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Five lineups that could define the 2021-22 NBA season

Profile Picture: Rory Breasail

September 21st, 2021

The offseason is a time for optimism, as teams theorize about how their new lineups might make the difference for them during the season. Whether they’re designed to cover a specific weakness or accentuate a strength, teams are looking for that one new combination that can push them over the top. 

Today we’re taking a look at five of the most intriguing new lineup combinations that could come to define the 2021-22 NBA season.

5. LOS ANGELES LAKERS: ANTHONY DAVIS, LEBRON JAMES, RUSSELL WESTBROOK, TALEN HORTON-TUCKER, AND KENDRICK NUNN 

It’s funny that the entire NBA world has been lamenting how difficult it is to fit Ben Simmons anywhere on an NBA team, while meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, who is arguably a more difficult fit, on a much worse contract, and who doesn’t make up for his offensive shortcomings with defensive brilliance the way that Simmons does.

Teams that include Westbrook inevitably have to be built around his particular strengths and weaknesses, and when the Lakers signed DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard and let Marc Gasol go, it wasn’t clear they understood this.

Recent reporting by Jake Fischer indicates that Anthony Davis will start the season at the center position. If true, this should be a dominant regular season unit. While nobody outside of this group is an exceptional outside shooter, they are all threats that must be guarded when Westbrook has the ball. It will be odd to see LeBron as a primarily off-ball threat, which is all part of the intrigue. And strategically, it makes sense to let the indefatigable Westbrook soak up regular season possessions while LeBron saves his legs for playoff basketball.

Whether or not it proves wise to wear the sometimes fragile Davis’ legs down in the process to do so though is another question.

4. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: ZION WILLIAMSON, DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, BRANDON INGRAM, JONAS VALANCIUNAS, NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER

The New Orleans Pelicans took a beating for their offseason strategy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to be excited too. Yes, losing Lonzo Ball and paying a first-round pick to add Devonte’ Graham was poor process, but this is without a doubt a more offensively skilled starting five. All five players are capable of creating offense for themselves in a pinch, and that kind of distributed threat creation is a far cry from last season where Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams could basically be abandoned by attentive defenses. 

And while claiming that Jonas Valanciunas was acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies to help spacing on offense for Zion Williamson has been met with ridicule, the trade itself was a home run for the Pels. Valanciunas was perhaps the Grizzlies’ most important player last year and eclipsed Steven Adams’s performance on both sides of the ball. And while the release on his 3-point shot is slower than loading a catapult, he can and will take midrange shots that Adams has never even thought about taking. It’s not the stretch-five that Pels fans dream of pairing with Zion, but it is a marked improvement.

3. NEW YORK KNICKS: KEMBA WALKER, RJ BARRETT, EVAN FOURNIER, JULIUS RANDLE, and MITCHELL ROBINSON

The New York Knicks were the league's feel-good success story last season, but after their series against the Atlanta Hawks revealed structural failures in their roster construction, they made major renovations.

The Knicks simply had too many players that couldn’t create with the ball in their hands, allowing the Hawks to overload to Julius Randle, preventing the first time All-Star from getting into any kind of rhythm. This new Knicks starting lineup features four players who can all do some self-creation, shoot off the catch or off the dribble, and pass. And with a healthy Mitchell Robinson in the middle, they’ll have a dynamic lob threat that will keep the defense honest in a way that Nerlens Noel simply could not.

It does leave one wondering about RJ Barrett’s offensive role entering his third season. What is clear though is that by letting Reggie Bullock walk, the Knicks have made it obvious they believe Barrett can be a defensive stopper on the wing against the league’s very best.

2. UTAH JAZZ: MIKE CONLEY, DONOVAN MITCHELL, JOE INGLES, BOJAN BOGDANOVIC, and RUDY GAY

The Utah Jazz are regular-season killers but have been criticized in the past for their supposed playoff flaws. Those flaws are perhaps overblown by some, but it is also true that teams that win the Larry O’Brien Trophy can adjust and throw multiple looks without completely compromising their core identity. Going with free agent addition Rudy Gay at center alongside a switching defense gives the Jazz that new look.

The Jazz offense devolved too often into "hope Donovan Mitchell does something" mode during the playoffs, and a more readily spaced court with Gay stretching to the 3-point line should do wonders to unplug the offense in critical stretches. With a legit five-out offense and good-to-great shooters at every position, opponents will truly be in "pick your poison" mode while Gobert catches his breath.

1. MIAMI HEAT: KYLE LOWRY, JIMMY BUTLER, DUNCAN ROBINSON, PJ TUCKER, and BAM ADEBAYO

This may very well be the starting lineup for the Miami Heat on opening night, but even if it’s not, it will be the closing group for a lot of games when they count. This could be the strongest defensive unit in the entire NBA. They’re physical, tough, highly intelligent, and experienced players who take pride on that side of the ball.

But offense is going to be a huge question mark. 

Kyle Lowry showed his first signs of real regression last season, and it remains to be seen if he can bounce back. Jimmy Butler’s jumper has deserted him in recent years even as he’s become stronger attacking the basket. PJ Tucker, while playing a key role on the Milwaukee Bucks championship team, has become a functional zero on offense. A lot will rely on the clever two-man dribble handoff game of Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo, but even with that going on most nights, this team might struggle to score.

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