We heard you like rankings, so to kick off The Ringer’s 2018-19 NBA Preview, we’re devoting the week to evaluating (and slapping a number on) the players, the story lines, and the odds and ends that promise to make the upcoming season one to remember.
Over the past few days, I’ve ranked the best backcourts in each conference, and now I’ll do the same for frontcourts. It’s a much harder exercise because of the sheer variety of players who play at the power forward and center positions these days. Few NBA teams start two big men anymore. Most alternate between small-ball and more traditional lineups over the course of the game. Unlike in the backcourt, where playing-time decisions usually come down to talent, decisions in the frontcourt are determined more by what type of lineup the coach wants.
There has been a dramatic shift toward smaller lineups over the past few seasons, with everyone chasing Golden State and its Lineup of Death. The next generation of talented big men may shift the balance of power back the other way, but my guess is the small-ball revolution is here to stay. The best 7-footers in the 2020s will stay on the court by playing like freakishly tall perimeter players.
The majority of the teams that play bigger lineups in the regular season will go small in the playoffs. So while some of the two-man frontcourts I’m ranking may not play much in November and December, their coaches will lean on them in April and May. Just like with the backcourts, I’m ranking the frontcourts by conference. The East is today. The West is tomorrow.
1. Milwaukee Bucks—Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton
The Bucks are an example of a team that may save their best lineup for the playoffs. They have two centers (Brook Lopez and Thon Maker) whose 3-point shooting ability gives them some of the offensive benefits of going small without sacrificing size. There’s no reason to expose Giannis to punishment at the 5 in the regular season, even though there aren’t that many big men who can push him around anymore.
The Bucks showed flashes of what lineups with four 3-point shooters around Giannis could do in their first-round series against the Celtics. For the most part, though, they didn’t space the floor around their superstar last season. Milwaukee was no. 25 in the NBA in 3-point attempts (24.7 per game) and no. 22 in 3-point percentage (35.5 percent). Giannis could have an MVP season if given more room to operate in the half court. No player in the world can guard him one-on-one, and he has the passing ability to find the open man when the defense sends help.
Giannis will need to improve defensively for new Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer to feature him in smaller lineups. Milwaukee was shredded on that side of the floor when it went small last season, although former head coach Jason Kidd’s outdated schemes meant it was usually shredded regardless. Giannis, listed conservatively at 6-foot-11 and 222 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, has the tools to develop into a Draymond Green–like defensive presence. He’ll turn 24 in December. He’s just now entering his prime.
Middleton is the perfect second banana in a Great Lakes version of the Lineup of Death. At 6-foot-8 and 234 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he has the game of a wing in the body of a power forward. Giannis and Middleton should be dominant together at the 4 and the 5. The Bucks just need to figure out which perimeter players make the most sense around them. Those rotation choices could be where Budenholzer makes the biggest impact this season.
2. Boston Celtics—Al Horford and Jaylen Brown
“Average Al” got his moment in the sun when he carried an injury-ravaged Celtics team to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season. His ability to shoot 3s, create plays for others, and defend all over the floor will be just as crucial to making their pieces fit together this season. Horford doesn’t need a lot of touches to impact the game, making him the perfect center in lineups with scorers like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum.
It’s the same story with Brown, an elite athlete standing 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, who is already one of the best 3-and-D players in the league at 21. He will get the most difficult defensive assignment across three positions this season. Brown could guard Kevin Love or Blake Griffin in one playoff series, and Bradley Beal or Victor Oladipo in another. He shot 39.5 percent from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game last season, and was in the 74th percentile among all players in the postseason when coming around screens off the ball.
Horford and Brown faced a murderer’s row of frontcourt talent in the playoffs: They barely snuck past Giannis in the first round, handled Embiid in the second, and came up just short against LeBron. It won’t be any easier this season. Kawhi Leonard replaced LeBron in the East, while Giannis and Embiid will improve with age. Even if they make it past those three, they may still have to beat Draymond and Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals. That’s how high the bar is to win a championship.
