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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
It’s a lesson we relearn every postseason: You just can’t have an exploitable weak link in your starting five.
Granted, not every team is tangling with that concern at the moment. Fourteen squads aren’t involved in the playoffs at all. It’s still true, though, that if you’re going to compete at a high level, that opening five needs to be rock solid.
Some first units work so well together or have such promise that we’ll have to get around suggesting they “replace” someone by emphasizing how important it is that they retain a member who might get away in free agency. In other situations, we’ll note a particular skill area a relatively weak starter must shore up or point out how certain teams just need a healthy version of a key starter.
For example, we can’t say the Philadelphia 76ers need to replace anyone from a starting five that roasted the league to the tune of a plus-14.0 net rating with a straight face.
Finally, this strange season featured tons of health-and-safety absences, injuries and load management—all of which contributed to teams utilizing tons of different starting fives. We’ll do our best to focus on the units teams used most and/or project to use.
Let’s see how we can best improve (or sustain) every team’s starting five for next year.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
We’re thinking practically for our first starter in need of replacement, as John Collins’ free-agent price tag could very well be more than the Atlanta Hawks are willing to pay.
In that hypothetical, the Hawks will have a void at the 4. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative of paying upward of $25 million per season for a second option who tops out at “adequate” defensively.
Trae Young is entrenched at the point, and Bogdan Bogdanovic acquitted himself very well as a full-time starter down the stretch of the regular season. Throw in De’Andre Hunter and Clint Capela, and Collins is the only realistic replacement option left.
Hunter might be able to slide up to the 4 against smaller matchups if the Hawks don’t want to expose Danilo Gallinari to the defensive rigors that come with a first-unit gig. That would allow the Hawks to give Kevin Huerter or Cam Reddish a shot to start at the 3. If Atlanta views either of those two as reserves, it could set its free-agency sights on another wing.
Of course, if Collins comes back on a reasonable deal, the Hawks won’t have to change anything at all.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
It seems unlikely the Boston Celtics view Tristan Thompson as the presumptive starting center next year, which makes this replacement suggestion easy.
Whether Boston decides Robert Williams III is ready for consistent starting duties, goes crawling back to Daniel Theis in free agency (not the worst idea) or seeks another upgrade on the market, Thompson should return to backup status in 2021-22.
The Celtics’ offense took a hit when Thompson was on the floor this past season. And though the veteran big man might be more reliable in his defensive positioning than Williams, he trails Time Lord in rebound, assist and block rate.
A bit more seasoning, and Williams should blow past Thompson in virtually every area of production. The 23-year-old’s potential was on full display during his nine-block Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets. Thompson has never rejected more than five shots in any contest.
There may be calls for Kemba Walker or Marcus Smart here, but the former is still valuable as a pick-and-roll threat (and costs too much to move), while the latter’s defensive contributions remain vital.
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
The Brooklyn Nets won’t even consider changing 80 percent of their starting five. Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Joe Harris and Kevin Durant are untouchable. Though the lineup data is vanishingly small because of injury, those four posted a plus-22.4 net rating on the rare occasions they shared the floor this season.
You don’t mess with that.
That leaves the center spot, where DeAndre Jordan led the position with 43 starts.
DJ shot a ridiculous 76.3 percent from the field this season while hanging around the top quartile in block and rebound rate among bigs. His mobility continues to decline, though, and Brooklyn should have liked what it saw from the intriguingly switchable Nic Claxton, who’s a full decade younger than Jordan.
It’d be unfair if the Nets found a center who could defend the rim, switch and stretch the floor on offense, but Jordan only offers the first of those three qualities. Brooklyn can shoot for at least two.
The only question is whether the superstars on hand will be cool with Jordan losing his starting job to a younger, more athletic teammate again.
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Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Bismack Biyombo (36) and Cody Zeller (21) accounted for 57 starts at center this year, and the Charlotte Hornets will almost certainly redistribute those to someone else in 2021-22.
Both centers are free agents.
Lineups with P.J. Washington at the 5 are a lot of fun, and they allow the Hornets to get maximum skill and shooting on the floor. But those groups are tiny and tended to get mauled on the boards. Washington-at-center looks should be in head coach James Borrego’s strategic portfolio, but probably not on the first page.
