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The Seven Tiers of the Post-Free-Agency NBA

Which teams are contenders, which are frisky and young, and which are still racing to the bottom?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’re finding it a little tough to get a grip on the new state of play in the NBA, you’re not alone. When damn near half the players change teams in a couple of weeks, it can take some doing to restore cabin pressure and take stock of just how much the contents of the league shifted in the midst of one of the more turbulent early summers we’ve ever seen.

Here’s one man’s attempt to recalibrate, by splitting the NBA’s 30 teams into small groups based on how their rosters, as presently constituted, seem most likely to perform. Plenty can change between now and tipoff in October—to say nothing of how drastically reality might shift by the time next postseason rolls around—but let’s take a snapshot of this late-July moment in time by breaking the post-draft-and-free-agency NBA into seven tiers, starting with the teams who should probably be keeping a real close eye on James Wiseman and Anthony Edwards (no, not that one) ...

Playing for Ping-Pong Balls

Cavaliers, Hornets, Grizzlies

All three of these teams find themselves staring off at a distant competitive horizon. Barring an MVP-caliber return to form (and health) for Kevin Love, Cleveland’s season figures to focus primarily on how lottery picks Collin Sexton and Darius Garland fit together in an undersized backcourt of the future. Translation: lots of minutes for lots of very green players, likely leading to another near-league-worst defense and a bunch of losses. The story should be similar in Charlotte, where Kemba Walker’s exit left coach James Borrego with Miles Bridges’s attempt to not play like ass in Year 2, with Malik Monk and Terry Rozier both striving to shoot 40 percent in a season for the first time, and with a bunch of expensive veterans of questionable value (in terms of both on-court production and how much they could fetch in a trade) to a team staring down the barrel of a rebuild.

The vibe should be a bit more ebullient in Bluff City. Memphis has bookend building blocks in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant to lead one of the NBA’s best young cores, as well as a productive source of present-tense offense in bruising center Jonas Valanciunas and an aggressive new front office digging for assets anywhere it can find them. Young teams generally don’t win in the NBA; one led by two 20-year-olds will most likely spend the season taking its lumps. It might not be too long, though, before the Grizzlies figure out what to do with those fuckin’ claws.

Not So Bad, but Still Lottery-Bound

Knicks, Wizards, Suns, Hawks

I kind of dig the tack that Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and newly bumped-up general manager Tommy Sheppard seem to be taking with Bradley Beal: very publicly representing an interest in both building the organization around him (“They had Bradley Beal in the draft room, talking through the kind of character changes on the roster that would complement the All-Star guard”) and expressing a desire to pay the shooting guard as much money as possible as soon as possible. Whether that’ll be enough to get him to want to stick around long-term remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Beal is good enough on his own to keep the Wizards from sinking to the very bottom of the standings. He was one of only five players to average 25 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game last season, and one of only a dozen guards ever to do it for a full season.

Devin Booker isn’t quite on that level, but he’s a hell of an offensive player, and he might have a little more help in the desert. I’m not sure exactly what Phoenix’s overarching plan was this summer, but Ricky Rubio should be a steadying defense-and-playmaking hand next to Booker in the backcourt. Combine that with full seasons from Tyler Johnson and the reupped Kelly Oubre Jr., some frontcourt toughness from new additions Aron Baynes and Dario Saric, and another year of seasoning for 2018 lottery picks Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and Phoenix should at least be a tougher out this season. Ditto for the Knicks’ spate of post-strikeout signings. It remains to be seen how many of them will stay in New York for more than a year, but while they’re around, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, and Reggie Bullock ought to at least raise the competitive floor for a team that won a league-worst 17 games last season. (Whether that’s a good thing for a team purportedly devoted to a youth-movement rebuild—one that needs to give its young pieces all the reps they can handle—is a topic for another day.)

Atlanta became one of my favorite teams to watch in the second half of last season, and I really like the roster that GM Travis Schlenk is building around Rookie of the Year runner-up Trae Young. After their strong finish to the 2018-19 campaign, I thought about bumping the Hawks into the next tier. But progression isn’t always linear for young teams, especially ones so heavily reliant on 21-and-under types to carry the load on both ends of the floor. It wouldn’t stun me if the Hawks wound up vying for one of the final playoff spots in the East, but it would seem ahead of schedule; a win total in the low-to-mid-30s seems like a safer bet.

