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Three NBA Lineups to Daydream About Over the Summer

The five-man configurations that have us excited for next season

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Summer is a time for dreaming, a time to imagine all the possibilities of a new roster. Ahead of training camp, which is shockingly just around the corner, NBA coaches are projecting ideas of how to maximize the potential of their teams, and so are we. We’ve seen a lot of roster turnover this offseason. Here are the three lineups that have me fantasizing the most:

Minnesota Timberwolves

Most Intriguing Lineup: Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague

"I don’t know how you would defend that group," Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau said in July of a potential small-ball lineup with Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford in the backcourt, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler at forward, and Karl-Anthony Towns at the 5. "You can’t double-team everybody on the damn floor," Butler said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. "You can’t key in on one guy. So pick your poison: Who are you going to double-team?"

Thibs and Butler are being a bit hyperbolic, but it’s true that the new additions will make it harder on defenses. Teague is an effective pick-and-roll playmaker, while Butler is dominant in virtually all play types. They make life easier for Towns, who began to make the leap, averaging 28.4 points per game in the second half of the season. Having more go-to options on the floor will create more open 3s and layups for Towns, which should lead to a huge uptick in his scoring efficiency.

Imagine situations where Teague runs a pick-and-roll with Towns at the top of the key and the defense switches, putting a smaller player on Towns. This would force a trap. Against a scrambling defense, KAT has the vision to spot open shooters like he does in the video above. Instead of finding Shabazz Muhammad and Ricky Rubio on the perimeter, however, he’ll have superior options. Over the past two seasons, Teague, Crawford, Butler, Wiggins, and Towns shot a combined 38.2 percent on more than 1,400 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, a stat that would’ve ranked 12th of all teams last season, per SportVU. It’s not great, but it would be a step up from last season’s 36.9 percent clip as a team. More spacing will also create more opportunities for Butler to isolate defenders in an open half court, which we’ve seen James Harden benefit from:

The Wolves won’t be able to take it to those extremes. They simply aren’t that deadly from 3, and it’s clear they know it after swinging and whiffing on free agents like Nick Young and C.J. Miles. But it’s nice to know Thibodeau is thinking outside the box: Despite investing so much money in power forwards, he doesn’t need to play big and beefy with Taj Gibson alongside Towns or Gorgui Dieng in lineups that’ll suffocate floor spacing. Having bully ball as an option is nice, since the rest of the league is zigging, and they can play progressively as well. That Thibodeau has openly expressed interest in small lineups is reassuring. Perhaps Thibs won’t be as rigid as his reputation suggests; perhaps they’ll utilize different styles depending on the opponent.

The real intrigue comes with how this impacts Wiggins, whom the Wolves are negotiating with on a five-year max contract. The writers at Wolves blog Canis Hoopus have done remarkable work covering the development of Wiggins, who after his third year is still an inefficient, high-usage player who plays apathetic defense. But if the Wolves max Wiggins, they’re paying him for projected future performance, and there’s no denying how Butler’s presence should help Wiggins. It’s easy to forget Wiggins was a dominant perimeter defender during his single season at Kansas. After he defended fairly well his first year, at least by rookie standards, his defense dropped off considerably the past two seasons. It could be that Wiggins was a product of his environment — a losing situation that had him at such a high usage rate he needed to rest on one end. At the very least, he has a mentor in Butler. "[Wiggins] has all the tools to be a terrific defender," Butler said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. "He is extremely talented on the offensive end and I think he will be just that talented on the defend as well, as long as you lock into it."

Butler (as well as Teague and Crawford) will also lighten the Canadian’s load on offense. Wiggins is one of the youngest players in league history to have a usage rate of 29 or higher, per Basketball-Reference, which, quite frankly, is something he wasn’t ready for. A smaller role will mean fewer inefficient plays (post-ups and isolations) and more efficient chances (spot-ups and cuts) for Wiggins, while his pick-and-roll opportunities won’t be forced on him. Maybe the best version of Andrew Wiggins is one that allows him to shine within his defined role instead of as a do-it-all player; he might not meet the "Maple Jordan" hype he had in high school, but he can still excel as a two-way player. With less offensive responsibility, perhaps some of the defensive ability he demonstrated in college will resurface. If he commits on that end, he could find himself easing Butler’s load rather than the other way around.

Everything said about Wiggins on defense also applies to Towns. The young pups need to improve defensively for the Wolves to maximize their potential this season. Butler will be the team’s alpha, and if everyone falls in line, the Timberwolves should make mighty strides this season playing a variety of styles. Thibodeau must be swooning — versatility is king for players and coaches.

Boston Celtics

Most Intriguing Lineup: Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward

"I don’t have the five positions anymore. It may be as simple as three positions now, where you’re either a ball handler, a wing, or a big," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in early July. "We’ve become more versatile as the years have gone on." Stevens’s words iterate the shift Boston has undergone in roster building over the past two years; they now have the personnel to play virtually any style they please. The Celtics can play more traditional lineups with two bigs like Aron Baynes and Al Horford, or they can go small with Marcus Morris at the 5 and a trio of guards like Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier.

The additions of Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Semi Ojeleye created a stockpile of versatile wings alongside Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown, which will allow the team to play jumbo packages with five players all standing between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-10. Stevens could theoretically use all five of those players at once in a switch-heavy lineup, but I’m mostly intrigued by the possibility of sliding Horford in at the 5, along with Crowder, Tatum, and Brown at wing, and Hayward at point. All five players are capable of switching screens defensively with the speed to contain guards and the bulk to defend many of the league’s perimeter-based bigs. Tatum needs the most work since he’s just a 19-year-old, but you could plug-and-play Morris or Ojeleye into his spot, too. Stevens has tons of options.

