The NBA playoffs are less than two months away, but there won’t be much drama in the standings during the stretch run. The top seven seeds in each conference are all safely in, barring catastrophe.
The question for those teams isn’t whether they will make the postseason, but what they will look like once they get there. A seven-game series against an elite opponent is a different challenge than surviving an 82-game season. Consistency becomes less important than matching up and making adjustments. Depth goes out the window. Coaches have to ride their stars as much as possible and find the right mix of role players around them.
The key is constructing lineups that can attack the weak spots on opposing teams without creating any of their own. Each playoff team has a couple of players who will close games no matter what, but not every decision is set in stone. Here’s a look at what coaches of the top-seven seeds will have to figure out as they fill out the rest of their lineups.
Los Angeles Lakers
Locks: Anthony Davis and LeBron James
Other options: Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Alex Caruso
The first order of business for the Lakers is creating more space for their stars. Neither of their centers (JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard) can stretch the floor, which makes it hard to run pick-and-rolls between LeBron and Davis. There’s little downside to going small since the two stars are big enough to handle the interior defense on their own.
How the move impacts the rest of the team remains to be seen. No lineup with Davis and LeBron and without Howard or McGee has played more than 43 minutes this season.
The Lakers will be able to space the floor no matter whom coach Frank Vogel chooses to fill out his small-ball lineups. Kuzma is the worst shooter of the five (33.2 percent on 4.4 attempts per game) and he can still make open shots and threaten the defense by moving without the ball.
The problem will be on defense. There’s not much size among their perimeter players. Kuzma (6-foot-8) is the only one taller than 6-foot-5 and he’s the least consistent defender.
The Lakers need LeBron on that end of the floor. Prime LeBron could guard any player in the NBA. But the 35-year-old version has to pick and choose his spots, especially given how much he does on offense. Can he still guard players like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo? And if so, for how long? Even if Davis guards them, the Lakers would need someone else on Paul George and Khris Middleton. That leaves either LeBron, Kuzma, or someone like Green or KCP defending a much bigger player.
Los Angeles may have to make up the difference on offense. The interesting thing when you run the numbers is that the players with more offensive punch (Kuzma and Caruso) have been more effective playing alongside LeBron and Davis despite receiving fewer opportunities:
Lakers’ Supporting Cast
|Minutes with LeBron + Davis
|Minutes with LeBron + Davis
Caruso is the only one of the five who can run point, and Kuzma is the most explosive scorer. Green is a 3-and-D wing who doesn’t offer much off the dribble while neither Bradley nor KCP can have the offense run through them.
Don’t be surprised if you see Caruso closing out playoff games. He’s more than a meme. He’s the most well-rounded player in their supporting cast.
He won’t be able to solve the Lakers’ defensive issues against bigger wings, but then again, the team may not have anyone who can.
Los Angeles Clippers
Locks: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, and Montrezl Harrell
Other options: Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, and Reggie Jackson
The Clippers fit together perfectly on paper, but they still need to translate that success to the court. Leonard and George have only played in 24 games together. Their most commonly used lineup has shared the floor for all of 215 minutes and the team just traded one player from that group (Maurice Harkless) at the deadline.
Swapping Harkless for Morris was a huge win. There isn’t a huge drop-off between the two on defense, and Morris is a better shooter and shot-creator. Los Angeles can now close games with three big wings who can create their own shot, defend multiple positions, and space the floor for each other.
Much like the Lakers, the Clippers start a traditional big man (Ivica Zubac) but are at their best with a smaller and more versatile offensive player at the 5. Harrell is essentially a fourth wing. He’s an elite roll man who can beat slower centers off the dribble while also being able to switch screens and stay in front of smaller players on defense.
The team’s identity has completely flipped from last season. The weakest part of the Clippers’ rotation this time around might be the pick-and-roll combination of Harrell and Lou Williams. The Clippers no longer need them as much on offense, and opposing teams will attack the two on defense. Harrell could struggle in matchups against elite centers, and Williams is the worst perimeter defender in their rotation
Williams could win his third straight Sixth Man of the Year Award and still be the odd man out at the end of games. He’s more replaceable than Harrell because the Clippers can plug in two more well-rounded players—Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet—in his place. The addition of Reggie Jackson, whom they added after the veteran reached a buyout with the Pistons, also adds an interesting wrinkle to the mix. It’s hard to see Jackson, a ball-dominant guard and spotty outside shooter who likes to run pick-and-rolls, making much sense next to Williams in the second unit.
