Alex Boeder: Starting Lineups

by Alex Boeder
Bucks.com Writer

Starters

The Bucks started 16 different players last season. Which is a lot for a team with a 15-man roster.

And they led the conference with 27 different starting lineups. Then it was the Nets, tying for second most, with 24 different versions.

To put that into perspective, the Trail Blazers started exactly… two different lineups the entire season. The average NBA team tried approximately 16 different starting lineups last season.

This upcoming season, the Bucks and Jason Kidd will probably not desire to lead the league in this category.

DNP

For both the Bucks and Nets, the many combinations were largely a matter of necessity.

Brandon Knight went down with a strained hamstring less than two minutes into the season opener. Ersan Ilyasova injured his right ankle in the preseason and eventually was shut down for the year. Larry Sanders made it four minutes into the February Sanders/Henson Starting Frontcourt Experiment before suffering a broken orbital bone. Nate Wolters suffered a broken hand and Carlos Delfino missed the entire season with a foot injury. In the end, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo led the team in games played, which precisely no one would have guessed before the season (which was also not necessarily a bad thing).

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Brook Lopez (who played 82 games in each of his first three pro seasons) made it just 17 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko played like it was 2014 instead of 2004, which it was, but which also meant not playing very often due to various ailments.

2013-14 Starting Lineups

Here were the four most frequent starting lineups from last season. These are the only groups that started more than four games together.

1. Wolters / Knight / Middleton / Ilyasova / Pachulia
2. Sessions / Knight / Middleton / Adrien / Pachulia
3. Ridnour / Knight / Antetokounmpo / Ilyasova / Sanders
4. Knight / Mayo / Middleton / Udoh / Henson

Pretty safe to say, none of those combinations will comprise the opening night starting lineup this season. That will do.

Five Potential Starting Lineups

So, what should be the starting five when the Bucks line up in Charlotte on Oct. 29 for the season opener?

Right now, the team has 16 players under contract (including unguaranteed deals for Kendall Marshall and Chris Wright).

First, I tried to rule out the players who would probably not start, assuming full health. The Bucks are pretty deep, and I like some of these players quite a bit, but they figure to fit in best as reserves. In alphabetical order: Jerryd Bayless, Jared Dudley, Damien Inglis, Kendall Marshall, Johnny O’Bryant, Zaza Pachulia, Nate Wolters, Chris Wright.

That leaves eight potential starters: Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Larry Sanders.

The seemingly clearest starters are Brandon Knight at point guard and Larry Sanders at center. The difficult part is figuring out the two, three and four spots, particularly because Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Parker can slide in at multiple positions, while Henson can play the four or five.

Here are some options. Note: These are just my ideas. I have not spoken to Jason Kidd about this topic. It would not surprise me if the eventual starting lineup is not one of these.

Knight / Antetokounmpo / Parker / Ilyasova / Sanders

At his best, Ilyasova can function as an ideal floor-stretching power forward to complement the defensive-minded, paint-preferring Sanders. We know that in part because they partnered effectively in 2012-13 (while outscoring opponents by a total of 77 points in more than 1,000 frontcourt minutes together). Of course, that was the Ilyasova who ranked among the five most deadly 3-point shooters in the league, and the Sanders who rightfully earned Defensive Player of the Year votes. That was not last year.

This is a really tall lineup, with four players standing at least 6-8. The group could cause matchup problems for opponents, but that could go the other way as well. Should Antetokounmpo line up at shooting guard? By most metrics, he played better at the three than the two last season, particularly on offense.

Knight / Antetokounmpo / Parker / Henson / Sanders

Here we have the ultimate 25-and-under lineup, the five players whom most would agree have the greatest potential, the five players we are most excited to watch and figure out. But there are also a lot of questions here. Is Antetokounmpo a two? Is Parker a three? Is Henson a four? Do they logically complement each other to maximize their individual skills? I would like to watch and find out.

As mentioned, Sanders went down with a broken orbital bone just four minutes into the Henson/Sanders starting frontcourt pairing last February. So in an experimental season, this feels like an experiment worth revisiting. On paper and on the court, there are some points of intrigue (defense at the rim) and some reasons to hesitate (offensive floor spacing).

Knight / Mayo / Antetokounmpo / Parker / Sanders

In the first 10 games of last season, Mayo completed five games of 20+ points, and was hitting 53.1 percent on threes. But it may take an impressive preseason for him to earn a spot in the starting lineup, because his efficiency and production really dropped after those first 10 games. That said, he is 26 years old, and should still be firmly in the prime of his career. If he returns to optimal-Mayo form, he is a reasonable pick to start the two, as the purest shooting guard on the roster.

This also allows Antetokounmpo to slot in at small forward, while opening the possibility of trying Parker at the four, which could be the preferred spots for both, depending on matchups. 

Knight / Mayo / Parker / Henson / Sanders

The only lineup out of these five that doesn’t list Antetokounmpo, who could enter as a sixth man. Parker, who enjoys and excels working off the dribble to create, projects to have a higher usage rate than Antetokounmpo, and this could be the type of lineup where Parker has the chance (and pressure) to really assert himself offensively as a go-to player.

Knight / Middleton / Antetokounmpo / Ilyasova / Sanders

Something different here. Middleton and Antetokounmpo shared the court frequently last season, so there is some history here among almost completely new combinations. And if the 22 year-old Middleton takes another step, and builds a more all-around game, he could be in the mix for a starting spot. With shooters around him, Antetokounmpo could also perhaps handle some point-forward playmaking opportunities (Kidd has noted that he is open to trying Antetokounmpo at the point), particularly with Middleton more comfortable as a spot-up shooter than as a creator.

 

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