With the first half of the NBA season in the books, we now have a good idea about where every team stands. But there’s still a lot for each to figure out. The elite teams are making small tweaks to get ready for playoff runs, the ones in the middle are making all-out pushes just to get there, and the bottom feeders are deciding which players to build around.
Lineups are the lifeblood of an NBA team. Who plays with whom at which points in the game factors not only into wins and losses but also player development. If you want to know what a coach really thinks of his team, just look at the way they change their rotation throughout the season. On that note, let’s examine one key lineup decision for every team in the second half of the season. (Teams ordered in reverse by record entering Wednesday’s games.)
Golden State Warriors: Can D’Angelo Russell and Steph Curry Coexist?
Curry broke his hand in the first week of the season, which means the Warriors still don’t know whether the two All-Star point guards can play together. Even though they have little chance of making the playoffs this season, they need Curry back to see how he meshes with Russell. Golden State has said all the right things about wanting to keep the 23-year-old, but the suspicion around the league has always been that he was most valuable to the Warriors as a trade chip. If Russell doesn’t want to be dealt yet again, he has to prove that he can thrive next to Curry.
Atlanta Hawks: The Young Core
Atlanta is building around five complementary players under the age of 23—Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish. But injuries and suspensions have limited their nucleus to playing only 43 minutes together this season. The Hawks need to see how good this lineup can be, and how well each player can fill their specific role within it. The biggest question is whether Collins can hold up defensively as the only big man, or whether the Hawks need to trade for someone like Andre Drummond to help carry the load.
New York Knicks: Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson’s Long-Term Viability
Putting up numbers has never been an issue for Randle, who is averaging 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game in his first season with the Knicks. The problem has always been building a team around him. His poor outside shooting makes it hard to pair him with a shot blocker who can protect him on defense. Randle and Robinson, a freakishly athletic second-year center, have played only 400 minutes together this season. But now that Randle is shooting more 3s (5.0 per game) under new coach Mike Miller, those lineups need a second look.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Dante Exum Experiment
The Cavs acquired Exum from the Jazz before Christmas, buying low on a former top-five pick in need of a fresh start. The 24-year-old could never stay healthy in his five seasons in Utah, where his development took a back seat to competing for the playoffs. That won’t be an issue in Cleveland. Exum has been good with his new team, averaging 8.1 points on 54.8 percent shooting in only 17.5 minutes per game, and he had a career-high 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting earlier this month. They should be giving him a closer look.
Washington Wizards: More Floor Time for Davis Bertans
There’s no one in the NBA quite like Bertans, a 6-foot-10 sniper who has turned himself into a supersize version of JJ Redick since leaving the Spurs. He commands so much defensive attention that he opens the floor for everyone else. The Wizards go from an offensive rating of 115.0 with him to 105.1 without him. And he’s doing all that while coming off the bench. Bertans (15.4 points per game and 3.7 3-pointers on 43.6 percent shooting) has reached the point where his defensive limitations no longer matter. He should be playing as much as possible.
Detroit Pistons: Testing Sekou Doumbouya and Christian Wood
The Pistons are the most likely candidate in the NBA to Process themselves before the trade deadline. The good news is they may already have two young building blocks in place before the teardown begins. Doumbouya is a 19-year-old rookie combo forward who has held his own since going directly from the G League to the starting lineup. Wood is a do-everything big man who may have finally figured out how to harness his immense talent after bouncing around the NBA.
Chicago Bulls: A Longer Look for Kris Dunn?
One of the few bright spots in a disappointing season for the Bulls has been the emergence of Dunn, who moved back into the starting lineup to replace the injured Otto Porter. Dunn will probably never be a full-time point guard. But his new role as a defensive spark plug and utility offensive player could give his career a second life. The 25-year-old will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. Can he show enough in the second half to get a long-term contract?
Charlotte Hornets: Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier’s Split
Graham has been a huge surprise in his second season, taking over for Kemba Walker and averaging 18.8 points and 7.8 assists per game. The problem is that the Hornets were already supposed to have their Kemba replacement in Terry Rozier, whom they signed to a three-year, $58 million contract in the offseason. Rozier has moved over to shooting guard to make room for Graham, a former second-round pick, but starting two smaller guards together may not be sustainable. Graham has a defensive rating of 112.6 with Rozier and 107.0 without him.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson’s Fit
The no. 1 pick in this year’s draft is close to making his NBA debut. But inserting Zion back into the rotation will be more complicated now that the Pelicans are winning. A frontcourt of Zion and Derrick Favors, whose return has sparked the Pelicans’ resurgence, could have spacing problems. One solution is to play Zion in place of Favors as a small-ball 5 next to Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, and JJ Redick. That lineup could be a serious problem for the rest of the league.
