On Pickaxe and Roll at the end of last week, I shared my scattered thoughts on the best starting lineups in the NBA and whether any team can compete with the Denver Nuggets in that regard. The video is above, and I suggest you watch because I’m incredibly entertaining.

If you prefer the written medium though, I wanted to expand on those thoughts in a full article below.

Damian Lillard is now part of the Milwaukee Bucks after a months long saga of trade rumors. Jrue Holiday, traded to the Portland Trail Blazers and forwarded on to the Boston Celtics, now makes the Eastern Conference contender even stronger. The Phoenix Suns loaded up with Bradley Beal. The Los Angeles Lakers worked on the margins. The Golden State Warriors added Chris Paul. There was a lot of movement.

In the end though, only five players can play at a time for every NBA team, and ranking the best starting fives in the NBA has serious value when discussing playoff chances. If a team has the best combination of five players in the league, they’re significantly more likely to make noise in the playoffs. While bench players will certainly aid in that goal, it’s the starters that make the biggest difference.

So, which team has the best starting five? Is it still the Nuggets? Or has another challenger stepped into the ring?

Honorable Mentions – Philadelphia, Sacramento, LA Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans

For a variety of reasons, the above group of teams didn’t crack the top 10.

The Philadelphia 76ers are currently in flux, and while a group that features James Harden and Joel Embiid may be a top 10 group statistically, it also proved to be clearly flawed. Tyrese Maxey is talented but exploitable defensively. Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker are fine but nothing special. The Harden-Embiid pick and roll is elite, but there’s little else this starting group does that makes it so.

The Sacramento Kings flamed out in the first round last year due primarily to inexperience and partially due to injury. De’Aaron Fox is awesome. Domantas Sabonis was great for most of the season but struggled when game planned for by the Golden State Warriors. Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, and Harrison Barnes are an unremarkable role player trio, and while the Kings hope Murray becomes something more, it hasn’t happened yet.

The Los Angeles Clippers are best when they mix and match their lineups and find unique pieces off their bench to emphasize the strengths of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Ivica Zubac is fine, but Russell Westbrook and Marcus Morris don’t exactly fit the bill. They are innings eaters to coin a baseball term (shoutout to the 59-103 Colorado Rockies).

The New Orleans Pelicans can’t stay healthy. In theory, a lineup featuring CJ McColum, Herb Jones, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Jonas Valanciunas should be on this list. How can one actually put it there though when it played 10 games and 113 minutes last season?

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

Starters: Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert

75 minutes played, +6.4 Net Rating

The Timberwolves played this lineup in seven total games last season. Conley was a midseason trade acquisition. Towns was injured for the entire middle of the season. McDaniels punched a wall and missed the playoffs. It never fully got off the ground.

With a full offseason and training camp to build chemistry, this listing may appear radically too low within a month or two. The Timberwolves gave the Nuggets the most trouble last season. Don’t let Suns or Lakers fans tell you otherwise.

9. Miami Heat

Starters: Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Caleb Martin, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo

302 minutes played, +4.1 Net Rating

The Heat turned up the…temperature…in the playoffs. Though it wasn’t with this group due to a Herro injury, there’s reason to believe that Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro can match the contributions of Gabe Vincent and Max Strus. They don’t get to be any higher on this list though because the regular season has to matter at some point.

Also, Damian Lillard would have helped.

8. Los Angeles Lakers

Starters: D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, LeBron James, Jarred Vanderbilt, Anthony Davis

77 minutes played, +20.6 Net Rating

There isn’t enough of a sample size to push this lineup above some of the others, but there’s a case for the Lakers to vault up these rankings if they get off to a hot start this season. Midseason additions and the introduction of Reaves into a larger role helped the Lakers get past a difficult first half of the year.

The playoffs showed some flaws in this lineup, and the Lakers found ways to survive anyway with contributions from a variety of bench options like Dennis Schroder, Rui Hachimura, and Lonnie Walker. We will see if the starters can shoulder more of that burden this year.

7. Phoenix Suns

Starters: Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Josh Okogie, Kevin Durant, Jusuf Nurkic

Zero minutes played

This lineup should be incredible during the regular season. The Suns won’t be stopping a ton of teams, but there’s a chance they maintain above a 125.0 Offensive Rating. Having Bradley Beal as a third option will be a luxury more than what’s being described. Durant and Booker can share in the point guard duties, while Nurkic will be a great high post setup man. Nurkic’s career high in assists per game is 4.0 (set in only eight games during the 2019-20 season. I expect him to break that this year.

