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The Biggest Lineup Question for Every NBA Playoff Team

There’s no such thing as a minor move in the postseason. With pressure increasing and rotations tightening, every decision becomes critical. Here are 16 that could shape the first round.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The seeding games were fun. The playoffs in the bubble should be even better. With no home-court advantage in Orlando (although “home” teams performed surprisingly well over the past two weeks), everyone is on an even playing field.

That makes proactively creating the best lineups and quickly identifying the ones that aren’t working even more important. Higher-seeded teams won’t be carried by their home crowd in Game 1, and lower-seeded teams won’t receive a boost in Game 3. They will have to look elsewhere to create an advantage. A weakness that might not have surfaced until late in a series, after both teams had felt each other out, could now get exploited immediately.

Here’s a look at the biggest lineup question for all 16 teams headed into their first-round series:

Lakers: Do they go small to guard the Damian Lillard pick-and-roll?

The Lakers have the third-best defense in the NBA, but it’s hard to watch what Lillard did over the last two weeks and believe that JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard has a prayer of containing him at the 3-point line. The good news for Los Angeles is it has a plan B. Anthony Davis is the rare 7-footer who can defend just as well on the perimeter as he does in the paint.

Davis showed the ability to slow down Lillard when New Orleans swept Portland in the first round in 2018. The Pelicans used his length and mobility to blitz and trap Lillard on every pick-and-roll, forcing him to give up the ball. The Blazers never found an adjustment.

Lillard has extended his shooting range out to 35-plus feet over the last two seasons, in part to combat how Davis guarded him in that series. But while AD may not be able to trap Lillard anymore, he can switch the screen and guard him one-on-one. He’s the ideal defensive counter to the high screen between Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic. The Lakers will just have to bench their centers to use him in that role.

Blazers: How do they change their rotation to guard LeBron James?

The Blazers have been starting Carmelo Anthony at small forward next to two traditional big men (Zach Collins and Nurkic) in the bubble. Those lineups would put either the 36-year-old Carmelo or Collins on LeBron. This is where the losses of Rodney Hood, who tore his Achilles in December, and Trevor Ariza, who is sitting out the restart, loom large for Portland.

The likely adjustment is downsizing with Carmelo at the 4 and second-year wing Gary Trent Jr., who has been a revelation in Orlando, at the 3. Trent still gives up a lot of size (6-foot-5 and 210 pounds) to LeBron, but he’s the only decent wing defender on the team. The Blazers are so thin they may need to keep him in at all times when LeBron is on the floor.

The other question: What will happen to Hassan Whiteside if Collins moves to the bench? Playing the two 7-footers together will be difficult against the Lakers’ second unit since LeBron typically runs their offense at the start of the second and fourth quarters. Allowing him to attack Whiteside off the dribble in space will only end one way. But starting Trent and taking Whiteside out of the rotation would mean a lot of playoff minutes for Mario Hezonja and rookie Wenyen Gabriel.

Clippers: Can Montrezl Harrell fix their bench as soon as he comes back?

The Clippers lost their depth on the way to the bubble. Before the shutdown, they played even when Kawhi was off the floor (net rating of plus-0.6 in 64 games). In Orlando, they got their doors blown off without him (net rating of minus-7.4). Not even Paul George could make a difference. The Clippers had a net rating of minus-11.5 in 67 minutes with George in and Kawhi out.

The team clearly missed Harrell, who was mourning the loss of his grandmother during the seeding games. Not only is he one of the best roll men in the NBA, he’s also an underrated defender who can guard multiple positions, protect the rim, and slide his feet on the perimeter. They weren’t getting that from their haphazard collection of other backup big men (JaMychal Green, Patrick Patterson, and the ghost of Joakim Noah) in his absence.

Harrell cleared quarantine and will be able to play in Game 1 against the Mavs on Monday. But he hasn’t been able to practice at all. Lou Williams needed a couple of games to get going after he was quarantined at the start of the bubble. Will Harrell need time to adjust to the speed of the game after such a long absence?

Mavs: Who does Luka Doncic guard?

No one is calling Doncic the future of the NBA because of his defense. He’s mostly been a conscientious objector on that side of the ball in his first two seasons. There’s nothing unusual about that for a young player who has to carry his team’s offense. But that won’t work against the Clippers. Doncic doesn’t have to be a stopper—but he has to hold his own.