Sacramento Kings: Where Does Marvin Bagley III Play?
This has been a season from hell for the second-year big man, who has played in only 10 games due to a series of injuries. The Kings still have no idea what they have in the former no. 2 pick, or what his ideal role is. Their net rating jumps from minus-1.4 without him to minus-11.5 with him. It’s hard to build around a 6-foot-11 player who can’t protect the rim like a 5 or stretch the floor like a 4. Sacramento needs to settle on a position for Bagley, and what kinds of players to put around him.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Robert Covington Dilemma
The Wolves face a tough decision with Covington, an elite defender on an affordable contract. Trading him is their best chance to upgrade their offense around Karl-Anthony Towns. But he might be their best chance to help Towns improve on defense. Covington has a good relationship with the young big man, and he has been playing lockdown defense recently while Towns has been out with a knee injury. He has a defensive rating of 100.0 with Gorgui Dieng at the 5 and 116.2 with Towns. If he can bridge that gap, Minnesota might not be able to afford to move him.
Phoenix Suns: What’s Deandre Ayton’s Role?
The Suns, like the Kings, are trying to solve one of the hardest riddles in the NBA. How can a team compete for a playoff spot while simultaneously developing a young big man? Ayton hasn’t made it easier on them by missing 25 games this season serving a PED suspension. His role has changed multiple times when he has been able to suit up, and he’s currently coming off the bench behind a veteran frontcourt of Aron Baynes and Dario Saric. But that’s not a long-term arrangement. Phoenix has to decide whether Ayton is better in bigger lineups or smaller ones with more wings around him.
Portland Trail Blazers: Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore—Rotation Guys or Trade Chips?
Whiteside and Bazemore have been two of the Blazers’ only healthy players this season, helping them stay alive in the race for the no. 8 seed despite a mess of injuries. But their biggest value this season could be their expiring contracts, which are worth a combined $46 million. Portland is one of the few teams in the NBA with the financial flexibility to make any trade. The question is whether they are better off pushing all their chips into the middle or waiting for Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood to get healthy.
San Antonio Spurs: The Dejounte Murray–and–Derrick White Pairing
The Spurs’ two young point guards have played only 23 minutes together this season. Splitting up two inconsistent outside shooters makes sense for a team that struggles to space the floor. But LaMarcus Aldridge’s suddenly becoming a stretch 5 could make a two-PG backcourt more viable. There would be two key benefits: San Antonio needs to know whether White can play with Murray before he’s eligible to sign an extension in the offseason, and playing them together might fix the team’s leaky defense.
Brooklyn Nets: Can Kyrie Irving Play Nice?
The Nets have gone from not having enough playmakers to possibly having one too many. Spencer Dinwiddie has emerged as an All-Star-caliber guard this season after injuries to Kyrie and Caris LeVert allowed him to dominate the ball. Now that all three are back healthy, Brooklyn has to figure out the best way to use them. They have played only 38 minutes together all season. All eyes, as always, will be on Kyrie. Can he get his numbers and keep two other ball handlers involved in the offense?
Memphis Grizzlies: More Minutes for De’Anthony Melton?
The Grizzlies have done a lot of things right to get into the playoff race. The most important was inserting Melton, a second-year combo guard whom they acquired from the Suns in the offseason, into the rotation. Melton is an unorthodox player who always seems to be in the right place at the right time on either end of the floor. He’s had a LeBron-like impact on their net rating this season, which plummets from plus-12.0 with him to minus-6.9 without him. He’s averaging only 17.3 minutes per game this season. How much better would Memphis be if Melton played even more?
Orlando Magic: Finding Space
The Magic almost go out of their way to not spread the floor. They could have downsized and played more shooters when Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu went down, but they resisted the temptation and started two centers (Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch) instead. Orlando has more dangerous lineups in reserve if they ever want to deploy them. Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, and Terrence Ross have a net rating of plus-10.0, but have played only 144 minutes together this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Which Way Do They Go?
The Thunder, currently the no. 7 seed in the West, have been the biggest surprise in the NBA. Billy Donovan has pressed all the right buttons, putting each of his players in their perfect role. The question is where the organization wants to go from here. Oklahoma City could use its bounty of future picks to upgrade its roster, or try to flip veterans like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari for younger players who can help them down the road.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons Without Joel Embiid
The 76ers, one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA this season, may have hit the ceiling on the Simmons-Embiid partnership. Now, with Embiid sidelined with a torn ligament in his finger for the next few weeks, Simmons is getting the opportunity to run the show by himself. There might come a point in the next few seasons when Philadelphia has to choose between its two young cornerstones. Can Simmons raise his game enough in a bigger role to make the case for keeping him over Embiid?
