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NBA Contender Tiers

Adrian Werner

Tier 1 - All eyes on the title: Celtics

Celtics: The Boston Celtics have cemented themselves as the clear best team in the NBA. They did not lose a game on their home floor until January and hold the league’s best record by five games. General Manager Brad Stevens went all out this offseason, trading Marcus Smart and other key pieces for sharpshooting big Kristaps Porzingis and All-NBA defensive guard Jrue Holiday. This is truly a championship or bust year for the Celtics, with Jayson Tatum’s impending supermax deal limiting roster building and retention after this season.

Tier 2 - Aspiring finals teams: Nuggets, Thunder, Clippers, Cavaliers, Timberwolves

Nuggets: This has been a bit of a down year after the Nuggets finals win in June. They have consistently been within reach of the one seed in the west but haven’t been able to string together consistent win streaks. In my eyes, this team is still the favorite to come out of the west, even if Jokic and Murray lost some of the help they had last year.

Thunder: Many view the Thunder as ahead of schedule in their rebuild, I view it as one of the few window years they will get since it is harder to retain stars as a small market team. They are in contention for the first seed in the west, and trading for veteran Gordon Hayward has positioned them to make a deep run.

Clippers: The Clippers have finally figured out how to operate their big three, with Russell Westbrook leading the bench unit. After losing to the Celtics by nearly 40 on December 23, they turned around and won 17 of their next 20 to put them as the three seed in the west. What once looked like a dumpster fire has now become a legitimate threat.

Cavaliers: The Cavaliers are a similar story; they started out trying to avoid the play-in but have gone on a hot streak since January 1 and won 17 of their last 20 contests. Although not enough to catch the Celtics, they have surpassed the floundering Sixers and underwhelming Bucks.

Timberwolves: The Timberwolves have figured out Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns's “twin towers” experiment, and Anthony Edwards looks like a future MVP. The Twolves have put together a nice season but need to be a little more consistent.

Tier 3 - Aspiring conference finals teams: Knicks, Suns, Bucks

Bucks: The Bucks are inherently limited in how deep they can go in the postseason by new coach Doc Rivers. They are also having trouble winning in the regular season, falling behind the Cavs and almost dropping to the fourth seed. Giannis still looks alone on the floor against good teams as Damian Lillard has been unable to string together any consistent offense that counters his defensive liabilities.

Suns: The Suns' big three have found their stride and have moved the team to the front of the chase pack for the one seed in the west. If they can all stay healthy and get quality contributions from their role players, this team could go deep into the postseason.

Knicks: The Knicks have been surging after their acquisition of OG Anunoby before the new year. Although their push has recently been slowed by injuries to both Anunoby and key forward Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson has shown his ability to lead a team to success into May.

Tier 4 - Playoff lightweights: Kings, Heat, Pacers, Pelicans

Kings: The Kings have not been able to replicate their historic offensive performance last season, but De'aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis are still leading this team to a playoff-worthy season, with their defense improving from last year as well.

Heat: The Miami Heat have been nothing but disappointing this year after their finals appearance. They were in a very similar situation last year, though, and Jimmy Butler can never be written off come crunch time. Last year, he led the eight-seeded Heat to the NBA finals, upsetting the one and two seeds on the way. If this team can figure out where to get more offensive production, they will be a whole different animal.

Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton's breakout and Pascal Siakam's acquisition have launched this team from a play-in team to a playoff team to keep on your radar. Overall, it was an impressive year, even if they can’t find success in the postseason.

Pelicans: The Pelicans have been playing (and winning) under the radar and are firmly entrenched in the race for the final playoff spots. Zion Williamson has been playing well even if he hasn’t unlocked his full potential due to his weight, and Brandon Ingram has had a career year as well.

Tier 5 - Play-in champions: Mavericks, Sixers, Lakers, Warriors

Mavericks: The Mavericks two stars have been playing well, with Luka Dončić averaging an insane 34/9/9. The defense continues to be an issue, though, and Dereck Lively's rim protection has been missed in the last couple of weeks. We will see if Jason Kidd can ramp up the team's effort and bench production. Until then, this team will keep fighting to avoid the play-in.

Sixers: The loss of Joel Embiid basically ended this team's hopes of being a real contender. Without his 35/11/6 every night, they fall into the league's bottom half. The breakout of Tyrese Maxey has been a nice positive, but general manager Daryl Morey continued to confuse fans with his moves at the trade deadline. This team will probably end up in the play-in, but it’s really just time to gear up for next year and pray Joel Embiid can stay healthy.

