A lot has happened since the Lakers won the title nearly two months ago. So just like last year, we asked our NBA staff to sort all 30 franchises into one of seven tiers based on the outlook heading into preseason: Favorites, Contenders, Playoff Locks, On the Playoff Bubble, Wish They Were on the Playoff Bubble, Bad but Not Hopeless, and This Is Bleak. Without further ado, here is the NBA in Tiers:
Los Angeles Lakers
Kevin O’Connor: In order to create a dynasty in the NBA, many things must occur. Teams need at least one legendary player, a costar, a strong supporting cast, and plenty of good fortune; as the Golden State Warriors have shown, bad injury luck can rattle a team’s status as a contender. With that in mind, there is one team with all the telltale signs of a potential dynasty entering the 2020-21 season: the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Just weeks after steamrolling the West and beating the Miami Heat to win the Finals, the Lakers upgraded their roster. They added the Sixth Man of the Year winner and runner-up for the award, big man Montrezl Harrell and point guard Dennis Schröder; both should help cure the half-court hiccups that the Lakers sometimes experienced last season when LeBron James rested. They also brought on two smart veterans in center Marc Gasol and wing Wesley Matthews to bolster the rotation.
The Lakers put a cherry on top of their offseason by extending the contracts of James through 2022-23 and Anthony Davis through 2024-25; if they stay healthy, their presence assures the Lakers will remain in contention.
The NBA is littered with teams that have Finals hopes. But none of them have more championship qualities than the Lakers, which is why they’re in their own tier as the singular favorite to win the Finals and go back-to-back.
Los Angeles Clippers
Logan Murdock: Each of these teams shares a common theme: Their biggest question marks could lead to a tragic undoing by the end of the season.
The Clippers’ chemistry woes could lead to the team fumbling away their two stars. The Nets are hoping to win a title with an enigmatic star and a top-five player coming off the worst possible injury for a basketball player. The Bucks should be a Finals lock in theory, but the consistently top-ranked offense has sputtered when the postseason arrives, and they could have Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future hanging in the balance all season. And if the Nuggets can’t turn Michael Porter, Jr. into a third star, Jerami Grant’s departure will be all the more glaring. Luka can get Dallas into the Western Conference finals conversation, but the Lakers’ offseason all but nullifies anyone but the Clippers from joining them in the Finals conversation out West.
In the East, Miami has a fun, Warriors-like offense, but the Finals exposed the team’s need for another star alongside Jimmy Butler. Boston will go as far as Jayson Tatum takes them, but an eye needs to be on Kemba Walker’s knee injury, which will sideline him at least until January. The most interesting team of the bunch is Philly, still led by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but now coached by Doc Rivers. The former Clippers coach was in a similar situation seven years ago when he took over for Vinny Del Negro, but the Clippers never eclipsed Del Negro’s postseason success during Doc’s L.A. tenure. Are the Sixers in for the same fate?
Golden State Warriors
Portland Trail Blazers
Rob Mahoney: Do playoff locks even exist in a pandemic season? Probably not, considering the way the coronavirus could run through a team and upend its rotation for weeks at a time. But assuming reasonably good health (and hopefully a vaccine in due time), this group measures up to the idea of a lock on its merits. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to start punching tickets. James Harden has essentially been a 50-win guarantee for the Rockets, but who’s to say how long he’ll be in Houston? The Suns look the part of a playoff team after adding Chris Paul, but their reworked roster has yet to play a game together and the franchise as a whole hasn’t made the postseason since 2009-10. One unfortunate offseason workout for Klay Thompson has dropped the Warriors a full tier; other teams in this grouping could be a similar break away from slipping into the lottery. The nine teams we have slotted as favorites or contenders can go into the season with some sense of playoff security. The most we can really say of this group is that it would be surprising if they didn’t make the cut in the end.
Which, naturally, brings us to the fact that our illustrious panel has arrived at a mathematical impossibility. These tiers list nine Western Conference teams as playoff locks or better—a quirk of polling based on a stacked conference and some diversity of opinion on which team might miss out. Personally, I voted the Suns as a bubble team for no real fault of their own; it’s not that Phoenix won’t be good enough to make the playoffs in theory, but that in this kind of field, strong credentials might not be enough. Some qualified team will likely meet a cruel end to its season, which is also to say that the NBA’s new play-in games—which give the ninth- and 10th-place teams the chance to scrape their way into the playoffs—should be quite a show. Things are only slightly more open out East, where seven playoff spots already appear to be spoken for. We’ll see if the Hawks, after loading up in the offseason, have anything to say about the eighth.
