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, those decisions in the frontcourt are determined more by what type of lineup the coach wants.
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 was yesterday. The West is today.
Golden State Warriors—Kevin Durant and Draymond Green
It’s hard to know where to start with DeMarcus Cousins, whom the Warriors signed to a one-year, $5 million contract in the offseason. Will he fully recover from tearing his Achilles tendon, one of the most devastating injuries in basketball? How will Golden State fit him into their system? And how will he feel if (and when) they close games without him in smaller lineups? Andre Iguodala, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, is a better fit with their four All-Stars than Cousins.
The current version of the Lineup of Death doesn’t need Boogie. Draymond is an elite interior defender who won Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago, and Durant and Iguodala can lock up almost any pair of forwards they face. None of the three is as ball-dominant as Cousins, who has a higher career usage rate (32.0) than Kobe Bryant. Featuring Cousins on offense doesn’t make sense for a team with as much talent as the Warriors, while his long-standing defensive woes create a hole that wasn’t there before.
Cousins makes more sense as a replacement for Zaza Pachulia and David West. He can bang in the paint, set hard screens, and create offense for himself and others out of the post. Neither Zaza nor West was particularly mobile, so Warriors head coach Steve Kerr didn’t extend them out on the perimeter on defense. There are a lot of regular-season minutes at the 5 for Cousins to soak up, since Kerr likes to save Durant and Draymond’s bodies for the playoffs.
The only way for Kerr to play Cousins while keeping Durant and Draymond at their best positions is to move Boogie to the 3. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Imagine a rematch with the Rockets in the Western Conference finals. Cousins could hide on James Ennis or P.J. Tucker on defense and then spot up at the 3-point line. He’s a better passer (5.4 assists a game last season) and shooter (35.4 percent from 3 on 6.1 attempts per game) than many of the wings on Golden State, and the team may be able to live with Houston attacking him on defense if it funnels the ball to more limited offensive players like Ennis or Tucker.
2. New Orleans Pelicans—Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic
Few people would take Mirotic over Cousins in a vacuum, but the former was a better fit in New Orleans. Mirotic, whom the Pelicans traded for after Cousins tore his Achilles, had a net rating of plus-10.7 in 576 minutes with Davis. Cousins and Davis only had a net rating of plus-4.1 in 1,094 minutes together last season. Mirotic is a better perimeter defender than Cousins, and his ability to space the floor and play without the ball allowed Davis to be the best version of himself. And the best version of Davis is arguably the best player in the NBA.
Playing with Mirotic moves Davis to the 5, a lineup head coach Alvin Gentry will probably keep in his back pocket until the playoffs, like he did last season. Gentry started Emeka Okafor, who hadn’t played in the NBA since the 2012-13 season, at center after Cousins went down. The longtime vet’s only job was to be placeholder who kept Davis at the 4 the start of each half. Gentry could do the same thing this season with a significantly better player in Julius Randle, whom they signed to a two-year, $18 million contract in the off-season.
The Davis and Mirotic frontcourt was dominant in a first-round sweep of Portland, but it wasn’t nearly as effective against Golden State in the second round. Mirotic was shut down by Iguodala, and New Orleans didn’t have enough firepower around Davis to be competitive. Randle could be an interesting counter. Either Durant would guard Randle or Davis, both of whom can attack him inside, or the Warriors would have to go with Cousins, which would change the matchup completely. Gentry has some interesting lineup options, which could allow the Pelicans to once again punch above their weight in the playoffs.
3. Los Angeles Lakers—LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma
LeBron has never wanted to play at the 5, but he may not have a choice in Los Angeles. They only have three centers (Javale McGee, Ivica Zubac, and Moritz Wagner) on their roster, all of whom could struggle to stay on the floor in the playoffs. LeBron is big enough to move up the position spectrum (one scout told me he thinks James will come into the season at 270 to 275 pounds). The move will happen at some point over the next four years he spends with the Lakers. LeBron turns in 34 in December. Even he can’t stay young and athletic forever.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton can put some interesting small-ball lineups around his new superstar. Los Angeles will be a very different team than the team LeBron carried in Cleveland, an older group that played in the half court and had virtually no secondary sources of offense on the perimeter. Young guys like Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart all want to get out in transition, and they can all create off the dribble. LeBron could be rejuvenated by their athleticism and energy if he learns to live with their mental mistakes.
Defense is the big question for Lakers this season. LeBron has long stopped trying in the regular season, and he can only turn it on for stretches in the playoffs. Los Angeles will score plenty of points, but can they stop people with LeBron as the primary rim protector? His easy road to the Finals is over. Moving LeBron to the 5 was checkmate in the East, but teams like New Orleans will just shrug their shoulders and do the same with Davis. The best teams in the West won’t be afraid of LeBron in the same way the ones in the East were.
4. Houston Rockets—Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker
Capela and Tucker aren’t as talented as the other frontcourts near the top of this list, but they fit into their roles in Houston perfectly. Capela is a elite roll man and defensive anchor who impacts the game without taking the ball away from James Harden and Chris Paul, while Tucker adds a badly needed combination of 3-point shooting, toughness, and defensive versatility. With Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute gone, the Rockets need their bigs to be even better this season.
