We left the NBA just after trade and buyout season. Top teams were incorporating new players and adjusting after injuries.

Here are 13 new or newish lineups I’m excited to watch when the games start.

Shake Milton (!), Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid: 0 minutes.

Just when I think I’m out, the Sixers — my preseason pick to make the NBA Finals, my siren song — pull me back in. Philly experimented with Al Horford as sixth man before Simmons injured his back. The Sixers liked what they saw — including a Feb. 11 home win (because Philly only wins at home) over the Clippers that was one of the most intense and well-played games leaguewide all season.

The Sixers are minus-9 with Simmons, Horford, and Embiid together, and their offense has disintegrated. Their now-mothballed starting five has scored at the rate of the Bulls’ 29th-ranked offense.

It’s not that Horford is a bad 3-point shooter, or much worse than Milton, though he has been this season. (Milton is shooting 45% from deep.) But Horford is 6-foot-9, and 34, and has lived most of his basketball life from the foul line in.

It just looked slow and unnatural — like everyone was thinking too much about where to stand. There will be more flow with Milton in Horford’s place. Richardson and Harris will find their water levels as ball handlers.

The tradeoff is opponents having a safer haven — Milton — for their weakest defenders, but the benefits should outweigh that. An opposing wing still has to guard Simmons or Harris, giving the Sixers a second bully-ball threat alongside Embiid.

Philly’s defense should be fine with Embiid, Simmons, and Richardson. Horford becomes a traditional backup center and the hub of a second-unit offense. We will still see the Horford-Embiid pairing when matchups and situations dictate.

Brett Brown had four choices to replace Horford: Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Glenn Robinson III. Korkmaz is the best pure shooter, and formed a funky pick-and-pop partnership with Simmons. Milton has learned the same action:

Milton has more north-south zip, and the Sixers really need that. He’s longer than you think on defense.

Thybulle is a strangler on that end, and the Sixers can use him with this group when they have a lead in crunch time. He’s a standstill type on offense, and I understand Brown searching for more shake. (Sorry.) Robinson is meh.

Brown has said in recent interviews he is using Simmons more off the ball, and that gets easier with better spacing and more speed. Simmons is a veteran of the dunker spot, and can be a devastating cutter from outside the arc. He’s a nasty screener, and plays that role more with Horford on the bench, per Second Spectrum. The Milton-Simmons pick-and-roll has worked in small doses; Milton has nice touch on entry passes.

Simmons will still have the ball a ton, and he should be more effective with it in this arrangement. (Milton loves to run the wings for Simmons in transition.) The smaller Sixers have made good use of the “snug” pick-and-roll between Simmons and Embiid on the block — a play that works better with three shooters buzzing around it:

Switching creates bad mismatches. Ducking Embiid’s pick is dicey, because it allows Simmons to get too close to the rim:

This all makes sense. A Sixers team that makes sense is scary. I can’t quit them.

Giannis Antetokounmpo at center: 260 minutes, plus-140 (L-O-L)

Maybe the Bucks won’t need this tool. Maybe they won’t face an opponent who punishes their drop-back defense — centered in most lineups by a Lopez brother — with pull-up 3s and pick-and-pops. Toronto busted through in last season’s conference finals, but the main driver of that is now a Clipper.

Brook Lopez has gotten better scurrying around the arc. No Eastern Conference contender has a pick-and-pop center that strikes fear into the Bucks.

But Marc Gasol — 40% from deep — comes close, and still screens for Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Boston is perhaps the league’s best pull-up jump-shooting team, with Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum raining fire. They are sitting on a centerless lineup that could stretch Lopez thin: Walker, Tatum, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown. (In fairness, Lopez has squashed little guys in the post on the other end when opponents go small.)

Most Antetokounmpo-at-center lineups trend small, with Khris Middleton as nominal power forward. (I’m not counting groups featuring Ersan Ilyasova.) That’s why Milwaukee’s February acquisition of Marvin Williams intrigued: Were they adding size to these lineups without sacrificing speed (as they do with Ilyasova)?

The touchstone of Milwaukee’s offense is the same regardless of lineup configuration: Antetokounmpo and shooting. But without Lopez, the Bucks amp up the pace and use more varied screening combinations. Antetokounmpo sets 15 ball screens per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor, and 22 in centerless groups, per Second Spectrum. Also: Lopez has hit just 29.6% from deep this season. Williams is at 36%, and has drained at least 43% on corner 3s in four of the past six seasons. Guess where Mike Budenholzer likes to put him?

The centerless Bucks might have Kyle Korver or some other shooter screen for Antetokounmpo, and fly into open space:

They might pair two shaky shooters (Eric Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo) or their two best players (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) in pick-and-rolls.

When defenses adjust, the Bucks hunt the weak link elsewhere.