Unless Vernon Carey Jr. is ready to make a massive leap from the 115 minutes he logged as a rookie, it’s looking like the Hornets will have to find some help on the open market. Depending on what it costs to bring restricted free agent Devonte’ Graham back, they should have plenty of cash to chase an upgrade.
If Charlotte wants to splurge on Richaun Holmes, who’ll probably be the best option on the market, it can.
For what it’s worth, we’re assuming Graham either won’t be back at all or will return to a reserve role. LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier figure to make up the starting backcourt.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
It’s tempting to go with Coby White here. Though the second-year guard improved his true shooting percentage from 50.6 to 54.0 and cranked up his assist rate, his frantic energy and lack of defensive impact mark him as a stereotypical sixth man. White is only 21, though, and he was far more efficient and productive as a starter than as a reserve in 2020-21.
He deserves a shot to stick with the first unit.
Garrett Temple, on the other hand, is less integral to the Chicago Bulls’ big-picture plans. The 35-year-old has all the veteran savvy and “right place, right time” instincts you want from a seasoned wing, but he’s overextended as a starter. If the Bulls bring Temple back in unrestricted free agency this summer, don’t expect them to do it with plans to start him.
Defense has to be the focus as Chicago searches for an upgrade. White, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are all substandard on that end. Patrick Williams has the tools to eventually become a solid stopper at either forward spot, but he’s still just 19 and learning the NBA game.
If the Bulls want to take the next step, they’ll need someone who can outproduce Temple on offense and wrangle tough wing assignments on the other end.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
The Cleveland Cavaliers need to upgrade this year’s version of Larry Nance Jr. to a healthy Larry Nance Jr.
And yes, this is an unconcealed attempt to punt on the issue of replacing any of the team’s starting five. You understand, though, right?
Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are both still painfully young. Maybe it’ll become clear down the road that the two smallish guards can’t coexist on a winner, or perhaps teammates will tire of opponents zinging them about Sexton’s tunnel vision. But the Cavs can’t be considering a backcourt blowup just yet.
Ditto for Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen. Those two are key pieces of the future—potential defensive anchors on the wing and in the middle. They need the minutes and reps against opposing starters to determine where their ceilings are.
Kevin Love’s name comes to mind here. Yes, the Cavs must replace him. But they seem to have already moved on from him in spirit. Considering he only started 25 games during the least productive season since his rookie year and expressed frustration seemingly from start to finish, this is a bet he’ll either get traded or receive the healthy shutdown treatment Andre Drummond enjoyed prior to his buyout.
That leaves Nance, one of the most underrated forwards in the league—an exceptionally handsy defender who hoards steals, can pass and has hit at least 35.0 percent of his threes in each of the last two years. He can even slide over to center against the right matchups. Nance was snakebit in a 35-game season, sidelined by finger, wrist and thumb injuries.
The Cavs don’t have to replace him; they just need him to keep those precious mitts sprain- and break-free in 2021-22.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Josh Richardson has the benefit of control this offseason, a power derived from his $11.6 million player option. If he wants to return to the Dallas Mavericks and prove he’s better than the guy whose three-point percentage declined for the fourth straight year, all the way down to 33.0 percent, he can do that.
It’s just shocking that coming back for that $11.6 million is even a consideration, and it speaks to how disappointing the 27-year-old wing’s debut season with the Mavs was. This time a year ago, Richardson seemed in line for a new contract worth $15-20 million annually.
Dallas, which could clear enough cap space to chase a $25 million player in free agency if Richardson declines his option, might actually hope he leaves.
Richardson, like virtually all of his teammates, lost time to health and safety protocols this year. That complicates any evaluation, and it’s possible that after a full summer of rest, the shooting guard could return to form in 2021-22. But Dallas’ ambitions of chasing a third star and the value of three-and-D wings (even if Richardson is only theoretically one of those these days) make it seem like someone else will be manning the 2 for the Mavs next year. Tim Hardaway Jr., also a free agent, essentially took Richardson’s job down the stretch.
Considering how rough Richardson’s season was (worst box plus/minus of his career and third-worst PER), both he and the Mavericks might be happy to part ways.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
We’ve got another by-default situation here, as the Denver Nuggets won’t and shouldn’t tinker with four-fifths of their starting unit.
Jamal Murray won’t be healthy to start 2021-22, which means Facundo Campazzo or Monte Morris will hold down the 1 for a while. But we all know Murray will get that gig back as soon as his knee allows it. It goes without saying Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon are locks to retain their starting jobs.
