Tier ranking all 30 NBA teams in the 2021-22 season

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 21: Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers shoots over Stephen Curry #30 and Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter at Chase Center on October 21, 2021 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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With the start of a new NBA season, it’s an excellent time to make a breakdown of the different NBA tiers throughout the league. This list will categorize all 30 NBA teams into a tier that reflects their roster level, from championship favorites to the high lottery.

Tier 7 – High Lottery/Tanking Teams

This tier includes teams that are in the early stages of the rebuilding process. They’re not competing for the playoffs this season, and likely not the next one either. For these teams, the season’s goal is giving their franchise player free rein to develop. Their secondary goal will be to lose as many games as possible in hopes of drafting in the high lottery. They will likely be the 14-15th seeds in either conference.

Detroit Pistons

2020/21 record: 20-52

As mentioned above, teams in tier 7 will be looking to develop their cornerstone above all else. For the Detroit Pistons, that player is the number 1 pick, Cade Cunningham. The Pistons have high hopes for the rookie and will look to put the ball in his hands early and often. Additionally, they will be looking for Saddiq Bey to build on his promising rookie year. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is lackluster. Jerami Grant had a breakout season, but besides him, they lack starting-level talent. Kudos to the Pistons for finally committing to a rebuild after years of purgatory. That path involves losing seasons, but the Pistons knew that when they opted for this route. In the meantime, they will cross their fingers that Cade lives up to his potential.

Oklahoma City Thunder

2020/21 record: 22-50

One player who has already begun to tap into his potential is Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 22-year-old guard posted 23.7 points and 5.9 assists on 62.3 TS% this past season. All-star level numbers at that age are rare. Gilgeous-Alexander earned a maximum contract extension for his efforts. Let’s hope his play holds, as his numbers could be a product of sample size. He only suited up for 35 games last season.

This season will be a test run for the Thunder. They’ll want to see if Josh Giddey fits as SGA’s long-term partner in the back-court. In addition, they’ll look to establish their frontcourt rotation. Luguentz Dort is locked in as the starting small forward. Derrick Favors will likely get the starting center spot. Although that’s assuming Sam Presti hasn’t shipped him out for picks by the start of the season. While productive, he isn’t moving any needles for the youngest roster in the league. This team will lose a lot, but they’ll be fun to watch.

Orlando Magic

2020/21 record: 21-51

Jul 29, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga) poses with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number five overall pick by the Orlando Magic in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Yet another team tired of the treadmill, the Orlando Magic, is in year two of their rebuild. Last season the Magic pulled the plug on their core of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier. They will now look to build around number 5 pick Jalen Suggs. While a Suggs/Jonathan Isaac duo is one to get excited about, the team won’t be competitive this season. Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, and Wendall Carter Jr. are decent. Mo Bamba is…there. Both Isaac and Markelle Fultz are recovering from significant injuries. A roster already lacking talent will face injury questions as well.

Tier 6 – Mid Lottery Team

Teams in this tier likely won’t be good enough to compete for a position in the play-in tournament. They might not even want to. The organization will probably go through a rebuilding stage and opt for a lottery pick over a first-round exit. Still, the team might be good enough organically to avoid being among the worst rosters in the league.

San Antonio Spurs

2020/21 record: 33-39

With DeMar DeRozan gone, the San Antonio Spurs are ready to hand over the reins to the next generation. The problem is the Spurs young core hasn’t yielded a franchise cornerstone yet. The most likely candidate is Keldon Johnson, who showed scoring flashes coaches look for at the wing position. Dejounte Murray is an excellent defender. But he has yet to have a single season with a true shooting percentage even close to league average. That said, he s an excellent defender, and the defense will likely be the Spurs saving grace this season. Jakob Poeltl is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, and Thaddeus Young is no slouch either. There are rumors of Greg Popovic gunning for the all-time wins record. The Spurs belong in this tier because they’ll be trying to win games.

Memphis Grizzlies

2020/21 record: 38-34

Sep 27, 2021; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzles guard Ja Morant (12) talks with members of the media during Media Day at the FedEx Forum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

After making the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies seem a likely candidate for regression. The loss of Jonas Valanciunas will hamper their interior scoring. Valanciunas was often the best player for the Grizzlies last season. Big Science posted 17.1 points per game on 59.2% shooting. The trade was a long-term move for Memphis. It allowed them to move up in the draft and netted them a future first-round pick. Still, Adams is a clear step down at the center position. The Grizzlies are likely worse in the short term and will find themselves watching the play-in tournament from home.