His success will come down to matchups. The Mavs could hide Doncic on Patrick Beverley, the only Clippers starter who doesn’t require a good defender. But that leaves no one for Seth Curry, a crucial piece of the Mavs’ offense, to guard. At 6-foot-2, he’s far too small to match up with Kawhi, George, or Marcus Morris. Dallas either has to put Doncic on Morris or bench Curry.

Morris isn’t a great player. He sometimes plays with blinders on and shoots his teams out of games. But he can also light up a bad defender. He’s a 6-foot-8 combo forward who can stretch the floor, create his own shot off the dribble, and punish smaller defenders inside. Doncis is big enough to prevent Morris from bullying him, but he has to buckle down to keep him honest.

Nuggets: How do they protect Nikola Jokic on defense?

Even after his famed weight loss, Jokic is not particularly fast. And he’s the first line of defense against a pick-and-roll with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the foundation of the Jazz offense.

Denver has to give something up if Jokic is on Gobert. Switching him onto Mitchell is out of the question. Dropping Jokic back into the paint gives Mitchell the chance to shoot pull-up 3s. Extending him up the court on defense, whether it’s to trap or to hedge, gives Mitchell the chance to put him on skates, get into the lane, and kick the ball out to an open shooter.

One intriguing option for Nuggets coach Michael Malone is hiding Jokic on Royce O’Neale, a 3-and-D player who rarely creates his own offense. Denver has two excellent frontcourt defenders in Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant, who could switch on the Mitchell and Gobert pick-and-roll. They could play both without hurting the team’s floor spacing, too, since both are shooting above 38 percent from 3. The Nuggets’ injuries in the bubble have allowed them to experiment with a four-big-man lineup of Jokic, Grant, Millsap, and Michael Porter Jr. It might be their ace in the hole in this series.

Jazz: How do they replace Mike Conley Jr.?

The Jazz aren’t very deep even at full strength. Now they have to replace Bojan Bogdanovic, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and Mike Conley Jr., who will miss at least the first few games against the Nuggets after leaving the bubble for the birth of his son.

The first question is who will replace Conley in the starting lineup. Jordan Clarkson is the most likely answer, but he would have to change the way he plays. He’s a graduate of the Lou Williams School of Sixth Men who shoots every time he touches the ball and does as little on defense as possible. They could go with rookie Miye Oni, a second-round pick from Yale who has shown flashes this season, if they want a 3-and-D player in that spot.

The bigger issue is filling out the second unit. Utah’s starting lineup with Conley has been dominant in the bubble, with a net rating of plus-19.1. Things fall apart once it goes to the bench. The performance of backup center Tony Bradley best illustrates that. He’s a weathervane who reflects the quality of his teammates, a decent big man who fills a role on both ends of the floor but doesn’t make the players around him better. Utah’s net rating with him on the floor went from plus-3.3 before the shutdown to minus-13.9 after.

The Jazz’s best option might be to slow the tempo down to a crawl. As a defensive-minded team with almost no depth, Utah needs to limit the number of possessions. It can’t afford to turn this series into a shoot-out.

Rockets: What kind of lineups can James Harden carry?

The Rockets don’t have many options without Russell Westbrook, who is out indefinitely with a strained quad tendon. They run everything through Westbrook and James Harden. Both average more than 27 points and seven assists per game. No one else on their roster averages 15 points or two assists per game.

Houston now has to cobble together lineups when Harden sits. Their best option might be a group that has not played together this season—surrounding the best two scorers in their supporting cast (Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers) with their three best defenders (Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House Jr.).

But that would leave Harden with almost nothing around him for large stretches of the game. He has shown some chemistry with Jeff Green (net rating of plus-14.5 in 187 minutes) as a small-ball 5, but would that work with both Ben McLemore and Michael Frazier II on the wings? The other names on the bench—DeMarre Carroll, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Bruno Caboclo—don’t inspire much confidence, either. Harden will have to conjure up miracles without Westbrook to keep some of these lineups afloat.

Thunder: How small do they go?

Even without Westbrook, the Rockets still force their opponents to ask themselves a philosophical question. How much do they really believe in their big men?