3. Philadelphia 76ers—Joel Embiid and Dario Saric
Embiid was incredible in his first full season in the NBA, averaging 22.9 points on 48.3 percent shooting, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.8 blocks last season. He should only get better if he can stay healthy, although that “if” should be in a font big enough to be seen from space. Embiid is significantly larger than his listed size of 7 feet and 250 pounds, and players that big tend to have health issues even in the best circumstances.
To take the next step, Embiid needs to get in better shape and become a better decision-maker. There were times against the Celtics where he looked out of breath chasing smaller players around the 3-point line, and he struggled to make the right reads when they sent double-teams. He doesn’t have to become an elite passer right away. A good start would be averaging fewer turnovers per game than assists. The 76ers need Embiid to set up the players in their supporting cast, most of whom can’t create their own shot.
The 24-year-old Saric has plenty of room to grow as well. He might have been their best player against Boston, averaging 17.8 points on 45.5 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game in the series. His biggest improvement last season came from behind the 3-point line (39.3 percent on 5.1 attempts per game). Not only does his shooting open up the floor for Embiid and Simmons, it creates more lanes for him to drive and dish. If Saric can maintain those percentages and improve his defense, he will make himself a lot of money next summer when he’s up for an extension on his rookie deal.
4. Detroit Pistons—Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond
The Pistons zigged while everyone else zagged, assembling an old-school frontcourt (Griffin and Drummond) that could make as much as $184 million over the next three seasons. The two big men are talented, but there are holes in their games that would have been an issue even in an era when supersized front lines were common. The biggest is defense. Griffin doesn’t have the length to protect the rim, while Drummond has never had the court awareness to be more than an average interior defender.
Detroit’s defensive rating was 5.1 points lower without Drummond on the floor last season, a pattern which goes back years. New head coach Dwane Casey oversaw an elite defense in Toronto, and his biggest priority this season should be maximizing Drummond on that end of the floor. One thing that might help is simplifying his reads by having him switch every screen, like Houston does with Clint Capela. Drummond has the athletic ability to stay in front of smaller players at the 3-point line. Where he tends to struggle is recognizing the proper rotation as the second line of defense.
Drummond, a 25-year-old who made a big offensive jump last season, should continue to improve. The question for the Pistons is whether Griffin, at 29, can halt his decline. He’s no longer the athlete he once was, and he hasn’t been healthy in years. He turned himself into an average 3-point shooter last season (34.5 percent on 5.6 attempts per game), and he has to keep getting better from long range to make up for his declining athleticism. A lot needs to go right for the Pistons to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves.
5. Toronto Raptors—OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam
One of the hidden benefits of the Kawhi trade is the way it reshuffles Toronto’s rotation. The Raptors have typically started two traditional big men (Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas in recent seasons), but their standard pairings have long since run their course. In trading DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs, the Raptors obtained two perimeter starters (Kawhi and Danny Green) in return, which will move Anunoby from the 3 to the 4. Anunoby, who had an impressive rookie season despite not having his full range of explosiveness while recovering from ACL surgery, should be even better in a smaller lineup that allows him to take advantage of his athleticism.
The jump from Ibaka to Anunoby could be as big as the one from DeRozan to Kawhi. At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, Anunoby can guard players at all five positions, forming an elite defensive duo on the wings with Kawhi. He’s as good a 3-point shooter as Ibaka (37.1 percent on 2.7 attempts per game last season), and he’s not nearly as limited when it comes to putting the ball on the floor and making plays on the move. He will be able to expand his offensive game further now that he can take bigger and slower 4s off dribble.
Siakam should also benefit from moving up on the position spectrum. His biggest weakness is outside shooting, which is less of a problem at the 5. Siakam is one of the fastest centers in the league, and he has a good feel for the game. Casey’s refusal to play him and Anunoby together in their playoff loss to Cleveland was mind-boggling. The Raptors won 59 games last season, but they still have room to improve.
