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 if 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. After looking at the top seven teams in the West on Wednesday, here’s a look at the biggest decisions for their counterparts in the East:
Locks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and George Hill
Other options: Eric Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Marvin Williams, and Brook Lopez
The Bucks are a lot more than just Giannis. They have a net rating of plus-7.5 in 1,115 minutes without the reigning MVP and this year’s front-runner, which would still rank higher than any other team in the NBA.
Middleton is the perfect second option. He can play off Giannis and then run the offense without missing a beat. His dominance is hard to appreciate because he’s averaging only 29.6 minutes per game. Extend his numbers per 36 minutes of playing time and the stats jump off the page: 24.9 points on 50.1 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.2 steals.
The combination of Giannis and Middleton is just as valuable on defense. They are the biggest pair of wings in the league, allowing them to play at the 3 and 4 or the 4 and 5. Those lineups give the Bucks a dangerous new wrinkle this season. They have a net rating of plus-23.9 in 198 minutes with Giannis as the sole big man on the floor.
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer now has a counter if opposing teams target Lopez in the pick-and-roll, like Toronto did in last season’s playoffs. Go through their lineups and you can find one five-man unit for almost any situation.
Every player on the roster has a role. The Bucks have three complementary players who can juice their offense—Bledsoe, Lopez, and DiVincenzo—and three reliable 3-and-D options—Hill, Matthews, and Williams, the latter of which they just added on the buyout market.
Hill, despite coming off the bench, is the only one outside of Giannis and Middleton who should be closing games regardless of matchup. He’s a steady ball handler who can defend all three perimeter positions and seemingly has been lights out (he’s shooting 51.1 percent on 3 attempts per game) all season.
The question is whether Budenholzer will proactively look for his best possible lineups against different matchups or just go with what has worked all season. He was too slow to the draw against the Raptors last year. He has all the answers on his roster. He just has to find them.
Locks: Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam
Other options: Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol
Siakam’s emergence has allowed the Raptors to essentially replace Kawhi Leonard without making a move. They now have another 6-foot-9 forward who can create his own shot, space the floor, facilitate for his teammates, and defend multiple positions.
The next step is filling Siakam’s old spot in the lineup. Third-year forward OG Anunoby has been a reliable 3-and-D wing after missing all of last season’s playoffs, but he’s a more limited offensive player who hasn’t earned the trust of coach Nick Nurse. Despite being one of only two players on the roster to appear in more than 50 games this season, he’s ninth in fourth-quarter minutes (238).
The result is a team without much perimeter size. Toronto starts two 6-foot-1 point guards (Lowry and VanVleet) who haven’t been particularly successful together this season, with a net rating of plus-2.3 in 856 minutes.
The Raptors often close games with the two and a 6-foot-4 wing (Powell or rookie Terence Davis II) at the 3. Toronto has overcome its lack of size with an aggressive defense that swarms opposing ball handlers and leaves the least threatening option open. But that strategy might have a diminishing return in the playoffs against an elite team that takes care of the ball and doesn’t play any non-shooters.
One option would be to shift Siakam to the 3 and go big with both Gasol and Ibaka on the floor. Those lineups have been surprisingly effective in limited minutes (plus-20.3 in 85 minutes), but might not be effective in a bigger sample size. They leave the Raptors dangerously short on ball handlers, which was the problem they have been trying to solve by benching Anunoby in the fourth quarter.
The Raptors have survived a seemingly never-ending wave of injuries this season by turning Siakam into the next Kawhi. The key to making a run in the playoffs is turning Anunoby into the next Siakam.
Locks: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward
Other options: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, and Enes Kanter
The Celtics still have another level to reach. The strength of their team is a trio of interchangeable wings—Tatum, Brown, and Hayward—who have played in only 25 games together this season and are still realizing their potential.
They have been dominant when playing together, with a net rating of plus-11.6 in 418 minutes. It’s hard for other teams to match up with three 6-foot-7 wings who can all create their own shot, space the floor, and slide between multiple positions on defense.
