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The NBA’s New Lineups of Death

Positional versatility is the name of the game, and these up-and-coming teams have what it takes to find success out of the Warriors model

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The Warriors’ Lineup of Death took the NBA by storm last season. By surrounding Steph Curry with four players (Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green) who could switch screens and shoot 3s, they played a futuristic brand of basketball that upended conventional wisdom about smaller jump-shooting teams. Green and Barnes could defend bigger players on the block, while bigger defenders were uncomfortable chasing them around the 3-point line, especially in pick-and-rolls. The defining image from their 73-win season was Green rumbling down the lane on a 4-on-3 after two defenders trapped Curry 25-plus feet from the basket.

The league, or more specifically the Thunder and the Cavs, found an answer in this year’s playoffs. Those teams played faster defenders on Green who could switch the screen and stay in front of Curry, allowing everyone else to stay at home and cutting off the main source of the Warriors offense. That answer was not available to most teams, because most don’t have big men as agile as Serge Ibaka and Tristan Thompson, or wings as versatile as Kevin Durant and LeBron James. There weren’t many players in the NBA who gave the Warriors matchup problems, and there are ever fewer now that they’ve added Durant.

Teams won’t be able to replicate the new and improved Lineup of Death with Durant in place of Barnes. However, there are some lessons the rest of the league can learn from what happened in the playoffs. Golden State has established the NBA’s modern imperative: Put on the court five players who can guard all five positions, stretch the defense to the 3-point line and make plays for each other. The Warriors may be on a tier by themselves, but there are other teams who can put their own twist on the way the league is trending.

Detroit Pistons — Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Marcus Morris

Necessity is the mother of invention. The Pistons went to this lineup in the final six minutes of Game 4 of their first-round series against the Cavs, after playing these players together for less than a minute in the regular season. It was pure five-out basketball, with five players on the 3-point line, all of whom had range out to the arc and could score off the dribble. The Cavs were scrambling and out of sorts on defense, needing shot-making heroics from LeBron and Kyrie Irving, as well as a miss at the buzzer from Jackson, to escape with a 100–98 win.

There’s no way to play help defense against a team that can attack from all five spots on the floor. Everyone has to stay in front of their man, and that’s difficult when facing three different combo forwards (Harris, Morris, and Johnson), all 6-foot-7 and up, who can exploit a mismatch shooting from the perimeter or off the bounce. There’s nowhere to hide a conventional big man, and very few teams around the NBA have that many big and athletic wing defenders on their roster. The Pistons offense is still built around pick-and-rolls with Andre Drummond, but this lineup maximizes their scoring options.

The key to making it work defensively is the length and athleticism of Jackson (6-foot-3 with a wingspan near 7 feet) and Caldwell-Pope (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan). They can pressure the ball and prevent easy entry passes into the post, and they can switch on bigger players and contest their shots. Switching goes both ways; it’s not enough to have big men who can guard on the perimeter. It’s just as important to have guards who can hold their own in the paint.

Orlando Magic — Mario Hezonja, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka, and Bismack Biyombo

Think of this group as a reverse Lineup of Death. With their five-man unit, the Warriors are trying to overwhelm an opponent on offense while withstanding a lack of size on defense; the Magic would be trying to beat you on defense and survive a lack of firepower on offense. Hezonja isn’t a conventional point guard, but Fournier and Gordon are skilled enough to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll and create shots for others, and Ibaka would provide the 3-point shooting to prevent teams from packing the paint.

This lineup could unleash Biyombo and Ibaka, two of the fastest big men in the league, and two of its best shot blockers. One could switch the pick-and-roll, while the other is sentineled in the paint. Switching would be easy when playing with Hezonja (6-foot-8), Fournier (6-foot-7), and Gordon (6-foot-9). Hezonja and Gordon could overwhelm opposing guards with their size and speed, and Fournier could be safely hidden on the least threatening perimeter player.

