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20. Dallas Mavericks
PG: Dennis Smith Jr.; SG: Luka Doncic; SF: Harrison Barnes; PF: Dirk Nowitzki; C: DeAndre Jordan
While The Athletic’s Saad Yousuf opined there’s “a real possibility” Nowitzki comes off the bench, we’re guessing the Diggler keeps his opening gig, at least through the early portion of the season. There isn’t enough defensive resistance for this to work as the closing group, but the pieces fit well enough for the first six minutes or so of each half.
Smith and Doncic will wreak havoc together in transition and with Jordan out of pick-and-rolls. Barnes is the bail-out option when everything else breaks down, and Nowitzki remains as deadly as ever from distance. But there are hiccups here too. Nowitzki might play several speeds slower than everyone else—which could necessitate a change—and the perimeter defense will bleed pretty regularly.
19. Charlotte Hornets
PG: Kemba Walker; SG: Nicolas Batum; SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; PF: Marvin Williams; C: Cody Zeller
As far as personnel goes, the Hornets haven’t done a bad job of building a complementary core around Walker. They’ve grossly overpaid to do it, of course, but at least the puzzle forms a coherent picture. Walker can aggressively seek his own shots with Batum chipping as a secondary playmaker, Williams provides the spacing Kidd-Gilchrist can’t, and Zeller is a screen-setting savant.
But the glass-half-empty lens shows a lineup with shaky non-Walker scoring options, limited rim protection and only two league-average perimeter shooters from last season (Walker and Williams). Charlotte desperately needs Batum to consistently perform like a $24 million player, but that’s been a challenge he’s yet to solve.
18. Detroit Pistons
PG: Reggie Jackson; SG: Reggie Bullock; SF: Stanley Johnson; PF: Blake Griffin; C: Andre Drummond
There’s a best-case scenario where this group chases a top-four seed in the East. Griffin has looked MVP-like as a featured player before. Drummond’s size (6’11”, 279 lbs) and athleticism help him inhale everything around the rim. Jackson has an 18-point, six-assist season in his not-so-distant past. And if Johnson leaps forward the way Bullock did last year, Detroit may have solved its wing dilemma.
But there’s also a disastrously low floor, which only grows more worrisome when coupled with the massive cash commitments to the Pistons’ point guard and twin towers.
“Griffin is 29, has at least one surgery every year, has missed 107 games over the past four seasons and is in obvious athletic decline,” Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wrote. “Drummond is a dinosaur at center, and Jackson is a mid-tier starter who has missed 70 games in his three full seasons with the team.”
17. Miami Heat
PG: Goran Dragic; SG: Dion Waiters; SF: Josh Richardson; PF: Kelly Olynyk; C: Hassan Whiteside
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has multiple ways to bend his opening lineup, but this is theoretically the best fit. It’s unpredictable in a good way. Dragic, Waiters and Richardson can all initiate offense or spot up off the ball. Olynyk and Whiteside can both be effective screeners for different reasons, with Olynyk popping out to launch from distance and Whiteside steamrolling to the rim.
This group is prone to offensive droughts, though, as there isn’t a consistently reliable half-court option. The Olynyk-Whiteside pairing is wonky defensively, and the backcourt is prone to breakdowns. It’s also unclear how many of the Heat’s best players are present here, especially if Dwyane Wade runs it back. Miami has impressive depth, but the top-level talent is lacking.
16. Portland Trail Blazers
PG: Damian Lillard; SG: CJ McCollum; SF: Maurice Harkless; PF: Al-Farouq Aminu; C: Jusuf Nurkic
Given the obvious strengths and weaknesses of the Lillard-McCollum pairing, this isn’t a bad frontcourt to deploy alongside them. Harkless and Aminu can both make open shots and defend multiple positions. Nurkic brings brute force to the interior, and he’s a potent enough scorer (career 17.4 points per 36 minutes) to function as a change-of-pace third option.
But the offense is a tad too reliant on Lillard and McCollum—which the New Orleans Pelicans exploited during their first-round sweep of Portland—and that pair can’t mask its defensive deficiencies. These have been more playoff problems than regular-season worries (this quintet had a plus-7.7 net rating last season), but the degree of difficulty increased again this summer in the overloaded West.