As we are mere days away from regular-season hoops, now should be a good time to look at the tiers in the NBA.
Just weeks prior to the 2017-18 season I compiled an early tier rankings for all NBA teams. I’m not sure what happened to doing one of those prior to last season, but at least I am back at it again.
NBA TITLE CONTENDERS
What more can you ask for from a championship-level team? The Clippers have two elite two-way players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, several capable role players (young and old) such as Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, shooter Landry Shamet and talented young center Ivica Zubac. And don’t sleep on veteran forward JaMychal Green. He’s spent the bulk of his career in Memphis as a dependable rotational player who can shoot the three-ball. He will feast with this Clippers roster.
Who will be the main ball-handler? I don’t know. James Harden will still be a MVP candidate, that much is certain. Russell Westbrook replacing Chris Paul will continue to make this team a contender, provided he takes a backseat to Harden while also increasing his three-point percentage out of “embarrassingly low” to the mid 30’s% level. Russ shot 34% from downtown in 2016-17, however, the last two seasons he hasn’t eclipsed 30%. The Rockets have no shortage of tested and steady role players in Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and, some would say, Austin Rivers. Young small forward and sharp shooter Danuel House will have an important role, as will the newly signed Thabo Sefolosha, even at 35.
Philly should be just about the best defensive team in the league. Their starting five has a little bit of everything. They have some positional depth and capable bench players. Things look blindingly bright. But I’m weary their backup point guard options of Trey Burke and Raul Neto might not be enough. However, that might be getting nitpicky, as Josh Richardson, a very underrated and all-around efficient shooting guard, can handle point guard duties as well. Josh gives the team a different dimension than what JJ Redick gave them (which was excellent in its own right). When Ben Simmons is resting, it may be as simple as getting the rock to Joel Embiid and running stuff for the often-lethal Tobias Harris.
Marc Gasol won an NBA title, so now it’s time for Mike Conley to win one (these ex-Memphis Grizzlies are two of the most underrated basketball players in the world). The Jazz fanatics must be beyond happy that Mike Conley joins a settled core of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles. Add in to the mix wildly underrated vets like Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis, and there’s not many holes on the roster. However, a couple depth question marks include health-allergic but useful Dante Exum and newly acquired Jeff Green. If Green is mostly dependable and is playing many important minutes, his addition gives them tons of lineup flexibility.
There will be some minor pains on both ends of the court without Klay Thompson in the lineup, yet once he’s healthy it should be all systems go. Stephen Curry and newly signed D’Angelo Russell will have more than their fair share of green lights early on.
Outside of the Warriors “big four,” there’s a bit of a drop off. And by a bit, I mean, A BIT. And that’s not a slight on the dependable Kevon Looney. Having said that, there’s a solid mix of capable young talent and vets looking to prove themselves and carve out their roles on this team. Willie Cauley-Stein will not be allowed to bring his effort only sometimes with Draymond Green watching him like a hawk. Alfonzo McKinnie was good in spots last season and will have a much larger role, especially with Klay being out initially. Omari Spellman, a second-year big man who can shoot it and isn’t afraid to get physical, will have a chance to show he belongs.
The development of Jayson Tatum in his third NBA season is paramount to this team being great instead of just good. There’s ample depth with this roster and the brain power with Brad Stevens isn’t dim. Kemba Walker is going to do his thing and he will have something more than just himself to play for. Gordon Hayward, if he’s anywhere back to his old self, will allow Boston even more lineup flexibility.
Boston could win it all this season with the right type of chemistry. And don’t sleep on their underrated group of athletic and tough big men.
PRETTY GOOD BUT JUST PRETENDERS RIGHT NOW
I know LeBron is easily still a top-8 player. I know Anthony Davis is a top-6 player. I just don’t see the chemistry with this team, despite talent in Kyle Kuzma and what still seems to be left in the tank with Rajon Rondo, Danny Green and, possibly, Dwight Howard. If this team stays healthy then they’ll be talked about the whole season. Well, even if they aren’t healthy, this team will get talked about the whole season. You know though, at least Alex Caruso is decent and fun!