Beverley, an elite perimeter defender who can make open 3s, is the safest pick to fill out their closing lineup. But Shamet might be the most interesting. He’s a great shooter who is significantly bigger (6-foot-4) than either Beverley or Williams. He has been up and down this season while struggling with injuries, but his progression will be an important story line to track over the next two months.
The Clippers may have every piece they need. They just need to figure out the right combinations.
Locks: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
Other options: Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, and Michael Porter Jr.
The Nuggets have a lot to figure out before the postseason. Their success so far has come from three different factors: a superstar in Jokic, continuity, and depth. The latter two don’t mean as much in the playoffs.
Denver returned all five of its starters (Jokic, Millsap, Barton, Harris, and Murray) from last season. The group has a net rating of plus-12.1 this season and has logged the second-most minutes (577) of any lineup in the league.
But as dominant as it has been, that group could still face two key problems in a playoff series. They don’t have much size on the perimeter, as Murray, Harris, and Barton are all 6-foot-5 or shorter. Among their starters, Millsap, a 35-year-old big man, might be their best option against bigger wings.
But swapping Millsap out for a better perimeter defender, like Jerami Grant or Torrey Craig, may not work either because of their other major issue: lack of floor spacing. Their other four starters have a net rating of minus-5.3 in 163 minutes with Grant.
Jokic is a decent 3-point shooter, but he’s better posting up, getting into the lane, and kicking the ball out to shooters. The Nuggets just don’t have a lot of consistent marksmen. Murray and Barton are streaky and Harris (29.9 percent on 4.0 attempts per game) has been in a slump all season.
The one way for them to square the circle and add both size and shooting to their perimeter rotation is to lean more on Porter. He’s a 6-foot-10 wing that has consistently knocked down 3s (43.2 percent) after missing the last season. But he’s also a 21-year-old who has a long way to go on defense. The Nuggets are counting on him to be a key part of their future, but is he ready now?
Locks: Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, and Rudy Gobert
Other options: Mike Conley and Joe Ingles
The Jazz needed time to find their identity after reinventing themselves in the offseason. They now have the right roles for most of their important pieces—Mitchell running pick-and-rolls with Gobert and Bogdanovic and O’Neale spacing the floor on offense, with O’Neale guarding the most important perimeter player and Gobert anchoring the defense at the rim.
But that leaves Conley and Ingles, two of the team’s five highest-paid players, fighting for one spot. They both fit well next to Mitchell. They just don’t fit well together. Look at the difference in Utah’s lineups when all three are in as opposed to just two:
Jazz Ball Handlers
|Mitchell + Conley + no Ingles
|Mitchell + Ingles + no Conley
|Mitchell + Ingles + Conley
The initial plan was that all three would start. But that left O’Neale on the bench and no one to fill his role as a perimeter stopper. And playing all three with O’Neale takes Bogdanovic, the team’s best outside shooter, out of the lineup. Playing all five together would to take Gobert out, and then they wouldn’t have a roll man and wouldn’t be very effective on defense.
There’s a numbers crunch in Utah that will leave someone out in the cold. The decision for coach Quin Snyder could come down to whether he wants Conley’s ability to create off the dribble at the end of games or Ingles’s size on defense.
There are downsides either way. Conley and Mitchell, both of whom are 6-foot-1, would be the smallest backcourt in the West’s playoff field by a significant margin. But Ingles may not be enough as a secondary option. The Rockets held him to just 6.4 points per game on 32.4 percent shooting in last year’s playoffs.
Houston, who has knocked the Jazz out of the playoffs the last two years, is currently waiting for them in the four-five matchup. Has Utah changed enough to prevent it from happening three times in a row?
Locks: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and P.J. Tucker
Other options: Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, Danuel House, and Robert Covington
Unlike the rest of the teams on this list, the Rockets won’t have to make any adjustments in the playoffs. They already know who they are. They start and close games with Tucker at the 5 to spread the floor for Harden and Westbrook to play 1-on-1.
There isn’t a lot for Houston coach Mike D’Antoni to decide. It’s just a matter of cycling through 3-and-D players in the last two spots until he finds a combination that clicks. Each option has a different set of strengths and weaknesses.