The big key to watch for the Celtics is the passing ability of Tatum and Brown. The two have already taken massive leaps this season. The next step is making their teammates better. The duo is currently averaging 5.1 assists on 4.6 turnovers per game. Boston will be almost impossible to stop if those two can consistently make the right reads under pressure.
That leaves Celtics coach Brad Stevens with critical decisions to make at point guard and center. Walker and Smart present an interesting contrast in styles. The former is an elite offensive player whose lack of size is an issue on defense, while the latter is an elite defender who is shooting just 38.3 percent from the field this season. The two have been such an important part of the Celtics’ success that Stevens might be tempted to downsize and play both next to his three star wings. He hasn’t tried it yet: Smart, Walker, Tatum, Brown, and Hayward have played only 15 minutes together this season.
Stevens has pieced together great production from a center platoon of Theis, Kanter, and rookie Grant Williams. Each provides something different. Kanter has size and scoring ability in the post, Williams gives them a small-ball option, while Theis is somewhere in the middle as a do-everything big man who has been a revelation in his first season as a starter. But none have been so effective that they have cemented their place in the lineup at the end of games.
Boston can play the matchup game with its big men. The question is whether Stevens can play his five best players together and be the one to dictate the matchups.
Locks: Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo
Other options: Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, Andre Iguodala, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder, and Kelly Olynyk
Building a team around Butler and Adebayo isn’t as easy as the Heat have made it look. The two have combined to shoot 23.3 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game, which is considerably less than Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are averaging.
The reason Miami has been able to get away with it the past few months is because the team surrounded its two All-Stars with knockdown shooters at every position. Robinson, Nunn, Herro, Dragic, and Olynyk all attempt at least 6.0 3s per 36 minutes. Even Meyers Leonard, the Heat’s starting center, is shooting 43 percent from 3. Dunk contest champion Derrick Jones Jr. is the only other non-shooter in their rotation.
The challenge for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is finding the right mix of defense and shooting around his two stars. He mostly goes away from his two big men (Leonard and Olynyk) in the fourth quarter, preferring to move Butler and Adebayo to the 4 and 5 and play smaller, faster groups around them. Miami also plays a lot of zone to make up for its lack of size.
It’s easy to see the trend line when you look at the lineup numbers. Robinson, an elite shooter with great size (6-foot-8) for his position, is the player who has had the most success with Butler and Adebayo. Those three have a net rating of plus-11.4 in 861 minutes together this season.
That is what made the Heat’s trade at the deadline for Crowder and Iguodala so fascinating. While Crowder has been mired in a shooting slump all season in Memphis, he at least has a long history of knocking down shots. Iguodala was always the player who opposing teams left open at the 3-point line in Golden State. Will he be enough of a spacing threat now that he’s no longer playing next to the Splash Brothers?
The solution might be for Butler to open up his game. He doesn’t have to be a South Beach version of DeMar DeRozan. He shot 35.1 percent from 3 on 3.1 attempts per game in the past five seasons before he stopped taking them (24.8 percent on 2.5 attempts per game) this season. That number should have gone up instead of down. Butler finally has the chance to run his own team, but there’s a ceiling on how far he can carry it if he doesn’t shoot.
Locks: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid
Other options: Furkan Korkmaz, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Matisse Thybulle, and Al Horford
76ers coach Brett Brown made his first big lineup change before the All-Star break by benching Horford. It was a long time coming. The lack of spacing was suffocating Philly’s offense and sending the season spiraling in the wrong direction.
Moving Horford to the bench was the easiest move to make. The whole point of signing him was to pair the big man with Simmons when Embiid was out of the game. Playing the two centers together never made much sense. The numbers have reflected that. Philadelphia jumps from a net rating of minus-1.1 in 480 minutes when both play to plus-7.6 in 707 minutes with just Embiid.
The Sixers’ biggest reason for optimism is that four-man units with Embiid, Simmons, Harris, and Richardson are successful, with a net rating of plus-7.2 in 341 minutes. Neither Harris (36.3 percent on 4.9 attempts) nor Richardson (33.9 percent from 3 on 4.6 attempts) is a great 3-point shooter but both are respectable enough to at least keep defenses honest.
