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The NBA is a star’s league, but what happens when none of the stars actually play? Due to a confluence of circumstances, namely tanking, injuries and load management, NBA teams trotted out a bevy of unfamiliar — sometimes unrecognizable — names in their starting lineups on Friday night.
The play-in has made the regular season’s final weeks slightly more tolerable, as more teams now have something to play for, but you’ll still occasionally run into a night where the stars simply don’t come out to shine. Friday was certainly one of those nights, so we decided to rank the most unrecognizable starting lineups given the unique occasion.
Obvious yet necessary disclaimer: Anybody who makes it to the NBA is in the top one percent of one percent of one percent of basketball players in the entire world, so this is in no way an insult to anybody who started on Friday night. They deserve every minute of playing time they received.
OK, with that out of the way, let’s see how many of these names you can identify.
10. L.A. Clippers
Notable absences: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum
Most of these guys played in the postseason last year, whether for the Clippers or another team, so it’s not that they’re unknown. It’s just that compared to the potential Clippers starting lineup with Leonard and George, it’s a bit underwhelming. Coffey is probably the least recognizable name, but he’s started almost 30 games for the Clippers this season. Naturally, the Clippers scored 153 points in a win over the Bucks, behind 43 from Covington, including a franchise-record 11 3-pointers, and 32 from Coffey.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
Notable absences: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez
These Bucks are hardly the NBA champs we got to know so well last spring. Portis and Connaughton were big parts of that team, and Ibaka is a longtime vet that most fans probably are acquainted with. But Nwora and Carter probably left some scratching their heads.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
Notable absences: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, Steven Adams, Tyus Jones
If you’ve been following the Grizzlies this season (and you certainly should be), you probably know all of these guys from their stints in the rotation. The only full-time starter, however, was Brooks, who is just coming back from injury. In true Grizzlies fashion, of course, these guys went out and beat the Phoenix Suns — aka the best team in the NBA — on Friday night.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Notable absences: Dejounte Murray, Doug McDermott
The Spurs were added to this list when Murray, the team’s lone All-Star, was a late scratch due to a non-COVID illness. These guys have all started before and Poeltl has been around for a while, so it’s not like nobody’s heard of them, but Murray’s absence meant we at least had to mention San Antonio’s starters on Friday.
6. Houston Rockets
Notable absences: Christian Wood, Eric Gordon, Dennis Schroder, Alperen Sengun
Porter, Green, Tate and Mathews have been starters for most of the season, but that doesn’t mean fans are well acquainted with their talents. Garuba is probably the most unrecognizable name (outside of his native Spain, at least) and puts the cherry on top of Friday night’s unfamiliar starting lineup.
5. Sacramento Kings
Notable absences: De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, Richaun Holmes, Terence Davis
The Kings at least had some recognizable vets on the floor in Barnes and Holiday, and Mitchell is pretty well known for winning the national title last season at Baylor. But for casual NBA fans, this isn’t exactly a who’s who of stardom.
4. Detroit Pistons*
Notable absences: Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk, Marvin Bagley III, Cory Joseph
Starting two guys named Isaiah is always cool, but note the asterisk above next to the Pistons’ name. That’s because their three most familiar starters, Cunningham, Bey and Stewart, only played in the first quarter for whatever reasons head coach Dwane Casey justified. Their playing time was replaced by such household names as Saben Lee, Braxton Key and Jamorko Pickett. If those guys had started, Detroit might have taken No. 1 on the list.
3. Indiana Pacers
Notable absences: Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, T.J. McConnell, T.J. Warren, Ricky Rubio
Haliburton and Hield — sure. Brissett, Taylor and Bitadze, not so much. The Pacers went in the tank a long time ago, so this is nothing new to their fans, but this lineup surely left casual NBA viewers scratching their heads for the few minutes they left the game on their screen.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Notable absences: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, Aleksej Pokusevski, Tre Mann, Derrick Favors
Oh boy. The Thunder are no strangers to unfamiliar starting lineups, but this one takes the cake — guess we shouldn’t say that with a handful of games left in the season. Wiggins has a recognizable name, at least, thanks to Golden State Warriors All-Star Andrew Wiggins (no relation) and Roby has been a staple in the lineup for a couple seasons. Most casual NBA fans, however, probably couldn’t pick any of these guys out of a lineup.
1. Portland Trail Blazers
Notable absences: Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Eric Bledsoe, Joe Ingles, Nassir Little, Justise Winslow
Woof. This kind of feels like cheating since the Blazers have been starting something similar to this lineup for about a month now, but it still jumps off the page and into your frenzied Basketball Reference search. Williams, Johnson and Brown are all rookies, while Elleby had scored just 68 total NBA points entering this season.