Capela dominated Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the Warriors exposed his limitations in the Western Conference finals. Capela is quick enough to not get run off the floor when they go small, but he couldn’t punish them on offense when they left smaller defenders like Steph Curry on him. Houston’s best lineups in that series were uber-small ones with three perimeter scorers around Tucker and Ariza upfront.
Capela may never be a big-time scorer, but the 24-year-old still has room to grow on offense. If he can score over smaller players on switches, it would take a lot of pressure off Harden and Paul and give the Rockets another source of offense. Having more offensive creators is a key factor in a series against a team with as many high-level defenders as the Warriors. Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni should expand Capela’s role in the regular season to get him ready for those moments. Nothing matters for the Rockets except what happens in May and June.
5. Denver Nuggets—Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap
Jokic and Millsap might be the most skilled big-man pairing in the NBA. Both have the ability to score all over the floor, lead the break themselves, and create easy shots for their teammates. The Nuggets should be fun to watch with that duo in charge of the offense; they almost certainly would have made the playoffs last season if Millsap hadn’t missed 44 games with a torn wrist ligament. He and Jokic had a net rating of plus-8.0 in 868 minutes together.
Jokic is more than capable of taking on a bigger offensive role without Millsap, but he can’t replace what the 32-year-old brings defensively. While Millsap isn’t a great shot-blocker, he’s a smart player who rotates quickly and is almost always in the right position, allowing him to cover for the slower Jokic. Denver head coach Mike Malone often hid Jokic at the end of games last season by putting Millsap at the 5 so that he could be the primary defender on pick-and-rolls.
The Nuggets will have an interesting decision with Millsap next summer. They have a $30 million team option on the final season of his contract, which they could try to extend at a lower annual number. The concern is that undersized big men don’t tend to age well, plus two young power forwards (Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez) will be up for extensions on their rookie contracts. How Millsap and Jokic fare together in the playoffs—assuming they make it that far—could make the decision for Denver.
6. San Antonio Spurs—LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay
The Spurs will probably start a supersized frontcourt of Aldridge and Pau Gasol, but the two bigs will have trouble staying on the floor against the top teams out West. While Aldridge had a bounce-back campaign without Kawhi Leonard at the age of 32, Pau is a 38-year-old who can be timed with a sundial. San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich went with a frontcourt pairing of Aldridge and Gay in the playoffs last season, and he may use that lineup even more now that Gay is two seasons removed from tearing his Achilles.
Playing in smaller lineups would give Aldridge more room to run pick-and-pops with DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray. The Spurs’ new backcourt tandem should be better at getting into the paint and kicking the ball out than the older guards the Spurs relied on last season. Aldridge is a great post scorer, but that become less and less relevant by the year. There are easier ways to score. He was in the 80th percentile of post scorers last season and the 53rd percentile of pick-and-roll scorers, yet he still averaged more points per possession on the latter.
7. Memphis Grizzlies—Marc Gasol and Jaren Jackson Jr.
This is an ambitious ranking for a frontcourt with a player who just turned 19 in September, but Jackson’s skill set should allow him to make an easy transition into the NBA. While JaMychal Green will begin the season in the starting lineup, Jackson gives the Grizzlies the combination of elite athleticism and volume 3-point shooting they need next to Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. Green, meanwhile, would be better as more of a shot creator on the second unit.
Gasol and Jackson together is a perfect marriage. One of the reasons Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Ben Simmons were ahead of the curve on defense as rookies is that they were all playing in front of an elite center who quarterbacked that end of the floor. Gasol will protect Jackson on defense and set him up on offense, while the 33-year-old could be revitalized by playing with a young 7-footer who can run and jump with the more athletic frontlines in the West.
8. Utah Jazz—Rudy Gobert and Jae Crowder
Gobert and Derrick Favors is a better regular season combination than many of the pairings ahead of them on this list. The problem is there’s no way the two can stay on the floor together against the Warriors and the Rockets, which is one reason why the Jazz have an 1-8 playoff record against those two teams over the last two seasons. Utah head coach Quin Snyder will give Crowder the first crack at the 4 when they go small, but he will have a lot of options at the position.
While Crowder is a battle-tested veteran who knows where to be on both ends of the floor, he doesn’t have great size or athleticism, and he only shot 37 percent from the field in 38 regular-season and playoff games with the Jazz last season. The most interesting option is moving Joe Ingles, an incredibly versatile player, from the 3 to the 4 in order to put more athletic wings around him. No matter what Snyder decides, Utah’s fate will come down to Gobert and whether he can find a way to be a positive against lineups that play five 3-point shooters at a time.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves—Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson
Everything is in flux in Minnesota after Jimmy Butler’s trade demand went public on Wednesday. Wolves head coach and president Tom Thibodeau has some tough decisions ahead of him, and his track record doesn’t inspire much confidence. Pairing Towns and Gibson upfront, like everything else Thibs has done since he took over in Minnesota, hasn’t gone according to plan. Gibson was one of their best defenders last season, but he’s a poor outside shooter who doesn’t fit next to a 7-footer like Towns, who spends most of his time in the post.
