One of the great pleasures heading into every NBA season is generated by the new. From watching marquee free agents, draft picks, and trade acquisitions blend into an unfamiliar environment to closely observing how fixed cores will avoid an obsolete fate. Anticipation builds because change is constant, and nobody really knows what's going to happen until they take the floor.
Five-man lineups don't provide the clearest barometer, but they do help clarify how each team is choosing to adapt, whether their goal is to stay on top or climb the league's mountain. Here's a look at several different units that hold relevance heading into the 2018-19 season. Some are more obvious than others, but all of them deserve your attention.
Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford
They’ve looked rough in the preseason—the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls were the only two teams with a worse offensive rating—but of all the iterations in Boston, this exact grouping was built to dominate today's NBA with a comfortable foothold in its future. At worst, this is Death Lineup karaoke, with Horford as an older, calmer, better shooting/less nimble version of Draymond Green, Irving’s offensive wizardry hoisting the entire franchise to a higher level, and three interchangeable stars (either in the making or cemented) on the wing.
They can switch just about everywhere on the defensive end (a quality that’s especially helpful when the game spurts into open-court chaos) with five players who can create their own shot against opposing teams that try and defend them the same way. Everyone can shoot. Everyone can pass. Everyone has either made an All-Star team or has the potential to do so for years to come. We only saw this unit play five minutes last season. This year, the Celtics will only go so far as it can take them.
Chris Paul, James Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela
Much has been made about Houston's ostensible stumble through a momentous offseason. The loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (two ideal complementary pieces), the addition of a teetering Carmelo Anthony, and associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik’s sudden retirement gave birth to a meditation on Houston’s staying power as a juggernaut. Most, if not all, of the discussion is little more than concern trolling.
At the end of the day, Houston will open the 2018-19 season with five of its most important players back from a 65-win team that could’ve/should’ve won it all. This particular group isn’t new, but it might as well be: Paul, Harden, Gordon, Tucker, and Capela have only registered 24 minutes. (In the 45 possessions they logged during the playoffs, Houston outscored its opponents by 15.6 points per 100 possessions.) The Rockets may blow this to bits with a mid-season blockbuster trade that includes one of these key contributors (likely Gordon and/or Tucker), but if they keep it together there won’t be a more effective or complementary collection of talent found in any one unit outside Golden State (and maybe Boston).
There are four back-breaking three-point shooters—two of whom double as first-ballot Hall of Famers and all-galaxy playmakers—surrounding a rim-rolling paint protector who gets notably better every year. In the final five minutes of a close game, how do you stifle this offense? Seriously. How do you attack a committed and disciplined defense that switches everything with above-average pieces at just about every position? Sure, they’re a little small—Ariza’s absence hurts most here—but all of them play larger and stronger than their height, thriving inside a system that emboldens them to behave like running lava.
Last season’s Rockets were one of the best teams to ever fall short of a title. In year two of the Paul-Harden era, they may be even better when it counts the most.
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins
Deep analysis isn’t required here. Given the stakes, relevance, and staggering aesthetics, anyone not interested in seeing how Boogie Cousins (however healthy) fits in with the most impressive foursome in NBA history might as well quit the NBA for good.
Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domas Sabonis, Myles Turner
My first thought was to have Thaddeus Young in for Sabonis, not knowing if Nate McMillan could find someone for his third-year big to defend in the last five minutes of a close game. But Young isn’t a good enough outside shooter to tilt the scale in his favor, so Sabonis gets the nod for being a superior passer who can really squeeze a defense from the post. Good luck out-rebounding the Pacers when this group is on the floor. It’s unclear how many teams will be able to combat Indy’s sheer size on either end when this lineup is on the floor.
Beyond having two centers share the frontcourt, what's most intriguing here is the absence of any one "true" point guard. Instead, Oladipo and Evans will complement each another on both ends, toggling back and forth as capable playmakers who can finish at the rim, knock down a pull-up three, and run an effective pick-and-roll with either Sabonis or Turner.
Oladipo is the breakout star and franchise jewel, coming off a season in which he won Most Improved Player and made an All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive team. But let’s back up and examine Evans for a second. What a variable. Take a look at how his numbers compared to Oladipo’s last season. According to Synergy Sports, Evans ranked in the 86th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler and the 83rd percentile in isolation, doing his best on a Grizzlies team that was headed nowhere. Life will be even easier in Indiana, especially in this unit, where he may be the third (or even fourth) option. It’s hard to find a better spot for Evans at this point in his career.
