Starting lineups are viewed with increasing indifference around the NBA these days. Teams seem more inclined to futz with rotations depending on matchups, and then, of course, we have the Triassic-old "It's not who starts, but who finishes!" proverb.
To anyone unwilling to spare even stray thoughts on who NBA squads field for opening tips: I hear you. I get it. I still love you. But you're wrong.
The vast majority of starting fives remain unqualified representations of a team's best players—and harbingers of how they'll finish close games. When these quintets undergo material change, by force or foible, it absolutely matters.
Anticipating these alterations matters, too. It's why the offseason exists at all: to speculate on necessary, sometimes radical shifts. The playoffs are great, because, well, basketball is great. But most of the Association has already entered "On to Next Year" mode. Capably consuming #thisleague entails flipping that switch amid unfinished business on the court.
Identifying which opening units will incur the most turnover before next season is a little dicey, largely because there's no shortage of transformative scenarios. To help juggle this hypothetical heft, I'm dusting off the ol' Tier Builder 3000.
Certain teams can be slotted across multiple categories. In these cases, they will be placed within the most appropriate subset. The driving forces behind possible starting-five shakeups vary, but every squad has one thing in common: Their preferred starting five has a reasonable, if likely, pathway to moving on from at least two of its members.
There Should Be Serious Changes, But We Know Better
Serious changes could be on deck in Charlotte. P.J. Washington is a restricted free agent, and Miles Bridges, who must serve the balance of a 30-game suspension for pleading no contest to felony domestic violence charges, remains unsigned.
LaMelo Ball is the only true starter lock. Mark Williams' ended the season in the opening five, but it's not clear if bringing back both Washington and Bridges impacts his standing.
Really, this is much ado over nothing. These are the Hornets. They're not going the nuclear overhaul route. They'll add a glitzy lottery pick, but if more than one of LaMelo, Washington, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier is demoted or ends up elsewhere, it will be a legit shocker.
Three core starters populate the Bulls' roster: DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević. Alex Caruso finished the year inside the opening five.
All four should be back next season. Vooch is a free agent, but he has Chicago in a bind unless the organization decides to rebuild. Which, well, it won't. Even the fifth spot might already be wrapped up by Patrick Beverley (unrestricted). I'd love for it to be wrapped up by Lonzo Ball, but his left knee has other ideas. (Related: Ban injuries forever.)
The Wizards are primed for material change on the surface. They fired lead executive Tommy Sheppard, and two of their staple starters, Kyle Kuzma (player option) and Kristaps Porziņģis (player option) can become free agents. This could be the year Washington decides to start over.
We've seen this movie before. In their never-ending quest to remain among the bottom of the middle, Wizards will pay their own guys and run it back. Maaaybe they make a landmark trade, but they're asset light, so I'd hazard that Kuz, KP, Bradley Beal and Monte Morris are all locked in for next year—with the most likely outcome being Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert or Daniel Gafford taking the fifth spot.
Look, It Could Go Either Way
Though the Hawks had many issues this season, their starting five wasn't one of them. Even with John Collins struggling for much of the year, the quintet of him, Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De'Andre Hunter and Clint Capela fared quite well.
At the same time, Atlanta has turned over its front office and coaching staff in the past year. Collins has been in trade rumors since before he was born. And the pressure to do something, anything, drastic could lead the Hawks to consider flipping Capela or Hunter.
Fans and analysts will push for the Clippers to leave a visible dent on the trade market. They probably won't. They're certainly not moving Paul George or Kawhi Leonard. If you deal one, you might as well jettison both, because you're tilting toward rebuilding mode. The Clippers aren't doing that.
Three starter spots seem cemented as a result. PG, Kawhi and Ivica Zubac should all still be around. If exit interviews are any indication, Russell Westbrook will be, too. But the Clippers' payroll is so high they won't have the mini mid-level exception. Russ could be on the move by default, and the other starting slot is far from sewn up either way.
With cap space galore, on a timeline that skews toward open-ended, the Jazz are capable of doing anything.
Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler will be back, because duh. The certainty ends there.
Will Jordan Clarkson (player option) and Kelly Olynyk ($3 million guaranteed) be back? Is Ochai Agbaji a starter now? Or Collin Sexton? Or Talen Horton-Tucker (player option)? Will any of their inbound first-round picks get the nod? Does Utah parlay what should be, at minimum, $30-plus million of cap space into a new face worth starting? Stay tuned.
Potential Wild Cards to Monitor
New Orleans Pelicans
Standing pat is on the table for the Pelicans. They don't have cap space or any key free agents, and their sample size with Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum remains overwhelmingly small. The trio played in just 10 games together this season.
