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The NBA in Tiers: The Favorites, Pretenders, and Hopeless So Far

A quarter of the 2019-20 season is in the books. Here’s our staff’s picks for where all 30 teams fit into the league hierarchy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Now that virtually every team is past the 20-game mark, early indications are beginning to calcify into full-blown realities. So where does each team stand in 2019-20? We asked our NBA staff to sort all 30 franchises into one of seven tiers based on this season’s results so far: Favorites, Contenders, Playoff Locks, On the Playoff Bubble, Wish They Were on the Playoff Bubble, Bad but Not Hopeless, and This Is Bleak. We (and by “we,” we mean Zach Kram) then averaged the scores to come up with our rankings. Teams are listed within each tier by average score and alphabetically (in the event of a tie). Without further ado, here is the NBA in Tiers:


Favorites

Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers
Milwaukee Bucks

Kevin O’Connor: No surprises here. These are the teams most people expected to be the favorites. However, the Lakers and Bucks are exceeding even the highest expectations. They’re both 19-3, and on pace of more than 70 wins. Only three times in the past 40 seasons has at least one team in each conference been on pace for 70 or more wins through a quarter of the schedule:

  • The 2008-09 Cavaliers, Lakers, and Celtics: Los Angeles won 65 games and defeated the Magic in the NBA Finals.
  • The 1996-97 Bulls, Rockets, and Jazz: Chicago won 69 games and beat Utah in the Finals for Michael Jordan’s fifth ring.
  • The 1985-86 Lakers and Celtics: Boston won 67 games and defeated the Rockets in the Finals.

So based on history, at least one of the teams should win at least 65 games. Hitting 65 wins is also a rarity; it’s happened only 21 times in NBA history, and 15 of those teams ended up winning the Finals.

Still, it doesn’t totally feel like the Bucks and Lakers are overwhelming favorites, does it? The Clippers are in this tier for a reason; Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, plus a whole host of talented teammates, make them as formidable as a Lakers team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis or the Bucks led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. Some of the favorites are off to historic starts, and the teams in our Contenders category wouldn’t be huge underdogs against them in a series. Isn’t this the type of parity we were all hoping for?

Contenders

Houston Rockets
Philadelphia 76ers
Toronto Raptors
Boston Celtics
Denver Nuggets

Zach Kram: Other teams received scattered Contender votes—I voted for the Mavericks, yet my cowardly coworkers apparently don’t believe in Luka Doncic’s abilities. The quintet of second-tier teams that did make the cut is a mix of underperforming preseason cofavorites and overachieving teams from the expected middle. Within the first group, neither the Rockets nor 76ers have fully jelled; Houston craters whenever James Harden leaves the floor, while Philadelphia doesn’t even rank in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency. The Nuggets, meanwhile, look worse than their 14-5 record suggests, with Nikola Jokic, in particular, performing more like an average player than a star.

On the other end are two clubs that haven’t taken their anticipated steps back. The Raptors have a better net rating than they did last season, with Pascal Siakam filling the vacated Kawhi Leonard role, and the Celtics have enjoyed returns to form from young wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown alongside new point guard Kemba Walker, who’s scoring as efficiently as ever in Kyrie Irving’s spot.

Playoff Locks

Dallas Mavericks
Miami Heat
Utah Jazz
Indiana Pacers

Jonathan Tjarks: It’s all about expectations for teams in this tier. For the Mavs, who were just hoping to make the playoffs in their second season with Luka Doncic and first with Kristaps Porzingis, just being in the mix to get home-court advantage in the first round counts as a success. For the Jazz, a perennial playoff team that thought adding Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic would push them over the top, scuffling along in the middle of the West is a disappointment.

The Pacers and the Heat are both ahead of where many thought they would be coming into the season, but may feel different levels of urgency about making a move to try to push into title contention. Jimmy Butler is a 30-year-old in win-now mode who may not be able to wait for help to come in a season or two. Victor Oladipo, on the other hand, has been out all season while recovering from a torn quad tendon. Indiana may have no choice but to be more patient while it waits for him to return at 100 percent.

On the Playoff Bubble

Brooklyn Nets
Minnesota Timberwolves
Phoenix Suns
Orlando Magic
Portland Trail Blazers
Sacramento Kings
Oklahoma City Thunder

Haley O’Shaughnessy: This batch of hopefuls is the largest of the groups, with seven teams. It’s a nod to the league’s growing parity. Last season, the Western Conference was full of maybes—teams that spent a good chunk of the season only a couple of games back. This season, most of the teams here still hail from the West.