It also could create opportunities on offense for Hezonja and Gordon, who have smaller roles in Orlando’s more conventional lineups. Hezonja would have a massive size advantage against opposing lead guards, while Gordon would have more room to attack the paint when he’s not sharing the floor with two nonshooters in Biyombo and Elfrid Payton. Frank Vogel can’t play it safe if he’s going to get the Magic back in the playoffs. To get there, he needs to find ways to get more out of Orlando’s two top-five picks.

Utah Jazz — Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, and Trey Lyles (or Boris Diaw or Joe Johnson)

The beauty of this season’s Jazz is how many different lineup options Quin Snyder has. He will start the game with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, and then take one out to pair the other with a more perimeter-oriented big man in Lyles or Diaw. He can also play Lyles and Diaw together on the second unit and run an offense similar to the Hawks, or he could go super-small like the Warriors and play five wings together.

The trick to small ball is playing guys who aren’t all that small, and the Jazz have the biggest group of perimeter players in the NBA: George Hill (6-foot-3), Exum (6-foot-6), Burks (6-foot-6), Hayward (6-foot-8), Hood (6-foot-8), and Johnson (6-foot-8). They have all shown the ability to defend multiple positions and Exum is the only one of the lot who isn’t a knockdown 3-point shooter. Playing five of them together would mean spreading the floor as wide as possible while still having the size and speed to be passable on defense.

Hayward and Hood would be the primary options in any small-ball lineup, so the question is which three players to put around them. The fastest trio, and the one with the most upside, is Exum, Burks, and Lyles. Exum and Burks are coming off serious injuries, and Lyles has only scratched the surface of what he could become in the NBA. If those three can live up to their potential, the Jazz might be the team in the West with the best chance of matching up with the Warriors in the playoffs.

Boston Celtics — Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford

Bradley, Smart, and Crowder are three of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA, and they have allowed Brad Stevens to build an elite defense despite lacking a conventional rim protector. Boston will still lack a rim protector — Horford isn’t exactly that type of player, but he’s the best two-way big man the Celtics have had since Kevin Garnett, and he makes their small-ball lineups more dangerous by virtue of having no glaring holes in his game.

Stevens could put any number of different players in the final spot in that lineup, but the most intriguing option would be Brown, the no. 3 pick in this year’s draft. He had an up-and-down freshman season at Cal, but he’s in the perfect spot to succeed in the NBA now that he won’t be asked to be the premier perimeter option. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Brown certainly looks the part of an archetypal combo forward who can attack off the dribble, finish at the rim, and guard multiple positions at the NBA level.

Playing those five together would give the Celtics one of the fastest and most athletic lineups in the league. Bradley and Smart can pick up ball handlers the full length of the court, while Horford, Crowder, and Brown have the speed to jump passing lanes when opposing guards are forced to pick up their dribble. No one in this lineup is an elite 3-point shooter, so converting defense to offense and getting out in transition would be the easiest way for them to score.

Minnesota Timberwolves — Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Brandon Rush, and Karl-Anthony Towns

This is more a lineup of the future than of the present, and it’s unlikely a defensive-minded coach like Tom Thibodeau would play a smaller unit with so many inexperienced players on the floor at the same time. He had to have lineups like this in mind, though, when the team drafted Dunn, who was one of the best on-ball defenders in the NCAA. At 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Dunn has the physical tools to stay in front of players of different shapes and sizes, just like the rest of the Wolves’ young core.

It’s unclear how Dunn impacts Ricky Rubio’s future in Minnesota. They have the size to share the backcourt together but neither is a plus shooter, which may make them both a poor fit next to Wiggins, who is still looking to find his touch from the 3-point line. The lack of shooting makes Rush (a 41.4 percent 3-point shooter with the Warriors last season) a better option for the fifth spot in this lineup than a player like Shabazz Muhammad, who has hit only 31.3 percent of his attempts from behind the arc.

But it’s Towns, already one of the most versatile big men in the NBA, that will make this engine hum. At 7 feet and 244 pounds, he combines the athleticism and offensive skill set of a guard with the size of a center, and his ability to guard Curry on switches was one of the keys to the Wolves’ shocking upset of the Warriors in April. The more shooters, defenders, and playmakers Thibodeau can put around Towns, the more dangerous the team will be this season and going into the future.