That leaves Will Barton, who started 52 of the 56 games he played this season and has an interesting decision to make on his $14.7 million player option. Barton is a capable option on the wing, dangerous from deep (38.1 percent) and active enough defensively to be more than a one-way player. It’s entirely possible he’ll decline that option and force Denver to choose between re-signing him and letting him walk.
It’s not clear right now that the Nuggets will be able to find an affordable upgrade over Barton on the market. It is, however, clear that if Denver is going to change anything about its starting five, it’ll be Barton.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Nothing personal toward Mason Plumlee and his team-high 56 starts, but it’s time for Isaiah Stewart to take over full-time first-unit duties at center.
Though undersized at 6’8″, Beef Stew (which immediately became a top-five nickname in 2020-21) impacts the game with a surplus of hustle and defensive tenacity. His 3.1 percent block rate ranked in the 86th percentile among bigs, and he showed a tantalizing ability to switch onto smaller players. He profiles as one of those ultra-rare five-position defenders around which units with elite stopping power are built.
Throw in a 21-of-63 performance from beyond the arc, and Stewart may even develop offensive dimensions that make him much more than a floor-running, rim-rolling threat.
Plumlee is 31. If the rebuilding Pistons don’t hand the starting job to the 20-year-old Stewart, what are they even doing?
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Kevon Looney is a winner who does all the little things, makes the right decisions, defends much better in space than most would imagine and has invaluable corporate knowledge: He knows how to play with Stephen Curry.
That said, the idealized version of the 2021-22 Golden State Warriors features James Wiseman at center.
The No. 2 pick will have to make several leaps during a pivotal offseason—a task made more difficult by the torn meniscus he suffered this year. Warriors general manager Bob Myers suggested Wiseman might be ready for training camp, but that expectation contradicts earlier reports that the center would miss camp and possibly summer league as well.
Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green are set in stone as starters. For the Warriors to maximize their potential, Wiseman must retake the starting job he was given early in his rookie season. Only this time, the Warriors must hope he actually earns it.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
If you could force members of the Houston Rockets front office to tell you the truth, they’d say John Wall is the starter they’d most like to replace. His cost ($91.7 million over the next two seasons, including a 2022-23 player option) and age (30) don’t exactly make the most sense on a team set to enter the first full rebuilding season of the post-James Harden era.
That’s to say nothing of Wall’s lagging production. His passing eye is still among the best in the game, but the veteran’s scoring efficiency left plenty to be desired. Among the 43 players to average over 20.0 points per game this season, Wall’s 50.3 true shooting percentage ranked dead last.
That level of inefficiency, combined with such an exorbitant salary, is the reason Houston can’t realistically move on from Wall. Must the Rockets replace him? Sure. Can they? Probably not.
Christian Wood, Jae’Sean Tate and Kevin Porter Jr. did more than enough to keep the starting jobs they earned in 2020-21.
So…let’s go with Danuel House Jr., a regular starter through the beginning of April before an ankle sprain knocked the 27-year-old’s season off track. In theory, House, a three-and-D wing, should be able to help the Rockets. In practice, three straight seasons of declining long-range accuracy mean he’s not the kind of high-upside prospect that ought to be earning big minutes on a team in Houston’s position.
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Doug McSchooler/Associated Press
The best version of the Indiana Pacers features T.J. Warren in the starting lineup.
That’s the simplest justification for swapping out Justin Holiday for Warren, whose last full season, 2019-20, featured an average of 19.8 points with 40.3 percent shooting from distance.
To be fair to Holiday, every team would be happy to have him in its rotation. He’s a career 36.4 percent three-point shooter with the length to bother several positions defensively. That said, Warren was developing into a go-to scoring threat prior to an injury-marred 2020-21—one who, seemingly overnight, also added legitimately respectable defense to his game.
Remember his bonkers run in the bubble? That was less than a year ago.
The Pacers’ offseason will be rife with uncertainty. Head coach Nate Bjorkgren’s footing appears unstable, and we’ll surely hear talk of busting up the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis partnership—an annual summertime tradition. But the cleanest and clearest upgrade to the starting five would be replacing Holiday with Warren.
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Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press
Reggie Jackson started more often at the point than any other Los Angeles Clippers player, but the fact that Patrick Beverley was on the floor for the opening tip in 34 of the 37 games he played suggests he’s the guy L.A. preferred.
