It’s not how you start — it’s how you finish. That may be a cliché, but when it comes to the NBA it’s 100 percent true. Due to fit and preferred combinations, coaches don’t always start their best five players. We’ve seen plenty of sixth men over the years who could easily start for most, if not all of the teams in the league.
But it’s the closing units that make teams special. When it comes down to the last five minutes of a game, most of the time the coach will have their best five players on the court. So when thinking about the upcoming 2019-20 season, we decided to rank teams based on their closing lineups rather than their starting lineups. Obviously there are still position battles to be won and the inevitable injury problems that come with training camp, but we did our best to predict which five players would be on the court for each team during crunch time.
Here’s every closing unit in the NBA, ranked from worst to best.
It’s pretty dry for the Hornets in terms of proven clutch scorers, so they’ll have to see which combinations work the best. As of now, having veterans like Batum, Williams and Zeller on the court in crunch time makes sense, but eventually they could be replaced by young players like Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and PJ Washington. Scoring is going to be difficult for the Hornets all season long, and it won’t get any easier in the final five minutes of games.
29. New York Knicks
The Knicks have plenty of options this season as they try to figure out which young members of the team will be part of the franchise moving forward, but they’ll probably start with this as their main closing lineup. None are really proven go-to scorers in crunch time, and they haven’t played together at all, so it’s probably going to be rough sledding for a while, much like the rest of the Knicks’ season. Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntilikina and Bobby Portis could also occasionally find themselves on the court for the final minutes.
Poor Bradley Beal. Isaiah Thomas‘ thumb injury means that Beal is the only one with any sort of experience finishing games, and will be relied upon heavily all season long come crunch time. Bryant could at least provide a modicum of help, as he performed well in clutch situations (games within five points with five minutes left) last year in limited opportunities. Outside of that, it’s going to be an ugly closing unit for the Wizards in what promises to be a difficult season.
New Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins says he wants to play faster, and this lineup is a good option for that style. They’ll have a stout and versatile defensive frontcourt with Crowder, Iguodala and Jackson, while Brooks and Morant can, in theory, provide perimeter scoring. This is, of course, assuming that Iguodala actually suits up for the Grizzlies. If not, they can slide Jackson to the four and keep center Jonas Valanciunas on the court. It’s not the most imposing closing lineup, but there aren’t a ton of options in Memphis these days.
The Cavs will likely want both their young guards — Garland and Sexton — to get crunch-time reps to help their development, but they’ll probably also want Clarkson out there since he attempted the most clutch shots for them last season, according to NBA.com. Osman performed well in clutch situations last year (40 percent field goals, 33 percent 3-pointers), so he should earn the spot next to Love in the frontcourt, though Larry Nance Jr. is also an option.
25. Phoenix Suns
The Suns are reportedly flirting with the idea of playing Ayton at power forward, but let’s hope that’s not the case in crunch time. This will be Booker’s show, while Rubio should add some stability the Suns have lacked in recent years. Bridges seems like the right fit with this group, but Dario Saric could also close games if Phoenix wants to go bigger. It won’t be great for the Suns, but hey, at least they have a point guard.
24. Indiana Pacers
This lineup will obviously change once Victor Oladipo is healthy, but for now, the Pacers have pretty much no choice but to stick with their two bigs at the end of games unless the matchup absolutely prohibits it. if Nate McMillan wants to go smaller, Aaron Holiday could be a candidate to take over at guard next to Brogdon, who will likely see primary playmaking duties during Oladipo’s absence.
23. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have a lot of options at guard, and eventually Coby White will probably start to see the floor in late-game situations, but as of now their best closing lineup is with Satoransky and LaVine in the backcourt. Their size and ball-handling ability gives Chicago versatility, especially when lined up next to Porter, Young and Markkanen, who are all positionally malleable. Wendell Carter Jr. is also an option, but Markkanen at center seems to make the most sense to close out games.
22. Atlanta Hawks
This is taking a leap that Reddish will be what the Hawks hope he is, but this lineup gives the Hawks unbelievable shooting and defensive versatility with four players 6-foot-7 or taller. Moving Collins to center is a no-brainer in small-ball/closing lineups, as is keeping Alex Len on the bench during crunch time. If Reddish isn’t quite ready, the Hawks can sub in Evan Turner to provide a little ball-handling relief for Young and a veteran to keep things under control. Young’s already proven his ability to hit big shots, and surrounding him with shooters and athletes will only make him that much more dangerous.