There’s not much data on who should fill out those lineups. Horford has played 244 minutes with those four and no one else has played more than 33. Korkmaz is the best shooter in their supporting cast, and took Horford’s place in the starting lineup, but he has clear defensive issues. Thybulle is the opposite. The rookie has been a revelation on defense but is usually left open on the perimeter. Robinson and Burks, whom the team acquired at the deadline, are somewhere in the middle.
Brown will cycle through all four until he finds something that clicks. But how aggressive will he be? Horford isn’t the only highly paid player whom he could bench. Harris is neither a great shooter nor defensive stopper, so it might make sense to try a more limited 3-and-D player in his spot and see if it unlocks something in Embiid and Simmons.
Then there’s the question that has been circling the franchise for years. Speculation about the long-term future of Embiid and Simmons has reached a fever pitch around the NBA. GM Elton Brand may fire Brown and then trade one of his stars if the 76ers get knocked out early. If Brown is going to be fired anyway, he might as well choose for himself.
Locks: Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo, T.J. Warren, and Domantas Sabonis
Other options: Myles Turner, Justin Holiday, and Jeremy Lamb
It’s hard for the Pacers to make any long-term plans at the moment. They turned over nearly their entire roster this offseason and did a great job of staying afloat while waiting for Oladpo to return from a yearlong absence.
Reintegrating a franchise player is always going to be a challenge. But it has been even more difficult than the Pacers likely imagined. Oladipo is averaging 11.1 points on 32.8 percent shooting in his first seven games back, and the Pacers are minus-10.2 in 175 minutes with him on the floor.
They have the pieces to be dangerous with the best version of Oladipo. The team’s other four starters can all defend and space the floor, except for Sabonis, who is one of the best roll men in the league. But the Pacers still need someone like Oladipo who can pressure the defense and either create a shot for himself or his teammates at the end of the shot clock.
That responsibility may also fall on Brogdon. He has cooled off after his hot start and is now averaging 16.6 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting. But he should be more effective if he can return to the secondary role he had in Milwaukee.
There are other issues to figure out, most notably the fit between Sabonis and Turner at the end of games. The two big men are more successful now that Turner has embraced a role as a 3-point shooter who opens up the floor for Sabonis, but there are matchups when it makes sense to put a smaller and more versatile defender like Holiday or Lamb in his place.
But everything else in Indiana pales in comparison to the Oladipo question. Turner and Sabonis have a solid but unspectacular net rating of plus-4.4 in 744 minutes without Oladipo this season and a ghastly minus-24.8 in 83 minutes with him. The Pacers simply need Oladipo to return to his All-Star form. Until then, they have to limit the damage.
Locks: Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Garrett Temple
Other options: Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen, and DeAndre Jordan
The Nets are another team in limbo until they know more about the status of their All-Star guard. Irving has played in only 20 games this season and is out indefinitely again after reaggravating his shoulder injury.
Brooklyn is slightly more successful without Irving (17-16) than with him (8-12), but they aren’t likely to make much noise in the playoffs either way. The bigger issue is that the team is still no closer to figuring out how all of its players fit together. It would be much easier to bring Kevin Durant back next season with an established identity already in place rather than a team completely in flux.
The Nets must figure out if the fit between their three primary ball handlers—Irving, Dinwiddie, and LeVert—is going to work. There isn’t much data to go off so far and the lineup numbers are all over the place:
Nets Ball Handlers
|Dinwiddie + LeVert + no Kyrie||322||plus-11.4|
|Kyrie + Dinwiddie + no LeVert||238||plus-8.7|
|Kyrie + Dinwiddie + LeVert||67||minus-1.6|
|Kyrie + LeVert + no Dinwiddie||216||minus-14.6|
Durant will get one spot in the lineup when he comes back. And the center platoon of Allen and Jordan will take another.
The question is whether it makes more sense to have a shooting specialist (Harris), a 3-and-D player (Prince), or a third ball handler in the final spot. And if there is room for only two ball handlers, does Brooklyn need to think about moving Dinwiddie or LeVert in the offseason? Unfortunately for the Nets, they can’t get any answers until Irving comes back.