As we move into the final stretch of the regular season, it’s important for the real contenders around the league to narrow down exactly what combinations of players they want to use during the postseason. Matchups will, of course, dictate personnel in most playoff series, but that doesn’t mean teams can’t start preparing for the future right now. With that in mind, we want to walk through lineup combinations that some of the best teams in the league may need to use at some point, but have not given much of a test-drive yet.
(Note: If a contender is not on this list, it’s because their obvious best playoff lineup is already one in heavy rotational use. For example, we already know the 76ers will trot out Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid at almost every important moment. We similarly know the Rockets will use Chris Paul, James Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela, the Thunder will have Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams, and either Dennis Schroder or Terrance Ferguson in the game, and the Warriors will use Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and either Andre Iguodala or DeMarcus Cousins. The lineups below could prove situationally useful for one reason or another, but have not gotten heavy rotational use thus far this season.)
Lineup: Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, D.J. Wilson
The Bucks have the luxury of having four different bigs that they can play next to Giannis and still maintain their style of play. Brook Lopez is the best case scenario. In the event he somehow gets played off the floor, they can turn to Nikola Mirotic, who does not provide as much rim protection but is a bit more comfortable on the perimeter and is, at worst, an equally dangerous shooter. Ersan Ilyasova is not the defensive contributor either of them are but is an incredible sniper who has a ton of experience playing in this kind of system.
And then there’s D.J. Wilson. He was essentially an afterthought at the start of this season, then broke out when he was suddenly thrust into the rotation amid injury issues in mid-December. He’s a really interesting player, and one who provides a much different look than any of Milwaukee’s other non-Giannis options in the frontcourt. He’s easily the most mobile big man the Bucks have, and if they’re having issues with pick-and-pops or decide they need to be switching screens more, he makes a ton of sense in the role.
This particular five-man lineup, though, has shared the floor for only two minutes so far this season. There’s still time to give it a whirl between now and the end of the year, and the Bucks should seriously consider it. It may not be necessary against the other East contenders, who all have so-called “true” big men in their best lineups at this point, but it could prove incredibly valuable should they end up in a Finals series against the Warriors and the Death Lineup.
Lineup: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
This lineup has a similar rationale as the Bucks’ unit; the difference is that it did not emerge as a possibility thanks to a midseason surprise rotation entrant, but was expected to be a decent option throughout the year basically from the moment the Raptors executed the Kawhi Leonard trade and has instead gone under-utilized.
This group of five players has shared the floor for only FOUR minutes all season. Sure, some of that is because Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas ate up most of the center minutes (deservingly so) and now Marc Gasol is there to take the JV role. Some of it is also because of Anunoby’s Year 2 struggles, some of which may or may not be related to personal tragedies off the court. (His father passed away earlier this season.) But down the stretch here, it might be worth it for Nick Nurse to just explore what it looks like when he loads the floor with these athletes, ramps up the pressure, and forces the opposition to deal with Lowry and Leonard and Siakam in maximum space.
Lineup: Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford
The version of this lineup with Marcus Morris in Gordon Hayward’s slot has become the Celtics’ starting lineup of choice, and it has been excellent, out-scoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions this season. But the best possible version of the Celtics probably involves the best version of Hayward slotting into that spot ahead of Morris — even considering how good and how important Morris has been for them. It’s just a matter of whether we will actually get that version of Hayward by the time the playoffs roll around.
Boston has actually gone to this unit quite a bit more often than the other East teams have gone to the suggested lineups above, using it for 67 minutes across 28 different games. Boston has won those 67 minutes by a 183-164 margin, per NBA.com, out-scoring opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions during that time. That’s a healthy enough figure to merit further consideration, especially given that it could prove especially useful against the 76ers, who decided last season to slide Joel Embiid off Horford and onto Morris when the former was killing him in pick-and-pops. You can’t really have Embiid guard Tatum or the full-strength version of Hayward, and if he guards Smart, the Celtics might just stash him in the corner to keep Embiid away from the rim.
Lineup 1: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Lineup 2: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Lineup 3: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
I am personally a very big fan of Will Barton, but I’m also fascinated by what the Nuggets would look like if they gave any three of their four guards extended run together alongside Jokic and Millsap. These groups have only been used for 17 minutes (Morris-Murray-Harris), 32 minutes (Morris-Murray-Beasley), and 46 minutes (Murray-Harris-Beasley) this season, respectively, but combined they have out-scored their opponents by 41 points during that time, the equivalent of 20.7 per-48 minutes. That’s really damn good.
All of these configurations get more shooting and ball-handling on the floor than Denver typically has when one of Barton or Torrey Craig or Juancho Hernangomez is in the game, and they don’t have to sacrifice too much size or any of their identity to do it because everything still revolves around Jokic and there’s enough in the way of defensive mobility out there no matter which guards are paired together. None of this is to say that this type of lineup is the key to defeating the Warriors or Thunder or Rockets, but it’s worth exploring what you’ve got here before the playoffs roll around and you end up having to try it untested.