Re-tiering the NBA
With about two dozen games remaining and the trade deadline gone, how many contenders are there?
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
The Tea, Mary Cassatt, 1880
As I have written in the past, I am a championship contender maximalist. Rarely are there just a couple of true title contenders in any given season. I tend to take a wider view of what’s possible for top teams, in both directions. Events happen to kill a great team’s title chances. Those events tend to immediately boost the prospects of other teams. It is, in the end, a zero-sum game. To me, that means considering real the chances for clubs that, given the status quo, feel just short of the top tier.
Keep that in mind as I share that I think there are eight teams I’d consider contenders. I’ll break them into two tiers to be clear about how I rank them. As we move down the list, things will get a little more fuzzy as the stakes drop.
Tier 1: Top Contenders
Little justification is needed here: reigning East champs, best record in the NBA, best net rating in the NBA, No. 3 offense and No. 4 defense, incredible topline talent in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, supreme depth. Deep playoff experience on the biggest stages. To me, this is the clear-cut championship favorite.
No. 2 defense, winners of 12 straight, winners of the 2021 NBA championship. Notably the Bucks have beaten both Kevin Durant and the Suns deep in the playoffs (though not at the same time). The Bucks are 14-3 with Khris Middleton this season. If Khris Middleton is healthy and nothing happens to Giannis or Jrue Holiday, this is a contender. If Brook Lopez is healthy, too, this is the Celtics’ strongest challenger. The offense can still get stuck a little too often, but that hasn’t mattered lately.
The best team in the West. Top offense in the NBA. Up to No. 13 on defense. The two-time reigning MVP, who is now having his best season ever. A co-star with a demonstrated history of putting up huge numbers in the playoffs (albeit in the bubble). A lot of “connector” players on the team. The best home court advantage in the NBA. Home court until the Finals.
Kevin Durant is title contention personified. It takes a real messed up team to have Kevin Durant and not compete for a title. The Phoenix Suns are not a real messed up team. The ghosts of Game 7 are banished. Kevin Durant subtweeted them; they vanished. Devin Booker as a No. 2 option. We’re breaking ground here! Innovation! In Arizona, of all places!
Tier 2: Also Contenders
No. 4 net rating in the NBA with the No. 6 offense and No. 6 defense. The MVP runner-up in each of the last two seasons, and maybe this one too. A really high-level co-star. Good depth that fits in the roles allowed. Dare I say decent chemistry? Plenty of chips on their shoulders. Something to prove. Your doubts as you are reading these sentences are just giving them more material!
Effectively tied with Philadelphia for No. 4 in net rating. No. 3 defense, with one of the most impactful single players on that end. The most explosive transition attack in the league. Swagger. Some good learning experience under their belts. Something to prove. Fine in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard looks like Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers are 23-11 when he plays. They appear on track to earn a top-4 seed in the West. Paul George has been playing more consistently, and at the All-Star level you’d expect. Ty Lue is a good coach. The depth won’t bug your eyes out but there are some performers around the roster. The Russell Westbrook gambit is interesting; I suspect it will not quite be the disaster some are making it out to be insomuch as the Clippers don’t have to play him a bunch of minutes for lack of other options like the Lakers did. We’ll see.
My most controversial take is that the Cleveland Cavaliers are title contenders right now. Did you know Cleveland has the No. 2 net rating in the NBA by a significant margin? It’s true. They have a better defense than Milwaukee, Memphis or Boston. Their offense is No. 10 and features Donovan Mitchell, who has some huge playoff performances in his past. While it feels like a stepping stone season in which the Cavaliers will win a series or even two to lift them up to becoming a top contender next season, don’t discount their excellence now. If things break right, they could make a run for it. That’s what the numbers say.
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That’s eight teams. Coincidentally, eight teams win a playoff series in the NBA each year. Chances are not all of the title contenders will escape the first round unscathed. So who could knock them off? Let’s slide to our next tier.
Tier 3: Frisky Playoff Teams
This is a difficult tier primarily because the West standings are so tight. At least one of these teams will not make the playoffs!
