In the modern NBA, rigid definitions of each position continue to fade into the background as teams construct lineups on a nightly basis. In recent seasons, small-ball lineups became the trend, as the Golden State Warriors took over the league by deploying the versatile, 6’7” Draymond Green at center.
Teams continued to search for counters. The Houston Rockets pushed Golden State to seven tough games in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, mainly on the back of a small lineup that included defensive versatility and the capability to switch each screen.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, big lineups may be making a comeback across the league. The Philadelphia 76ers will play Al Horford and Joel Embiid together, while the Los Angeles Lakers will run Anthony Davis next to a more traditional center in their projected starting five.
But as the league continues to evolve, the need to classify each position becomes less important. Brad Stevens, head coach of the Boston Celtics, stated back in 2017 that he views his team as having three positions: ball-handler, wing and big.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, all eyes have been on the “open competition” at the starting small forward spot (hereby referred to as the fifth starter), as Nuggets head coach Michael Malone described it on Media Day. There are several names in the group, with Will Barton, Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez appearing to be the frontrunners at this point.
But what if they don’t start “a” small forward?
With a broader view of lineup construction comes several additional options that enter the conversation surrounding the fifth starting spot. Ideally, you want a player that A) seamlessly fits alongside the rest of the starters, B) can provide enough floor-spacing and dribbling capabilities to allow the offense to flow and C) can hold his ground on the defensive end. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to find a player in the NBA that can provide all of that in one skill set.
With the Western Conference continuing to evolve in the offseason, there may not be a need to fill the fifth starting spot with just one player throughout the course of the regular season. Although teams don’t game plan for opponents in the regular season as intensely as they do come playoff time, there are matchups in the Western Conference that call for different players to fill the role.
Defense takes priority against the elite wings
Say Denver is facing the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers. Both teams have star duos leading the way at the forward positions, which puts pressure on the Nuggets to find the ideal fifth starter in those games. Perhaps Malone opts for additional defense on the wing in the form of Craig (or Jerami Grant if a less traditional lineup with more length and size is desired).
Craig’s defensive versatility was crucial in the playoffs for Denver, as he made life difficult for DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard. Overall, the numbers paint two very different pictures surrounding Craig’s fit with the other four starters.
On the one hand, that lineup struggled on offense in the regular season, as it posted a 100.5 offensive rating in 199 minutes of action, which would have ranked last in the league by nearly four points per 100 possessions.
On the other hand, the lineup thrived defensively in the regular season (it had a 106.4 defensive rating, which would have ranked fourth in the league last season). In the playoffs, the group was impressive on both ends of the floor. In 199 minutes of postseason action, that lineup posted a +14.6-net rating (122.3 offensive rating, 107.8 defensive rating).
When tasked with guarding Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or LeBron James on the wing, Craig or Grant provide length and versatility on defense. Given Grant’s length, wingspan and athleticism, there’s reason to believe he can be an even more impactful defender in the starting lineup alongside Millsap and Harris.
Looking at matchup data from last season, Grant held his own against some of the NBA’s best wing players. The 25-year-old forward held Leonard to 40 percent shooting in two matchups last season, while he limited Giannis Antetokounmpo to 41.7 percent shooting (including three blocked shots) in 44 possessions. Given the combination of quickness, ball-handling and physicality that these types of players possess, throwing Grant or Craig into the starting lineup in those matchups would form a solid defensive foundation, with the hope that the Jamal Murray-Gary Harris-Nikola Jokić trio can carry the offense.
Matching up against smaller lineups
Denver will also have to matchup against teams such as the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. Both teams project to deploy smaller starting lineups that Denver can counter by running Barton or Malik Beasley as the fifth starter.
Yes, you read that right. Given his elite 3-point shooting and floor-spacing, Beasley projects to be a welcome addition to the starting group in the right matchups. Houston will likely start Eric Gordon at the “small forward” position and although he is very strong, Gordon measures in at 6’4”. Beasley checks in at 6’5” and 195 pounds, compared to 6’6” and 190 pounds for Barton. The size difference isn’t drastic enough to worry about the lineup’s size with Beasley in it.
Last season, Beasley played nearly 100 minutes with the other four starters. In the regular season (46 of those minutes), that lineup had a +24.1-net rating. The floor-spacing and value of having three 3-point shooters on the floor led to an offensive rating of 122.1, which would rank as the highest offensive rating in the league’s 3-point era by a wide margin.
In the playoffs, that same group posted another impressive net rating of +12.0. While it wouldn’t make much sense to have Beasley guard the aforementioned elite wings with size, having the 22-year-old guard the likes of Gordon, Kent Bazemore or Rodney Hood shouldn’t prove to be too difficult.
Barton, for all intents and purposes, is the incumbent fifth starter. After signing a four-year contract extension in the summer of 2018, he entered the starting lineup, which has thrived after his addition. Despite suffering the first major injury of his career and being in and out of the lineup, Barton fit well with the other starters, as evidenced by the group’s +7.8-net rating in the regular season (which improved to +8.5 in the playoffs). That grouping also played the most minutes of any potential starting lineup at 430, which plays into the continuity advantage that Denver appears to have on the other Western Conference contenders.
Barton started Denver’s first two preseason games, but Malone revealed that he is still focused on giving each potential fifth starter an opportunity to get plenty of run with the other four starters as the regular season approaches. “It’s a challenge, but I’m trying to give each guy a fair opportunity to go out & play & show the coaching staff what they are capable of,” Malone said following Sunday’s practice.
One can't overlook Michael Porter Jr., who has impressed in his first three NBA games. Given his size and shooting abilities, Porter Jr. projects to be an effective offensive player on and off-the-ball. Throughout the preseason, the 21-year-old forward has averaged 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game on 62.5 percent shooting from the field. "I think I fit in pretty good (with the starters)," Porter Jr. said following Denver's win over the Suns. "I'm going to cut, rebound and play my game. It's really easy to play with those guys."
Is the “sliding” starting lineup the next trend?
When Clippers head coach Doc Rivers recently revealed that he will likely change his starting lineup throughout the regular season, even when the team is healthy, it may have caught many fans and analysts off guard. After all, the tradition has been to identify the starting five and stick to it during the regular season, unless injuries or poor performances force a coach’s hand.
“I do think there is a chance we have a sliding starting lineup,” Rivers said. “Where a different four (power forward), a different one (point guard) ... I don’t know that yet at all. But I thought about that all summer, and again watching us, it leads me to think that’s what we’re going to do.”
Denver is one of the few teams in the league that can match the Clippers’ depth and versatility. With each contending team in the Western Conference having unique strengths and weaknesses in its starting lineup, the move to a more matchup-based starting lineup rotation could bear fruit in the 2019-20 season.
Such a sliding starting lineup doesn’t just have to be limited to the fifth starting spot. When Denver matches up against a team that runs an undersized, quicker player at the four position, Grant’s shot-blocking and quickness may serve as the right fit alongside Nikola Jokić. This could allow the veteran Paul Millsap to operate as a focal point offensively in the second unit while still anchoring the team’s defense during those stretches.
As is usually the case in the NBA, teams are continuing to adapt as their personnel changes. Small ball lineups are still popular but going big appears to be coming back into play for several teams. The main counter to both styles of play is the implementation of a sliding starting lineup that adjusts with each new matchup.