The most frustrating part about free agency is how excited it makes me about basketball, and then how long I have to wait to watch these new teams play together. Thinking of all the new lineup combinations and then thinking of all the unexpected lineups I can’t even predict that weirdly end up being good gets me hyped for some NBA action. I’ve been told this is completely normal.
So with all this in mind, I want to discuss the lineups I’m most excited to (hopefully) see next season. Some are more likely to happen than others. And truly none are guaranteed to be successful. Just ask the Steve Nash-Dwight Howard Lakers. Or the KG and Paul Pierce-led Nets. Or the Kyrie Irving-Gordon Hayward-Al Horford Celtics death lineup. The point is expectations often differ from reality. But when it comes to imagining different five-man groups, that’s half the fun.
Lonzo Ball-Josh Hart-Jrue Holiday-Brandon Ingram-Zion Williamson
Will Alvin Gentry turn to this super young, super small lineup at any point during the season? We should all agree to hold him publicly accountable until he does so. A lineup like this one would be incredibly fun to watch run up and down the floor with reckless abandon. Imagine Lonzo Ball corralling a rebound and zooming up the floor, looking for a runaway Zion to freight train his way to the rim, flanked by shooters in Hart and Holiday, and another athletic body in Ingram.
The reason we shouldn’t expect to see a ton of this group is defense. They would be undersized, and asking a rookie Williamson to bang with centers on a consistent basis is a dicey proposition. Even though Ingram has the length to guard fours, and Holiday, Hart, and Ball all compete on that end of the floor, I imagine if we see this group, it would only be in spurts.
But basically anytime Zion is at the five and Lonzo is running point, the Pelicans will be on League Pass alert. We should all be united in demanding lob after lob from New Orleans next season.
Ben Simmons-Josh Richardson-Tobias Harris-Al Horford-Joel Embiid
On the other end of the spectrum from the Pels, we have the 76ers “Monstars” lineup. Look at this group—it’s huge! Embiid is a legit seven footer. Horford has played center for much of his career. Simmons and Harris would play the four on most other teams in the league. And Richardson frequently played (and guarded!) small forwards for the Heat last season. This group is absurd, and its strength should be defense. While it’s possible Harris has issues with some of the more fleet-footed perimeter scorers in the league, everyone else is a plus-defender at their position. Richardson is an ideal 3-and-D guy, Embiid is a perennial DPOY candidate, and Horford has shown an ability to guard everyone from his new teammates Simmons and Embiid, to the current MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If there’s a concern for this group, it will be halfcourt offense, particularly come playoff time. Will Philly have enough shooting? Richardson is good from the outside, but he doesn’t carry the same gravity as J.J. Redick. Simmons is obviously a non-factor. And while Embiid and Horford have had varying success from three in their career (Al more than JoJo), teams still mostly give them space on pick-and-pops.
For the last two seasons, Philly has had a dominant five-man group. In 2018, it was Simmons, Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Embiid. In 2019, the Simmons, Redick, Harris, Embiid, and Jimmy Butler group was awesome—it just didn’t get much time together. Philly’s 2020 season will ultimately be judged by the success of this newest fivesome, and while the new unit has a lot of potential, it also has a high bar to clear.
Stephen Curry-D’Angelo Russell-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green-Kevon Looney
There’s an outside chance we don’t see this group play together. If Thompson is on track to return soon after the trade deadline from his torn ACL, and the Warriors find a Russell trade for multiple pieces they really like, there’s a nonzero chance D-Lo is moved before he ever shares the floor with Thompson. But if a hotly speculated Russell trade doesn’t happen until after the season, this is going to be a fascinating group for the Dubs.
Not only will this unit look wildly different from last year’s starting five, stylistically, it feels very far removed from what’s made the Warriors the Warriors over the last half-decade.
The backcourt should work offensively, even if Russell’s impact isn’t fully maximized with him playing off the ball. Defensively, Curry and D-Lo are going to give up a lot of size to their counterparts on most nights. Golden State has been able to reach a defensive gear as high as anyone in the league during their dominance of the Western Conference—it’s harder to see the Dubs being able to do that with a Steph-D’Angelo backcourt. And how would Thompson fare as a small forward, also giving up size to many of his opponents?
Whatever questions there are about this group, it matters that Steph, Klay, and Draymond Green would be sharing the floor. Those three are still at the heart of the Warriors’ absurd run of success. This upcoming season will be their greatest challenge yet. Seeing Golden State go from overwhelming favorite to scrappy, desperate, and prideful (especially without Klay for a few months) is going to be an underrated part of the upcoming season. The days of watching Golden State lazily coast before blowing out teams for one quarter are almost assuredly over. Watching the Warriors have to fight night in and night out in an ever-improving West will be wildly entertaining, particularly after the resiliency they showed during the Finals.
Mike Conley-Donovan Mitchell-Joe Ingles-Bojan Bogdanovic-Rudy Gobert
It’s league pass twitter’s favorite team! It feels like every time the Jazz have acquired someone this summer, the transaction has been followed by a chorus of bloggers smugly telling you how that player is actually wildly good. The truth is, Utah has made big strides this summer, and Donovan Mitchell—already one of the more exciting players in the league—should reap the benefits of this revamped roster.
Similar to how the Bucks unleashed Giannis under Mike Budenholzer, Utah is giving Mitchell room to breathe next season. Replacing the lovable but bricky Ricky Rubio with Conley is a major upgrade. Conley is a lethal catch-and-shoot guy from three. And if he develops even 1% of the pick-and-roll chemistry he had in Memphis with Marc Gasol with Rudy Gobert, Mitchell won’t have to carry the offensive burden possession after possession after possession after possession.
Meanwhile, Ingles and Bogdanovic are switchable forwards with burly bodies who can shoot in their own right. Bogdanovic also developed a little bit more of an off-the-dribble game last season in the absence of Victor Oladipo in Indiana, and that separates him from the traded Jae Crowder.
While the newfound shooting will grease the wheels of Utah’s offense, the Jazz’s defensive tenacity should remain the same. Conley is more than capable of guarding his position. Ingles is the Patrick Beverley of Salt Lake City. Bogdanovic has the size to bang with fours. And Gobert is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Utah is going to be very good next season, and after back-to-back postseason defeats at the hands of the Rockets, the Jazz’s new group seems tailor-made for playoff success.
Kemba Walker-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Gordon Hayward-Enes Kanter
Last season, the Celtics’ group of Kyrie Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Horford had a net rating of -0.6 during the regular season, and was largely abandoned after an early season trial until the playoffs. That group did have a 17.6 net rating in the postseason, but it wasn’t enough to get Boston into the conference finals.
The Celts can run some version of that fivesome back with Kemba and Kanter next year. The dropoff from Horford to Kanter defensively is massive, but I actually have a little hope for this group. What if Brown and Tatum take leaps with more responsibility and a better relationship with their point guard? What if Hayward takes a big step forward in his second season back from his leg injury? Boston may eventually need to figure out an answer defensively at center, but at least during the regular season, the Celtics’ new presumed starting lineup has an opportunity to outperform the one that opened 2018–19.