The Thunder have not played much small ball this season. Steven Adams averages 26.7 minutes per game, and he’s backed up by Nerlens Noel (18.5 minutes) and Mike Muscala (12.2 minutes). The question is what any of them can do against the Rockets. There’s no one for them to guard against a team that plays five perimeter players for 48 minutes, and asking them to punish mismatches inside would be playing right into Houston’s hands.

Oklahoma City has options if it wants to play smaller. Danilo Gallinari was effective as a small-ball 5 in the Clippers’ first-round series against the Warriors last season. Another player to watch is rookie Darius Bazley, a 6-foot-9 combo forward who has shown flashes of the ability to stretch the floor, finish in the paint, and make plays off the dribble.

When these two teams met in the first round in 2017, Thunder coach Billy Donovan was caught on camera telling an assistant they “can’t play [Enes] Kanter.” Will history repeat itself with Donovan’s current big men?

Bucks: Who do they close games with?

Milwaukee hasn’t looked sharp in Orlando, with a 3-5 record and a net rating of minus-0.8. Of course, it also hasn’t had anything to play for. Not much should change against the Magic.

The most important story line for the Bucks in the first round is getting themselves ready for the second. One thing to watch is the lineups Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer uses to finish games. He has used nine different players in crunch time this season. But having so many options might not be a good thing for a coach who has struggled to make the right adjustments in the playoffs.

Does he stick with his starting frontcourt of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo? Or does he go smaller with Giannis at the 5 and Marvin Williams at the 4? Budenholzer has just as many questions in the backcourt. How much rope does he give Eric Bledsoe if he struggles? How much does he trust Donte DiVincenzo? It won’t matter against the Magic, but it will later.

Magic: Can Evan Fournier make himself some money?

Fournier will be one of the most interesting free agents in the NBA this offseason. He’s averaging 18.5 points on 46.7 percent shooting, 3.2 assists, and 1.1 steals per game this season. A multi-dimensional 6-foot-7 wing with an elite 3-point shot (39.9 percent on 6.6 attempts per game) would normally get paid in free agency. But there’s nothing normal about 2020.

This series is Fournier’s chance to put himself on the map while also putting the Magic in a tough spot. They paid Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross last summer. How much can they invest in a team that seems stuck in the middle of the East? They don’t want a repeat of what happened with Nic Batum in Charlotte.

Raptors: How will Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka fare in pick-and-roll coverage?

Toronto didn’t face a spread pick-and-roll team that could attack its more traditional bigs in last season’s playoffs. Philadelphia and Milwaukee were built around 7-foot interior scorers, while Golden State was too injured to be that kind of threat. Things will be different this season.

Brooklyn probably won’t shock the world. But the Nets could provide a blueprint for future Raptors opponents. Few teams are more committed to spread pick-and-roll principles than the Nets. Their ability to stick to their system under interim coach Jacque Vaughn is what has allowed them to be surprisingly competitive in the bubble despite so many injuries.

It also helps to have Caris LeVert, who is averaging 25.0 points on 48.0 percent shooting, 6.7 assists, and 5.0 rebounds over the past eight games. Will the Raptors be able to contain LeVert when he’s coming around screens without leaving shooters open on the perimeter?

Toronto could downsize and play mobile defenders like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby at the 5 to switch screens to defend LeVert on those plays. It’s a strategy Nick Nurse didn’t have to use last season. He may have to this time around.

Nets: What’s the best way to utilize Caris LeVert?

LeVert has been everything the Nets could have hoped for in the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving. The 25-year-old has played like an All-Star in the bubble, looking like the player who was considered the future of their franchise before a serious leg injury at the beginning of last season. He even went blow-for-blow with Damian Lillard in the last night of the seeding round, totaling 37 points and nine assists.

But there’s still a question of how good LeVert can be in a supporting role behind Kevin Durant, Irving, and even Dinwiddie next season. He’s not shooting 3s well in Orlando (25.8 percent on 5.2 attempts per game) and he seems far more comfortable initiating the offense from the top of the key than spotting up. The more respect LeVert can earn in the playoffs, the higher in Brooklyn’s pecking order he could be next season.