On the Playoff Bubble
New Orleans Pelicans
Justin Verrier: Your League Pass rankings should start right here (minus the Magic, who not even a pandemic can stop from finishing no better or worse than .500). The most thrilling midweek watches are the teams with a transcendent player or two who haven’t quite figured out how to either harness their powers or apply them to team success, and that’s where we find the upstart Hawks, Grizzlies, and Pelicans—and now the what-the-fuck Wizards, for better or worse.
A Pelicans game might be more of a grind than usual after the organization replaced the pace-happy Alvin Gentry with Stan Van Gundy and imported defensive-minded veterans to finally try to stop somebody. But Zion Williamson became the best show in the league purely off activity and simple actions; imagine what he’ll do with months to prep his game, fine-tune his body, and find the right angle for workout photos. The Grizzlies will likely take a step back from last season’s surprise jump into the play-in round, given the injury-related absences of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow to at least start the season, but Ja Morant is liable to leap over any unsuspecting big man at any moment. And the Hawks signed everyone they could get their hands on this offseason, setting up a sink-or-swim season for the top brass and Trae Young, and a whole lot of night-to-night rotation questions for head coach Lloyd Pierce.
The Wizards, meanwhile, probably deserve to have all 72 of their games on national TV. They (maybe?) won last week’s historic challenge trade, if only because Russell Westbrook has actually played within the past two years; now we get to watch them try to fit the ball-dominant chucker who wants to do even more ball-dominant chucking next to Bradley Beal, an All-Star-in-the-making who just last season leveled up from costar to Kroger-brand James Harden. Whatever happens should be fascinating to watch. (I’m actually an optimist, if Scott Brooks learns how to stagger his two stars; the bar in the East is very low.) The combination of adding Russ’s defense to probably the worst defensive unit in basketball and Russ’s offense to the most amount of shooting he’s ever played alongside should lead to a lot of 150-point shootouts.
Wish They Were on the Playoff Bubble
San Antonio Spurs
J. Kyle Mann: As it pertains to the title of this particular group of teams, I think “wish” is a fairly presumptuous word. Do I want these teams in the playoffs? Well, no, not really. I’d love to see them succeed, because I’m such a nice guy, but they’re not ready. Normally, when you think about teams that you’d like to see get an audition for basketball prime time, you think about teams with younger cores that are ahead of schedule.
[Peruses teams again.]
I’m not really seeing that, but the Wolves and the Hornets are at least attempting to craft a winner for the first time in years. It’s hard to imagine Minnesota not improving from their next-to-last finish in the West last season now that they’ve assembled one of the quirkiest Big Threes I can remember: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards. That union could go just about any direction.
Charlotte promises to be interesting. If you’re at the bottom of the league in offensive total efficiency (29th in 2019-20, according to Synergy Sports), you should be on a mission to add versatility and possibly change up your thinking. In LaMelo Ball, they added, in my view, the most offensively talented player in the draft. Hornets coach James Borrego made it a point recently to mention that he expects to use 6-foot-7 P.J. Washington at the 5, which is a bold idea that I adore. And although 90 percent of the basketball internet seemed to scream at each other about the monstrosity that is the Gordon Hayward deal, I think he has some tread on the tires. Devonte’ Graham will step out of focus a bit and serve in a role that better suits his ability. Combine all those things and I think you have a team that won’t necessarily be playoff good, but their League Pass Check-in Rating (LPCIR), something I just made up just now, will be high.
Sacramento is like a band of buddies who excitedly set out on a journey, imagining all the success that awaited them, got a significant distance into the trip and realized that their plan to get there needed serious revision. Bogdan Bogdanovic is the type of player whom you never want to lose, but Tyrese Haliburton, the no. 12 overall pick, could end up being a better player long term, and he’s a terrific fit with De’Aaron Fox. Luckily they brought in Hassan Whiteside, known locker-room anchor and sought-after creator of offense, and Frank Kaminsky to right the ship.
For San Antonio, this feels like another transition year to get an idea of what their next phase might look like. It doesn’t seem like they’re headed down, but not enough has changed to indicate that they’re headed up, especially in an already-good Western Conference that got better.
