There is a certain joy to be taken in fantasizing about the impossible. “Hey, what if Dario is better than Larry Bird and Ben Simmons grows to be 11 feet tall; then we could go 82-0!” And there is a different kind of pleasure to be taken in enjoying the actuality of what’s happening — “The Sixers hold the 4 seed and really might make it to round 3 if they catch a break.”
This essay wallows in the pleasures to be found between these two extremes. I’m going to imagine a set of possibilities that, while not exactly likely to all occur, are also entirely plausible. They are:
- LeBron James signs with the Sixers this offseason.
- JJ Redick rejoins on an allowable veteran contract and plays about as well as he’s played this year.
- Markelle Fultz finishes the process of getting back on track. Moreover he is the type of player we expected (i.e.combo guard with a broad set of skills including ball handling, passing, shooting and defense. For purposes of this discussion let’s assume that by a year from today he has achieved the status of “average NBA starter.” That is, we’re imagining that in April 2019 he appears on his way to a tremendous career but as someone with perhaps 90 NBA games under his belt and still a few weeks away from legal drinking age, he’s in the middle of the pack among the NBA’s starting guards as next season draws to a close.
- Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric take small steps forward as one might expect from young players, but nothing dramatic, while Robert Covington, who is already in his prime at age 27, holds steady at his current level of play.
- As of the time of the playoffs, our top seven players are all healthy.
That’s a lot of good things, but none of them are crazy; indeed, of them, only the LeBron signing looks like much of an underdog. And on the flip side, I’m going to assume that other than LBJ, we don’t add or develop anyone else who is more than just an OK backup come the 2019 playoffs. So, from our draft picks, our stashes, our current bench, trades and non-JJ ring chasers we get nothing other than filling some minutes. Even if we get Mikal Bridges, I’m assuming he isn’t anything special as a rookie. I’m not even assuming we keep Ersan or add another vet of his quality.
OK, got it? So the only good players on the team are:
Now, I think that team would make the Finals, your mileage may vary, maybe you think we aren’t deep enough or whatever. But, indulge me: we’re in the Finals. Now, we want everyone to have solid energy levels at crunch time so let’s not let anyone play more than 36 minutes a night (though in reality of course LeBron will probably play more than that, as may Joel and Ben. But I’m trying to be conservative in this little dream so, just 36 minutes per guy, and only 24 for Old Man JJ. What would our lineup rotations look like?
Here’s my suggestion, which involves 12 minutes each for four units, and no player being in more than three of those:
Red Team: “Stoppers” C Joel - PF Cov - SF LBJ - SG Markelle - PG Ben
White Team: “East Coast Lineup Of Death” C LBJ - PF Dario - SF Cov - SG Markelle - PG Ben
Blue Team: “Try And Stop ‘Em” C Joel - PF Dario - SF LBJ - SG JJ - PG Markelle
Gray Team: “2017 Throwback” C Joel - PF Dario - SF Cov - SG JJ - PG Ben
I would comment but I’m too busy gaping at the awesomeness of what I’m looking at here. The Gray team is our current lineup, the lineup that many say is the best 5-man unit in the entire NBA. That grouping is arguably the WORST of the four units we’ll be putting out on the floor! The Red Team, the “Stoppers,” might be the best defensive unit in history. I know I shouldn’t say stuff like that, I haven’t studied the history closely enough. But I’m just saying, each of the non-Markelle guys would be arguably the league’s best defender at his position. Unbelievable.
So as to not drive ourselves crazy with the infinitude of the possibilities, I request that in comments folks limit themselves to sets of four 12-minute lineups, with only these seven players used and with no player in more than three of the units so everyone gets rest. Are these the right combinations, or can we do better? If so, how?
Obviously this is mostly just for fun, a divertissement in the waning days of the regular season. But I would say there is one way in which this sort of thing has practical relevance. Let’s assume we sign LBJ and that there’s some understanding under which JJ will come back. Then when you think about other moves we should make, you need to think about it in this context. With the team above, if you want to make moves, you need to be able to articulate what those moves would accomplish. possibilities include:
- Improve the set of lineups above
- Add depth so as to do better in the regular season while resting these guys more
- Add depth so we still have a title shot even if we’re hit by key injuries in the playoffs
- Add youth or save money so we’ll be better in years beyond 2018-19
An example of 1) would be a trade of Fultz and draft picks for Kawhi. 2) Might be a deal to add a solid backup center. 3) We can just call the “Nick Foles.” 4) Seems unlikely as if we have the King one would expect we’d focus on winning now, but, still, if Boston offered Tatum for Covington I’d have to say yes even though I firmly believe Cov is a superior player right now and likely for a couple years to come; the 7-year age difference would force my hand.
Sorry, that was overkill — obviously if we’re adding LeBron, the deals we’ll all be talking about are deals to improve our playoff lineups in the short-run. And what I’m saying is, holy cow! They are already pretty amazing! Suppose OKC offered a sign-and-trade of Paul George for Dario, Bayless, and draft picks. That wouldn’t work under the cap, but suppose they solved that somehow, would you do it? Dario to PG is a meaningful upgrade, but it’s not a HUGE upgrade, right? And you’re getting a guy who is years older and with an injury history. And you’re giving up all the beyond-the numbers awesomeness of Dario, if only he would ever come over! Plus the loss of say the LA pick and another #1... I can see the case either way. My point here is just that looking at the lineups above clarifies one’s thinking on just how large or small the benefits of that trade would be.
Or what if you could get Kevin Love, the player, for picks, while fitting him under the cap? Love is still very good and only 29, but looking at the lineups above, you can see he wouldn’t add much in the Finals unless someone is hurt. Even replacing JJ with Klay, which is close to the ideal choice as it replaces our least-good player in this scenario with a better, younger player who fits perfectly, is only a medium-sized improvement. You pretty much have to get a Kawhi-style megastar to make a big upgrade with a single addition. I recognize Cov skeptics may disagree, but all I can say is, look at those lineups, think about what LeBron does and what Ben and Joel and the others do, and ask yourself: isn’t an exceptional team defender who drains open shots exactly the guy you want in those five-man groupings? Would we really be better with, say, Kristaps in that slot? I say no!
Anyway, in addition to suggesting alternative ways of using the existing pieces in this scenario, please make your trade suggestions in the comments. Let’s see if we can come up with anything that would make us a lot better, that works under the salary cap, and that it’s not completely inconceivable the other team might agree to!