NBA Atlantic Division Rotation and Roster Questions

NBA Atlantic Division Rotation and Roster Questions

The NBA preseason is right around the corner. Between the short training camp (compared to NFL or MLB) and the preseason games, it’s a chance for coaches and front offices to sort through their rotations and rosters. While the NBA features much smaller rosters than NFL or MLB, there are still decisions to be made. We’re going to go through the biggest rotation and roster decisions each team has ahead of them over the next month or so. We’ve already covered the Southeast Division and Southwest Division teams.

Boston Celtics

Who are the starters? 

Boston has a top-six that rivals or bests almost every other team in the NBA. That’s hardly a problem, but it does leave Joe Mazzulla deciding who goes to the bench when everyone is available to play. While many other coaches would love to have such troubles, it can be a tricky equation with egos, salaries and lineup balance all in play.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis are all locks to start. Jrue Holiday is about a 99.9% lock to start. That leaves the last spot down to Al Horford or Derrick White. Two drastically different players, resulting in some drastically different styles of plays and different rotations.

Horford has come off the bench in exactly 10 of the 1,013 NBA games that he’s played. Four times were in his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks and the other six times were during the one disastrous season Horford spent with the Philadelphia 76ers. The veteran big man has started all 340 regular season games he’s played with the Celtics, and all 89 playoff games.

Derrick White’s role in Boston has yo-yoed back and forth between starting and coming off the bench. He was mostly a reserve during the Celtics 2022 NBA Finals run. Last season, White started in 70 of his 82 regular season games and 16 of his 20 playoff games.

That logic says White probably goes to the bench, but that might be too simple of an answer.

Boston’s big man rotation is pretty thin behind Porzingis and Horford. Right now, Luke Kornet (who the Celtics believe in as a regular season guy for 15-20 minutes per game) and newly-added Wenyen Gabriel are the primary backup bigs. As we learned last season, Mazzulla’s preferred rotation only has room for three bigs. So, it’ll probably be Porzingis, Horford and Kornet most nights.

We also learned that Mazzulla loves to play five-out. If he can start two ball-hawking, playmaking guards in Holiday and White, alongside his star wings in Brown and Tatum, with Porzingis pulling opposing bigs away from the paint, Mazzulla is going to do it. He’s at least going to go that grouping a lot, even if it doesn’t start.

Against certain teams, like the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers, Mazzulla may lean on Horford to start, with White coming off the bench. Horford has historically been Boston’s best matchup for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. And the next two best guys to guard those two big stars, Grant Williams and Marcus Smart, are no longer in green.

The reality is that the Celtics will say the typical “We have six starters” sort of stuff. Maybe Horford and White share the fifth spot, with White starting on the nights that Horford sits. The big man isn’t subject to the NBA’s new resting policy, and he’s already at the point where he doesn’t play back-to-back sets.

The guess here is that this remains pretty fluid. And a non-guess is that both Horford and White understand the goal is to win a title. They’ll sacrifice starting if that’s what it takes to achieve that goal.

Related: Is there enough off the bench? 

Boston’s depth was pretty well sapped this summer. They traded away a starter in Marcus Smart, a swing starter/reserve in Rob Williams, the Sixth Man of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon and versatile backup big Grant Williams.

That’s a lot of talent headed out the door.

The Celtics believe that Payton Pritchard is ready for a bigger role as an every-night backup point guard. He’s been a knockdown shooter throughout his career, is a developing playmaker and he’s a competitive defender, despite a lack of size.

Sam Hauser returns in his designated shooter role. But Hauser also held up remarkably well on defense. And by the end of last season, he was showing the ability to make something happen off the dribble against hard closeouts.

As we covered above, Luke Kornet and Wenyen Gabriel will be the third and fourth bigs. That’s probably a step ahead of where they’d ideally be slotted in a rotation, but Boston can make do.

After that, the Celtics will be hoping that someone emerges out of Oshae Brissett, Dalano Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lamar Stevens and rookie Jordan Walsh. All bring a different mix of skills, and over the course of a long regular season, all will probably have opportunities to contribute.

Whoever ends up as Boston’s sixth man will be very good, and will bring starter-level production. It’s important to find another four or five guys to contribute throughout 82 games to keep Joe Mazzulla from having to run the starters into the ground. Keep an eye on Brad Stevens using his $6.2 million TPE from the Grant Williams trade to bring in some additional help by the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets

Who is the starting point guard? 

On its face, this seems to be a pretty easy answer: Spencer Dinwiddie. But things are rarely that simple, especially when Ben Simmons is involved.

Simmons is full-go for training camp after playing just 100 games over the last three seasons. Simmons also recently said that he’s a point guard, no matter how much people keep trying to make him everything but a lead playmaker.

Thus, the question of who starts.

Dinwiddie started all 26 of his games for the Nets after being acquired at the trade deadline. He’s also got a long history with the team from his previous stint in Brooklyn. Ultimately, Dinwiddie is the safer option. He’s been relatively durable, and he’s productive, if somewhat inefficient.