The benefit of that lineup structure is there are few teams in the league that can play big without sacrificing versatility or playmaking. The Celtics would clearly have versatility on defense (though they must prove they can effectively team rebound to end defensive possessions), and any combination creates maximum spacing with five players that can shoot 3s. It’d also have two potent playmakers 6-foot-8 and taller. Alongside Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic, Horford is one of the league’s best playmaking bigs, averaging a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, a dominant figure for a big man. Stevens puts Horford in a variety of situations on any given offensive possession: He’ll bring the ball up the floor; he’ll be fed in the post, where he can scope out passing lanes for all the off-ball actions the Celtics run; he’ll freelance while rolling to the rim to hit open shooters.

Last season, not having Isaiah Thomas on the floor meant the Celtics relied on Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier to be playmakers, which was fine. Smart and Rozier are quality floor generals. But Hayward is better and a far superior scorer. So much emphasis is placed on Hayward’s scoring ability that it’s easy to overlook his passing skills. Hayward is unselfish; he always looks to make the extra pass. He still isn’t a player who will create a shot for himself without a screen, but via motion or pick-and-roll actions, Hayward’s improvisation is impressive.

Here’s Hayward getting Utah into its pick-and-roll set while being defended by Andre Roberson. It’s a relatively basic play, but it comes at a crucial time in the game, with the Jazz down four points with about three and a half minutes remaining. After Hayward puts Roberson in a spin cycle, he darts a pass across the floor to Joe Johnson for 3. Defenses will need to find a way to match up. Tatum and Brown might be young, but they’re extremely effective post scorers, and Crowder is a boulder when attacking closeouts, so sticking a smaller guard on them might lead to mismatches. Each opponent will need to find a way to combat Boston’s potential jumbo lineups, because they aren’t really exploitable on defense, either.

The Celtics will need Thomas for end-of-game situations, especially once the playoffs come around. Thomas is called "the King in the Fourth" for good reason. But the lineups that could position the Celtics to win games may operate without the little guy.

Houston Rockets

Most Intriguing Lineup: Zhou Qi, Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, James Harden, Chris Paul

The James Harden–Chris Paul backcourt (or will it be Paul-Harden?) ignited debate on NBA Twitter as soon as news of the trade was announced; putting two ball-dominant players on the court at the same time seemed like a recipe for disaster.

But, as discussed before on The Ringer, there’s enough ball to go around. In fact, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni probably feels like he’s living in a dream having Harden and Paul. He’ll be able to have one superstar playmaker on the floor at all times, and the possibilities when they share the floor will be endless. "The more point guards you have on the floor the better it is," D’Antoni said during Paul’s introductory press conference. "You can’t have too many point guards, can’t have too many smart guys, can’t have too many stars."

Harden and Paul possess two of the highest basketball IQs in the league with the ball in their hands, but what often gets overlooked is just how good they are off the ball, too. Harden wasn’t always the high-usage monster he is in Houston. We’ve forgotten the player he was in Oklahoma City, the third musketeer option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Harden was an off-ball beast during his final season in Oklahoma City, scoring 1.13 points per possession, which led all guards (per Synergy). While Durant and Westbrook dominated the ball, Harden filled the void by cutting, slashing, spotting up, and attacking closeouts.

Just imagine a scenario where Paul runs a high pick-and-roll with Clint Capela rumbling down the lane and Harden flanking on the wing. If the initial score or pass isn’t open, Paul can circle the wagons and kick it out to an open Harden, who can shoot or make any play off the bounce.

It wouldn’t be surprising if having two of the game’s most ball-dominant players leads to a more democratic offense. In the play above, Paul gives it up, but he gets it right back. Since 2013–14, Paul shot 43.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Harden shot 39.5 percent, per SportVU. If both Paul and Harden buy in and play unselfishly, they’ll be able to create open shots for each other and their teammates.

Paul wasn’t the only addition. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had himself one hell of an offseason, most notably picking up versatile wings in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, and signing draft-and-stash prospect Zhou Qi. I hope we see all four new additions, plus Harden, on the floor at the same time. Though Zhou is raw (and still might not be physically ready to play in the NBA), please allow me to fantasize about the possibilities if he is ready to contribute by the playoffs. At 7-foot-2, Zhou can roll to the rim and throw down dunks:

Capela and Nene do it even better than Zhou, but neither of them can space the floor like Zhou potentially can. This past season, Zhou shot 36.4 percent on 55 attempts playing for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, winners of the 2016–17 Chinese Basketball Association title. It was his first season shooting 3s at a higher volume, and in available video footage he appeared comfortable from long range.

The Chinese big man shot only 3-for-21 from 3 during the Las Vegas summer league, which stinks, but he’s made progress. He flashed potential in the past, and has always been a reliable free throw shooter with good touch around the rim. It’s possible he may just need time adjusting to the NBA line.

If Zhou does develop his shot, the Rockets could play with a five-out offense, rather than four-out with one rim-runner. As much credit as Morey deserves for his exploitation of the perimeter game, the majority of their success has come with a non-shooting center. When I interviewed D’Antoni for The Ringer’s feature on the Rockets in January, he called the center the most important position on the floor other than the point guard. So it’s fascinating to imagine what they’d be able to accomplish with a center whose game is as versatile as every other player’s on the court.

Harden and Paul can run the offense. Mbah a Moute and Tucker can take the primary matchups on defense. Zhou can protect the rim on defense and contribute as a screener, roller, and spacer on offense. The Rockets are building something special, and if they end up adding Carmelo Anthony, lineup possibilities will only grow.