Counting on better availability from the core—mainly Zion and BI—is still a risky proposition. New Orleans has to at least consider a meaningful change or two. Moving Jonas Valančiūnas as part of a deal that adds shooting, secondary rim pressure and/or protection around the basket is the most obvious call. But any trade that truly nudges the needle could entail other inclusions—like Herb Jones or McCollum. Failing that, a full-strength nucleus only has one starting spot to divvy up between Jones and Trey Murphy.
New York Knicks
Unless this postseason ends in a title, the Knicks will resume their spot on the "Star Trade Hunters" mantle. Jalen Brunson isn't going anywhere. The same cannot be said for RJ Barrett or Quentin Grimes. Ditto for Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson.
And if you want to count Josh Hart instead of Barrett or Grimes, well, he's not technically a permanent fixture, either. He'll enter free agency this summer, where he should have no shortage of suitors. (Not-even-slightly-hot prediction: He'll be back.)
San Antonio Spurs
This isn't just about the Spurs adding what will be a top-end lottery pick—you know, like maybe Victor Wembanyama—who enters the starting five right away. The crux of their current roster isn't exactly set in stone.
Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan and Devin Vassell should all be back. But Tre Jones is a restricted free agent, and even if he's back, he's not assured a starting slot. The same goes for Zach Collins, who finished the year as San Antonio's starting center. The Spurs will likely have $35-plus million in cap space and ample reason to pursue upgrades at the 1 and 5 beyond the draft.
Free Agency Could Change Everything
Golden State Warriors
Why, yes, my shoulder does sting after making this reach. That doesn't mean I'm sorry.
Draymond Green's player option looms over the future of the Warriors like omnipresent storm clouds. Will he have a market? Is he willing not to just test it, but actually leave? And what happens if he does?
Does Golden State push forward with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney and Jordan Poole? Or do they seriously consider moving Poole or Looney in an attempt to acquire someone who better optimizes what's left of Steph's window? And, bonus question: If Green sticks around, is there a chance two of Poole, Looney and Wiggins get dealt in favor of a blockbuster acquisition?
Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis and LeBron James are strapped into the Lakers' 2023-24 starting five. Things get hazy after them.
Jarred Vanderbilt's salary ($4.7 million) will be guaranteed. Whether he stays with the Lakers is a different story. They have the capacity to chisel out upwards of $30 million in cap space, but that demands parting ways with almost everyone—including Vanderbilt and fellow starter and free agent D'Angelo Russell. Austin Reaves' cap hold is tiny enough that he should be safe.
Shirking seismic changes is the most sensible course. So many of the Lakers' could-be free agents are too valuable just to let walk, and convincing Kyrie Irving to accept sub-max money, while perhaps intriguing, obliterates the depth. Then again, it's the Lakers, so you never know.
James Harden (player option) can throw Philly's starting five—and entire future—into a tailspin if he bolts for Houston. Maybe Joel Embiid requests a trade if his co-star exits. And maybe the Sixers, by extension, are forced to look at moving everyone other than Tyrese Maxey as a result.
Don't discount stark changes if Harden re-signs, either. Harris' expiring deal will be good salary-matching fodder, and Maxey is a blue-chip card Philly can play if it's looking to make a blockbuster splash.
Possible Timeline Shifts
Serious change is afoot in Houston. The Rockets have a new head coach. They will draft no lower than No. 6. They can seamlessly get up to almost $60 million in cap space. The James Harden reunion noise remains real, according to NBA Insider Marc Stein. There's no way Houston's starting five is recognizable if he comes aboard.
Missing on Harden doesn't even scuttle the potential for turnover. The Rockets could keep on keeping on with Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Şengün, Kevin Porter Jr. and their top first-round prospect. But Oklahoma City controls two of their next three draft picks (with top-four protection), and Houston has spent three consecutive years exploring the NBA's bottom.
Timeline acceleration is coming. To what extent remains to be seen. But with or without Harden, there's urgency in H-Town.
Compared to the Rockets, the Magic are on the polar opposite end of the timeline spectrum. They will most likely be content rolling along with Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Wendell Carter Jr. and this year's two projected lotto picks. If there's even a singular change to their preferred starting group, it's probably because they won the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
Yet Orlando has the infrastructure in place to angle for immediacy. It finished 11th in points allowed per possession this season and seems one bold-text shooter away from really uncorking the offense. The Magic are also ticketed for over $20 million in cap space, with the bandwidth to create more. They're a sleeper to make headlines in both the trade and free-agency markets—at the expense of pretty much anyone not named Paolo or Franz.
Forking over a (top-six-protected) 2024 first-rounder at the deadline for Jakob Poeltl implies Toronto has no interest in stripping down its core. Team president Masai Ujiri's comments on the heels of firing head coach Nick Nurse suggest the same.