Interestingly, these lineups have lived at the rim. About 42% of their shots have come at the basket, a share that would lead all teams, per Cleaning The Glass. They generate heaps of free throws and offensive rebounds — unusual for the Bucks. Basically, they are smaller lineups that play like bigger ones thanks to speed and spacing. They haven’t sacrificed anything on the defensive glass, perhaps because opponents downsize too.

Smart defenses will barricade those paths to the rim by abandoning Milwaukee’s weakest shooter — as the Heat do against Donte DiVincenzo (34% on 3s) below:

The Raptors ignored Bledsoe. Against the best competition, Milwaukee might want to minimize the time Antetokounmpo plays with two or more of its so-so shooters. These lineups represent one pathway there.

Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker: 45 minutes, plus-9

This is Houston’s apex lineup after going all-in on a turbocharged, centerless style.

Houston excising big men feels radical, but it is less about size than skill. Harden’s step-back 3, a revolution almost on par with the rise of Stephen Curry, rendered Clint Capela’s pick-and-roll screening irrelevant. Capela’s new job was scrounging lobs around the basket. That was fine so long as all three Rockets surrounding Harden and Capela could shoot 3s. Exchanging Chris Paul for Westbrook added another non-shooter.

Defenses responded by doubling Harden everywhere. Capela had to go. Houston would have welcomed a well-rounded center who shoots 3s. None were available. Covington — a snug fit on both ends — was.

The redesign benefited Westbrook most. He ditched 3s and rampaged through open driving lanes when defenses crowded Harden. Westbrook has averaged 31 points on 53% shooting since Capela’s last appearance. He is a sneering blur hunting hammer dunks. (It goes without saying that we have to see how Westbrook and every other player recovering from the coronavirus look on the floor, and that their health is more important than basketball.)

All four of Harden’s teammates in this group are capable screen-setters; Harden can simply pick out the weakest opposing defender:

Note Westbrook in the corner nearest Harden. Westbrook’s defender sticks close, because that is what you do in the strongside corner. Smart postseason defenses might help off Westbrook no matter where he is. A few opponents have stashed centers on Westbrook, and planted them near the rim. Most stick centers on Tucker, and dare Tucker and Westbrook to beat them with above-the-break 3s:

Complex Houston-specific defenses can work, but scrapping entrenched habits on the fly is hard. Utah’s defense collapsed in a heap of confusion against Harden in last season’s playoffs. That is part of Harden’s power: He warps the rules. Westbrook is also a sneaky baseline cutter when ignored.

Gordon is critical. He hasn’t shot above 36% on 3s since 2016-17, and is down to a puzzling 32% this season. His theoretical ability to hit ultra-deep 3s provides oxygen for Harden and Westbrook. Gordon and Tucker have delightful off-ball chemistry:

Gordon is a bulldozing driver — another late clock option.

This group will sink or swim with its ultra-switchy defense. Lineups featuring both Tucker and Covington have been stingy so far. They defend the two most dangerous scorers almost regardless of position, leaving awkward matchups elsewhere. Harden will guard some centers.

The Rockets don’t mind mismatches in the post. They are cagey fronting, with help lurking behind. (Nikola Jokic, the best big man passer ever, could be the ultimate test of Houston’s defense in one potential first-round matchup.)

The Rockets also understand mismatches down low don’t matter if you’ve killed 20 seconds generating one; you don’t have time to exploit it. Some bigger teams go small — surrendering their size advantage — to keep up with Houston.

Houston’s transition defense, long a vulnerability, has tightened since the trade deadline. The Rockets are faster, less worried about matching up. They have to sustain that, especially when Westbrook and Tucker chase offensive rebounds. Both are great at that. Tucker tosses people out of the way like George Costanza fleeing a (not really) burning home. But they have to pick their spots, and the other three Rockets need to sprint back.

All five of these guys are handsy. Houston ranks third in forcing turnovers since the start of February.

They are wobbly on the glass. Perimeter defenders have to hang around the foul line for long rebounds instead of leaking out.

A lot of this comes down to Westbrook and Harden not being weak links on 15 or 20 possessions every game. They can dial in when they want to. Pairing them — and dividing the scoring burden between them — was meant to help each preserve energy for defense. Houston might have the highest upside among the Rockets/Nuggets/Jazz/Thunder/Mavericks logjam — the best chance at pushing the Los Angeles teams — but they’ll only hit if they commit to defense every trip.

Seth Curry/Tim Hardaway Jr./Dorian Finney-Smith/Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis: 122 minutes, plus-30

Dwight Powell’s Achilles tear robbed Luka Doncic of his preferred pick-and-roll partner — one of the league’s relentless rim-runners. It was the rare role player injury that threatened a team’s structural integrity.

The Willie Cauley-Stein experiment lasted 13 games. Maxi Kleber likes to screen-and-dive, but he’s not quite as dynamic as Powell.


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