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Thinking outside the box – Eastern Conference

Photo by John S. Peterson/Icon Sportswire

Every year NBA teams do something surprising. It can be lineups, roster decisions, playing time, etc. Often it is something that no one saw coming. This article presents some outside the box ideas that each Eastern Conference team should consider.

Some of them are big swings, and others are tiny tweaks, but each represents a new way of thinking that could improve a team and give them an advantage they lack now.

Atlanta Hawks

The Idea: Waive Mike Scott to keep Mike Muscala and Walter Tavares.

The Reasoning: Scott has been a fairly productive reserve for Atlanta over the last four seasons. Unfortunately, Scott has also run afoul of the law and caused the Hawks some uncertainty towards his character. Muscala has one less year of experience than Scott, and his raw numbers aren’t as good. But if you look a little bit deeper, you see he has some advantages over Scott.

Muscala can play both power forward and center, while Scott is a pure power forward. In addition, Muscala’s Per 36 numbers are in line with Scott’s. And he’s a better defender and slightly more efficient on offense. As for Tavares…well…he’s 7’3’’ and only 24 years old. It is far too early to give up on someone that big and that young.

Boston Celtics

The Idea: Bring Isaiah Thomas off the bench and start Marcus Smart

The Reasoning: At times last season, when Thomas was basically a full-time starter, the Celtics bench struggled. And this was with Evan Turner giving Boston good all-around play on both ends off the pine. By bringing Thomas off the bench, the Celtics would have arguably the best bench weapon in the league. They would also avoid some of the defensive matchup problems that have plagued the team when they’ve gone against the NBA elite. Thomas would still play around his mark of 30 MPG, but they’d be spotted slightly different.

As for Smart: by pairing him with Avery Bradley, the Celtics would have the best defensive backcourt in the league. With Jae Crowder, they become the best wing trio of defenders in the league. This would help Boston keep opponents in check right from the tip and then Thomas can bring energy and offense when he checks in.

Brooklyn Nets

The Idea: Trade Brook Lopez for picks/young talent and start Justin Hamilton

The Reasoning: Lopez is a wonderful talent on the offensive end. Few big men can give a team scoring from the post to the mid-range area like Lopez can. The challenge is that he’s likely be a free agent this coming summer (assuming he declines his Player Option), and he‘ll be 29 at the end of this season. By the time the Nets are ready to be playoff contenders again, Lopez probably won’t be nearly effective as a player.

The Nets are still without their next two first round picks (the Celtics can swap picks in 2017 and own the pick outright in 2018). In addition, the young talent on the roster is a bit questionable beyond Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. If Brooklyn could pick up a pick or two and a young prospect, it would help them along their rebuild. Hamilton is a good option to start at center. He’s not much on the defensive end, but he’s a stretch 4/5 and fits nicely with the Nets other pieces. His contract is perfect for a team that is rebuilding, and his game will help the Nets stay competitive.

Charlotte Hornets

The Idea: Start Roy Hibbert and use Cody Zeller off the bench

The Reasoning: Zeller is primarily an offensive option. The Hornets have other good offensive players in the starting lineup with Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. Zeller is, at best, the fourth option in that group. By starting Hibbert and bringing Zeller off the bench, the Hornets can help balance out both units. Hibbert should probably play only the first 5-7 minute of each half, but it would help Charlotte set the defense against opposing starters. Zeller would be a handful for second unit centers to deal with, as he was when he played behind Al Jefferson. And his defense won’t be able to be exploited as much coming off the bench.

Chicago Bulls

The Idea: Start Nikola Mirotic or Doug McDermott for this shooting/spacing.

The Reasoning: With the four locked in starters presumed to be Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez, the Bulls need the fourth start to be a consistent shooter from the outside. At this point that spot seems a bit up for grabs; with many thinking Taj Gibson is the frontrunner.