Lakers: The Lakers are in a similar spot as last year. There are questions about the coaching, cohesion, and emotions of Lebron James. I assume they can pull things together, but with how competitive the playoff spots are in the West, I can’t see this team fighting out of the play-in. It's time to think about moving the 39-year-old Lebron for the sake of the team's future.

Warriors: The Warriors' fall from dynasty may finally be over for the second time. Klay Thompson is a shell of his old self, and Draymond is more focused on tech and his podcast than helping his team win. Curry and the younger players on this team are keeping it afloat, but if the Warriors make it out of the play-in, this team could not win more than two games against the league's best.

Tier 6 - Play-in teams: Magic, Bulls, Jazz, Hawks

Magic: The Orlando Magic are much like the OKC Thunder last year. They are a fun up-and-coming team entering their contending window. We saw this potential early in the year when they were near the top of the East until early January. As their young players progress, this team will become more and more dangerous, though right now, their ceiling is winning the East play-in.

Jazz: Lauri Markkanen has continued his impressive improvements as a first option, and the starting five is still putting up good numbers. However, this team just doesn’t have the depth to stay competitive in games, and the post-Donovan Mitchell era rebuild continues.

Bulls: The Bulls are still bad, but Coby White has emerged as a potential star in the years to come. The Bulls did not sell their remaining pieces at the deadline, and they stay in the to-tank or not-to-tank range. They are fighting to stay near .500 and rank as one of the lower play-in seeds.

Hawks: The Hawks have fallen from the edge of the playoffs, and the Dejounte Murray experiment has clearly not worked. Pairing two ball-dominant guards that aren’t great defenders is not a recipe for success. This team does have some good young talent, though, and could improve if they can get someone like Herb Jones or a defending guard to anchor the starting five.

Tier 7 - Play-in hopefuls: Raptors, Nets, Rockets

Raptors: The Raptors finally went into rebuild mode and got some decent returns for OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. They will be a bottom ten team in the league for the foreseeable future, and it will be interesting to watch the development of RJ Barret and Immanuel Quickley.

Nets: The Brooklyn Nets have remained a fun team, but they cannot compete with teams without a true number 1 or even number 2 scoring option. Mikal Bridges has not quite progressed as hoped, and Cam Thomas has remained frustratingly inconsistent. Luckily, they have plenty of picks from their failed big three.

Rockets: The genius of Ime Udoka cannot be ignored with his turnaround of the Rockets team. He has turned the players into defensive masterminds. The confusing signing of Fred Vanvleet has worked out pretty well, but his recent injury has seen this team fall out of the play-in. Just a couple more years of rebuilding left for this team until they enter their contending window.

Tier 8 - Tank tank tank: Hornets, Wizards, Pistons, Grizzlies, Blazers, Spurs

Hornets: Although the Hornets are 3-0 in the new Grant “Batman” “GOAT” Williams era, they are wallowing in a half rebuild and the injuries of Lamelo Ball. Not much to say about this team.

Grizzlies: The Grizzlies season may be the most heartbreaking in the league; coming into the season with eyes on a top seed, their hopes have been derailed by an insane amount of injuries, playing seemingly a new lineup every night in response to absences. This is a wasted year of their fleeting title window, but eyes are focused on the high draft pick and next season.

Blazers: The Trailblazers season has gone as expected after trading Damian Lillard this past summer. Scoot Henderson has been extremely inefficient, but Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant are still putting up pretty good numbers. This team is in full rebuild mode and figures to get a high pick in the upcoming draft.

Wizards: The Wizards would be getting a lot more hate for their disappointing performance if it wasn’t for the historically bad Detroit Pistons. Jordan Poole has not become a first scoring option, instead dropping to a third choice, averaging 15 points on 40 percent shooting.

Spurs: Victor Wembanyama has lived up to the hype and looks to be a premier rim defender in years to come. His offense has picked up despite a rough start. Outside of him, there aren’t many bright spots, but this young team is progressing well and is starting to see its starting five of the future come together.

Pistons: The Detroit Pistons have had quite the year. First, breaking the all-time losing streak in December to selling their second and third leading scorers at the deadline. Waiving team icon Killian Hayes and winning four of their last ten games to vault themselves out of record-breakingly bad territory. Despite Monty Williams’ best efforts to hide their talent, their young pieces have looked good.


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