6. Indiana Pacers—Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young
Young is a solid 11-year veteran who knows exactly who he is in the NBA. The upside in the Indiana frontcourt comes from its centers, Turner and Domantas Sabonis. The former is a 22-year-old headed into his fourth season in the league with plenty of untapped potential. He got into the best shape of his career this summer, and there’s nothing stopping him from becoming a two-way force who can stretch the floor, score inside, and protect the rim.
Sabonis, the son of the legendary Arvydas Sabonis, doesn’t have Turner’s physical gifts or shooting touch, but he’s a more fluid player capable of making plays out of the pick-and-roll. After a disappointing rookie season playing out of position in Oklahoma City, he remade himself as a small-ball 5 in Indiana. While Turner and Sabonis can play high-low basketball together, holding up as perimeter defenders in the playoffs will be tough. The Pacers may not be able to keep both long-term.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers—Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson
Love and Thompson could get a harsh reminder about how the other half lives this season. They were the perfect complements to LeBron: Thompson rolled to the rim, Love spotted up at the 3-point line, and neither dealt with much defensive attention. It will be a lot harder with either George Hill or rookie Collin Sexton as the primary ball handler, although Love does have the ability to post up and shoot over smaller players. Thompson’s offensive limitations could open up a starting spot for Larry Nance Jr.
Love is now the centerpiece of the offense after signing a four-year, $120 million extension in the offseason. All the calls for Minnesota Kevin Love over the years will finally be answered. Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue will have no choice but to run offense through Love at the elbow and in the post. There’s no guarantee that version of Love still exists, though. He’s put a lot of miles on his body since then, playing in four consecutive Finals, and he won’t be playing with an elite playmaker like Ricky Rubio. Love will put up a lot of points given that the Cavs won’t have many other scoring options, but he’ll have to do it efficiently to keep them in the playoffs.
8. Washington Wizards—Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris
Howard and Morris are two of the more volatile personalities in the NBA. They could form the best frontcourt duo that John Wall and Bradley Beal have ever played with in Washington if they don’t kill each other first. Wizards head coach Scott Brooks will have to worry about managing the characters in his locker room before even getting into how he can put his players into roles that best fit their games.
Howard needs to accept that he’s a rim-running big man who averages 25 to 30 minutes a night, while Morris (career 33.8 percent 3-point shooter on 2.1 attempts per game) has to consistently space the floor to give Howard room to operate. Both have to be willing to come out at the end of games in certain situations. The Wizards signed Jeff Green to a one-year deal in the offseason, and he had 19 points and eight rebounds in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season while playing as a small-ball 5, which might be his best position. Brooks has some interesting lineups at his disposal, but only if he’s willing (and able) to use them.
9. Brooklyn Nets—Jarrett Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Allen, the no. 22 overall pick in last year’s draft, looked like a steal as a rookie, with per-36 minute averages of 14.7 points on 58.9 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, and 2.2 blocks per game. He’s the most promising young player the Nets have had since ... Derrick Favors? Allen has the long frame (6-foot-11 and 235 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan) and quick feet that NBA teams want in centers these days, as well as a well-rounded offensive game that he has barely begun to utilize.
His development will impact Hollis-Jefferson, a wildly athletic fourth-year wing who has never added a 3-point shot to his game. It will be hard for Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson to run his offense if he can’t get shooting from either frontcourt position. Allen attempted only 15 3s last season, but his free throw shooting numbers (77.6 percent on two attempts per game) indicate that he may have room to grow there. If he can’t stretch his game out to the 3-point line, Atkinson will have to go even smaller at the 4 with combo forwards like DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, and Treveon Graham. RHJ could be an elite defender, but Allen is the guy the Nets should build around.
10. Miami Heat—Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo
The Heat have the same frontcourt problem that they do in their backcourt: more players than they can use but no real star. They have five players who need minutes (Olynyk, Adebayo, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, and Justise Winslow) and no way to keep them all happy unless they compromise their floor spacing by playing them at the 3. Whiteside bottomed out with a disastrous performance against the 76ers in the playoffs, but Miami is paying him too much money ($52.5 million over the next two seasons) to just cut ties with him.
