. Settling on their five best players only gets you so far. Who the bleepity bleep are their five best players? Defaulting to the starting lineup is identically difficult. You run into the same issue.

    SGA and Dort give us two immediate answers. Done. Kenrich Williams provides a third, even if people aren't prepared to admit it. And yes, he should play center. Oklahoma City is built to get weird in the middle when Derrick Favors sits. Williams didn't play a ton of 5 last year, but his shooting, finishing and rim pressure can fly at center. Daily Thunder's Olivia Panchal made a compelling case for this lineup structure on the Hardwood Knocks podcast (28:13 mark).

    Even Kenrich Williams Forever-ers like myself can admit we entered anything-goes territory before now. It doesn't get less ambiguous with the final two spots. Josh Giddey gets the nod because Oklahoma City just burned the No. 6 pick on him, he's a fun-as-hell passer, and his preseason outings hinted at someone who knows how to use his 6'8" frame on defense.

    Theo Maledon grabs the last spot, in large part because he's probably already one of the Thunder's five best players. He has authentic floor-general chops. That might get a little redundant with Giddey, but he's more willing to look for his shot. The Thunder offense needs all the playmakers it can find. SGA and Giddey are large enough, and Dort plays large enough, on the wings for OKC to field a smaller player.

    Once more, with extra feeling: This is my preference. The Thunder are not constructed to smack you in the face with sensibility. Getting in bed with oddball notions is allowed.

Orlando Magic

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Markelle Fultz
    • Jalen Suggs
    • Chuma Okeke
    • Jonathan Isaac
    • Wendell Carter Jr.

    As discussed when projecting the Orlando Magic's starting five and top-10 rotation, they are an extension of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Question marks blanket their roster. Their crunch-time lineup, along with every other unit they deploy, could go a trillion different ways.

    Transferring most of the predicted starting five to the clutch party is not borne from a dearth of creativity. It just makes sense.

    Fultz and Isaac will resume being Orlando's two best defenders once they return from their left ACL injuries. Pairing them with Okeke and Carter gives this group a genuine chance to muck up opposing offenses while Suggs, already the Magic's best shot creator, powers the scoring.

    If you're interested in only identifying the Magic's crunch-time locks, they most likely have three: Suggs and Isaac are their two most important players. They have to be here. WCJ checks in at third. The Magic just signed him to a four-year, $50 million extension. They have vested interest in treating him like their primary center.

    Various other potential combinations have legitimate arguments. Isaac-at-the-5 isn't among them. Orlando has seldom flirted with that look. Terrence Ross can be choppered in for Okeke if the Magic want more outside shot creation. Cole Anthony or R.J. Hampton can unseat Fultz for similar reasons.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Excluding Simmons from the process no longer tracks. He's back with the Philadelphia 76ers in some form. The assumption must be that he'll play until he doesn't.

    Philly has no reason to deviate from its full-strength, Simmons-hasn't-been-traded-or-absconded-to-Rich-Paul's-guest-house starting five. This unit accounts for the Sixers' five best players—maybe Matisse Thybulle supersedes Green this season—and surrounds Embiid and Simmons with as many floor-spacers and secondary creators as they're going to get.

    Oh, it also works.

    The Sixers outpaced opponents by 16.0 points per 100 possessions with this group on the floor last year. And its net rating climbed to a plus-39.6 in the playoffs prior to Green's calf injury. If chaos reigns supreme on the Simmons front, Philly should probably just keep the other four together and bake in Tyrese Maxey. Thybulle can fly, too, but the offense would forfeit an awful lot of dribbling.

Phoenix Suns

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Straying from the Phoenix Suns' starting five rings hollow. These five struggled to start the season last year but ended up getting their act together.

    Keeping Cameron Johnson on the bench doesn't sit right. Especially if his off-the-dribble junkets continue to be so successful.

    Phoenix could use him instead of Crowder if it needs to jazz up the offense. Johnson is an underrated team defender and can stay in front of quicker players. Is he good enough to punt on Crowder's utility on that end?

    To be honest, with Bridges and Ayton on the floor, maybe. Starters-plus-Johnson outscored opponents by 20 points through 23 total fourth-quarter minutes.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steph Chambers/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    Another starting five getting the crunch-time spotlight? How boring.

    And rational.

    This lineup blasted opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions on ample volume after the Portland Trail Blazers acquired Powell at the trade deadline. Even the defense was good, though it was the beneficiary of some unlucky rival three-point shooting.

    Beyond that, the Blazers don't have a medley of justifiable alternatives at their disposal. Plopping Larry Nance Jr. in Nurkic's place is worth considering if they're not playing straight drop coverage under head coach Chauncey Billups, but the newbie is more perimeter big than back-line stalwart.

    To what end this discussion matters is debatable. The Blazers still have Dame, the clutchest player in basketball. He is wired to thrive amid Portland's probably obscene amount of fourth-quarter stress, both unavoidable and unnecessary. Every crunch-time lineup has the chance to play hero if he's in it.