New York Knicks
A Tom Thibodeau team whose stars are Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle is a) pretty good, No. 8 in net rating in the league and b) much better on offense than defense. Weird team that seems to be putting it together. Have Knicks fans and Julius Randle mutually agreed that last season didn’t happen? Do Jalen Brunson and Quentin Grimes erase all sins? What’s this team like if RJ Barrett gets back on track, or on track? This is a team capable of stealing a series just on Brunson’s swagger alone. Do you think Donovan Mitchell wants to see Jalen Brunson in the playoffs again?
Bury the Heat at your own peril. They have a negative scoring margin this season but are somehow five games above .500. Not even a year ago the Heat were a couple of plays from the NBA Finals with basically this roster. Not even a year ago Jimmy Butler was putting up 47 in an elimination game in the conference finals. There are no indications the 2022-23 Miami Heat are a very good team. But there are also no indications the 2022-23 Miami Heat are all that different in substance than the 2021-22 Miami Heat, who were a very good team. Bury the Heat at your own peril.
Golden State Warriors
Let’s apply a similar philosophy to the Warriors, who appear dead in the water with 24 games and a .500 record. There appears to be a certain skepticism settling in based on comments from the Warriors’ biggest talkers; based on history, I suspect that’s a motivational tactic and a ruse. You know how there are teams who perform at a high level who for some reason (concrete or otherwise) you don’t trust? (This is the current Sixers for many of you.) I have the opposite reaction to these Warriors. Every indication is that this team is average, unspectacular, middling. I don’t trust those indicators. Something’s off about this team being ninth in the West. I don’t believe it, despite the evidence. Assuming they make the playoffs, there is a good chance they will ruin a Western contender’s spring.
The second best offense in all the land, just shades under Denver. They can’t stop anyone, and when the shot goes cold it can all be a bit brutal to experience. But No. 6 in net rating with the most clutch player in the league in De’Aaron Fox and a mini-Jokic in Domantas Sabonis, plus a coach who has been to the highest levels and knows how to prepare his team. They are only 8-7 over their last 15 games, but they’ve built up a nice little cushion in the West race for playoff spots. That arena in the team’s first playoff (or play-in) game is going to result in temporarily hearing loss for thousands of people.
At no point in organized basketball history has so much ridden on a team’s, like, fifth best player. But so it goes with Maxi Kleber, who is expected to anchor the Mavericks’ defense entirely when he returns from injury. Why do I have Dallas in Tier 3 instead of Tier 2? After all, Luka is one of the best players in the NBA and a supreme playoff performer to date. Do you trust Jason Kidd coaching the playoffs? Do you trust Kyrie Irving, period? Do you trust a team relying on Josh Green (who averaged 7.6 minutes per game in the playoff run last season) and Maxi Kleber on defense with total sieves in the guard spots? Still, they could absolutely beat a team in the first round.
A common thread with teams in this tier: completely unpredictable. The Wolves could go on a 10-game losing streak right now and miss the play-in or they could make the second round of the playoffs and look ascendant. I don’t think Memphis wants to see Minnesota, for example. I’m not sure Denver wants to see them either. Anthony Edwards is climbing the ladder. Not much further to go, to be honest.
New Orleans Pelicans
This is a Tier 2 team if Zion Williamson is healthy. As long as they get into the playoffs and aren’t facing Denver or a fully healthy Phoenix team, the Pelicans could really be a problem in the first round … as long as Zion is healthy and Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum are firing.
Tier 4: Play-In Material
The Nets have such a thick cushion thanks to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving going on that 18-2 run that Brooklyn might simply stay above the Knicks or Heat and make the playoffs outright, which would be funny and weird. The team could also go on a complete bender and slip to No. 7, and then lose to the Wizards in the second play-in game. In any case, this team is not as risk of winning a playoff series against a better club.
I have never bought the theory that finding great success too early can ruin a rising team. Until now. That Eastern Conference Finals run just might have ruined this team. Eager to see what the mostly new front office does this offseason. Not eager to see this team continue to float around .500.