Beverley shot it well this year, hitting 39.7 percent of the 3.8 triples he tried per game, but Jackson, a free agent, has always been the superior penetrator and facilitator. It’s not wrong to think a team with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George capably running the offense can get away with a point guard who doesn’t initiate much on his own, but the Clippers fancy themselves a championship contender and should be greedy about every spot on the roster.
Why settle for someone with Beverley’s limitations—particularly when the jump-shot-dependent Clips tend to run into trouble because they don’t have enough guys who can break down the D and get all the way to the bucket?
The simplest answer would be: “Because L.A. has always been better with Beverley on the floor.”
Fair enough. But Beverley will play his age-33 season next year, and durability has not been among his strengths with the Clippers. Los Angeles should aim higher at point guard, targeting a starter who can stay healthy and add a new downhill dimension to the offense.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
The idea of Dennis Schroder, a score-first point guard who could prop up the Los Angeles Lakers offense and spell LeBron James, always made sense.
It just never worked all that well in practice.
The Lakers were outscored in the minutes Schroder played without James on the floor this season, a fact made more troubling because L.A. lost those stretches with ineffective offense. And now the Lakers are supposed to go above their initial reported offer of four years and $84 million to retain a starter who didn’t help them in the very specific way they hoped he would?
It’s true Los Angeles lacks the cap space to replace Schroder on the open market, but any focus on point guard retention should probably be on Alex Caruso, also a free agent, over Schroder.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
It speaks to the Memphis Grizzlies’ depth that the presumptive return to full-time starting status for Jaren Jackson Jr. next season will bump a quality, deserving starter from the first unit.
Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas aren’t getting demoted anytime soon, which means either Grayson Allen or Kyle Anderson is most likely to find himself playing a reserve role in 2021-22. Allen’s shooting is vital to a Grizzlies team that plays a conventional non-stretch center in Valanciunas and a point guard in Morant who shot just 30.3 percent from distance, but Jackson is among the best high-volume big-man gunners in the game.
He’ll fill the spacing void from a different position.
Anderson’s defense and knack for making winning plays are too valuable to expel from the first unit, so Allen is the loser here by default. He’ll be a luxury coming off the bench, though, and this season proved he could handle spot-start duties when necessary. Plenty of teams would love to have the kind of shooting in reserve that Memphis does with Allen and Desmond Bane.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Here for a good time but not a long time, Trevor Ariza was a late-season addition for a Miami Heat team that needed some veteran experience on the wing. Ariza, who has been around so long that he was the three-and-D prototype before we even had a term for it, will hit free agency this summer.
The Heat could bring him back for his age-36 season, but they’d be better off upgrading the position. Ariza is still a valuable playoff contributor because of his experience and savvy on both ends; he’s just not a “set it and forget it” full-season starter anymore.
Miami gets so much playmaking from Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo that it can afford to focus specifically on scoring in its search for an Ariza replacement. The shooting limitations of those same two players make spacing a key priority. Restricted free agent Duncan Robinson’s gravity is powerful, but he can’t attract four help defenders all by himself.
If Tyler Herro is ready to take the step forward many expected this season, he could slot into Ariza’s vacated spot and give the Heat a boost in scoring at the expense of size. Victor Oladipo, whose status for next year is less certain than ever after surgery on his right quad, might be another option in free agency.
Regardless, if the Heat are going to improve on what was a mostly disappointing season, they need some extra punch in Ariza’s spot.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
The Milwaukee Bucks have so much top-line talent that at least one of their starters was bound to be consigned to specialist duty.
Donte DiVincenzo did what he could to excel in a more limited role following the addition of Jrue Holiday, cranking up his three-point attempt rate (57.4 percent of his shots were threes; 48.4 percent in 2019-20), driving less and keeping the ball hopping. Unfortunately, less wasn’t more for DiVincenzo, who struggled with consistency and didn’t finish well near the bucket in a mildly disappointing year.
DiVincenzo, whose playoff run ended early following a torn ligament in his ankle, is just the odd man out here, as Milwaukee’s starting five is loaded. If anyone in the group that includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Holiday and Brook Lopez needs to pick it up, it has to be the third-year guard who fell a little short of expectations.
Maybe that’s not fair, but we’ve got to pick somebody.