Minnesota fans didn’t get to see much of Covington after he came over from the 76ers in the Jimmy Butler trade, but he’ll make a welcome addition to their closing lineup with his 3-point shooting and defensive versatility. He’ll join Towns, who has put up unprecedented numbers for a center in his first four NBA seasons, and Wiggins, who is still searching to justify his max contract. Derrick Rose took a lot of late-game shots for the Wolves last season, so there should be more opportunity for this crew.
20. Dallas Mavericks
This may seem like a lot of guards, but the size of Wright (6-5), Hardaway (6-6) and Doncic (6-7) means they should be able to survive defensively with Porzingis protecting the paint. Doncic had some extraordinary clutch moments last season as a rookie, and the Mavericks will feel safe with the ball in his hands to close games, but Brunson was also adept at creating offense in crunch time. We don’t yet know how Porzingis will look, but he got plenty of experience as the go-to guy with the Knicks.
19. Detroit Pistons
Griffin was impressive as a playmaker and scorer in clutch situations last season for the Pistons, and the offense will go through him as long as he’s healthy. Rose was solid toward the end of games for the Timberwolves last season, so inserting him into the closing lineup makes sense, along with Snell, a 3-and-D offseason addition.
18. Orlando Magic
There’s a strong chance that Jonathan Isaac finds his way onto the court during crunch time in what could be a breakout season, but to start the year the Magic will probably go with Ross for some extra scoring punch. With solid shooting and playmaking, this lineup should help lead the Magic back to the postseason.
The Thunder will probably go with the three-guard look to start the season since we’re not sure about the health of Andre Roberson. They’ll be small, but Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander are tenacious enough defenders to hold their own. This lineup gives the Thunder multiple playmakers and scorers, even with Russell Westbrook and Paul George out of town.
16. Sacramento Kings
The Kings could go with veteran Trevor Ariza in place of either Bogdanovic or Barnes, but moving Bagley to center to close games seems like a wise decision. The shooting of Bogdanovic and Hield coupled with the pressure Fox puts on the defense with his speed and playmaking will make things difficult for the opposition. They’re going to struggle defensively, but this closing lineup could lead to some exciting finishes.
Now, this is going to be fun. If they commit to running Williamson at center the Pelicans could have one of the most entertaining “small ball” lineups in the NBA. With Ball pushing the tempo, the scoring and playmaking of Holiday and Ingram, the shooting of Redick and the all-out chaos of Zion, New Orleans could be dangerous in the final minutes of games. Defensively they can be just as effective with incredible length and athleticism. They may be a year or two away from being truly devastating, but this unit could be very good already.
14. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors still have roster versatility despite losing Kawhi Leonard, but they’ll obviously miss the NBA Finals MVP’s consistent clutch performances. Most of the burden will fall back to Lowry, with Siakam emerging last season as a solid playmaking option down the stretch of games. Serge Ibaka closed a lot for the Raptors last year, but they’ll probably choose to go with Gasol this year given his basketball IQ and consistency. Obviously, without Leonard the Raptors are much less intimidating, but they’re still a solid group that knows how to close out games.
13. Brooklyn Nets
Irving is the obvious closer on this squad until Kevin Durant returns, and Dinwiddie was the Nets’ go-to playmaker in the clutch last season, so you’d imagine both of them would need to be on the court along with LeVert, who proved his clutch mettle this past postseason. Harris provides necessary floor spacing, and the fifth spot is up in the air. At this point, it seems like Allen, given his mobility and at least semblance of shooting range, is a better option at center than DeAndre Jordan as the rim protector. If they want to go small, Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs are both options to replace Allen.
12. Miami Heat
The Heat’s finishing lineup got a whole lot more interesting with the acquisition of Butler, a proven closer, this offseason. A healthy Dragic, Winslow and Waiters on the wing will add spacing and playmaking, while Adebayo is poised for a breakout season now that Hassan Whiteside is in Portland. Erik Spoelstra could also elect to go with Kelly Olynyk to finish games if he wants to go bigger and/or add more shooting.
11. Boston Celtics
This is where the loss of Al Horford hurts the most. Having a versatile big who can stretch the floor on offense while protecting the rim defensively is a valuable weapon at the end of games. Instead, the Celtics are left with a big combo of Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III, none of which are particularly well suited to close games. With that in mind, perhaps Brad Stevens can deploy this super-small lineup of the team’s five best players, especially given the fact that Smart has defended centers effectively in the past. They’ll get killed on the boards, but the defensive versatility coupled with the offensive firepower could allow them to get away with it for a few minutes at the end of games.