But Simmons still has that star upside. After the last two messy seasons, it’s easy to forget that Simmons was a three-time All-Star with the 76ers. He was also the NBA’s most versatile defender, equally as good at guarding all five positions. And despite the lack of a jump shot, Simmons was a top-tier playmaker and could still provide some points too.

If that guy remains in there somewhere, Simmons unlocks a whole new level for the Nets. Imagine the havoc a trio of Simmons, Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton could wreak on opposing offenses?

The guess here is that Dinwiddie starts, but by the holidays, Simmons takes over. If Simmons hasn’t won the job back by then, he’s probably either hurt or simply doesn’t have it anymore. At that point, Brooklyn has to decide what to do with the $78.2 million he’s owed this season and next.

Who starts at forward? 

Assuming Cam Johnson’s hamstring injury isn’t serious, and it doesn’t seem to be, Jacque Vaughn has an interesting decision to make at the forward position. Johnson is a for-sure starter. That leaves the other spot down to Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale. Finney-Smith started all 26 games he played for the Nets after the trade deadline, while O’Neale moved to a bench role.

Seems like Finney-Smith will start, and that’s probably how it will go. But O’Neale has historically been a better shooter, and this starting group is a bit light on shooting. Defensively, Finney-Smith has a bit more size, but the two are fairly comparable. So, it might not be quite as cut-and-dry as it seems.

There’s also a slight chance that Simmons starts, and Dinwiddie moves to an off-ball role. That would likely push both Mikal Bridges and Johnson to the starting forward roles. That makes things a little messy for the bench forward rotation, but it could be a way for Vaughn to get the most playmaking on the floor.

The bet here is that Finney-Smith starts, but O’Neale is heavily involved. Maybe, and it’s a big maybe, Dinwiddie moves back to the off-ball role (in which he was quite good with Dallas), and Simmons starts alongside him, with Bridges and Johnson as the forwards. But that’s probably a pretty far down-the-line thing, if ever.

New York Knicks

Who is the backup power forward? 

The last three seasons Julius Randle has averaged 37.6, 35.3 and 35.5 minutes per game. He’s been pretty durable too, playing in 71, 72 and 77 games.

So, Randle’s backup doesn’t exactly have a major role. But it is still a question that needs answered. Especially if Randle was to miss time for any reason.

In the regular season, it seems likely that player will be Josh Hart. Is that unconventional? Sure. Can Hart do it? He sure can.

Despite being a 6-foot-5 wing, Hart is one of the better rebounders in the NBA. Not just for his size, but period. Hart has a terrific nose for the ball, he’s got great timing and he’s extremely tough. He’s equally adept at digging out defensive boards, as he is sneaking in and stealing second chance opportunities.

Hart also plays bigger than his size on defense. He’s pretty rugged, which allows him to hold up against all but the biggest fours in the NBA. Considering the Knicks will also always have a true five on the floor, Hart will have that backside rim protection for the handful of guys who can overpower him inside. And playing Hart as the backup four eases the congestion of a very crowded wing rotation (more on that in a bit!).

But…and this is a big but…what if Randle goes down?

Tom Thibodeau embraced the unconventional-ness of Hart as a backup four, but he’s not likely to go that way if Randle can’t play. In the five games Randle missed at the end of last regular season, Thibodeau went with the departed Obi Toppin as the starter.

As it stands right now, the Knicks don’t have another option. New York has fooled around with some double-center looks, and that might be the answer if Randle was to miss a lot of time. But that puts a lot of added stress on the offense.

Let’s call this lack of a true backup four something that isn’t a problem…until it is. And that’s the best New York can hope for right now.

Related: What is the wing rotation? 

As mentioned above, the Knicks have a lot of wings. RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes are entrenched as starters. Josh Hart will see plenty of wing minutes. Donte DiVincenzo was added this summer as a value signing for most of the Non-Taxpayer MLE. And, if that wasn’t already enough, Immanuel Quickley also plays some off-ball minutes too. Oh, and Evan Fournier is still on this roster too!

We can take Fournier out of the mix. New York would have to suffer a lot of injuries before Fournier would get back in the mix. As it stands, he remains a major trade chip to rebalance the roster, or as valuable salary-matching in a trade for a star.

But that leaves five guys for two spots. And Barrett is going to play somewhere between 33 and 35 minutes per game. So, it’s really one spot and a handful of other minutes. As we covered already, Hart will see a chunk of his minutes backing up Julius Randle at the four.

That should leave enough minutes for Donte DiVincenzo to see 20 or so minutes a night off the bench. And Quickley should get 28-30 minutes per game between the two guard spots.

It’s not really a problem for Tom Thibodeau, especially if he continues to ramp down his starter’s minutes this season, as he did last year. But there is a chance someone could get uncomfortable here, due to a lesser than ideal amount of playing time. At that point, it’s likely the Knicks front office has a decision to make on a roster-rebalancing trade.

Philadelphia 76ers

Who starts at guard if James Harden isn’t there? 

As of this writing, James Harden has skipped Media Day for the Sixers. It’s unknown if he’ll show up for training camp or not. If Harden truly holds out, he’s got a 30-day window to figure things out, or he might not be allowed to become a free agent after this season.

