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15. Los Angeles Lakers: 30.6

Starters: Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, JaVale McGee

Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

The Los Angeles Lakers are a conundrum. On one hand, James is typically capable of elevating any lineup into playoff position. On the other, he’s another year older and surrounded by a group of players who haven’t emerged as reliable floor-spacing options—the archetype with which the 33-year-old’s had the most success in recent seasons. 

They could blow away the expectations, especially if Brandon Ingram morphs into a star. They could fall short during a pseudo-rebuilding year, focused more on biding time until the 2019 free-agency class than making a late-season charge. All the options are still available. 

So rather than focusing on the expected level of play from this purple-and-gold-clad bunch, let’s instead see what would happen if we made a few lineup tweaks. Should James slide down to the 3 and let Kyle Kuzma start while Ingram comes off the bench, the Lakers’ diminished score of 29.53 would keep them stagnant in these rankings. Conversely, swapping Rajon Rondo for Lonzo Ball (already better and in possession of significantly more upside) would propel Los Angeles ahead of the next two squads with a score of 32.3. 

                      

14. Indiana Pacers: 31.1

Starters: Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner

Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 3.2 net rating in 826 minutes

The Indiana Pacers are the first team for which we have a legitimate baseline. This exact quintet played 826 minutes together in 2017-18 and experienced solid results, so why should we expect anything different?

Volatility won’t come from the backcourt, where Darren Collison remains one of the league’s more underrated options as an efficient ball-handler and sharp-shooting threat. Victor Oladipo, despite the out-of-nowhere breakthrough that established him as one of the league’s All-NBA threats, isn’t a significant regression candidate, either. 

The uncertainty, however, might stem from the frontcourt. And that’s not a bad thing. We know who Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young are, but Myles Turner, after spending the offseason improving his physical condition, could follow in Oladipo’s footsteps with a surge up the Association’s individual hierarchy. 

                       

13. Portland Trail Blazers: 31.8

Starters: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic

Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 6.5 net rating in 456 minutes

Steadiness is the name of the game, as we know what to expect from the Portland Trail Blazers’ starting five. The frontcourt pieces alongside the two standout guards might not have All-Star upside, but they’re capable of filling their roles well while providing one-game jolts when they catch fire. 

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum continue to function as the lifeblood of the Rip City outfit—the former through silky smooth mid-range jumpers, and the latter through all-around offensive excellence that makes him a yearly threat for All-NBA recognition. But it may be the lesser names who elevate the team’s ceiling and push this group into the top 10. That could happen if Jusuf Nurkic develops consistency on the offensive end or Al-Farouq Aminu proves he’s developed his shooting stroke enough to draw constant off-ball attention. 

Don’t count out the latter development. Not after Aminu connected on his 4.9 triples per game last year at a 36.9 percent clip. 

             

12. Oklahoma City Thunder: 32.56

Starters: Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams

Net Rating Together in 2017-18: 47.7 net rating in 11 minutes

Let’s pour one out for Andre Roberson. 

Per ESPN.com’s Royce Young, the defensive ace won’t be available for quite some time. A setback in his recovery from a ruptured left patellar tendon will keep him out for at least two months, at which point he’ll be re-evaluated. That’s a massive loss, considering the four-man pairing of him, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams posted a 14.2 net rating in 583 minutes last year. 

Sure, Terrance Ferguson, a raw wing prospect with jaw-dropping athleticism, has plenty of upside. If he and Jerami Grant click with the three lineup leaders, the Thunder will once again compete for a top seed in the Western Conference. But replace Ferguson with a healthy Roberson, and the lineup score rises to 35.97, allowing them to fall in at No. 4 in this countdown. 

Again, that’s a massive loss. 

            

11. New Orleans Pelicans: 32.86

Starters: Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis

Net Rating Together in 2017-18: N/A

Elfrid Payton should be able to fill the role Rondo vacated upon his departure to the Los Angeles Lakers, which is notable because the New Orleans Pelicans toppled their foes by an even 18 points per 100 possessions in the 204 minutes played by Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis. The hometown point guard can fill that pass-first, focus-on-defense job description, and the spacing provided courtesy of the Holiday-Moore-Mirotic troika will make up for his shooting deficit. 

But rather than focusing on how well the supporting cast complements Davis during what could be an MVP campaign, let’s instead highlight the team’s second legitimate star. 

After DeMarcus Cousins went down for the year Jan. 26 with a ruptured Achilles, Holiday averaged 19.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from downtown and 76.0 percent at the stripe. Better still, he did so while playing ferocious, hounding defense, particularly in on-ball situations. 

Should that continue, the Davis-Holiday tandem will wreak havoc regardless of opponent. 

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