LeBron James is with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kawhi Leonard is with the Toronto Raptors. Anthony Davis and Julius Randle are a dynamic new front court. And in Boston, the Celtics return Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The NBA landscape has drastically changed and with it, brand new possibilities arise.
The Golden State Warriors unlocked a new style of basketball when it moved Draymond Green to center, unleashing the Death Lineup. The Lakers hope to counter with a slew of versatile players around, at times, LeBron James at center. Kawhi Leonard is the perfect all-around player to unlock any number of lineup combinations.
With so many changes around the NBA, here are our most anticipated lineup combinations of the season:
5. Miami Heat | Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo
Jackson Frank: A season ago, the Miami Heat rolled out this quintet for just 15 minutes. However, according to Jacob Goldstein’s Lineup Predictor, the group should yield a plus-6.4 net rating this year. Among all five-man lineups with at least 100 minutes for the Heat last season, that net rating would rank second.
It makes sense, too. With Richardson-Winslow-Adebayo, you have a trio of switchy, defensive pests. With Dragic-Richardson-Olynyk, you have three guys who stretch the floor. Heck, even Winslow shot 38 percent beyond the arc last season. In Dragic and Richardson, you have two guards capable of creating their own shot while Dragic, Richardson and Winslow can all orchestrate the offense. The frontcourt tandem of Olynyk and Adebayo boasts passing craft, too.
This lineup screams versatility and provides a dynamic wrinkle to a Heat team largely lacking intrigue after a nondescript summer.
4. New Orleans Pelicans | Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Jrue Holiday
Jesse Blanchard: Anthony Davis’ game is brilliant in its ability to stretch in any direction. He can score from all three levels and create for himself, or work as the ultimate finisher playing off others. Defensively, he’s an intimidating rim protector who’s long and nimble enough to harass most wings and guards on the perimeter.
Jrue Holiday is as formidable a defensive guard as there is, capable of locking into either backcourt position. Offensively, no single part of his repertoire stands out as elite but the sum of his all-around game exceeds its parts.
Together, both are able to cover the numerous holes that riddle the Pelicans’ roster enough to stake out a claim in the Western Conference playoffs.
Julius Randle has some versatility to his game but it only works towards a single purpose: bulldozing his way to the rim.
Randle is capable of physically overwhelming opponents around the rim with the dexterity to not rely on others to get there. Though he isn’t quite on the same level as Davis or Holiday, he plays with a force neither possesses.
In a league moving towards switching defenses to dismantle ball and player movement, Randle is a sledgehammer capable of tugging at a defense’s seams. His attacking game forces opponents to react, which should allow Davis and Holiday to stop plugging holes and start exploiting them.
3. Los Angeles Lakers | LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma
James Holas: Lakers coach Luke Walton knows something about star power. He played with legends Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and cut his coaching teeth in Golden State during the Rise of Curry-Klay-Dray triumvirate.
Walton also knows a thing or two about versatility. He witnessed firsthand how devastating Lamar Odom’s Swiss Army Knife ability was for the opposition, and he had a hand in the evolution of the Warriors’ Death Lineup. As the saying goes, “in the NBA, the wing is the thing”.
A team can never have too many multi-faceted players with size to guard bigs, the quickness to guard on perimeter, and the skill set to make plays.
This season, Walton will get to rev up his own buzz saw when he trots out lineups centered around NBA cyborg LeBron James being flanked by 6-foot-9 forwards Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. In Lebron James, Walton has the most complete player to ever step onto the court, able to score, handle, pass, rebound, and (in spurts) defend in ways that should be impossible for a man his size.
Last season, Brandon Ingram’s all-around game was overlooked by the masses. He was 0.1 assists per game short of joining Nikola Jokic, Steve Francis, Chris Webber, and Larry Bird as the only players 23 or younger to average at least 16 points, four assists, and five rebounds a game while shooting at least 39 percent from three (Ingram just turned 21 earlier this month). Kyle Kuzma showed he could score in bunches on or off ball and has the size, motor, and athleticism to disrupt the other team’s offensive and defensive schemes.
With Bron-Brandon-Kuz at the core, there are some interesting five-man permutations the Lakers can deploy. Playing a team with a “meh” center? LeBron can man the center position. Add 6-foot-6 guards Lonzo Ball and Lance Stephenson (or 6-foot-5 Josh Hart), and watch James rip the defense to pieces from the top of the key or elbow extended. Need more bulk? JaVale McGee at the center spot, 6-foot-9 Mike Beasley at power forward, Bron-Ingram-Kuz (I’m trademarking it now: “B.I.Z.”) on the perimeter.