Elsewhere, last season Bogdanovic made over 40 percent of his threes and posted a 60.5 True Shooting percentage (both career highs), while Turner is already one of the league’s most intriguing young bigs, a shot-blocking madman who can roll or pop. Bogdanovic will likely regress, but if he can at worst remain static while three others (especially Oladipo) display some growth, this unit will be a nightmare.
Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan
This obviously won’t be seen until Barnes returns from his hamstring injury, but it could be worth the wait. The Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki, but elsewhere they are fledgling. Smith Jr. and Doncic are the future. Barnes, Jordan, and Matthews are each within a few seasons of their respective primes. Together, they possess a dynamism that’s been missing from every lineup Dallas has put on the floor in over a decade.
If Jordan gobbles everything from the glass, can stay healthy, and still suck help defenders off the three-point line on hard dives towards the rim, so many of Smith Jr. and Doncic’s growing pains will fall into a safety net. If Barnes, in a contract year, doesn’t hijack the offense and lets part of his game selflessly revert back to the space it occupied in Golden State (this is wishful thinking but not out of line within the context of this unit), Carlisle’s system can be more fluid. And through it all, if Matthews can (hopefully) hold it all together as a grizzled veteran with the team's lowest night-to-night variance, there's no reason why this lineup can't close tight games and post a positive point differential.
Some of this logic requires a leap of faith, for sure. And so much of it is inspired by Doncic’s preseason highlight reel. But even if they aren't great, you won't want to miss them.
Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Stanley Johnson, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond
There’s a certain amount of nostalgic charm attached to a lineup like this. It features a jaunty point guard who’s supported by a sniper at the two and covered by an athletic wing, with a robust, true-number-one-option at power forward beside a mountainous center tasked with anchoring the defense. On the surface it screams old school, and that's why there are so many reasons to hate it. These five players were all in Detroit last season, but played just about zero minutes at the same time (only four possessions, per Cleaning the Glass). Aside from poor health, the reason why is obvious: There’s not nearly enough spacing or anything close to a defined pecking order on the offensive end, while exploiting them on defense shouldn’t be too hard, given their inflexibility.
But Drummond added a new dimension to his game last year. Stan Van Gundy placed him higher on the floor and let him showcase a passing ability that boosted his assist rate up to 14 percent—more than the sum of his previous three years combined!). Meanwhile, Griffin is uniquely dominant when healthy. Nobody his size rivals his vision or ball-handling ability. It helps form a frontcourt tandem that may be able to do more than tread water when accompanied by the right pieces.
It’s unclear if Detroit has those pieces, but Johnson is still only 22 years old, with the girth and quickness to defend four positions in a pinch. Jackson is two years removed from life as a slightly above-average point guard, and Kennard is the one cast member who can loosen up the floor when he doesn't have the ball. I don’t necessarily think this group will exceed its modest expectations, but the ceiling is higher than people think, especially with Dwane Casey at head coach, able to coagulate a defense that’s already good but can stand to be better.
Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James
This is the exact opposite of the group seen above, with a degree of unconventionality that's both breathtaking and hardly a surprise to anyone who’s watched the NBA evolve over the past six years. I don’t know if it will be good, or if Luke Walton will even be willing to utilize Rondo and Ball at the same time—in tight space with no true center and only one recognizable spot-up threat—but please check your pulse if you're not curious to see how it'd do.
Why not experiment and see how far Einstein-level basketball IQ and absurd talent can take you? LeBron at the five isn’t a new concept, but as the league continues to downsize—a trend no other player is more responsible for—he’s positioned to take advantage in lineups that surround him with players who can see segments of the game develop before they actually do. They turn a defense's crack into a calamitous breach with next-level anticipation. Between LeBron, Rondo, and Ball, it's hard to think of another group that's ever unleashed so many innovative passers at the same time.
Hart and Ingram are here to enjoy it all, from beyond the arc and against awkward closeouts. Outside shooting is an issue throughout L.A.'s roster, but this group will invent ways to make it a non-issue—if they get a chance to play.
Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam
As is the case for so many different teams, we don’t really know what Toronto’s best five is right now. But as NBA teams start to favor mischievous off-the-bounce slashers over 3-and-D statues, VanVleet has to be on the floor over Danny Green. A case can be made for Dorell Wright's wingspan in that spot, but Siakam, Lowry, Leonard, and Anunoby are more than enough to make this defense one of the league's best.
There's almost too much to like here. Leonard is at the four, with a mobile, 7'3" wingspan at center. Anunoby can't be left alone in the corner while Lowry and VanVleet wreak all sorts of havoc wherever they are. Picture an inverted pick-and-roll, with Leonard dribbling the ball as Lowry races up to blindside his man with a screen. How the hell do you guard that, with Siakam in the dunker's spot and deadly shooting along the perimeter? Few teams can. The Raptors are going to be so much fun.