Towns was underutilized on offense last season, which may have contributed to his disinterest on defense. It’s not realistic to expect a no. 1 overall pick to accept a smaller role on a veteran team that isn’t a championship contender. The timelines for Towns and Butler never aligned. If Thibs trades Butler, he should look for a young frontcourt partner who fits next to Towns. He will have to decide if Towns is better with a shot-blocking 5 who would let him concentrate on offense or a 4 who would open up the floor for him like, say, Lauri Markkanen. (Too soon?)
10. Dallas Mavericks—DeAndre Jordan and Harrison Barnes
DeAndre is no longer the one who got away for Mark Cuban. Dallas has a much different team than when they pursued him in the summer of 2015, but he makes more sense now than he would have back then. Jordan will be a pick-and-roll partner for two young ball handlers in Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr., and he should cover for some of their mistakes on defense. Everyone involved wants to make this work. Jordan is a free agent next summer looking for long-term money, and the Mavs are hoping to show enough potential to lure stars in free agency.
All the changes in Dallas mean a smaller role for Barnes, who averaged 19.0 points a game on 45.7 percent shooting over the last two seasons. The problem is that he didn’t make his teammates better: He can’t pass out of the pick-and-roll or create enough separation on isolations to draw multiple defenders. Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle may ask Barnes to concentrate on defense and use his size (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds) and athleticism to cover for Doncic by taking the more difficult assignment at the forward positions on a nightly basis.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder—Steven Adams and Jerami Grant
Adams is an excellent two-way center, but he’s still a relatively limited offensive player who needs to play in a lot of space to succeed. So while the departure of Carmelo Anthony should improve their defense, the Thunder still need to replace the 3-point shooting he gave them at power forward. Grant, whom they signed to a three-year, $27 million contract in the offseason, will get first crack at the job, but he’s a poor shooter (29.1 percent from 3 on 1.4 attempts per game last season) who may only compound their floor-spacing issues.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has options if Grant and Adams don’t fit together. He could hope Patrick Patterson is better in his second season following knee surgery, or he could play Andre Roberson as a small-ball 4. Neither is ideal. Patterson wasn’t particularly mobile even when healthy, while Roberson is an even worse shooter than Grant. Just because Carmelo wasn’t the answer in Oklahoma City doesn’t mean any of his replacements will be.
12. Los Angeles Clippers—Tobias Harris and Montrezl Harrell
Harris has played on four teams in seven seasons in the NBA, but he’s much better than most players with his track record. He’s a 26-year-old who averaged 19.3 points on 47.3 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in 32 games with the Clippers last season. At 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, Harris is a combo forward who threatens defenses on or off the ball. He would be a great pick-and-pop partner with Lou Williams, or he could be the primary option if Clippers head coach Doc Rivers keeps Williams as the sixth man.
The bigger question for Rivers is who replaces Jordan at center. Los Angeles traded for Marcin Gortat in the offseason, but he’s a rapidly declining 34-year-old who talked about retirement last season. Harrell is an athletic rim-runner who outplayed Jordan at times last season. If the fourth-year big man can continue to improve on defense, he could easily pass Gortat. Their young frontcourt has to take a step forward for the Clippers to exceed expectations this season, unless they end up getting moved for Butler first.
13. Portland Trail Blazers—Al-Farouq Aminu and Zach Collins
The Blazers signed Jusuf Nurkic to a four-year, $48 million extension in the offseason, but their center of the future is Collins, the no. 10 overall pick in last year’s draft. Unlike Nurkic, who can’t venture outside the paint on either end of the floor, Collins is a 7-footer with a developing 3-point shot and the quickness to switch screens. A pairing of Aminu, a prototype 3-and-D wing, and Collins would give Portland more floor spacing and defensive ability in the frontcourt than they have ever had in the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum era. They just need Collins, who turns 21 in November, to grow up fast.
14. Phoenix Suns—Deandre Ayton and Ryan Anderson
The Suns went all-in when they traded for Anderson, who should dramatically improve their floor spacing from the power forward position. Phoenix was dead last in the league in 3-point percentage last season (33.4 percent). Adding Anderson should accelerate the offensive development of Ayton, the no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. The question is what Anderson will do to their defense. He can’t keep his man in front of him, which will put a ton of pressure on Ayton, who didn’t protect the rim well in college.
15. Sacramento Kings—Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley III
The Kings have yet another logjam upfront, with Bagley (the no. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft) the only one guaranteed playing time this season. Giles, the no. 20 overall pick in last year’s draft, was better than his fellow Duke product in summer league, and his return from a series of knee injuries could be the best thing to happen to Bagley. Giles is the better interior defender of the two, and his perimeter game should give Bagley more room to operate inside. Bagley and Giles could eventually become a great frontcourt tandem, but developing two young big men at the same time is extremely difficult, and Sacramento may not have the patience to see it through.