There’s quality depth (young and old) and so much shooting on this team. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are the foundation, and it’s a great foundation at that. But hold on — I think we all know that this team lacks a dependable third weapon. Now, maybe if Giannis becomes a Freak from downtown, that changes things. Perhaps. Anyway, Eric Bledsoe isn’t bad. He really isn’t. It’s just that Eric Bledsoe isn’t good, especially in the playoffs. He isn’t a good 3-point shooter to begin with but in the playoffs last season he was really off, shooting 23%.
The Nuggets are extremely close to being a title contender. I want to take them completely seriously. They are missing that additional superstar to push all their depth and flexibility to the next level. They need a top dog. Good news is that they might already have one on their roster. He just needs to stay healthy. And time — time has to happen as well. Michael Porter Jr, finally, will be the next big thing in basketball. We’ll see glimpses of it this season with his guard-like skills and shiftiness in an imposing 6-foot-11 frame. Next season the Nuggets will not be pretenders.
Hassan Whiteside is 30, in a contract year, and seems to be saying all the right things going into the season as the third banana to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Whiteside may only be a one-season stopgap, but what if he plays great ball? Portland hasn’t had a unique talent like him to blend with these stellar guards. Who knows about the contributions of the young babes like Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons either. Mario Hezonja isn’t at his ceiling yet, I keep telling myself.
When Victor Oladipo returns from injury, the Pacers low-key have the best starting five in basketball. Newcomers Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren are dependable bucket-getters, simply put. Brogdon is on another level than Warren, we all know that. Brodgon will be the straw who stirs the drink for this team until Oladipo returns. But let’s focus on Warren. With only 43 games played last season, he rocketed to 42.8% (on nearly five attempts per game) from three-point land, monumentally better from the previous two seasons where he was under 27% on nearly 1.5 attempts per game. Will Warren come close to that mark again? And what about the bench? The bench has question marks in many spots, but the unit doesn’t have to be anything close to terrific to still add value.
DECENT AND THERE’S SEEMINGLY A PLAN IN PLACE
De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are becoming a fun and rather efficient combo. It seems as if Buddy has been around forever, yet he’s only in his mid-twenties. The just turned 27-year-old Bogdan Bogdanovic’s time is now. It gets under my skin that the majority of casual NBA fans probably either don’t know who he is, or they think he’s Bojan Bogdanovic of the Utah Jazz but somehow looks different all of a sudden. And, even then, those casual fans who do know of Bojan, likely think Bojan is still on the Pacers anyway. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Where was I? Ah yes, the baby Kings. Young and gifted forwards Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles aren’t close to finished products, especially the former. That’ll be fascinating to watch. The Kings are rounded out with several veterans who have nice track records. The only thing is — Luke Walton is coaching this team. Let’s see how it goes.
Have you heard of Luka Doncic? Kristaps Porzingis? BOBAN MARJANOVIC? Ok, one of these is not like the others.
Dallas has a bunch of relatively cheap but good role players to spread around Luka and Kristaps. That’s if you look past Tim Hardaway Jr. However, on the bright side, if you can look past him and his contract, and also figure out that it’s not hard to realize he has the talent to be much more than a role player, you may be rightly optimistic that Dallas could be much better than most think this season. Tim is 27 and maybe there’s still time. One of these seasons. Dunno. Who knows, maybe third-year wing Justin Jackson will get things going.
Did this franchise do one fine job this offseason or what? Not only are there talented veterans and talented young players, many of them have something to prove. It’s going to be a flashy team. Zion Williamson brings that. The Lakers guys bring that a bit too. Yet this team is full of hungry players. Brandon Ingram is one of them. He has every single tool anyone ever need to be a perennial All-Star and number one option for a franchise. He needs to step up. With Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors and JJ Redick leading the way, support is there. Brandon is just 21, he doesn’t need to light the league on fire quite yet. But are his matches ready to go when the time is finally right?
