Comparing and Contrasting NBA Starting Lineups

Breaking down each team’s starting lineup from opening night by height, position, age and more!

The NBA got off to an exciting start last week and we got our first look at which players will be starting for each team. As usual, coaches around the league are taking a variety of approaches in filling out their lineup cards, trying to make the most of the personnel at their disposal. Let’s look at the similarities and differences between the 30 opening-night starting lineups across a dozen characteristics: height, position, offensive role, age, birth year, birthplace, last team before the NBA, draft pick, first team in the NBA, tenure, and salary.

These were the 150 players who started during their teams’ season openers last week.

These aren’t necessarily the preferred starting lineups for each team. You might notice a few familiar faces missing here and there – Khris Middleton sat out the Bucks opener with his wrist injury, for example, and even though Kawhi Leonard played in the Clippers first game, he didn’t start as he continues to work his way back to full speed. So, these may not be THE STARTERS, but they were the starters last week.

So, with those disclaimers out of the way, check out the heights of each opening night starting lineup:

Among the 30 players who were the smallest person in their respective lineups, the average height was 6-foot-2 and the average height of the tallest person in each lineup was 6-foot-11 (with the average heights being 6-foot-5, 6-foot-7, and 6-foot-9 at the other three spots). The teams with the two tallest units were the Orlando Magic – who had a trio of 6-foot-10 players and nobody shorter than 6-foot-5 in the starting lineup – and the Minnesota Timberwolves – with their new twin-tower look featuring Karl Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. The team with the shortest starting lineup was the Miami Heat, standing just 6-foot-5, on average.

We can do the same with positions (note: these are the positions as listed for each player on the NBA site, same as the heights).

Among the 150 opening-night starters, there were 57 listed as guards (about 2 per lineup), 41 forwards (1 or 2 per lineup), and 14 centers (every other team had one) plus another 19 players who were designated as being in between a guard and a forward (G-F or F-G) and another 19 who were in between forward and a center (F-C or C-F). There seems to be some discretion given to the teams in how they define their own players’ positions as guys like Kevon Looney (F), Joel Embiid (C/F) and Brook Lopez (C) each earned a different label on the NBA site.

We’ve been working on our own system for sorting players into offensive roles based on how they try to help their teams score using Synergy’s play-type and shot-type data. The goal is to create a functional description of how a player plays that decouples his offensive role from his defensive responsibilities (and his height). So, Looney is called a rim-finishing big, Embiid a post-up big, and Lopez a stretch big, for example.

With 11 different roles to mix and match, no two starting lineups were exactly the same. But considering just the three higher-level groups – ball handlers, wings, and bigs – there were 8 different combinations found repeatedly across the 30 teams, the most common of which was 2-2-1 (2 ball handlers, 2 wings, and a big, which described 9 lineups), followed by 1-3-1 and 3-1-1 (5 lineups each). Notably, several teams are pairing a post-up big with a rim-finishing big this year (Towns and Gobert, for example) which is something that has been taboo over the past few years. The four most unusual units were the Hornets’ 0-3-2 (no pure ball handlers), the Cavaliers’ 3-0-2 (no wings), and the Thunder and Raptors’ 2-3-0 starting lineups (no bigs). Next time, we’ll talk more about which of these combinations have worked well together on offense in the past.

Here are the starting lineups by age.

The youngest lineups belong to the Spurs, Thunder, Magic, Pistons, and Rockets (average age of 24 years or younger). The oldest lineups belong to the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, and Bucks (each with an average age of 30 years or more).

Or another fun way to look at this one is by birth year.

There were 18 eighties’ babies remaining among the 30 NBA starting lineups. Most of the starters – 103 of them – are nineties’ babies now. The other 29 were 21st-Century babies. Aughties’ babies? The Lakers started three eighties’ babies. The Spurs, Magic, Pistons, and Rockets started three aughties’ babies each.

We can look at birthplaces, too.

Most players in the NBA were born in the U.S. but 38 of the 150 opening-night starters have international origins. The most common international birthplace was Canada (6 starters from there). No surprise, many of our bottom-right-hand circles were filled with little globes, because most of the league’s best centers – Embiid, Jokic, Gobert, etc. – were born outside the U.S.

Of course, many of the internationally-born players (including Embiid) moved to the U.S. before joining the NBA, for college or before that.

As usual, the opening-night starting lineups featured a lot of blue-blooded alums – 40 players who last attended Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Villanova, or North Carolina. The Knicks, Heat, and Hornets started three of these players each.

Here are the starting lineups colored by the pick with which each player was drafted.

Of the 150 starters, 34 (23%) were Top 4 picks (in pink), 46 (31%) were late lottery picks (in purple), 39 (26%) were late first round picks (in blue), 22 (15%) were second round picks (in green), and 9 (6%) went undrafted (in black). Three teams – the Celtics, Nets, and Timberwolves – trotted out a trio of Top 4 picks on opening night. The Thunder were unique in having two undrafted players in their starting lineup.

Here’s a look at where each player made his NBA debut.

More than half of the teams in the league had two or three “homegrown” starters, guys who made their debut with their current NBA team. Six teams had four homegrown starters: the Pistons, Warriors, Grizzlies, Suns, Spurs, and Raptors. Three teams had none: the Clippers, Lakers, and Jazz. The Lakers had 8 players who debuted in LA and then went on to start for another team this year, that’s more than any other team.

In a similar vein, we can look at player tenure.

Six of the opening-night starters have played 20,000+ minutes with their current teams and three of those six play for Golden State. The Warriors stand out as the unit who has stuck together longer than anybody else in the league (a 16,000-minute tenure, on average). Their opponents in last season’s Finals, the Boston Celtics, have the second-longest average tenure (at nearly 10,000 minutes, on average – even more if you were to count the playoffs). The Pacers, in contrast, had lots of fresh faces join the team last season. Surprisingly, only 22 starters (less than one per team) were making their debut for a new team on opening night, including just four rookies (Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith Jr., Jaden Ivey, and Jeremy Sochan).

Finally, here’s a look at the salaries of the 150 starters.

Four teams were paying their average starter $25 million or more, including the Warriors, Lakers, Nets, and Nuggets. Six teams were paying their average starter less than $10 million, including the Spurs, Grizzlies, Pacers, Rockets, Pistons, and Magic.

It’s always fun to pay attention to how these characteristics are changing over time – to spot the laggards and the trend setters. What new strategies will take hold this year? We’re excited to find out!


Todd is building tools to help coaches, scouts, and players find winning team strategies as part of Synergy’s Analytics and Insights Team. He creates inviting infographics, engaging charts and interactive displays that make data compelling and accessible. Follow him on Twitter @crumpledjumper


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