Murray and White make up the Spurs’ backcourt of the future, but with Murray coming off of a missed year due to ACL surgery, Gregg Popovich could instead elect to use Patty Mills or Bryn Forbes during crunch time to start the year. Either way, the court is full of smart, poised players who can also defend. DeRozan took by far the most clutch shots for the Spurs last season, according to NBA.com, making 44 percent of his field goals while dishing out 24 assists compared to nine turnovers. He’ll likely take the lead again this season, but White has proven himself to be more than capable in those situations as well, with Aldridge still one of the best post scorers in the NBA.
It will be a new look for the Blazers this season, but they’ll still be led by mainstays Lillard and McCollum, who are a two-man wrecking crew when it comes to crunch time. Both are adept at creating their own offense and working off of screens, so the Blazers can use Hood and Bazemore, two versatile forwards, to fill out the lineup. The Heat grew wary of deploying Hassan Whiteside at the end of games given his defensive limitations in switching onto guards, so Collins might be the choice to start the season. In any case. it will be a steady dose of Lillard and McCollum, which is enough to get the job done more often than not.
8. Utah Jazz
Mitchell took 84 clutch shots last season, according to NBA.com. The next-highest Jazz player, Gobert, took 28. That tells you how dependent Utah was on Mitchell’s production toward the end of games, but this year he’s receiving quite a bit of help with Conley and Bogdanovic. Conley was the main go-to guy down the stretch for the Grizzlies last season, while Bogdanovic assumed the same role in Indiana last year after the injury to Victor Oladipo. The added versatility on both sides of the court make the Jazz one of the most formidable closing units in the NBA.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
We have no idea how this lineup will work once the season starts, but it sure is fun to think about. With size, defense and scoring all over the court, the Sixers could have one of the most devastating closing units in the league this season. There will be a learning curve as Horford and Embiid figure out how to play alongside each other, and Simmons needs to become more incorporated in the half-court offense, but those are good problems to have for a Sixers team with its sights on the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Nuggets struggled with injuries throughout last season so we rarely got to see their five best players on the court at the same time (this closing lineup only played together in 24 games last season). Assuming health, this lineup will likely be the one to end games, but the addition of Jermai Grant provides extra versatility should the Nuggets want to go a bit bigger. Jokic proved himself to be one of the toughest matchups in the league last season, and played well enough defensively that he was rarely exploited.
So much for the death lineup. The end of games will look quite different for the Warriors without Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson (at least for a portion of the season). Instead, they’ll look to fill the gaps with newly acquired max player Russell, along with Looney and whichever one of their young wings earn Steve Kerr’s confidence (right now McKinnie is probably the leader). Ideally, the Warriors would probably want Green at center, where he is absolutely devastating to close games, but right now the personnel doesn’t allow for that given the team’s lack of wing and guard depth. However, any time you have Curry and Green on the court to finish out games, you’re in a pretty good position to win.
Hill probably won’t start, but he’s the most likely candidate to take over for Malcolm Brogdon in the Bucks’ go-to final five. Despite the presence of Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe actually took the most field goals in clutch situations, according to NBA.com, and he performed admirably (46 percent field goals, 41 percent 3-pointers). Lopez shot only 20 percent from the field and 18 percent from 3 in such situations, so Mike Budenholzer might look to replace him with Ersan Ilyasova and move Giannis to center. Either way, it’s one of the best closing units in the league and they’re used to playing with each other.
The only reason the Clippers’ closing lineup isn’t higher on this list is that Paul George is expected to miss at least the first couple weeks of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Even without George the lineup is stout, with both Leonard and Williams capable of absolutely taking over games offensively, and Harrell is one of the best roll men in the league. Defensively they’ll be a juggernaut as well with Leonard and Beverley, two of the most fearsome defenders you’ll ever see. The Clippers are really good, and George might just make them the best finishing unit in the league when he’s healthy.
There will occasionally be times where it makes more sense to go with the “Tuck Wagon” lineup (sliding Tucker to center for Capela and inserting Austin Rivers, Danuel House or Gerald Green), but this is the impressive lineup that will likely close most games for the Rockets. The crunch-time dynamic between Westbrook and Harden will be fascinating, but there’s no denying that this is one of the most dangerous finishing units in the NBA.
Technically LeBron, Kuzma and Davis are probably all power forwards, but their skill sets are different enough to allow them all to play together to close games. Green has proven himself to be a clutch performer who provides space with his 3-point shooting, but the only question is at point guard, where Rondo will likely earn the early-season crunch-time minutes due to his experience and the trust he’s earned with James. Ideally, someone like Quinn Cook would probably fit better given his shooting, so we’ll see if he eventually slides into the lineup. Either way, when you have LeBron James and Anthony Davis in your closing unit, you’re going to be very difficult to beat. For now, that gives the Lakers the best closing lineup in the NBA.