DECENT AND COULD BE GOOD SOON, BUT IT’S A CRAPSHOOT
It comes down to whether 2019 first round pick Sekou Doumbouya might be an All-Star in the making, as it sure does seem like he’s got a lot of something. I believe he’ll either turn out really good (All-Star) or he’ll be just hanging around in five years time a la Anthony Bennett.
And, sure, Blake Griffin is signed in Detroit through 2021-22 and it’s probably a good bet he’s at least still a fringe All-Star caliber player then. It’s possible Blake, Sekou and Luke Kennard — and maybe a fourth impact player emerge that may or may not be with the team currently.
Lock up Pascal Siakam forever — that’s really half the battle. O.G. Anunoby is part of the future too. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol won’t be good enough to still big time pieces by the time the Raps are ready to be actually dangerous again. Serge Ibaka is just 30, but will probably be gone after this season. Maybe Fred VanVleet too. Stanley Johnson and Cameron Payne are on this team, and hopefully not playing unless it’s mop up duty.
Never mind the mediocrity the Spurs are in the midst of now. They clearly want to stay competitive all while still developing potential franchise cornerstones. With Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson in the fold, the Spurs are more than giving themselves a chance to be a dangerous team again.
Their roster is pretty deep this season with a couple good players, some fringe starters and many dependable rotation players (and forwards galore, yikes). For a change, they have a lot of actual NBA talent. Seriously, go check their roster. This season they’ll be fighting for the 9th seed best case, though. Rookie RJ Barrett with second year forward Kevin Knox could be excellent in a season or two. Julius Randle, just having signed a three-year deal with the team, is only 24. He’s really good, yet will the New York pressure be too much? He’ll be the go-to guy this season. While talented in many facets, he’s not a first or second option on a playoff level team. That’s not controversial, is it?
The main question comes down to point guard play. Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina both have tons to prove, but both are young and talented. You’d think at least one of them prospers and starts to evolve into a high quality player any minute now.
On paper, this team doesn’t suck at all. They could squish into the playoffs this season if they stay healthy. I’m high on Wendell Carter Jr. Many are. He’ll be an anchor. Rookie Coby White will be intriguing to follow, if you can even follow him - he’s lightning quick. Otto Porter and the new additions of Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young should bring stability and efficiency to this team that sorely needs it. There’s just a lot of question marks with this team. The main one: Right now Zach Lavine is the best player in Chicago. Look, he’s slowly but surely developing into an excellent weapon. The jury is still out on if him being the best player in Chicago is a good thing or just an alright thing for the franchise.
Jimmy Butler just signed a four-year max deal. He may not have all the help in the world right now, though he could have a wealth of help sooner rather than later. And it could just turn out to be very mediocre help — just suitable for this crapshoot tier. I’m optimistic though. Bam Adebayo is ready to spring forward on both sides of the court. Rookie scorer Tyler Herro looks the part of an excellent all-around pure scorer for years. Justise Winslow actually seems to be coming around to competent starter territory.
As 24-year-old Andrew Wiggins inches closer to a 30-million dollar per season basketball salary (he’s got two more seasons left until then), more and more people dampen on him. He’s not that far off from rewriting his NBA story and is just entering his prime.
If Andrew just can’t cut it and the Wolves find a trade partner, Jarrett Culver, the smooth operating rookie wing, will be thrust into more of a lead role alongside Karl-Anthony Towns.
MIGHT TURN OUT ROTTEN
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are immensely talented and generally fun to watch, but their addition to the Nets make this once adorable roster suddenly not so adorable. Best case is that the Durantula makes a return late this season from his ruptured Achilles, which very well could allow this season not to be a wash in terms of championship aspirations. The Nets will definitely win several if not many playoff series over the next three or four seasons, but I’m not seeing a title contending team with Kyrie and Kevin as the superstars no matter how many strong supporting players are around them. And there’s a lot of them in Brooklyn right now. They were once adorable.