Gordon is the best scorer and an underrated defender who locked up Mitchell in last year’s playoffs. But he lacks size (6-foot-3) on the wing and has not meshed with Westbrook and Harden this season. The three have a net rating of minus-1.3 in 239 minutes together, although a lot of those minutes came when Gordon was struggling with a knee injury in the first two months.
McLemore is the best shooter. The former lottery bust has turned his career around in Houston and is shooting 38.1 percent from 3 on 6.6 attempts per game. The question is whether he can hold up against tougher perimeter assignments on defense. The Rockets won’t want Westbrook or Harden defending elite scorers if they can help it.
House is the most well-rounded. He’s a 6-foot-6 wing who can defend multiple positions and has flashed the ability to attack off the dribble and create shots for his teammates. But he’s a streaky shooter who completely disappeared in last year’s playoffs.
Covington is the best 3-and-D wing. He gives them more size (6-foot-7 and 209 pounds) to help Tucker down low as well as another consistent 3-point shooter. The cost to playing him is his inability to create his own shot and that he has less quickness on the perimeter.
Houston also added two free agents in the buyout market—Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll—but they could have trouble cracking D’Antoni’s notoriously short rotation. Green is an inconsistent 3-point shooter whose best chance at seeing the floor is backing up Tucker as a small-ball 5, while Carroll is a declining 33-year-old who struggled to find playing time on the Spurs.
But none of the players whom D’Antoni is choosing from will change the team’s trajectory. Houston has gone all in on two unconventional stars and an even more unconventional style of play. All the other guys can do is get out of the way and hope for the best.
Locks: Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis
Other options: Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Delon Wright, Seth Curry, Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber, and Willie Cauley-Stein
The Mavericks have gone 6-6 since Dwight Powell tore his Achilles in late January. Powell played a bigger role than his modest reputation would suggest. He was an elite roll man and versatile defender who could play with anyone.
He made life easier on the team’s other big men, too. Powell had a net rating of plus-11.9 in 498 minutes with Porzingis and plus-12.1 in 320 minutes with Kleber. That number drops to plus-3.8 in 436 minutes with Porzingis and Kleber together. The Mavs offense is built around Doncic running pick-and-rolls, and neither big is as effective in the two-man game as Powell.
Dallas traded for Cauley-Stein to replace Powell but he has yet to earn coach Rick Carlisle’s trust, averaging just 12.3 minutes in nine games. Once the playoffs arrive, Carlisle will have to either play Cauley-Stein more or downsize to smaller lineups.
The Mavs have a net rating of plus-5.4 in 182 minutes with Porzingis as the only big on the floor. That role creates more room for him to roll to the basket, while also giving Doncic more space to attack if he pops out to the 3-point line.
But that still leaves the issue of how they fill out the rest of their lineup. They don’t have a lot of two-way wings on their roster. Wright and Finney-Smith are their best defenders, but Wright rarely shoots 3s and Finney-Smith isn’t a threat with the ball in his hands.
The Mavericks’ one wing who can excel on both ends of the floor is Hardaway, who has the best net rating (plus-9.0 in 1,424 minutes) of any player in their rotation. The player right behind him? Powell.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Locks: Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari
Other options: Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel
The Thunder are as dependent on one lineup as any team in the playoffs. Their three-point-guard looks with Paul, Schröder, and SGA have been dominant. Take even one out and the team suddenly becomes pretty average:
Thunder Point Guards
|Paul + Schroder + SGA
|Paul + Schroder + no SGA
|Schroder + SGA + no Paul
|Paul + SGA + no Schroder
None of the team’s young wings have shown the ability to step in and hold their own in those lineups. And the Thunder don’t have anyone besides Gallinari who they can use as stretch 4, either.
The only flexibility that Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan has is whether to play Adams or Noel at center. Adams is a more stout interior presence while Noel is a more versatile defender with the ability to extend out on the perimeter. Both have worked well this year. The Thunder’s other four key players have a net rating of plus-29.3 in 154 minutes with Adams and plus-23.2 in 74 minutes with Noel.
As you would expect from a team quarterbacked by a 34-year-old Chris Paul, the Thunder play at one of the slowest paces (23rd) in the league. They may need to slow things down even further in the playoffs and limit the number of possessions so as not to expose their lack of depth.