Just as intriguing for the Nets is what LeVert could mean to other teams. There aren’t many multidimensional young wings with his size (6-foot-6) who can be the primary option on a good offense while on a very affordable contract (three years, $53 million). Brooklyn has an offensive rating of 116.2 in his 384 minutes in Orlando, even though he’s playing with a skeleton crew around him. If he can keep up his strong play against the Raptors and the NBA’s second-best defense, there’s no telling what his value will be around the league.

Celtics: How do they handle Joel Embiid?

Boston hasn’t missed Al Horford and Aron Baynes this season, but that could change in the playoffs. Their centers from last season had the size to defend Embiid inside. Their new starting center, Daniel Theis (6-foot-8 and 245 pounds), does not.

The Celtics have been fine with a center-by-committee approach because few teams run their offense through big men, or have one as dominant as Embiid. Theis is backed up by Enes Kanter, who has never been known for his defense (see above), and Grant Williams, a 6-foot-5 forward. The best option could be Robert Williams III, a talented youngster with far more athleticism than any of their other centers but who has struggled with injuries this season and played only 65 minutes in the bubble.

The other question is what type of defensive philosophy to use against Embiid. The 76ers don’t have many perimeter playmakers without Ben Simmons. The Celtics might be better off living with Embiid’s offense rather than sending help and creating open 3-point shots for players who can’t do it on their own.

76ers: How much do Embiid and Horford play together?

The 76ers went back to their two-big-man lineups in the bubble after Ben Simmons went down. Surprisingly enough, the issues with those lineups have been on defense, not offense. They have an offensive rating of 113.3 and a defensive rating of 112.4 in 187 minutes without Simmons this season.

It will be even harder for those two to defend against the Celtics. Horford is a 34-year-old center who showed signs of slowing down last season. There’s no one for him to guard on his old team when Embiid is also on the floor. Asking him to chase Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Gordon Hayward around the 3-point line is cruel and unusual punishment at this stage of his career.

But not playing Horford and Embiid together exposes Philly’s lack of wing depth behind Simmons, especially without Glenn Robinson III, who could miss the series with a hip injury. The Sixers will need big contributions from some combination of Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, and Mike Scott against one of the most talented perimeter groups in the NBA.

Heat: What will the backcourt look like?

Miami has had an unsettled rotation in the bubble. Jimmy Butler missed four games with a back injury, Kendrick Nunn missed three after leaving the campus for personal reasons, and Derrick Jones Jr. was carted off the floor in their last game. The Heat’s most used lineup in the restart has played only 31 minutes.

After starting a stretch 5, either Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk, next to Bam Adebayo for most of the season, the Heat went smaller in Orlando, moving Bam to the 5 and Butler to the 4. They probably won’t go back to bigger lineups against a Pacers team without Domantas Sabonis.

So who will be on the perimeter around their two stars upfront? Miami has a lot of options. It can go with some combination of a scoring point guard (Goran Dragic), a 3-and-D wing (Jae Crowder), explosive young shooters with defensive question marks (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Nunn), or more defensive-minded slashers (Andre Iguodala and Jones). The one advantage to all their injuries and absences in the bubble? They haven’t had to show their cards yet.

Pacers: Can Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon dominate their matchups?

The Heat dominated the Pacers in a dress rehearsal last Monday. The biggest problem for Indiana was that it didn’t get much from either Oladipo (14 points, on 4-of-9 shooting, and one assist) or Brogdon (12 points, on 4-of-12 shooting, and six assists). That can’t happen for the Pacers to have any chance of pulling off the upset, especially given who was guarding them.

Miami started the game with Jimmy Butler on T.J. Warren, one of the breakout stars of the bubble, and Bam Adebayo on Myles Turner. That left Duncan Robinson on Brogdon and Jae Crowder on Oladipo. Indiana’s star guards have to punish Miami for not putting its best defenders on them, even if Adebayo’s ability to switch screens means they can’t use Turner as a screener.

Brogdon and Oladipo have the talent to be one of the best backcourts in the NBA. But it’s unclear how much the Pacers will get from either in the playoffs. Brogdon had COVID-19 during the hiatus and missed two games in the bubble with a stiff neck, while Oladipo decided to play in Orlando at the last minute after initially saying he would withdraw rather than risk re-injuring himself following his long rehab from a torn quad tendon. It’s a tough time to try to create chemistry after playing only 339 minutes together this season.

An earlier version of this piece did not include the Nets.