The best NBA teams strike first.
There’s nothing more demoralizing than digging an early hole. Coaches typically put their best five-man collection of talent on the floor to avoid spending the rest of the game clawing back from a first-quarter deficit.
An illustrative comparison: The 2021-22 New York Knicks’ most-used starting group during the first few months of the season ran up a minus-13.4 net rating that put their reserves in the unenviable position of undoing the damage inflicted by their supposed lineup superiors. New York finished 11th in the East and missed the play-in tournament.
On the flip side, the Boston Celtics’ first unit pulverized foes to the tune of a plus-24.3 net rating, generating early advantages and forcing opponents onto their heels within the first 12 minutes. That group carried Boston to 51 wins and a Finals berth.
We have a pretty good idea of which teams will come out of the gates quickly, as many of last season’s top first units are intact. The trouble spots arise elsewhere, with clubs that have aspirations of competing or even contending, but only if they overcome an issue in the starting lineup.
The 2022-23 season is a week away, and everyone wants to start it off on the right foot. The teams featured here need to be especially careful to avoid tripping themselves up.
The Golden State Warriors have enough talent to field four or five different starting lineups that would all generate early leads, but the still-developing Draymond Green saga could keep the most potent one off the floor.
It’s too early for any certainty on the potential fallout of this situation. When Green punched Jordan Poole, his place on the team—short- and long-term—got hazier than it’s ever been. His legacy may or may not be forever compromised. Nobody knows for sure yet. Everything depends on how or if Poole and the rest of the team feel on the forgiveness front.
What we can say definitively is that 20-year-old Jonathan Kuminga, the man who’ll most likely replace Green if the four-time All-Star isn’t with the team on opening night, is nowhere near as ready to affect winning.
Small-sample caveats apply, but the Warriors got outscored by 10.0 points per 100 possessions with Kuminga manning power forward alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney last season. Golden State could replace Green with Poole and outscore everyone in high-leverage stretches, but Kuminga started in Green’s absence in the Oct. 9 preseason loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and should occupy that same spot for as long as Green is absent.
Kuminga is a Grade-A athlete who came into the league knowing how to overpower opponents with his size and speed. He’s typically good for at least one or two jaw-dropping highlights per game. However, he doesn’t share a mind meld with Curry, Thompson and Looney that took a decade to forge. Nor does he seem likely to contend for Defensive Player of the Year in his second season. Kuminga’s potential remains immense, but he’s years away from his prime and will make mistakes on both ends.
The Warriors can handle those. They’ll ultimately be fine if Green doesn’t play at all and Kuminga starts 82 games. But “fine” isn’t enough for a squad with designs on a fifth title since 2015.
The worry here is about something far greater than the first-quarter minutes Kuminga will pepper with dunks and missed assignments in equal measure. This is about Green’s absence potentially undercutting his team’s championship aspirations, and the even scarier possibility that his presence could have the same effect.
If the rest of the Warriors can’t trust Green, or if the sheer awkwardness of bringing him back into the fold means the on-court product suffers because of the off-court vibes, it could set the team’s ceiling at a sub-championship level.
Concerns about the Warriors’ starting group are of the first-world variety. But from Golden State’s title-or-bust perspective, what could possibly be a greater source of worry than a starting lineup that might not be good enough or cohesive enough to repeat last year’s run to a ring?
Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for the Sacramento Kings, who’ll add sharpshooter and underrated wing playmaker Kevin Huerter to a core group of starters that already includes De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and Harrison Barnes. In minutes featuring Fox, Sabonis and Barnes on the floor together, the Kings averaged 116.0 points per 100 possessions last season, a scoring rate that ranked in the 78th percentile leaguewide.
It’s the other end where the Kings will struggle, which won’t be a new development.
Last year, the Kings allowed 115.8 points per 100 possessions on D, a figure that ranked 27th in the league. When Fox, Sabonis and Barnes were on the floor, Sacramento’s defense was actually even worse than that, surrendering a 116.7 defensive rating.
Huerter could charitably be described as a break-even defender, as evidenced by his -0.3 Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus. Barnes is more solid than spectacular on that end of the floors. With Fox still failing to convert his considerable defensive tools—length, speed, good anticipation skills—into actual production and Sabonis an unequivocal negative on D, the Kings will be desperate for stopping power.
That’s why 23-year-old KZ Okpala, who’s played a grand total of 63 games and shot 27.3 percent from long range for his career, looks like he might be a starter at one of the forward spots.
Sacramento has loads of other options at the position, most notably rookie Keegan Murray, who appears ready to play above-average NBA offense right now. Murray may wind up being too good to keep out of the first unit for long, but the Kings seem committed to giving Okpala a shot for now.
Theoretically, that isn’t the worst idea. If nothing else, it shows a level of self-awareness. The Kings know where their weaknesses lie.
Okpala is a rangy 6’8″ forward with a 7’2″ wingspan. He looks the part of defensive difference-maker. The bad news: Okpala’s teams have defended less effectively with him on the floor during his career, his block and steal rates fail to impress, and he’s never been much of a defensive rebounder.
That’s to say nothing of the spacing crunch he’ll exacerbate on the other end, too. Sabonis is a non-shooter who needs room to operate as a scorer and facilitator in the lane, and defenses don’t guard Fox (32.0 percent from three for his career) off the ball.
Adding Okpala, another wing player that opponents can ignore, might compromise the team’s offense without any guarantee of getting its defense out of the cellar.