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Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Ricky Rubio started more games than any other Minnesota Timberwolves guard, but his replacement is already on the team. D’Angelo Russell came off the bench in the first month following his return from knee surgery, but he was the unquestioned lead guard to begin the year and closed the campaign with seven straight starts.
That brings us to Josh Okogie, who didn’t conclude the season in the first unit, but who did start 37 times in 2020-21. Only Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Rubio logged more.
Okogie is an impactful defender who plays with energy and force. His block and steal rates have always been above average at his position, and he’s versatile enough to match up against guards and forwards alike. A Wolves team short on defense at virtually every position needs someone like him to throw at tough opposing wings, but Okogie’s lack of offensive punch means he’s too one-dimensional to fit into the starting five.
He averaged just 5.4 points per game on 40.2 percent shooting from the field with a ghastly 26.9 percent hit rate from downtown.
If Minnesota doesn’t convey its top-three protected pick to the Warriors, Okogie’s replacement could come in the draft. And even if the Timberwolves do wind up losing that selection, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Malik Beasley take over his role.
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Derick Hingle/Associated Press
The New Orleans Pelicans should be doing what they can to move on from both Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams, but the former’s non-guaranteed salary in 2022-23 should make him easier to trade. So, of the two ill-fitting, overpaid veteran options in the Pels starting five, we’ll go with the point guard over the center.
There’s a tactical reason behind the Bledsoe pick as well. Zion Williamson’s emergence as a primary ball-handler means Bledsoe’s offensive game, which is most effective on the ball, is now superfluous. You’d think the Pelicans would miss the two-time All-Defensive guard’s work on the other end, but this team just finished up a woefully disappointing year ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency. And New Orleans was 4.3 points per 100 possessions stingier with Bledsoe on the bench, which…yeah, I wouldn’t say they’ll be missing him, Bob.
Big picture, finding a way to punt Bledsoe could make it easier to justify keeping Lonzo Ball in restricted free agency. His price tag could get scary, but moving on from Bledsoe, a net-negative player due to make $18.1 million in 2021-22, would cut down the fear factor.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Elfrid Payton has to be the most universally agreed-upon pick in this entire exercise. The veteran point guard started all 63 games he played for the New York Knicks, compiling underwhelming averages of 10.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
All year, head coach Tom Thibodeau trotted Payton out with the starters, despite the 27-year-old’s stomach-turning 43.2/28.6/68.2 shooting split. It’s not as if Payton was impacting winning in hidden ways not captured by his box-score stats, either. The Knicks were 9.9 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor.
Payton will be a free agent this summer, but the Knicks won’t even have to sign anyone to improve on his vacated spot. Immanuel Quickley dramatically outperformed his draft slot and should be a lock for an All-Rookie team. He spent a large portion of his court time paired up with Derrick Rose, which worked exceptionally well.
He should be ready to take the reins by himself in 2021-22. Even if he struggles to adjust to a larger role, Quickley will almost certainly produce at a higher level than Payton did this season.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Credit Theo Maledon for emerging from his age-19 season with a scoring average of 10.1 points per game. Forget the inefficiency and early stretches in which he was overwhelmed (understandably!). What he accomplished was rare and, well, hard.
Coming into this season, only 23 qualified players in league history had ever posted a double-figure scoring average at such a young age.
If we assume, however, that the Oklahoma City Thunder are done feigning efforts to win games, Maledon should not be in the starting lineup next season. Give him minutes as a backup; he’s earned them merely by surviving this year’s baptism by fire. But OKC can’t in good conscience give a first-unit role to a player who shot 36.8 percent from the field.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the biggest star nobody knows about, and the ball should be in his hands as much as possible. Maledon can spell SGA and hopefully build on his rookie year by getting more reps against backups.
Of course, if the Thunder intend to tank a second straight season, they can leave Maledon’s role alone and try to jettison Al Horford, who was a regular (and effective) starter until they shut him down midway through 2020-21 for…reasons.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The Orlando Magic traded three starters—Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic—and lost a fourth, Markelle Fultz, to a torn ACL in January.
No team has undergone more drastic change over the last year than this one.
We can probably pencil Cole Anthony, Wendell Carter Jr. and a hopefully healthy Jonathan Isaac into next year’s starting five, with Chuma Okeke and Mo Bamba deserving looks as well. Really, though, Orlando’s lineups are going to be difficult to predict until we see what head coach Steve Clifford leans toward in training camp and the 2021-22 preseason.