For this question, we’re going to take the approach that Harden isn’t a part of things for the Sixers this season. Whether it’s a holdout, the team just sits him out or Harden gets his long-awaited trade, we’ll assume he’s out of the picture.

That leaves the second guard spot next to Tyrese Maxey open. More often than not, De’Anthony Melton got that call when either Maxey or Harden missed time last season. He’s probably got the first crack at that position again this season too.

However, Nick Nurse is now coaching the 76ers and he might want to go in a different direction. Over the last couple of seasons with the Toronto Raptors, Nurse has run bigger lineups that featured one true guard. Could he run some version of that in Philadelphia?

If Nurse wants to go big, he could start Kelly Oubre Jr. or veteran wing Danny Green. Danuel House Jr. and Furkan Korkmaz are both still around, but neither seems like they’d snag a starting spot.

If Nurse wanted to go smaller, he could also call upon veteran guard Patrick Beverley to start. Beverley hasn’t come off the bench for several years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start.

Since none of the bigger options are all that appealing, look for Melton and Beverley to battle for the starting spot. One benefit of bringing Melton off the bench is that he’s done it regularly. Melton can also easily sub for, and play alongside, either Maxey or Beverley.

What is the wing rotation? 

Kelly Oubre Jr. was a late addition, but a good one. Oubre isn’t the most efficient guy, but he can score. That still has value, especially in a reserve role. If James Harden isn’t around, the 76ers are going to need someone to replace some of his scoring. Oubre can do that.

After him, it gets a little messy. Maybe Danny Green can regain his 3&D form, but he’s 36 years old and didn’t look great physically last season. Danuel House Jr. and Furkan Korkmaz have never quite been able to grab consistent rotation roles. Maybe Jaden Springer breaks through in his third year. But he’s only played 18 total NBA games, and Springer’s G League production is a little iffy. He mostly overpowered outmatched players with his athleticism to get his points, which won’t happen in the NBA.

This is a spot that could get cleaned up considerably if Daryl Morey eventually trades James Harden. Of course, if Harden is in the fold, and actually tries, then this problem is also lessened. But given we’ve seen what Harden did in both Houston and Brooklyn when he wanted a trade, the 76ers might be worse off if he actually plays.

Toronto Raptors

Who starts? 

Toronto is in transition, even if they don’t fully seem to want to admit it. Kyle Lowry is long gone, Fred VanVleet is gone, and Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are pending free agents. But for now, new coach Darko Rajakovic has to put a team on the floor that features the latter two.

And that’s where his opening group is formed, along with Scottie Barnes. After that, it’s somewhat of an open question. For most of last season, Nick Nurse favored starting small without a true center. After the team acquired Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline, everyone slid down a position, and Gary Trent Jr. went to the bench.

This season could look similar. Toronto will probably open with the three forwards alongside Poeltl, with Dennis Schroder running the point. Both Siakam and Barnes are capable of running the offense, but it’s likely the rookie coach will want an actual point guard leading his offense.

That means Trent, after opting in for this season, is back in a bench role in a contract year. This is probably another one of those “We have six starters” situations, but it’s pretty clear Trent will be the sixth man here. If he bristles at that, things could get messy.

Starting Poeltl, Siakam, Anunoby, Barnes and Schroder could also be messy spacing-wise. Only Anunoby can be considered a reliable shooter of that group, and he doesn’t have that single-player gravity to create spacing for everyone else.

The real answer to this problem is a trade. The Raptors reportedly were in on trying to get Damian Lillard and that would have made sense in so many ways. Media Day in Toronto was weird, because neither Siakam nor the team’s leadership seemed overly committed to each other. And Anunoby has been looking for a bigger role.

This version of the Raptors was past their expiration date over a year or so ago. But they just keep moving along, with only minor changes. It’s past time for a shakeup, but for now, this group is what it is.

Who is the backup point guard? 

This feels like it’s been a long-term question for the Raptors. Dennis Schroder seems very likely to start, but who backs him up is an open competition. To some extent, it’ll be Pascal Siakam or Scottie Barnes running the offense when Schroder sits, but it’d be nice to see a real backup floor general emerge.

Malachi Flynn is still around, but we’re in Year 4 of hoping he pops. Not much from the previous three years gives off much confidence that will happen. Jeff Dowtin is really interesting, and has been really good in the G League. But Dowtin is 26 years old and doesn’t even have a fully guaranteed contract.

Veteran guard Garrett Temple was added this summer, but he hasn’t been a regular rotation player in over four years. Markquis Nowell is a fun player to watch and monitor. But he’s 5-foot-8, on a two-way deal and he shot under 40% in college. Nowell will have to prove himself in the G League first.

As Toronto has repeatedly leaned into adding lengthy wings (and they did it again this summer by signing Jalen McDaniels), they’ve ignored the backup point guard spot. That’s coming home to roost now. The Raptors might need to lean on Dennis Schroder to play a lot. That historically has come with mixed results. Much like the question about the starting group, this could, and should, be fixed with a trade. But it’s long past time to quit holding our breath waiting on that to happen.