That means something. It isn't everything.
Two starters—Poeltl and Fred VanVleet (player option)—are free agents. (Gary Trent Jr. has a player option, too.) Another two starters—OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam—are entering the final year of their deals. After failing to make it out of the play-in, this core is about to get expensive.
Perhaps the Raptors have the gall to keep doubling down. They could also start over. Or seek a consolidation trade of their own. Anything, big or small or absolutely massive, is possible.
Brace For Change: The East
Everything about the Nets' starting-lineup approach hinges on their post-Kevin Durant strategies. Are they trying to remain competitive because Houston controls their first-rounders through 2027? Is Mikal Bridges actually alpha enough for Brooklyn to stand relatively pat? Or even good enough to push the front office toward star-trade hunting?
Whatever the Nets decide will feature shakeups to the post-KD opening five. Even if they remain idle, Bridges and Nicolas Claxton are the only true locks. Of course, they won't remain idle. They can't. Cam Johnson is a restricted free agent, and, at the least, Brooklyn needs to explore beefing up the point guard rotation.
This isn't a "Myles Turner will re-enter the trade rumor mill" prediction. I don't think it is, anyway. This is mostly about Indy's cap space (projected $27-plus million), and about roster transience.
Let's assume both Turner and Tyrese Haliburton stay put. The rest of the starting unit is unsettled. Does Bennedict Mathurin get promoted from the bench? Who gets the shaft between Buddy Hield and Andrew Nembhard if he does? Could Hield's expiring contract get shipped out?
What happens at the primary wing spot? Does Aaron Nesmith have it on lock? Will one of the Pacers' three first-round picks enter the discussion? Does Indy leverage its cap into pursuits of a starter who complements the Hali and Turner duo, such as Harrison Barnes, Jerami Grant, Khris Middleton (player option) or P.J. Washington? The Pacers aren't known for the nuclearization of rosters, but I'd wager on at least two, maybe three, of their starting slots going to new faces.
Riveting playoff run in mind, the Heat still need to shore up the frontcourt spot next to Bam Adebayo. Starting Caleb Martin or Kevin Love (a free agent) is fine. It's not the perma-answer.
Kyle Lowry has already been nudged out of the starting five. Gabe Vincent's free agency could push him back in. Max Strus is starting again in the postseason with Tyler Herro on the shelf. He could graduate back to the opening five. Or leave in free agency himself.
And let's not discount the possibility the Heat aim for a blockbuster trade. Surviving the play-in and the banged-up Milwaukee Bucks isn't proof of concept. It's more like lightning in a bottle. They could dangle picks, salary filler and maaaybe even Tyler Herro in an attempt to bag another star.
Brace for Change: The West
Kyrie Irving could leave, blah, blah, blah. There's more to it than that. Let's go ahead and pencil him and Luka Dončić into next year's starting five. Nobody else should be there with them.
Dallas definitely needs to rework its center options. Maxi Kleber is fine if he's healthy, but he doesn't play with much force. Christian Wood is for sure leaving in free agency. Dwight Powell is a placeholder.
Bolstering the wing spots also needs to be a priority. Some combination of Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Green isn't getting it done. This is a team that, at minimum, needs to add a starter with its mini mid-level exception and on the trade market.
This could be a little premature when the Suns haven't yet wrapped up their postseason. Except, it's not.
Devin Booker and Kevin Durant will be there. Everybody else? Who knows?
Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig are both entering free agency, and Phoenix only has Bird rights on the latter. Chris Paul's guarantee is large enough, at $15.8 million, that the Suns probably keep him around. But a waive-and-stretch or trade scenario isn't outside the realm of possibility if the Suns are looking to increase their flexibility or improve one of their other three starting spots.
Speaking of which: Are we sure Phoenix can flesh out a sustained contender while paying Deandre Ayton max money? He runs hot and cold, forceful and invisible, and is too often the second. Make no mistake, he is a valuable player. But the Suns can approximate his on-court utility for cheaper than the $102 million he's owed over the next two years.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are unreadable. That's not a good thing.
Four players are shoo-ins to start if they're on the roster: Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkić. Are we sure all of them will be on the roster?
Grant and Matisse Thybulle (restricted) are free agents. Everyone else is under contract for at least the next three years. But the Blazers can't afford to stand pat. They have a soon-to-be 33-year-old Lillard. It's time to make a swing on the trade market if you're serious about operating within his window. That's not happening, in all likelihood, without moving off one of the incumbent starters as salary fuel (Nurkić) or an actual asset (Simons).
And if Portland is reluctant to go all-in on this core, then it's time to detonate the dynamite and commit to a full-tilt rebuild—a pivot that could entail moving on from everyone except Sharpe and this year's draft pick.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.