Clifford should probably lean away from Dwyane Bacon, who should stick on the roster via a dirt-cheap $1.8 million non-guaranteed salary next year but whose questionable shot selection and inefficiency mark him as a deep-bench contributor. It says a lot about Orlando’s reset-button 2020-21 that Bacon started a team-high 50 games, despite his 49.0 true shooting percentage ranking dead last among the 72 players who attempted at least 700 field goals.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Just so you’re aware, we’re in a stretch here of three straight teams whose starting fives are too good to tinker with. For the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers, “must replace” really means “must maintain.”
So, about Danny Green…
The veteran shooting guard is the only member of the Sixers starting five who could leave. An unrestricted free agent who still has immense value to contenders in need of playoff-tested three-and-D performance (so, all contenders), Green should command something close to the $15.4 million he earned this year.
Green will play his age-34 season in 2021-22, and though he’s no longer quick enough to cover point guards like he used to, he’s still a reliable option against wings and smaller forwards. That he shot 40.5 percent on the highest per-minute three-point volume of his career suggests no offensive decline is imminent.
Philly has Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid secured through at least 2022-23. Those four plus Green posted a plus-14.0 net rating on the court together, easily the best figure of any five-man unit that saw over 400 minutes.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The offseason instructions for the Phoenix Suns include two steps.
Step 1: Assuming he declines his $44.2 million player option, “replace” free agent Chris Paul with Chris Paul on a new contract.
Step 2: Dust off hands, sigh in satisfaction and recline in a comfortable chair.
Technically, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges need extensions, and backup Cameron Payne’s free agency is a priority, but we’re not here to be thorough. Paul is the only starter with the ability to change teams this summer, and the Suns can’t let that happen unless CP3’s salary demands are prohibitively pricey.
Determining fair value will be tricky, but Paul was on the not-so-distant fringes of the MVP conversation, made the All-Star team and just concluded one of the best age-35 seasons we’ve ever seen from a guard, becoming just the fourth player at least that old to average over 16.0 points and 8.0 assists.
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Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
We could have kept up the theme of the last two sections and listed either Jusuf Nurkic (non-guaranteed $12 million for 2021-22) or Norman Powell ($11.6 million player option) as the starter the Portland Trail Blazers must replace. It would have been consistent with how we treated Danny Green in Philly and Chris Paul in Phoenix.
But we can ditch the loopholes and quote-unquote musts here, replacing them with a very direct response: The Blazers don’t need to do anything different with their optimal starting lineup. The whole gang should come back, and Portland should instead focus its energy on finding reserves who don’t completely compromise its defense.
/Shoots meaningful stare at Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Robert Covington, Powell and Nurkic destroyed opponents this season, running up a plus-13.4 net rating. The problem was they only shared the floor for 370 minutes. If that group stays healthy, and the Blazers shore up the 6-8 spots in the rotation, watch out.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
You can understand why the Sacramento Kings wanted Marvin Bagley III to succeed as a starter. They picked him one spot ahead of Luka Doncic, which was a mistake from the moment they made that decision. But at least if Bagley got the opportunity to play a major role, he’d maximize his chances of becoming a promising cornerstone—think Deandre Ayton in Phoenix, who also went ahead of Doncic in 2018.
Bagley started 42 of the 43 games he played in 2020-21, and the Kings, by now, have seen enough. Somebody else needs to take that spot next year.
Bagley is an offense-only player who ranked in the 29th percentile in points per shot attempt among bigs this season. And he’s been a negative influence on D in all three years of his injury-plagued career.
He doesn’t have the size or instincts to be a rim-protecting anchor as a center, and he also lacks the mobility and technique to cover quicker forwards on the perimeter. Offensive rebounding and quick-twitch putbacks have value, but not enough for the Kings to even consider inking Bagley to the rookie-scale extension for which he’ll be eligible this summer. Then comes a whopping $14.8 million qualifying offer for the 2022-23 season, followed by restricted free agency.
The Kings actually have more than one spot in need of an upgrade. Buddy Hield’s salary outstrips his production, and he’s in the way of Tyrese Haliburton in the backcourt. Richaun Holmes, arguably the best center on this year’s free-agent market, might also be gone, leaving a real void at the 5.