What’s exciting about this year’s class is that most are unexpectedly competitive. Semi Cinderellas like the Jimmy Butler–less Wolves (!), the Kings (!!), and the Suns (!!!!!!!!!!!) are not supposed to be here. Even the Thunder, who started anew (albeit with a star veteran in Chris Paul), were considered an outside shot at the playoffs once the Russell Westbrook trade happened. Only two of the members in this group are underperforming their preseason expectations, the Nets and the Blazers. The Magic are somewhere in between. Orlando made the playoffs last season, but it was fair to hesitate in calling them a lock to do so again this preseason. The Magic are eighth in the standings, one game back from the 11-10 Nets, yet the teams currently in the first-through-sixth spots seem more solid to stay.

Wish They Were on the Playoff Bubble

Charlotte Hornets
Detroit Pistons
San Antonio Spurs

Paolo Uggetti: I wouldn’t blame you for skipping this section. There isn’t much this trio of teams has to offer. Unlike the teams above and below them, the franchises in this group either have no redeeming quality or no clear plan, are hard to watch, or are not bad enough to be fully dismissed. The Hornets (save for Devonte’ Graham’s revelatory season) may qualify for all of the above.

Charlotte and Detroit have been fixtures on the treadmill of mediocrity for a few years now, but seeing the Spurs here is jarring. In the West, their 8-14 record isn’t good enough for the playoff bubble, and though they did recently beat the Rockets in double overtime, it appears they’re stuck between their youth movement (Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV) and their older midrange mainstays (DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge). It’s a roster begging for a trade, and it would probably behoove San Antonio to start prioritizing what it can build in the future rather than what low seed it can scrounge up this season. Try telling Gregg Popovich that, though, and let me know how it goes.

The Pistons and Hornets have legitimate chances to make the playoffs, and at least one of them probably will. But we expected that. Doubting the Spurs always seems to backfire, but this season has provided more reason to second-guess them than at any point since their dynasty began.

Bad but Not Hopeless

New Orleans Pelicans
Atlanta Hawks
Chicago Bulls
Memphis Grizzlies
Washington Wizards
Cleveland Cavaliers

John Gonzalez: This is a weird tier. As of Friday, this group has a collective record of 37-90. That’s grim. And yet there are bright spots for each organization. The Pelicans have a host of young talent, including Brandon Ingram, who is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player. (Though the fact that Zion Williamson hasn’t played yet is troubling, especially given the latest report on the open-ended shoulder-shrug-emoji timetable for his return.) The Hawks have a fun young core of Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish. The Grizzlies drafted the current favorite for Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant, who is an absolute delight to watch and will be making highlight-reel plays with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke for the foreseeable future. The Wizards are having an all-time Ewing Theory season without John Wall and have, incredibly, a top-five offense. The Cavaliers feature an intriguing young backcourt duo in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. And while the Bulls had aspirations of making the leap into the playoff picture this season, they’ve stumbled into something far better: head coach Jim Boylen employing random movie quotes in non sequiturs. (May Jim and the Bulls live long and prosper.) The glass isn’t exactly half full with this bunch, but it’s not empty, either.

This Is Bleak

Golden State Warriors
New York Knicks

Rob Mahoney: At times this season, the Warriors have felt like some depraved experiment: a basketball team systematically stripped of all its most vital functions, one by one, just to see it squirm and writhe on the hardwood. There is absolutely no mystery as to why the Warriors are bad; it’s hard to even imitate NBA-level basketball without the shooters, playmakers, or defenders that make such things possible. It’s all going about as well as could be expected—better, even, now that Eric Paschall has sprung from the primordial ooze a legitimate prospect. Every play he makes is a reminder: Nothing that happens this season really pertains to this season. All lines, instead, point to some hopeful beyond—when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson return, D’Angelo Russell settles in (or moves on), and what looks to be a high lottery pick might well set up the next era of Warriors basketball.

Bleakness, on the other hand, is where the Knicks live. It remains an incredible feat of imagination that an actual NBA team—run by actual basketball professionals—could assemble this roster with the intent of it being good. It wouldn’t have been hard for the Knicks to be fun or even promising this season, so long as you begin with the premise of creating the space necessary for RJ Barrett to develop. Instead, the Knicks free-associated their way into a roster’s worth of players who all play the same position similarly. If only it were more complicated than that. Fortunately (and unfortunately), this season hasn’t even been all that bad by Knicks standards. There haven’t been any trade demands or open rebellions, no organizational embarrassments or new singles from JD & The Straight Shot. This is just New York Knicks basketball, as it has been and ever shall be.

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