Oklahoma City Thunder
One of the best stories of the season with one of the best young players in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a nice rising supporting cast. This feels like a team that fades late and just misses the play-in. But the Jazz just sold off a bunch of important players and the Blazers continue to look impotent. So maybe the Thunder will just simply … make the play-in? Is anyone getting 2020-21 Grizzlies vibes here? Shai is older than Ja Morant was, but otherwise it kind of works.
The quintessential play-in team. Look, I’m not betting against them in the play-in, OK? And not just because I don’t gamble.
Trade deadline is gone. All-Star has passed. Are the Jazz going to shut down Lauri Markkanen now? Barring an actual injury, it would be completely shameless and I would be among the chorus raising holy hell on the internet. But there’s totally a chance they do it. They just traded Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley to teams they are competing against for a play-in or playoff spot for, basically, a 2027 first-round pick. How’s that wrist feeling, Lauri?
Portland Trail Blazers
No. 5 offense. How bad does your defense need to be to be No. 5 on offense and sit No. 12 in your conference? How about “No. 27 in a 30-team league where three teams — Nos. 28-30 in defense, naturally — are tanking?” That’ll do it.
This team feels destined to lose a single play-in game. What a bizarre turn of events for this franchise after winning the championship.
I put the Bulls in the “play-in material” tier even though I am quite confident they will miss the play-in. How can a team with DeMar DeRozan have vibes this off? Along with carrying the entire defense and large swaths of the offense, was Lonzo Ball also responsible for vibe maintenance?
Los Angeles Lakers
I know the sports media industrial complex spends way too much on the Lakers. But … it is going to be fascinating to watch the one non-playoff/play-in team most desperate to get into the tournament stressing to win games every night. L.A. has had little spurts this season where they look dangerous. Even an 8-game win streak probably gets them into sixth place. Are they capable of even brief transcendence?
Tier 5: Waiting for Next Year
That Tyrese Haliburton injury really put the brakes on this team’s 2022-23 chances — they might still make a run at the play-in, or they might start seeing some more veteran DNPs. Very well-positioned team, though.
The Magic have been way better the last couple of months, but they had dug themselves a significant hole. They have a 4-game gap to No. 10, and I think both Toronto and Washington are interested in making the play-in instead of fading out, so Orlando is likely on the sidelines. Strong growth season overall, though. Good to see Markelle Fultz thrive and Jonathan Isaac get back on the court. A sneaky great fit in the Wembanyama sweepstakes.
Tier 6: Tank City
Special commendation for Charlotte, who actually competes most nights and didn’t shut down LaMelo Ball when they probably had decent justification to do so. This doesn’t preclude the Hornets from shutting him down in the coming weeks, of course. Really atrocious team, but they haven’t given up.
San Antonio Spurs
Horrifyingly bad. A truly terrible team. Fun fact: the Spurs are 5-30 against West opponents and 9-15 against the East. No one pays attention to the Spurs when they are awesome let alone when they are trash. But even by those standards San Antonio’s active 14-game losing streak is sliding under the radar. Even Houston’s losing streak only got to 13 games.
With Cade Cunningham playing just 12 games this season, there’s certainly a feeling of a lost campaign. How many more seasons of losing do you think the Pistons have? It’s not zero. It might not be one. Rebuilds are not for the faint of heart.
A team this catastrophic should not exist. I feel uneasy when I watch this team. Like, the Rockets are uncomfortably terrible. It’s the sports version of cringe comedy, except not funny. I have an ulcer on behalf of Stephen Silas. This team looks like what it must feel like to take a t-shirt bazooka shot to the stomach.
Just wondering - what might happen if the Jazz try to shut Lauri down but he doesn’t want to? I imagine he’s an All-NBA contender, which could make a huge financial difference to him, right? Couldn’t that possibly make him eligible for a supermax?
"t-shirt bazooka shot to the stomach"... this is what led Homer to meeting the Smashing Pumpkins (#SmilingPolitely)