Gibson is a known quantity and a solid defender and rebounder. But without a shooter in the starting group, the Bulls may find it hard to manufacture enough offense. Mirotic or McDermott would open up the floor and give Wade and Rondo the space to get to the basket to make plays for themselves or others, which is what they do best. They’ll sacrifice a little defense, but it is worth it for a more balanced attack. In addition, Gibson has been good off the bench for years and is comfortable in that role.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Idea: Consider resting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the same nights

The Reasoning: Outside of a major injury, there is no way the Cavaliers aren’t the Eastern Conference favorite. They can win games on the road (witness Game 7 in Oakland), so seeding isn’t as big a concern for this team as some others. They’ll rest players regularly, but they generally have tried to keep one or two of their Big 3 in the lineup most nights.

By resting all three on the same night, the team may throw away a win or two, but it could see them in great shape come playoff time. It won’t be a popular strategy with the NBA, but the Spurs have made great use of this tactic over the years. Anything to defend that long awaited title should be considered.

Detroit Pistons

The Idea: Start Stanley Johnson and bring Marcus Morris off the bench.

The Reasoning: Johnson is knocking on the door for a starting role. His energy, attitude and hustle are something that any good team needs. The Pistons are also approaching a point where they have a lot of players in the starting group who need the ball to be effective. Johnson doesn’t need, or particularly want the ball.

He could be very effective playing off his more talented teammates. Morris has proven to be an excellent all-around player as a poor man’s Draymond Green for Detroit. He can be the focal point of the second unit and function as a secondary playmaker with Ish Smith off the bench.

Indiana Pacers

The Idea: Bring Monta Ellis off the bench and start C.J. Miles.

The Reasoning: Ellis is past the point where he should be a starter. He’s an inefficient offensive player who carries a high usage rate. As a reserve, he would be an instant-offense player. If he’s on, he can carry your team for stretches or entire games. If he’s off, you put him back on the bench and try again later. He’s also undersized to defend opposing shooting guards, and opponents have taken advantage of this in the past.

Off the bench, he won’t be as easily victimized. Also, by starting Miles the Pacers remove a high usage player that needs the ball a lot and isn’t a shooter, with one who can shoot and doesn’t require the ball a lot. With Paul George and Jeff Teague, the Pacers have two players who need the ball in their hands to be at their most effective. Miles would give Indiana someone who is comfortable spotting up and playing off his teammates to get his looks at the basket.

March 6, 2016 - Miami, FL, USA - Miami Heat's Justise Winslow drives against Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant during the second quarter on Sunday, March 6, 2016, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami (Photo by Hector Gabino/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Hector Gabino/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Miami Heat

The Idea: Play three true guards together as much as possible with Justise Winslow at power forward

The Reasoning: With the unfortunate situation surrounding Chris Bosh, the Heat are undermanned at power forward. The main options are Josh McRoberts and Derrick Williams. While both of them are nice players, neither are inspiring options.

On the flip side, Miami is loaded with options at the guard spots with Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington. With all the guard depth, and Winslow being an option as a small ball 4, the Heat would be well served to go small. Hassan Whiteside can make up for the lack of size on the defensive end, and the upgrade on offense would be big for a team that might struggle for baskets.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Idea: While Khris Middleton is out, start Mirza Teletovic.

The Reasoning: Losing Middleton is a huge blow for a Milwaukee team that many expected to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks have depth up and down the roster at every position except for shooting guard. Behind Middleton, the only reasonable options are Rashad Vaughn (who the Bucks intend to start) and Jason Terry.

Vaughn had a miserable rookie year, and Terry is an aging vet who needs a lot of help defensive. So, while everyone else in the league goes small, Milwaukee should go big. Start Teletovic up front and shift Giannis Antetokounmpo to the backcourt. Antetokounmpo can hold his own defensively against most shooting guards, and he’ll be handling the ball a lot anyway. Teletovic is a forward in name only, as he prefers to play along the perimeter. This also has the added benefit of freeing up backup big man minutes for Greg Monroe and John Henson off the bench.

New York Knicks

The Idea: Rest Joakim Noah some nights and start a frontcourt of Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Lance Thomas.