The Kings have to choose between totally ignoring the defensive issues that sunk them or trusting Okpala to help correct them without short-circuiting the offense. That’s a tough needle to thread.
Lonzo Ball isn’t the type of player whom teams build around, but his impact on the Chicago Bulls last season suggested he was the one holding the team together. Strength of schedule, opponent shooting luck and plenty of other variables add noise to the analysis, but the Bulls were 22-13 in games Ball played last year and 24-23 when he was on the bench.
Those are some jarring splits, but they make sense. Nobody else on the roster could replicate Ball’s combination of on-ball defense, right-play-every-time passing and 42.5 percent knockdown rate on catch-and-shoot threes. Those skills boosted the Bulls in ways great and small on both ends.
Ball’s presence on the court coincided with a team-best jump in transition frequency, spurred by the 6’6″ guard’s intuitive and aggressive outlet passing. Easy buckets came, well…easily when Ball was on the floor. And no Chicago player made a more significant impact on defense than he did. The Bulls allowed 8.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with Ball harassing opposing guards and snaking into passing lanes.
Just as they did during a rough second half last season, the Bulls will endure a stretch to start 2022-23 without Ball in the starting lineup. The left knee surgery that knocked him out of action last January didn’t quite take, and a second operation performed in September will render the 24-year-old guard bench-bound for at least a few months.
Ayo Dosunmu could take a step forward, and we shouldn’t discount the possibility that Alex Caruso’s missed time, which coincided with some of Ball’s, was just as much to blame for last year’s flameout after a stellar start. Still, Ball is a unique player who won’t be easily replaced. The assumption should be that Chicago’s starting group will struggle without him making connective plays on offense and disrupting the other team’s plans on D.
It also doesn’t help that Patrick Williams has performed poorly enough during the preseason that his spot in the first unit is in jeopardy, per K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago. Add that to the growing list of reasons to short the 2022-23 Bulls.
P.J. Tucker’s departure in free agency and the Miami Heat’s failure to replace what he brought to the lineup is just the start. Head coach Erik Spoelstra also has to contend with the ongoing (and understandable) decline of 36-year-old Kyle Lowry and a shooting guard position that will either lack size, defensive punch or both.
Caleb Martin is a decent bet to start in Tucker’s place alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo up front. He hit 41 percent of his corner threes last year and could replicate that particular facet of Tucker’s offensive game, but Martin won’t bring the same level of physicality on defense. Martin can be disruptive, but few forwards in the last 25 years can match Tucker’s rugged shutdown reputation.
If Tyler Herro starts at shooting guard, he’ll make the Heat even less physically imposing while also providing opponents a target to attack. The trickle-down effect of taking Herro away from the second unit could also mean the Heat will struggle to put up enough points when most of the starters are off the floor.
Duncan Robinson lost his grip on the starting gig last season, and Max Strus, who seized Robinson’s role, shot only 33.1 percent from long range in the 2022 playoffs. Strus is a more balanced two-way weapon than Herro or Robinson, but he has yet to demonstrate he’s the right choice to start over the course of a full season.
If Lowry can’t stay healthy and/or slips another notch in his 17th(!) season, and if the shooting guard and power forward positions don’t firm up, the Heat will need even more production from Butler and Adebayo. Considering how hard Miami has leaned on those two over the last handful of years (with better teammates around them), that might be asking too much.
Like the Warriors and Heat (and unlike the Kings and Bulls), the Toronto Raptors will probably be fine if their starting lineup falls short in the ways we expect it might.
We learned last year that Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam can fly around, create turnovers and add enough cheap points in transition to keep their heads above water. Continuity and increased reps in a somewhat novel scheme that demands quick decisions and lots of switching might even produce a leap in effectiveness.
On the other hand, the same shortcomings that plagued the Raptors’ aggressive, center-less starting five could linger.
Toronto’s first unit got bludgeoned on the boards night after night last season, amassing a defensive rebound rate that ranked in the 19th percentile leaguewide. Every old-school coach reading this is shaking his or her head and muttering about how defensive possessions don’t really end until a team secures the rebound, and the Raptors starters were particularly inept at capping things off with a board.
Toronto made a choice last season to experiment with like-sized player groupings that lacked an interior presence. The struggle to rebound cannot have been unexpected, and the team’s ability to improve in that area will go a long way toward determining whether last season’s 48 wins should be viewed as a floor or a ceiling for 2022-23.
The other issue with the Raps’ first unit has nothing to do with the size or position of the players. Toronto’s poor half-court scoring is a symptom of a skill deficit in the shot-creation department. The returning starters scored 94.4 points per 100 plays in half-court sets last season, which ranked in the 37th percentile overall and was a bottom-five figure among lineups that saw at least 700 possessions.
Barnes’ second-year growth as a shooter and playmaker will be critical, and much will depend on whether Anunoby finally takes the leap as an on-ball weapon so many have been hoping for since 2020. VanVleet’s annual breakdowns late in the season may owe to his status as one of the only dual-threat spacers and shot-creators in the lineup, so there’s no mystery to the potential downside of another year in which Toronto fails to provide him enough help.
If the other four guys in the starting group can’t rebound and score in non-transition situations, it’ll be hard to view the Raps as anything but a respectable, competitive regular-season team. The key to becoming something more depends on the first unit finding ways to get different results with the same personnel.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.
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