In the end, it comes back to Bagley, who’s had three years to show signs he can be a winning player on either end—and hasn’t.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
DeMar DeRozan is untethered—a free agent with designs on exploring his options after three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
That’s for the best.
The Spurs have an abundance of young talent ready for bigger roles, and removing a high-usage top scoring option from the roster will give all those 25-and-under prospects room to test their limits. Resident “old man” Derrick White (26) should be in line for a significant increase in shots and pecking-order primacy.
Dejounte Murray’s ball-handling duties will increase, Lonnie Walker IV should see more shots, Devin Vassell might find himself in the starting lineup, and Keldon Johnson will enjoy better spacing on his steamrolling rim attacks.
DeRozan, who’ll be 32 next season, may prefer a landing spot with more realistic playoff ambitions than San Antonio. And the Spurs should be ready to move on from a $28 million vet who hurt their net rating and crippled their defense in every season of his tenure.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
The Toronto Raptors thought Aron Baynes would be an adequate replacement for Marc Gasol at center, but the veteran big man began the season in search of his shooting stroke and never found it. It’s telling that Baynes didn’t start a game after April 1, giving way to waiver acquisition Khem Birch and logging just 27 made field goals against 16 DNPs over the season’s final six weeks.
Chris Boucher was useful against matchups that couldn’t exploit his lack of strength with bully ball, but he’s not a full-time answer at center and is headed for free agency anyway.
Obviously, if Kyle Lowry signs elsewhere this summer, his absence will leave a void in both the leadership and production departments. If Toronto is serious about contending again in 2021-22, keeping the franchise icon is key. At the same time, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. are good enough to handle the backcourt spots in a post-Lowry future.
It’s center, the position Baynes was supposed to stabilize, that needs the most attention.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
The Utah Jazz have the luxury of rostering more than five starting-caliber players. Jordan Clarkson won Sixth Man of the Year, and teammate Joe Ingles made a strong case for the award himself. If any team can afford to lose a starter, it’s this one.
Then again, anyone who watched Mike Conley surgically dismantle the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll defense in Game 2 of Utah’s first-round series on May 26 saw exactly how critical he is to his team. The veteran guard has seen enough in his career to quickly diagnose every opponent’s coverages, and he’s still got enough juice to exploit every mistake. Conley is in that rare sweet spot where his mental game is sharper than ever, and his physical tools are undiminished.
Utah outscored opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions with Conley in the game during the regular season, a margin bettered only by Rudy Gobert and his gaudy plus-14.6 on-court net rating. Framed that way, the only real criticism you can level at Conley is that he wasn’t quite as impactful as the shoo-in Defensive Player of the Year.
The Jazz are contenders, and Conley likes his situation. He is, however, a free agent—one Utah can’t afford to let go. As we’ve done with several other teams, the Jazz must replace free agent Conley with under-contract Conley.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal are sure to start next season, but beyond those two stars, it’s tricky to determine whom the Washington Wizards intend to utilize in the first unit.
Alex Len and Robin Lopez are both free agents, but Thomas Bryant was the starter before tearing his ACL early in the year. If he’s back to full health, maybe the job goes to him. If not, midseason addition Daniel Gafford was quietly Washington’s best big man down the stretch. He’s an absolute bargain on a $1.8 million non-guaranteed salary for 2021-22.
If Deni Avdija’s fibular fracture doesn’t hinder his offseason preparation, he figures to regain the starting spot he held for most of the year. Picked ninth in 2020, the 20-year-old forward showed enough to inspire confidence he can be a valuable connective piece of the offense—a ball-mover who can read defenses, handle the rock in the open floor and, hopefully, threaten the defense with a developing three-point stroke.
Rui Hachimura isn’t the easy pick here, but he feels like the right one.
The combo forward is already 23, which means he has less time to improve than Avdija. He also loves mid-range jumpers and is about as likely to turn the ball over as he is to register an assist, which is hard to fathom for a guy with such a light playmaking lift alongside Beal and Westbrook.
Hachimura’s game just feels better suited for the bench, where his preferred shot types would be more valuable as bail-out last resorts when the second-unit offense can’t get anything else going. If he can get his three-point accuracy (31.3 percent for his career) up around the league average, maybe this is a different conversation. But for now, it seems Washington could get better spacing and defense from someone else, while Hachimura might thrive as a high-scoring sixth man.