I grew up playing chess as my sports fandom blossomed, so it only makes sense that I’ve always been drawn to the strategic element of basketball. The fluid, fast-paced nature of the NBA means strategy is deployed differently than in other major sports like baseball or football. It doesn’t have an equivalent to baseball’s pitcher-catcher relationship or to football’s time between snaps allowing for frequent substitutes. But the lineup choices coaches make can tell us a lot about a team, especially in the early stages of the season, when everyone’s experimenting, figuring out the best combinations on the floor.
This offseason was turbulent, with multiple stars changing places and high-impact role players landing on new teams. Here are five teams with intriguing potential lineups entering this season.
The Lakers’ Anchor Experiment With LeBron James
LeBron James played a grand total of 22 minutes at center of the 3,531 minutes he accumulated in the regular season and playoffs during Cleveland’s NBA Finals run in 2015–16, per NBA Wowy. That number skyrocketed to 149 in 2016–17, then doubled to 360 in 2017–18. As the league has increasingly used smaller, longer lineups, Cavs head coach Ty Lue adapted with 9.1 percent of James’s possessions coming at center during his final season with the Cavaliers.
During his second tenure with the Cavs, James occupied the frontcourt with the likes of Jeff Green and Derrick Williams in “small” lineups, but between Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs always had options at center. The Lakers don’t have those types of options. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne reported in July that James could play more in the post and less on the perimeter. Neither JaVale McGee, Moe Wagner, nor Ivica Zubac has proved capable of taking on a heavy workload. McGee hasn’t averaged over 16 minutes per game since he suffered a stress fracture in his left tibia in 2014. Wagner is talented, but he’s a rookie. Zubac struggled as a sophomore.
There aren’t any other bigs for Lakers head coach Luke Walton to choose from — except LeBron, a human wrecking ball. This could just be a summer fantasy, but might we actually see more LeBron at center? It’s the no. 1 question on my mind as the season approaches.
James has long been reluctant to play in the post but has been effective when he does, particularly with spin moves, drop steps, and fadeaways. If the post is indeed expected to be a larger part of his game, then conceivably he’d have polished his footwork and handle. James’s post game had previously improved after working in 2011 with Hakeem Olajuwon. James can’t score inside like Olajuwon, but the King can pass like John Petrucci can play guitar, with creativity and precision. That’s the element that makes his potential role at center that much more intriguing.
Usually, the teams that build around an interior player do it with spacing — like prime Dwight Howard headlining Stan Van Gundy’s Magic teams that attempted 3s at a league-high clip for years. LeBron won’t see the same benefits. Aside from Las Vegas summer league standout Svi Mykhailiuk, there isn’t a single shooter on the roster who can be relied on to hit the 40 percent benchmark from 3 — and if Svi is getting big minutes on the team, that’s probably another issue entirely. The Lakers will need to be different, possibly leaning on multiple ball handlers to whip the ball around the floor and force defenses to scramble. The Lakers can work with what they have to maximize spacing, of course, but the best coaches across sports adapt their systems to the personnel.
Just how much LeBron will be expected to play at the 5 remains to be seen. ESPN’s report implied that moving James inside is intended to limit the extra wear on his body. Normally, I’d question that logic. But James is a magnet for flailing limbs when he’s driving from the perimeter; it’s possible that the post would be less tiresome with less hacking, especially if he’s used as much as a source of playmaking as he is scoring.
Walton’s best lineup with LeBron at the 5 could possibly feature Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Each player from 1 to 5 can play both on ball and off ball and defend multiple positions. At 6-foot-5, KCP would be the shortest player in the lineup. James, even against an opponent using a traditional center, would often still be the largest. Ingram can also initiate the offense, as evidenced by his stints at point guard in the second half of the last season, albeit in a less traditional sense than Ball and Rajon Rondo. Even if Ball is replaced by someone like Josh Hart, the Lakers would still have plenty of orchestrators with size.
This is precisely where it gets interesting for Walton. He can get wild and have Ingram and James as the two primary ball handlers, surrounding them with the team’s best two-way players. Or he can do an about-face and have up to five players on the floor who can all run the offense, with LeBron, Ball, Rondo, Ingram, and Lance Stephenson. The notion of LeBron at center alone opens up avenues for the Lakers.
The Thunder’s New Two-PG Lineup
I often wake up wondering if this is the day Russell Westbrook finally realizes his off-ball potential on the Thunder. There is nothing more imperative for the Thunder organization than ensuring Westbrook’s prime years are maximized, and to make that happen, he needs to sacrifice some on-ball responsibility. It’s been three straight offseasons of wishful thinking — I’m like a broken record at this point.
Westbrook is a superstar, but even superstars can get better by adjusting their roles to accommodate their teammates. It sounds silly, but Dennis Schröder might be a good enough point guard to push Westbrook into more efficient scoring situations, like cuts:
Westbrook explodes off his feet like he has rocket thrusters. In any given situation, he’s a threat to catch lobs or zoom past a defender closing out as he spots up behind the 3-point line.