Dallas Mavericks: Finding a Second Playmaker
The Mavs began rolling this season when they started three shooters (Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and Kristaps Porzingis) and a roll man (Dwight Powell) around Luka Doncic. The problem is that lineup doesn’t have a secondary playmaker who can take pressure off the second-year guard. Doncic won’t be able to do everything in the playoffs. Will he trust any of the ball handlers on their bench (Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, and Seth Curry) enough to give up the rock?
Indiana Pacers: The Victor Oladipo–Malcolm Brogdon Arrangement
Oladipo’s return from a year-long absence is one of the biggest second-half story lines in the league. The Pacers have been surprisingly good without their franchise player, but they can be great with him. Indiana could stagger his minutes with Brogdon, who has thrived as a point guard this season. That would allow them to keep one of the two on the floor for the whole game, putting an All-Star-caliber guard in charge of the second-unit offense instead of T.J. McConnell.
Toronto Raptors: How to Handle a Healthy Rotation
Nick Nurse has spent the entire season patching together lineups while dealing with a massive wave of injuries. He has been able to get good minutes out of a pair of undrafted free agents (Terence Davis and Chris Boucher) and two reclamation projects (Patrick McCaw and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson). All four have looked like quality NBA players. But there won’t be enough minutes to go around once everyone is healthy. How will Nurse deal with a sudden abundance of riches on his bench?
Houston Rockets: Clint Capela or P.J. Tucker at the 5?
The Rockets were at their best in last season’s playoffs when they benched Capela and went super small with Tucker (6-foot-5 and 230 pounds) at the 5. They don’t necessarily need to play like that this season while the Warriors are taking an injury-fueled sabbatical. But it still might be their best chance to create a matchup advantage against the two Los Angeles teams, especially since playing Capela with another nonshooter like Russell Westbrook shrinks the floor for James Harden.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Center Rotation
The Clippers have been showing cracks on defense in the past few weeks, particularly at center. Montrezl Harrell is a dominant roll man but he’s undersized for the position and can struggle as a help-side defender. There will be times in the playoffs when Los Angeles needs more size in the middle, if for no other reason than to keep Harrell fresh. Do they trust Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green enough to not make a trade?
Miami Heat: Justise Winslow’s Future
Winslow has been the forgotten man in Miami this season. It would have been hard enough to incorporate him into the offense with Jimmy Butler taking his role as a point forward. But a series of back injuries has limited him to 11 games and made it impossible. The Heat have plugged in shooters in his place (Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson) who fit better next to Butler. They need to either find a way to use Winslow or trade him for a player who can help them.
Denver Nuggets: Jerami Grant Needs More Run
Grant is starting to get comfortable in Denver after coming over from Oklahoma City in an offseason trade. He adds an important element to the team. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Grant is a hyperathletic combo forward who can match up with bigger wings like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James in the playoffs. The Nuggets need to find more playing time for the six-year veteran, who is averaging 23.7 minutes per game, even if it means breaking up one of the best starting lineups in the NBA.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley Off the Ball?
The Jazz have been dominating since Conley first injured his hamstring, going 16-3 with a net rating of plus-7.6. Donovan Mitchell is playing the best basketball of his career as a full-time point guard, which will put Conley in an awkward position when he returns. He will have to learn how to play off the ball after spending more than a decade orchestrating the offense for the Grizzlies. Utah could stagger Conley’s and Mitchell’s minutes to give both opportunities to play without the other, but Conley is the one who will have to sacrifice in crunch time.
Boston Celtics: Will They Play Their Version of the Lineup of Death?
The Celtics’ five best players—Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown—have played a grand total of 13 minutes together this season. It’s a tantalizing lineup on paper, with the ability to spread the floor, lock down the perimeter, and attack from all five positions. There is an obvious hole at center, but Boston is already at a disadvantage inside against the best teams in the East. They could turn that weakness on its head by leaning into their advantage in wing depth.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma’s Minutes With LeBron and AD
Kuzma, who has spent most of the season caught in trade rumors, has become a lightning rod for people who believe the Lakers get too much publicity. But he has game, too. He will be the biggest beneficiary of Anthony Davis playing more at the 5 in the playoffs. The Lakers have a net rating of plus-21.6 in 147 minutes this season when Kuzma plays with LeBron and AD. If he’s still in Los Angeles after the deadline, he could have a big postseason because of his ability to score in bunches without holding the ball.
Milwaukee Bucks: Optimizing Lineups
The Bucks could make a run at 70 wins in the next few months, but it might not be in their best interest. Maximizing efficiency in the regular season should be less of a concern than getting ready for playoff series against elite teams. Veterans like Kyle Korver and Ersan Ilyasova are consistent contributors during a long season, but their defensive issues could make them a bigger liability in the postseason than younger players like Sterling Brown and D.J. Wilson. The question is what Mike Budenholzer will prioritize down the stretch.