Frisky Young Teams

Bulls, Pelicans, Kings, Timberwolves, Mavericks

I hopped on the “New Orleans might compete for a playoff spot faster than you think” bandwagon on draft night. After watching Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes impress at Las Vegas summer league, and seeing new personnel chief David Griffin add an underrated center in Derrick Favors and a veteran sniper in JJ Redick in free agency, I can find no reason to feel any less optimistic about how tough Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, and the gang might be in Year 1.

Well, except for the fact that the West, as ever, promises to be stacked … which, coincidentally, happens to be the main problem facing the other three Western teams in this tier.

Dallas once again failed to land a big fish with its cap space—the Mavs were reportedly in the running for Danny Green right up until Kawhi Leonard chose the Clippers, leaving the Lakers with a bunch of cash to spend and some holes to fill—but did well around the margins. (I really like Delon Wright next to Luka Doncic in a big backcourt.) If Kristaps Porzingis returns looking like the futuristic All-Star he was before he tore the ACL in his left knee, Dallas could be back in the playoff picture right away. The same could be true for Minnesota if Robert Covington’s healthy after the right knee injuries that limited him to just 35 games last season. The Wolves allowed 8.9 fewer points per non-garbage-time possession with the former Sixer on the floor last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, posting the point differential of a 47-win team in his 22 games. (Reminder: The Clippers earned the eighth seed with 48 wins.) A healthy Covington plus more minutes for Josh Okogie and a monster season from Karl-Anthony Towns seems like a recipe for the Wolves once again factoring into the bottom-of-the-bracket conversation come spring. And hey, if Andrew Wiggins chips in, so much the better!

I’m a little surprised that FiveThirtyEight’s projections are so down on the Kings, especially after Sacramento spent all of last season ranking among the sport’s most pleasant surprises. Pegging them to finish below the Suns and Grizz in last place in the West seems harsh, even if you’re not the biggest fan of paying Harrison Barnes $85 million for the next four years. At the risk of looking foolish in a few months, color me a bit more optimistic about the chances for a team that returns one of the best young backcourts in the league in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, upgraded from a never-quite-produces-like-you-think-he-should center (Willie Cauley-Stein) to one who typically produces more than you’d expect (Dewayne Dedmon), could see significant steps forward from Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles, and has lineup flexibility with holdovers Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica and new additions Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza. It cost a pretty penny, and the pieces might not all fit together perfectly, but new coach Luke Walton’s got the ingredients to put together a pretty compelling team in Northern California.

The Bulls, on the other hand, benefit from being in a weaker conference with less competition for the final few playoff berths. They also stand to take a step forward after signing a pair of no-frills positive contributors—power forward Thaddeus Young and point guard Tomas Satoransky—to complement a talented young nucleus. If Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen can stay healthy, and if Zach LaVine can start channeling his athleticism into something other than driving and shooting, Chicago might be able to author a serious turnaround after winning just 49 combined games in the past two seasons.

On the Fringes

Magic, Pistons, Spurs, Thunder, Pacers

It’s become fairly fashionable for teams to strive for a spot at either end of the NBA’s competitive bell curve—to reach for either a championship or the bottom of the standings, anything to avoid the dreaded “treadmill of mediocrity.” For some franchises, though, the calculus is a little different. When you’ve been abject for the better part of a decade and want to give your fans a reason to give a shit again, or have been solid for at least that long and can’t bear the thought of going into the tank, just being pretty good probably doesn’t sound half-bad. (Especially when you’re in a non-top-10 media market and you don’t print money like some of your more well-heeled competitors.)

It arched some eyebrows when Orlando chose to keep All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and sixth man Terrence Ross at February’s trade deadline rather than flipping their expiring contracts for draft assets, but it laid bare the Magic’s priorities: try to make the playoffs again, even if the stay might be brief. They doubled down on that approach this summer, not only shelling out $154 million over the next four years to keep both Vucevic and Ross, but also signing free agent Al-Farouq Aminu—another long-armed, defense-first frontcourt player who can’t really shoot or create—to a three-year, $29.2 million deal.