These are plays he’s proved capable of making; now, it’s just about increasing the frequency. Westbrook is a passable shooter, at 35.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s over the past four seasons, including the playoffs. If a shot isn’t available, he’s a force attacking off the dribble against a rotating defense. The Thunder can be less predictable in the half court if Schröder is creating more for Westbrook. The same is true in transition.
Westbrook logged 439 possessions as a ball handler in transition plays last season, per Synergy — 96 more than LeBron James, who was second. But Russ isn’t nearly as efficient as LeBron or other high-volume transition scorers like Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo. I’d love to see Westbrook get more easy chances where he’s sprinting up the court for an outlet rather than hanging around waiting for the rebounder to feed him the ball in the backcourt.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan says he wants to play fast this season. A Schröder-Westbrook backcourt tandem would fit his vision. It’d be particularly interesting to see how the duo operates in open space alongside a frontcourt of Paul George, Jerami Grant, and a hopefully rejuvenated Patrick Patterson. Schröder is a better point guard than any of the scrap-heap options the team has had in recent years, like Raymond Felton (now the third point guard on the roster) and Norris Cole. He’s fast, capable of high-volume scoring games, and a far better passer than his reputation suggests.
Schröder has a lot of improving to do as a decision-maker, but with the Thunder he’ll have more talented teammates than he’s ever had in Atlanta. Sometimes a new situation is all a player needs to click. But for Schröder and Westbrook to coexist as well as they theoretically could, it’s up to Westbrook to let it happen.
The Raptors’ “Lineup of Extinction”
Remember the “Kawhi Leonard Question” commercial that Jordan Brand dropped in June 2017?
Two students engage in a Lincoln-Douglas debate on whether Leonard is an offensive or defensive genius. That his offense could even be framed as a worthy foil to his defense speaks to the improvements Kawhi made as a playmaker in 2016–17, but we know the real answer here. Leonard has been a defensive genius for far longer than he’s been known for his scoring ability. He’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-Defensive team honoree, and he has slapjack hands.
I’m more interested in how Leonard can be maximized to become an “offensive genius.” We saw glimpses of Leonard controlling the Spurs offense but never for prolonged stretches. Even transcendent talents are eventually absorbed back into San Antonio’s egalitarian offense. Leonard has only had two seasons averaging over 20 points per game — he hasn’t been an elite scoring force for very long. Assuming he’s fully recovered from his quadriceps issue, my body is ready to find out how great Leonard can be offensively over a full season.
But these new-look Raptors already seem to be taking after their best player: Their best defensive lineup might also be their best offensive combination. That would be a dream come true for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. The Raptors can easily insert Leonard into a lineup that has former teammate Danny Green and OG Anunoby flanking Leonard on the wing, with Kyle Lowry at point guard and Pascal Siakam as a small-ball center. That could be a tall order for Siakam, who played nearly all of his minutes alongside a big man last season — usually Jakob Poeltl, who was traded to San Antonio — and it’s unknown if he can handle the load. Nonetheless, this five-man lineup of Leonard, Lowry, Green, Anunoby, and Siakam would clearly have an elite defensive upside. Plus, three of the players can effectively space the floor for Leonard to go to work on offense.
The Magic’s Hands Across America
Orlando has a bright future, but there’s not much to feel good about this season unless you have a wingspan fixation like Magic brass Jeff Weltman and John Hammond do. We got a sneak peak at the long possibilities this summer in Las Vegas:
In the play above, forwards Wesley Iwundu and Jonathan Isaac deny the post entry pass, then center Mo Bamba joins the party to swarm the paint and block the shot. Bamba, Isaac, and Iwundu — all selected by the Magic in the past two drafts — have a combined wingspan of 22 feet, longer than most elephants.
Now That’s Some Wingspan
Add in Aaron Gordon and Jerian Grant, and the Magic might have enough length to circle the earth. The team won’t be very good in the win-loss column. But they’re going to be a joy to watch aesthetically.
The Rockets’ Melo Integration Plan
The basics of Houston’s offense aren’t that hard to understand: James Harden or Chris Paul run a pick and roll, then make a read. Carmelo Anthony will have to get used to standing at the 3-point line when that trio takes the floor together. But how will Melo’s role change when just Harden or Paul is on the court? Eric Gordon saw his usage rise from 20.6 to 29.1 percent last season when Harden was on the bench, as he became the second pick-and-roll option behind Paul. Depending on how Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni sets his rotations, Anthony could experience a similar boost.
A Paul-Gordon backcourt with Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker rounding out the frontcourt would provide offense-defense balance and more spacing than Anthony has ever had in his career. It remains to be seen if Anthony or Gordon would be the pick-and-roll beneficiary, but I think there’s some logic to making it Anthony. He’s a different flavor. Harden, Paul, and Gordon are all guards, and they’ll typically face common defenders at one point or another over the course of the game. But Melo, at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, is a heavyweight who can be used to give opponents a new look. For the Rockets’ sake, they’d better hope it works come April; it won’t be easy to be better than they were in the Western Conference finals. Windows can close as soon as they open. Every choice matters.