5 NBA Starting Lineups That Desperately Need a Change

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2021

5 NBA Starting Lineups That Desperately Need a Change

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    Clued-in hoops heads understand that starting lineups are no longer everything to NBA teams. Closing units and, overall, the most-played combinations are more critical than jumping-tip arrangements. Starter designations can, in theory, be coveted titles without profound substance.

    And yet!

    Most teams aren't rolling out five random players to begin games. Nor are they fielding starting units with the hope or expectation that group won't rank among their most effective lineups. So while opening combinations may not be end-alls, they absolutely matter. And some teams need to start shaking theirs up.

    Bad results do not necessarily mandate adjustments. A rebuilding team like the Detroit Pistons is starting the right players despite getting hammered during those minutes.

    Injuries must also be taken into account. Quibbling over whether the New Orleans Pelicans should start Josh Hart, Garrett Temple or Nickeil Alexander-Walker alongside Devonte' Graham, Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas rings hollow when their Zion Williamson-sized hole isn't going anywhere.

    There's likewise no point rendering a verdict on the Toronto Raptors' projected starting five of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam when it's played so little. The Minnesota Timberwolves will insert Patrick Beverley back into the fold once he's healthy. And so on.

    This exercise is all about spotting more permanent starting units with better alternatives that verge on the painfully obvious or necessary.

On-the-Fence Exclusions

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    Los Angeles Clippers

    Eric Bledsoe has come off the bench for the past three games, so the Clippers are in the clear. They should probably start both Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. when the former returns, but testing out iterations with one of Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard isn't egregious.


    Los Angeles Lakers

    Anthony Davis started at center on Tuesday night, and DeAndre Jordan is receiving DNPs. It took way too long for them to get here, and we may eventually need to have a "Why is Avery Bradley starting?" discussion. But the Lakers have escaped our microscope, for now, by belly flopping into common sense.


    Portland Trail Blazers

    Portland isn't healthy enough to implore they go away from the quintet of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic when it's once again available. But head coach Chauncey Billups should absolutely be thinking about it. Benching Covington or Nurkic for Larry Nance Jr. is worth exploring if this group doesn't get its defensive act together.


    Sacramento Kings

    I'm not in love with the Chimezie Metu-Richaun Holmes frontline. I'm also not in love with the alternatives. Buddy Hield's efficiency has fallen off a cliff after a nice start, and Maurice Harkless is not the answer. Metu-Holmes is at least holding up defensively, though I'd still be more inclined to downsize with Terence Davis, as the Kings did on Wednesday.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Recent absences have muddied the Dallas Mavericks' rotation, but they're already futzing and fiddling with the permanent makeup. Tim Hardaway Jr. has spent the past few games coming off the bench, and head coach Jason Kidd appears to have settled on a starting group of Luka Doncic, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kristaps Porzingis and Dwight Powell.

    That quintet has proven wildly effective across a tiny sample, posting a net rating of 35.8 through 51 possessions. Good luck maintaining that. The Mavericks are hitting just 23.1 percent of their above-the-break threes with this unit on the floor while getting incredibly cold shooting from their opponents.

    Sticking Porzingis beside another big remains the chief concern. The Mavs are clearly concerned about protecting his body, but self-preservation only means so much when you're under .500.

    Lineups with him next to Powell or Willie Cauley-Stein are generally offensive dumpster fires. Using him in tandem with Maxi Kleber hasn't been the answer, but that partnership panned out quite well last year.

    If the Mavericks are worried about overtaxing Kleber, it'd behoove them to just suck it up and roll out KP-as-the-lone-big arrangements. Minutes with Finney-Smith at the 4 pass the sniff test, and Dallas doesn't forfeit much size on the wings if Doncic, Bullock and THJ are all playing.

    Failing an in-house solution that piques their interest, the Mavs should start searching outside the organization for trade-market remedies. They don't need a star, just someone who helps them get away from dual-big starts.

Houston Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets' recent winning streak coincided with a starting-lineup change. It just wasn't entirely by their own design.

    Temporarily removing Daniel Theis from the rotation was a nice, if slightly too extreme, touch. His reps alongside Christian Wood in the frontcourt have been a disaster and force Jae'Sean Tate to sponge up too much time at the 3.

    Jalen Green's strained left hamstring opened the door for further changes. Head coach Stephen Silas has landed on a fivesome of Kevin Porter Jr., Garrison Mathews, Eric Gordon, Tate and Wood—a group that's outscoring opponents by 17.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Sticking with these five once KPJ returns from his thigh injury is not a permanent solution. This lineup is more like a blueprint, since Green will start once he rejoins the rotation.