The defensive potential is there; Ingram has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Kuzma’s is seven feet, and LeBron is one of the best rim protecting wings ever (when engaged, of course). But Ingram and James ranked 51st and 60th (out of 88) in defensive real plus/minus among small forwards, and Kuzma ranked 75th out of 82 power forwards. The trio has to pick it up defensively if LeBron is going to elevate these young Lakers to new heights.
It’s not quite Durant-Dray-Iggy, but is there a better tutor for Ingram and Kuzma than the greatest small forward of all time?
2. Toronto Raptors | Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
Adam Spinella: By swapping DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors exchanged their worst defensive player for arguably the NBA’s best. Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA, unlocking so many lineup combinations for the Raptors.
Leonard and second-year pro OG Anunoby are versatile forwards capable of guarding multiple positions, which should terrify opposing offenses. They match up extremely well with the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors in that regards—two title favorites. Pair Leonard with scoring point guard Kyle Lowry and there’s enough punch within this core to be substantive on either end.
This trio should form the basic core of the Raptors’ most potent lineups with the other two spots mixed and matched to fit the situation. As far as I’m concerned, the most versatile on both ends includes Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam, the young guns often underrated in Toronto.
During their last full season, each player shot the following from deep: Lowry (40 percent on 8.5 attempts/36), Wright (36 percent on 3.8 attempts/36), Leonard (38 percent on 5.6 attempts/36), and Anunoby (37 percent on 4.8 attempts/36). Pascal Siakam took over 100 three-pointers last season and, while his percentages are low, he shot a terrorizing 61 percent from inside the arc. An adept screener, roller and finisher like him receives even more space in a shooting-heavy lineup to do damage at the rim, where he converted on 71 percent of his shots at the rim. That’s good for the 81st percentile in the league among big men, according to Cleaning the Glass.
In examining Siakam’s on-off stats, the Raptors have always been better in transition than most groupings around the league when he’s on the court. Both in terms of frequency and efficiency, Toronto excels at pushing up the court after live ball rebounds. His ability to handle the ball—paired with two point guards in Delon Wright and Kyle Lowry—would make this a feared lineup in the open court.
Of course, the defensive aptitude of this group is what makes this the most intriguing group. Pairing Lowry with a long, ball-hawking backcourt mate like Wright allows the sturdy point guard to take the easier of the two matchups. He and Wright have spent limited minutes together over the last several seasons but could be primed for a partnership if the Raptors want to spread creation duties beyond Lowry’s role.
The bottom line is this: The Raptors can switch almost any screen or action with this group, turn up the pace and energy with their length and activity, and feature two high-caliber defensive stoppers. For a team with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league last season, these upgrades catapult the Raptors into fearsome territory.
1. Boston Celtics | Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford
Bryan Toporek: Even though I’m a native Philadelphian who hates everything to do with Boston sports (remind me, who won the Super Bowl this past year?) I can’t help but to be excited about seeing the Celtics’ starting lineup at full strength this season.
Gordon Hayward suffered a devastating ankle injury five minutes into his Celtics debut last October, which brought an abrupt end to his season. In his absence, rookie forward Jayson Tatum and second-year forward Jaylen Brown flourished, raising questions about whether there would be enough touches to go around when Hayward returns.
In other words, the Celtics have the NBA version of a first-world problem. “We have too many versatile wings, woe is us!”
The five-man unit of Hayward, Brown, Tatum, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford posted a net rating of plus-12.8 in its five minutes together last season. Though that’s an outrageously small sample size, it speaks to the type of two-way upside this grouping has. Hayward, Brown and Tatum will be interchangeable on either end of the court, while Irving can serve as a go-to scorer and Horford will be a well-rounded gap-filler. Outside of Golden State, this may be the best starting five in the NBA.
With that said… the division of touches will be fascinating to watch. No, the Celtics aren’t going to make any of those guys come off the bench, despite what some fans seem to believe. However, Stevens does figure to mix and match his starters with reserves liberally. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Boston’s starting five played together sparingly outside of the first few minutes of each half and in crunch time.
The Celtics are going to be one of the NBA’s best teams this year, in large part due to their uber-talented starting five. Let’s hope injuries don’t get in the way this time around.