The problem is any attempt to rebuild his trade value will block Adebayo, one of their only players with much upside. Adebayo, the no. 14 overall pick in last year’s draft, is an outstanding athlete with more skill than he was able to show in his one season at Kentucky. He’s not much of a shooter, so he needs to be paired with one in the frontcourt, which is why Olynyk could have an edge over Johnson and Winslow if the Heat commit to developing Adebayo. There would be some growing pains, but the only way forward for the Heat is to take a step back.
11. Charlotte Hornets—Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller
Williams’s and Zeller’s experience and familiarity with their roles in Charlotte give them an edge over the more interesting young frontcourts below them on this list. They fit well around Kemba Walker in a spread pick-and-roll offense, with Williams as a stretch 4 and Zeller as a rim-running 5. The problem is that neither is elite defensively, and they don’t have much else to their offensive game outside of those roles.
The more interesting lineup would be shifting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from the 3 to the 4, or even the 5. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, MKG is a supersized wing with incredible athleticism, and his ghastly jumper would be less of an issue closer to the basket. The Hornets have enough wings to make smaller lineups work: Nic Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, and Dwayne Bacon. New head coach James Borrego needs to be bold if he wants to keep Kemba, who will be a free agent at the end of the season.
12. Chicago Bulls—Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
Markkanen was a ray of light in a miserable season in Chicago, averaging 15.2 points on 43.4 percent shooting, and 7.5 rebounds a game. A sweet-shooting 7-footer with the ability to score from all over the floor, he should be the centerpiece of their offense. The problem is that he’s playing with three ball-dominant perimeter players in Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Jabari Parker, who may view Markkanen more as a floor spacer than a guy they should defer to.
There are also questions about the way Markkanen fits with Carter, the no. 7 overall pick in this year’s draft. The rookie center will likely start the season backing up Robin Lopez, but his strong play in summer league showed why he’s their center of the future. What remains to be seen is whether Chicago would have been better off playing Markkanen at the 5 with smaller and more athletic wings around him instead of doubling down on two big men without elite athleticism. A frontcourt with Carter and Markkanen will score, but can they defend?
13. Orlando Magic—Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba
The Magic may start the season with Aaron Gordon and Nik Vucevic at the 4 and 5, but we have already seen how that movie ends. While Gordon, who signed a four-year, $84 million extension in the offseason, will start no matter what, he may eventually move back to the 3 to make room for Jonathan Isaac, the no. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft. Vucevic, though, will be a free agent at the end of the season, and he’s clearly keeping the seat warm at center for Bamba, the no. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft.
It’s hard not to get excited about the combination of Isaac and Bamba after summer league. They both move incredibly well for their size (Isaac is 6-foot-10, Bamba is 7 feet), and their collective length can essentially wall off the paint. They also have more perimeter skill than you would expect for players of their stature, particularly Isaac, who can put the ball on the floor in traffic and drain jumpers off the dribble. Both young big men are unfinished products, but they give Orlando an identity, something the franchise hasn’t had in years.
14. Atlanta Hawks—John Collins and Alex Len
Collins, a hyperathletic young big man, is one of the only building blocks in Atlanta after a rookie season when he averaged 10.5 points on 57.6 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds per game. New Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has to decide whether Collins is a 4—which means playing him with reclamation projects like Len—or a 5—which means moving a combo forward like Taurean Prince, the no. 12 overall pick in the 2016 draft, up the position spectrum. Collins can run and jump with anyone, but he could be stuck between positions until he either develops a 3-point shot or becomes more of an interior defender.
15. New York Knicks—Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson
The Knicks will bring Kristaps Porzingis back slowly after ACL surgery, which means they have little to play for this season. Enes Kanter is their best scorer, but he will eventually give way to the two players (Knox and Robinson) they just drafted. Knox, a 6-foot-9 combo forward whom they took with the no. 9 overall pick, looked like a steal in summer league. Robinson is a jaw-dropping athlete who slipped to the second round only because he skipped college. It will be a long season in New York, but those two give the franchise some reason for optimism.