There are major defensive questions, which is why this lineup is kept out of the top five. Okogie will be helpful, but someone else will have to join him as an impactful defender (not just passable) this year.

6. Golden State Warriors

Starters: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney

331 minutes played, +21.9 Net Rating

By the numbers, this is the best regular season and playoff lineup in the game. The sample sizes are relatively small due to injuries and absences, but the Warriors absolutely crushed the competition when they had their starters on the court.

They fall to six due to a number of reasons, one of them being that the Warriors themselves are thinking about breaking up this group in favor of Chris Paul for some reason. Paul should clearly be the sixth man, if only to ensure that the Warriors gain a chunk of minutes every game to play the above group. The other reason is that this group is due some statistical regression on both ends of the floor. The Warriors had a 128.0 Offensive Rating and maintained a 54.4 FG% and 46.8 3P% with this group.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

Starters: Ja Morant, Marcus Smart, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams

Zero minutes played

The first lineup that features a new addition is the Memphis Grizzlies, and it’s for good reason. When Morant, Bane, Jackson, and Adams shared the court, the Grizzlies posted a +10.2 Net Rating in only 152 minutes. Adding Smart to that group, getting another year of development from Bane and Jackson, and a healthy year for Steven Adams should help this group destroy worlds.

Morant will miss the first 25 games of the season, but when he returns, expect the Grizzlies to go on a serious run and challenge for the top of the West. Smart will be great for this group.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

Starters: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Max Strus, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen

Zero minutes played

Another theoretical lineup that I believe will be successful in practice. The Cavaliers desperately needed shooting in the starting lineup to aid Garland and Mitchell, and Strus should be fantastic for that. Even without him the Cavaliers star quartet above maintained a +8.8 Net Rating in a whopping 871 minutes. Adding a better role player for what the Cavaliers need to make that group successful will be tremendous.

Of course, Garland and Mobley are still getting better too. Mobley in particular has another level or two to reach, and if it happens this year, look out.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

Starters: Damian Lillard, Pat Connaughton, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez

Zero minutes played

Without Lillard, the Bucks were fine with running it back. They had had good reason to be, winning 58 games while the above quintet sans Lillard played zero minutes together. There were injuries and absences galore and the Bucks won anyway. Now, adding Lillard to that group should turn a good offense into a great offense. The Lillard-Giannis pick and roll will be unstoppable (at least in theory).

The group hinges on Middleton, Lopez, and Connaughton filling their roles. Middleton should be ready to assume a secondary ball handling role if healthy. Lopez should be even more focused on rim protection and floor spacing. Connaughton is capable, even if he’s the clear weak link.

2. Denver Nuggets

Starters: Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić

706 minutes played, +13.1 Net Rating

The Nuggets were an unbelievable offensive unit and okay defensive unit in the regular season. That was more than enough most nights and gave the team consistent advantages in the regular season. The quintet mostly maintained that effectiveness on both ends of the floor in the playoffs, improving defensively even if the offense came back down to earth a bit. It was still enough to win a championship in a convincing manner, even if the reserves made serious contributions throughout the run.

Nikola Jokić plays for this team, and that’s enough to vault almost any lineup onto this list. The Nuggets complemented their superstar with a perfect fitting five-man group though, directed by Jokić and Murray with contributions from everyone. It’s enough to keep the Nuggets over the Bucks, a team with a clear weakness…but not enough to claim the top spot.

1. Boston Celtics

Starters: Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis

Zero minutes played

It may be foolish to put a lineup at the top of the list that has never played together before, but this is probably a more talented group than Denver’s. The Celtics will play a five-out offense with some elite creators and a floor spacing center that shot 38.5% from three last year on volume. Tatum has improve to a borderline MVP candidate. Jrue Holiday becomes the third option and can pick and choose his spots better.

Oh, and this is probably the best trio of perimeter defenders in the NBA between Holiday, White, and Tatum.

There will be a reticence to placing the Celtics above the Nuggets because the Nuggets won the championship. Perhaps that’s wise. I see Boston leading the NBA in wins this year though, and their starters will be a big reason why. If the Celtics and Nuggets matched up in the playoffs, it would be an absolute war. The Celtics would have a great shot, especially with Horford as a sixth man and option to guard Jokić.

I think they slightly outpace Denver, even if I simply believe the Nuggets would win a series because I believe in Jokić and Murray finding a way.