Maybe that’s a lot of money to lock in the core of a sixth seed. But with even more defensive improvement in Year 2 under Steve Clifford and continued growth from Orlando’s under-25 collective—Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, eternal mystery Markelle Fultz—Orlando might be able to earn home-court advantage for the first time since 2011. Either way, they’re going to be in the postseason conversation; for a franchise that went 157-335 in the first six seasons after the Dwight Howard trade, that’s not nothing. Detroit’s operating on the same principle, putting some more playable perimeter pieces (Tony Snell, Derrick Rose) around Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond in an attempt to build on last season’s .500 finish and first-round sweep. It’s not especially flashy, but when you haven’t won 45 games or a playoff series in more than a decade, there are worse targets to aim for than incremental improvement and sustained competence.

Nobody has sustained competence better in recent years than the Spurs and Thunder, the NBA’s two winningest franchises over the past decade. San Antonio’s a trendy pick to drop out of the Western bracket for the first time since 1997; this roster looks real light on shooting after losing Davis Bertans in the Marcus Morris clusterfuck, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are each another year older, and every streak ends at some point, right? Well, maybe not; I’m just saying that if we’re considering betting against a team that brings back eight of its top nine players from last season’s 48-win squad, gets back a healthy Dejounte Murray, and just put Tim Duncan back on the bench (after a fashion), I’d rather wager your paycheck than mine.

If Sam Presti can’t trade Chris Paul for parts, I’m with Paolo: This Oklahoma City roster seems shockingly decent, and will probably be a pain in the ass to play against. If he can, though, the Thunder will probably drop down a couple of tiers. The Pacers run the other way: Get Victor Oladipo back in uniform in December or January, and get him in rhythm with all the new additions (Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren) by April, and Indiana slots firmly into our next tier—if not higher.

Playoff Teams With Some Questions

Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Nets, Warriors

I already wrote about why I find Toronto, Boston, and Golden State interesting, so I won’t belabor the point here. The Nets ranked among the biggest winners of the summer after landing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but it remains to be seen how much those monumental signings will help them in the here and now. It is possible, though unlikely, that Durant will play this season as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles tendon. And it’s an open question how much of an upgrade Irving will prove to be over outgoing All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell. Kyrie, of course, didn’t exactly cover himself in glory last season while trying to be the vocal leader of a young, up-and-coming team. An awful lot suddenly depends on how well new addition Taurean Prince can act as a placeholder for KD at small forward, and on whether Irving meshes as well with a fully healthy Caris LeVert as Russell did.

Miami finally has a bona fide star in place after landing Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade with Philly. I’m bullish on the Heat’s potential to improve on last season’s 26th-place finish in offensive efficiency with Butler as a late-game quarterback, better health for Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, and James Johnson (who combined to miss 111 games last season), and with the nearly 23 shots per game taken last season by Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside redistributed among a few more efficient options. I am curious, though, what Butler’s arrival means for the ongoing development of Justise Winslow, who seemed to find his stride last season as a primary ball handler. And Miami’s biggest question might be what Whiteside’s exit means for Bam Adebayo, a spring-loaded athlete who has impressed in backup duty through two pro seasons, and who has shined when paired with stretch-4 Kelly Olynyk; the Heat outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor last season, and by 10.8 points-per-100 in 2017-18. If he pops in a bigger role, Jimmy stays on his best behavior, and Miami stays healthy, the Heat might be … like, a three- or four-seed? I don’t know, man. The Heat perpetually confound me, but this time around, that might be a good thing.

Conference Finals or Bust

76ers, Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz, Trail Blazers

I’ve hit Philly already too. I’m not sure how exactly the Sixers will consistently create sustainable offense, but they might have the best defense in the NBA and their long-as-hell starting five should give opposing coaches nightmares. Houston lost only one member of its 2018-19 starting lineup to Philly’s two, but it’ll have a much bigger change to adjust to in the coming season. Everything depends upon how well James Harden and Russell Westbrook can fit together, how willing both former MVPs are to adjust their games to accommodate the other, and whether the upgrade in athleticism and relentless rim pressure that Westbrook presents over CP3 is substantial enough to make up for what Houston lost in 3-point shooting and defensive acumen.