Bad but Not Hopeless
Oklahoma City Thunder
Verrier: Congratulations to this trio of teams for not being complete embarrassments. The apparent difference between this tier and the one below it is these guys (seemingly) have a plan. The Thunder now have a pool of lottery tickets for Sam Presti to dive into, thanks to an active offseason wherein the OKC GM played hot potato with just about every veteran in the league. (The Ricky Rubio Thunder jersey enters the festival circuit Hall of Fame, right next to the Melo Hawks uniform.) The Bulls are teeming with young talent, with four players drafted in the top seven of the past four drafts, and finally have a new front office and an adult in the coaching chair to make sense of it all. And the Pistons also have a new GM, freshly picked from the Presti tree, along with a healthy-for-now Blake Griffin who’s so far saying all the right things about a roster suddenly overflowing with centers.
The Thunder are clear fits for this tier—though I gotta say, the starting lineup (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, George Hill, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Al Horford) still looks competent as hell—but I’d quibble with the other two teams. Chicago is too good to not even be in proximity of the playoff bubble; if Otto Porter Jr. shows up healthy after playing in only 14 games last season, and if Zach Lavine shows even mild restraint with the ball in his hands, this team could easily get into the top 10 of a conference where its top competition for a play-in slot are the likes of the Wizards and Hornets. For Detroit, it seems like a matter of when the bleakness will creep in. Troy Weaver made a hard reset, throwing overboard every recent draft pick other than Sekou Doumbouya; but while the franchise needed a fresh start, Weaver shuffled the deck chairs on this sinking ship, committing gobs of money to Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee and stretching contracts for the right to do so. If or when Griffin hits the injury report again, the Pistons may quickly find out why Grant wasn’t given a bigger offensive role in Denver.
This Is Bleak
New York Knicks
Dan Devine: Neither the Cavs nor Knicks shook things up significantly enough to convince us they’ll be markedly better than they were in 2019-20, when they owned two of the NBA’s six worst records and five worst point differentials. That said: If you’re feeling charitable this holiday season, you could bump either team up into “Bad But Not Hopeless” without too much argument from me.
Cleveland actually features two players who’ve made All-Star teams in recent memory, and coach J.B. Bickerstaff had a loooooooooong offseason to try to figure out how to turn the partnership of Kevin Love and Andre Drummond from punchless (outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions in limited run) to profitable. The jury’s still out on the viability of the Cavs’ purported backcourt of the future, but Darius Garland starts fresh after taking his lumps as a rookie with just five collegiate games under his belt, and Collin Sexton averaged nearly 24 points per game on .594 true shooting last season after New Year’s Day. Isaac Okoro, ex-Knick Damyean Dotson, and redshirt 2019 first-rounder Dylan Windler join second-year wing Kevin Porter Jr. in what could be an intriguing young wing rotation.
If a couple of things break right—Love and Drummond play up to their All-Star billing, Garland takes a big leap on the ball, Bickerstaff MacGyvers an average defense out of spare parts—the Cavs could be better than “bleak.” But it still feels like GM Koby Altman has some work to do in clarifying just what sort of team he’s trying to build, and like this roster is more likely to contend for a no. 1 pick than a playoff berth.
The same’s true in New York, where new president of basketball operations Leon Rose took a patient approach to the construction project ahead—a smart move, but one that might not generate too many more Ws in the present tense. Rose handed out only a few inexpensive short-term deals in free agency, snared three second-round picks just for importing and exporting Ed Davis, and kept the rest of the Knicks’ cap space—about $18.5 million—free in case more opportunities arise during the season. Slow-and-steady long-term thinking represents a welcome departure from the often rash decision-making that has dominated the two mostly fallow decades of James Dolan’s reign.
It also means that the prospects for short-term improvement rest squarely on Tom Thibodeau. The new head coach must get an exceedingly young roster to defend—here’s where we remind you that his Wolves finished 26th and 23rd in defensive efficiency in his two full seasons on the bench—and continue to foster the growth of recent draftees like RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and 2020 draftee Obi Toppin (who, by the way, is older than all four of the players listed before him).
The way Rose conducted his first offseason in charge offered Knicks fans fresh hope that there might, at long last, be some light at the end of the tunnel. The team still has a fair amount of driving in the dark to do before it gets there, though.