Sacramento Kings

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    Best Closing Lineup

    • De'Aaron Fox
    • Davion Mitchell
    • Tyrese Haliburton
    • Harrison Barnes
    • Richaun Holmes

    Four of the Sacramento Kings' projected five starters make the crunch-time cut. The fifth spot comes down to Davion Mitchell, Maurice Harkless or Buddy Hield.

    Any one of them could get the nod. Sacramento's closing five should shapeshift based on matchups. Mitchell snags the official stamp of approval because he blends the defensive value of Harkless (minus a few inches) with the shot-making of Hield.

    Whether the Kings are willing to play this small with the game on the line is a separate matter. But they're actively experimenting with three-guard structures in practice. Let's assume they're open to it and both Mitchell and Haliburton guard up so well that this becomes their favored finishing touch.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Dejounte Murray
    • Derrick White
    • Doug McDermott
    • Devin Vassell
    • Thaddeus Young

    Options, options, options. And then more options.

    Soldiering into crunch time with the might-be starting five of Murray, White, McDermott, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl could emerge as the San Antonio Spurs' primary predilection. Continuity and whatnot.

    That doesn't quite do the clutch-minutes trick. The Spurs are going to be lacking for half-court playmaking without DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills. They should load up on as much passing and shooting as possible when it matters most.

    Young is a potentially fleeting inclusion. He could be traded. He's also an exceptional short-roll passer, smart off-ball player and workaholic defender who has experience manning the 5. He will do more for the overall product than Poeltl. Vassell brings more reliable outside shooting than Johnson and absorbed plenty of power forward burn in the preseason.

    Lonnie Walker IV has a not-insignificant chance to work himself into the fold. No one else on the roster is capable of hitting the brand of perimeter looks in which he sometimes traffics. He just needs to take and make them consistently. The Spurs might consider pulling McDermott or Vassell if he does.

    Splitting up Murray and White could become an inclination, too. San Antonio must endure even if it isn't pretty. They loom as the franchise's two most important players unless Johnson, Vassell, Walker or Joshua Primo goes kaboom and must learn how to coexist.

Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Goran Dragic
    • Fred VanVleet
    • Scottie Barnes
    • OG Anunoby
    • Pascal Siakam

    Pretending to know how the Toronto Raptors will approach their crunch-time pecking order is a fool's errand. They can lean any number of ways. Settling on their starting five was miles from easy. I've made the executive (coward's?) decision to yank Chris Boucher, slide Siakam up to the 5 and play Scottie Barnes.

    The first two stages of this process are not without substantiation. Lineups with Siakam at the 5 and no Kyle Lowry crushed it last season in a limited sample. The more pressing question: Do the Raptors play their rookie with the game on the line?

    Tilt toward yes. The decision to draft Barnes, who is already First Team All-Vibes, over Jalen Suggs was in itself a prioritization of the bigger picture. Getting him crunch-time reps should aid his long-term development.

    And who knows, he might be readyish now. He was a playmaking revelation in preseason. Too many of his targets seem telegraphed, but he makes quick, confident, bold decisions with the ball. The Raptors can more than survive his learning curve if they're surrounding him with their four best players.

Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

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

    Choosing the Utah Jazz's crunch-time crutch is both effortless and painful. Excluding Joe Ingles is a gut punch. Self-loathing has kicked in.

    Utah can toggle between him and Bogdanovic as the situation demands. Deferring to a 32-year-old who just averaged 17.0 points per game while finding nylon on 39 percent of his threes over a 34-year-old who prefers to sling passes is otherwise not a divisive decision.

    Let's get out in front of the geniuses worried about Gobert getting played off the floor: You are tools.

    Gobert is a transcendent defender. He does not get marginalized or deleted from the planet versus microunits. The Jazz must figure out how he can better punish smaller defenders on offense and need a springier wing to help disentangle his responsibilities at the other end in such instances, but the three-time and reigning DPOY is not, and will not soon be, a liability.

Washington Wizards

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    Stephen Gosling/Getty Images

    Best Closing Lineup

    • Spencer Dinwiddie
    • Bradley Beal
    • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
    • Kyle Kuzma
    • Daniel Gafford

    This is but a slight deviation from the Washington Wizards' projected starting five. Sub in Kuzma for Rui Hachimura at the 4 and poof! You're done.

    Peak Hachimura may give the Wizards more positional malleability on defense. But Kuzma grew into a solid chaser across the 2-3-4 spots during his final two seasons with Los Angeles Lakers. Washington should be more concerned with having his league-averageish outside shooting around Beal and Dinwiddie, not to mention the potential for him to generate his own offense like it's 2017.

    Not many reasonable alternatives leap to mind. Putting in a healthy Thomas Bryant over Gafford upgrades the offense to five-out at the expense of the defense. The same holds true for Davis Bertans over Kuzma or Gafford, only on a much larger scale. This should be Washington's most-used crunch-time clique without much competition.


    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.