I want to believe the hype. Believe me, I know that so many of us want to believe the hype too. I just think too much has to go right for the Magic, and besides even that, their point guard situation is D.J. Augustin and Markelle Fultz. Best case is Fultz turns out as a prime time player and Augustin settles into a backup role that more suits his change of pace skill level. I’ll believe the ‘Magic are the next big thing’ when I see it.
ICYMI | Yesterday the @OrlandoMagic announced that they’ve exercised the team options on Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Issac & Mo Bamba that has them signed through to 2020/21— Orlando Magic UK (@OrlandoMagicUK) September 17, 2019
The Magic are all in on this young core including Aaron Gordon who was re-signed last summer #MagicAboveAll pic.twitter.com/cnBMK2xHhb
This team will play hard and play the right way — how do you like that for a cliche? There’s talent here, and in a more perfect world this team would stand pat and probably win 45 games and be a rowdy group for someone to beat in round one. But as you can guess, this team won’t be intact the whole season. Make no mistake, not missing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s development should be enough to tune into OKC games here and there.
BAD TEAM BUT THEY HAVE A DIRECTION
Ricky Rubio is the new point guard now for the Suns, and their roster isn’t as weird and as aimlessly constructed as usual. If one of either Mikal Bridges or Kelly Oubre Jr. take a nice step, this team will turn heads and, dare I say, things will be looking promising in the desert. Devon Booker will shut a lot of people right up this season.
The Trae Young and Kevin Huerter backcourt aren’t the only players to be uber-excited about in Atlanta. The rookie trio of Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Bruno Fernando all can be formidable players now or at least not far down the road, and you don’t have to squint to see it.
John Collins is the X-factor in all this. He’s a good player coming in his third year, but how good can he be? A number two option? His 3-point shooting is in need of a little improvement, but overall he is an athletic menace, especially considering his developing dribble-drive game.
Second-year big Jaren Jackson Jr. and rookie Ja Morant are going to be fantastic together. Jaren is just about already fantastic. Rookie foward Brandon Clarke, despite being 23, will turn heads. Memphis needs to gather more players who can efficiently score, and when they do that they will have something dangerous.
John Beilein as head coach of your basketball team — no matter the level — is probably not going to turn out bad. It surely will take time, as the Cavs have quite a ways to go and this season will be extremely long. Rookie point guard Darius Garland, second-year combo guard “forced into being a combo guard even though he’s 6-foot-2” Collin Sexton and wing Cedi Osman are a good start. They will be exciting and offer a lot more than just fleeting hope, even if the tiny Garland-Sexton backcourt is just a one year or so experiment. Also, where will Kevin Love end up this season?
BAD TEAM — WHAT ARE THEY REALLY DOING?
I don’t think they will be as dreadful as most make them out to be. They’ll be closer to winning 30 games than to winning 20. Malik Monk, Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon (and you can throw in rookie P.J. Washington) are all worth keeping an eye on. None have the look of being All-Star types ever, but all are exciting and should be quality starting caliber players sooner rather than later. Adding to these youngsters the veterans like Terry Rozier, Cody Zeller, Willy Hernangomez and Marvin Williams, this team is clearly not bad enough to do a proper tank job.
This team blows. Looking ahead and on the bright side, 20-year-old Troy Brown Jr. should end up being a very good player in the league. He’s shifty and his ceiling is much higher than just as a 3-and-D wing. Second-year stretch four Mo Wagner will get more than his fair share of opportunities to carve out a spot for himself in the league on this roster.
P.S. Trade Bradley Beal and get a few young assets for him and I’ll automatically shoot the Wiz up to the “Bad team but they have a direction” tier.
Are these tiers right on? Lousy?
What say you Bad Boys Nation?