    Wood should be getting solo-big reps. That much was and remains clear. It gives him more room to operate and ensures Tate can slide up to the 4. The Rockets must then surround their two young guards, Green and KPJ, with more bankable floor-spacing or rim pressure.

    Either Mathews or Gordon fits the bill. The latter offers more ball-handling and a preexisting sample size. Giving K.J. Martin a look in that spot is not without merit, even though he's shooting sub-30 percent from three. Houston also shouldn't be above contemplating combinations that demote KPJ to the head of the second unit.

New York Knicks

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    Change is already afoot within the New York Knicks' starting lineup. Kemba Walker has been removed from the opening unit (and rotation) for Alec Burks, and head coach Tom Thibodeau has given Nerlens Noel or Taj Gibson the nod over Mitchell Robinson through the past couple of games.

    Noel, for what it's worth, seems to be the first-choice alternative at the 5. He missed Wednesday's game against the Indiana Pacers after starting Tuesday versus the San Antonio Spurs.

    Cool. The Knicks still haven't solved anything. Their starting five with Burks and Robinson is a net negative on the season. They are a plus-5.4 points per 100 possessions when Burks and Noel play with Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle, but the sample size is negligible and includes just one start.

    More importantly, neither version of the Knicks' opening five—including their initial one with Kemba—has consistently held its own on defense. And if they can't cobble together better than below-average stopping power, they might as well lean into a nuclear offense.

    Giving more extensive run to the Randle-Obi Toppin frontline is a must. Or they can just nudge Randle up to the 5 and bake in a more conventional ball-handler like Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose or even Kemba. If they stick with two bigs on the frontline, they can and should consider bouncing Fournier for one of the aforementioned three.

    Really, with the exception of benching Randle or Barrett, any adjustment should be on the table.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Absent immediate expectations, the Oklahoma City Thunder are free to experiment without pandering to the raw results. But that doesn't excuse ignoring them in total.

    Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are currently anchoring Oklahoma City's starting unit. They're getting blasted by 19.6 points per 100 possessions on the season, with rock-bottom ratings on both offense and defense.

    Starting the 6'9" JRE at center is somewhat innovative. Continuing to field zero consistent outside shooting or inside finishing is pure stubbornness. This group is converting just 58.3 percent (20th percentile) of its looks at the rim and 29.1 percent of its threes (10th percentile).

    Certain inclusions are admittedly non-negotiable. Oklahoma City is not benching SGA because his three-point clip has plummeted, or displacing Giddey because he's shooting suboptimal clips from deep and at the basket.

    Everyone else should be demote-able. In the event the Thunder view benching Dort or Bazley as a sinister move, they can at least commit to opening the floor within the starting lineup. Gift Mike Muscala with a ceremonial nod. Or downsize with Tre Mann. Or give Kenrich Williams the playing time he deserves.

    Moral of the story: The Thunder are not the Pistons. Their starting five is not without convincing alternatives.

Washington Wizards

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    Rolling with Spencer Dinwiddie, Bradley Beal, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Daniel Gafford makes sense on paper. Especially when Rui Hachimura has yet to play.

    Still, the Washington Wizards' opening unit is getting pummeled by 10.5 points per 100 possessions while posting a sub-96 offensive rating and burying 26.5 percent of their threes. They desperately need more of a punch.

    Mulling changes might be as easy as "Start Montrezl Harrell!" The pressure he puts on the rim—he currently grades out as the league's best finisher, according to BBall Index—opens the floor for everyone. Washington's Harrell-plus-starters unit is downing 46.6 percent of its threes and outscoring opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions.

    Going this route, though, bilks the Wizards of a Sixth Man of the Year favorite. Harrell also doesn't necessarily have the bandwidth for more court time. His 26.6 minutes per game are the second most of his career, and he plays with a frenetic motor that can run out of steam if overburdened.

    Gafford isn't the starting unit's problem anyway. Washington needs better minutes from Beal and Dinwiddie. But it doesn't really have room to shift. Starting Aaron Holiday or Raul Neto over Dinwiddie doesn't inspire confidence. Subbing in Deni Avdija (defending his butt off) intrigues, but it significantly increases the playmaking responsibilities of he and Beal.

    Something needs to give. Maybe it's a trade. (Caris LeVert?) Maybe it's Harrell. It probably isn't replacing Kuzma with Hachimura or Davis Bertans. It needs to be...something.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Wednesday's games. Salary information via 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.