Pairing Harden and Westbrook seems to guarantee that neither will reach the ball-dominating, stat-sheet-exploding production of years past; if this all breaks the way Daryl Morey hopes it will, though, they won’t have to. If it doesn’t? Well, then maybe this is the year that the Jazz can finally get past the small-ball nemeses that have blocked their path, driven by a juiced-up offense invigorated by the arrivals of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. Before the L.A. teams loaded up, it looked like Utah had the goods to make a run at the Finals; given good health and good luck, it still might.

Like the Sixers, Denver got within one win of the final four this past spring. Unlike the Sixers, the Nuggets bring back every player of consequence from a team that won 54 games last season. They also made a perfect addition to their frontcourt rotation by trading for Jerami Grant and potentially benefiting from a wild-card injection of talent with the arrival of redshirt freshman Michael Porter Jr. Reasonable people can differ on the question of whether continuity matters as much as top-flight talent and depth, but the Nuggets have all of the above; they’d have made it into the top tier if I could just shake the image of CJ McCollum handing them their heads on their home court in a Game 7.

Speaking of: Even if you thought Portland’s playoff run was a little bit fluky, and that the Warriors made that clear with their emphatic conference finals sweep, it kind of blew my mind to see that FiveThirtyEight’s projections peg the Blazers as a sub-.500 team this season. (I guess the computers really liked the Aminu–Maurice Harkless frontcourt.) While Portland did lose a few longtime rotation pieces, leaning harder on Zach Collins and Rodney Hood could give the Blazers a more balanced attack, Anfernee Simons might be ready to burst onto the scene as a source of second-unit offense, and Whiteside could be a really interesting pick-and-roll/rim-protecting stopgap while Jusuf Nurkic works his way back from a broken leg. With McCollum and Damian Lillard both skipping Team USA duty to prepare for a long season—which, whoops!—the Blazers seem like a good bet to outperform modest expectations, and put themselves in the mix in a muddled West.

The Favorites

Bucks, Clippers, Lakers

I think Milwaukee will miss Brogdon; if I were a Bucks fan, I’d have at least some concern about relying on either creakier veterans (Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver) or hit-or-miss younger players (Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo) to replace his combination of ballhandling, shot creation, defense, and covering for Eric Bledsoe’s disappearance in a playoff series. I’m not sure, though, that those concerns outstrip the possibility that Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP last season and could easily be better next season. (Plus, the only dude we saw shut Giannis down last season just left the conference.) The Sixers might wind up looking more formidable than the Bucks by season’s end, but right now, with so many questions surrounding Philadelphia’s offense and so much of what made Milwaukee special last season still intact, I’d still slot the Bucks in as the favorites to come out of the East.

As for that dude who went west: I wrote a couple of weeks back that while I thought the Clippers would finish with more wins than the Lakers after adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, I’d like the chances of a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis against just about anybody in a short playoff series. It remains to be seen how many games any of those four superstars will actually play during the regular season: Leonard made “load management” a household phrase for NBA fans last season; an age-35 LeBron who just suffered the worst injury of his career should sign up for the same program; George is coming off surgery on both of his shoulders, and might not be ready for the start of training camp; Davis seems to hit the deck, get shaken up, and head back to the locker room for a closer look at least twice a week. At the risk of getting repetitive: Health’s going to matter. (A lot.)

The Clippers appear to have a better supporting cast and a more balanced roster, but this model of the Lakers looks much more like a LeBron team than last season’s—shooting, shooting, shooting—and that’s typically been a recipe for a Finals appearance. I don’t know that any team’s got a good plan for how to score when Doc Rivers sics Kawhi, PG, and Patrick Beverley on its ball handlers; I don’t know that any team’s got one for how to defend a LeBron-AD pick-and-roll flanked by three shooters. I do think the balance of power in the NBA shifted to Staples Center this summer. I’m just not sure yet which locker room it lives in.