The Reasoning: This one might be cheating a little bit, as Anthony, Porzingis and Thomas should play together plenty of minutes anyway. But the natural inclination on nights when Noah rests (which should happen on a somewhat regular basis given his importance to the Knicks), will be to start one of the backup centers.

If the Anthony, Porzingis and Thomas group prove effective when they are together, why not start them? Thomas can handle the tougher wings defensively, and that frees up Anthony to focus more on offense. And with Anthony as a small-ball 4 and Porzingis as a stretch 5, the Knicks become very hard to defend. Jeff Hornacek can even plan it in advance for those nights when the Knicks face a high scoring offensive option at SF and not as much of a threat at the big positions to take maximum advantage of this lineup switch.

Orlando Magic

The Idea: Play a nine-man rotation on a regular basis and pass on going deeper.

The Reasoning: Orlando is very proud of the depth they added this summer. Once Jodie Meeks is healthy, the Magic believe they have 11 quality NBA caliber players. This can be tempting for a coach to try and make sure they all play. Orlando should go in the opposite direction. The five starters are presumed to be Nik Vucevic, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton. Off the bench, the Magic should stick with Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, Mario Hezonja and D.J. Augustin. Green can play both forward spots and Hezonja can play both wing positions. By sticking with this grouping of players, Frank Vogel can maximize the versatility of his players, carve out defined roles for each guy and allow for plenty of minutes for his developing youngsters.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Idea: Don’t rush a trade to deal away a big man just to do trade one.

The Reasoning: In fairness, this was written before the news of the Ben Simmons injury, which lessens the need for Philadelphia to trade a big. For the time being at least, the Sixers are likely to hold on to what they have. The hope is that Simmons will be back by December of January at the latest, but even then Philly should hold on to their young bigs until the right trade presents itself.

Most know that they have Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, Simmons and fellow rookie Dario Saric. But behind the big names are good prospects Jerami Grant and Richaun Holmes, who have both flashed at times when given a chance to play. At some point, something has to give, and the 76ers will have to make a move. But by rushing into something, they won’t get the value that they should. Instead, a patient approach and dealing from a position of strength is the best course of action. Now, if Noel continues to passively push for a trade in the media, the Sixers may need to act sooner rather than later to avoid locker room issues.

Toronto Raptors

The Idea: Start Patrick Patterson and use Jared Sullinger as the lone backup big man.

The Reasoning: Sullinger is a good player who can do a lot of nice things. But he’s overmatched as a starter. He’s a center in a power forward’s body. Well, at least height-wise. He can shoot it from the outside some, but Toronto may struggle defensively by pairing him with Jonas Valanciunas.

This will especially be a problem against teams that go small or can stretch out the Toronto defense. To combat this, the Raptors should start Patrick Patterson and bring Sullinger off the bench as the backup power forward and center. Toronto has good depth on the wing and in the backcourt but is lacking some up front. Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl aren’t ready yet to handle big backup minutes. The Raptors would be best served to spot either of those players about 10 minutes a night while letting Sullinger handle the rest. This also frees up some minutes to play DeMarre Carroll as a small-ball 4 as well.

Washington Wizards

The Idea: Start Ian Mahinmi and bring Marcin Gortat off the bench.

The Reasoning: Gortat has basically been the Wizards starting center since they acquired him in a trade with the Suns. He’s a good fit alongside John Wall because he runs the floor well and does good work in pick and roll action. On the other end, Gortat is an average defender, and that is where Mahinmi comes in.

He was signed to give the Wizards a different look from Gortat, but he would be more impactful as a starter than a reserve. The Wizards current starting unit features five players who are at their best with the ball in the hands. By starting Mahinmi, it allows the other four starters (Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter) to handle the ball more and score the ball.

In addition, Mahinmi can provide good rim protection and let Wall, Beal and Porter get into opponents’ jerseys and create turnovers. Gortat would be effective as a reserve, because once he hits the court, he can get in front of tiring opposing centers while running the floor. And backup big men aren’t generally going to be equipped to handle him inside. This was something Washington took advantage of with Nene as a reserve, and they would be well served to continue this with Gortat this season.

Thinking outside the box – Eastern Conference

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