Houston Rockets

2020/21 record: 17-55

With the worst record in the NBA last season, the Houston Rockets managed to get the number 2 pick in the 2021 Draft. They used that pick to draft guard Jalen Green. While it may surprise you to see the Rockets above tier 7, they have given reason for optimism. Jalen Green and Alpheren Sengun look to be two of the more NBA-ready rookies coming in. Kevin Porter Jr. has a 50 point game under his belt at age 20. Christian Wood has established himself as a high-level scorer and nightly double-double threat. The Rockets won’t be good, but they won’t be the worst team in the league either.

Tier 5 – Play-in Contender

These teams will be battling each other for the 9-10 seeds in the conference. They are not quite good enough to secure a playoff position in traditional seasons. Thus, teams in tier 5 will rely on the play-in tournament to upset a higher-seeded team and sneak in.

Washington Wizards

2020/21 record: 34-38

As stated prior, teams in Tier 5 will be competing for a spot in the Play-In Tournament. It only makes sense to start with the team that won the tournament last year. The Washington Wizards are a hard team to gauge. Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are welcome additions. They have long, switchable defenders in Kuzma and KCP that should improve their #20 defense. The loss of Ish Smith and Alex Len is addition by subtraction. Rui Hachimura looks to build on a promising sophomore season.

That said, there are doubts about whether Spencer Dinwiddie can fill Westbrook’s shoes. For all the criticism about Westbrook’s scoring, Dinwiddie isn’t a marvel of efficiency. Not only that, it’s unlikely Dinwiddie will be able to replicate Westbrook’s playmaking. We’re talking about a guy who led the league in assists (11.8 per game). The idea is to make up for Westbrook’s production as a unit instead of one individual player. Still, outside of Bradley Beal, the team has few players capable of generating efficient shots. Without a true floor general, I expect a slight regression from the Wizards.

Cleveland Cavaliers

2020/21 record: 22-50

The Cleveland Cavaliers have an exciting roster. Collin Sexton is one of the most underrated players in the league. Would it surprise you to learn he averaged 24 points per game this season? His running mate, Darius Garland, put up 17 per contest. His efficiency wasn’t excellent, but he’ll get there. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers had minimal scoring outside of those two, resulting in a 28th ranked offense. That should change with the addition of Lauri Markannen, who shot 40.2% from long range last season. On paper, he fits well with Jarrett Allen, who operates more as an interior lob threat.

There are some questions on how Cleveland will distribute the frontcourt minutes. They’d like to give Evan Mobley as many minutes as possible out of the gate. However, neither Mobley nor Markannen are mobile enough to play small forward. Having too many good players is a good problem, but it does create a bit of a logjam. There’s also the ongoing drama with Kevin Love. Sidenote: Isaac Okoro will be a defensive menace, and I hope people realize that sooner than later.

Indiana Pacers

2020/21 record: 34-38

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Domantas Sabonis #11 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles against the Washington Wizards during the second half at Capital One Arena on March 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
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From 2015 to 2020, Indiana Pacers were the most average team imaginable. They won between 42 and 48 games each season and lost in the first round. They did miss playoffs last season, in part due to the absence of T.J. Warren. Unfortunately, Warren has suffered a setback in his recovery and will remain sidelined. Besides that, they’re bringing back the same core that won 34 games last season. However, there are some slight differences. Doug McDermott and Aaron Holiday have moved on. Oshae Brissett has shown flashes of being an effective scorer, scoring 11 points per game on 63.8 TS%. If Brissett can increase his volume, they might have a replacement for Warren. Still, none of these players move the needle too much. A team that runs a similar roster back can expect more or less similar results.

New Orleans Pelicans

2020/21 record: 31-41

The New Orleans Pelicans finished the 2021 season two games back of the 10th seed and Zion Williamson’s first playoff appearance. He isn’t to blame, as the second-year forward averaged 27 points per game on a ridiculous 61% from the field. His running mate, Brandon Ingram, put up 24 points per contest. By all measures, the Pelicans were a high-functioning offense. They finished just outside of the top ten in Offensive Rating.

Letting go of Lonzo Ball and acquiring Devonte’ Graham is somewhat of a lateral move. The two players are near mirror images of each other offensively. Ball shot 40.2% on 5.9 catch and shoot three-pointers per game, while Graham shot 42.3% on 5.3 three-pointers per game. Teammates assisted Ball on 66.6% of his field goals last season. That number is 66.3% for Graham. While they will be a potent offensive team, the lack of a defensive presence will have the Pelicans in the mix for the 9-11 seeds.

Sacremento Kings

2020/21 record: 31-41

Out of every team in the league, none need to make the postseason more than the Sacramento Kings. This year, a missed appearance will see the Kings break the record for the longest postseason drought (16 seasons!). Luckily, they have reason to be optimistic. Like the Pelicans, they finished two games back of the 10th seed. Expect their ceiling this season to be higher.

Rookie Tyrese Haliburton had a stellar rookie season. If he builds on that, the Kings may have themselves a legitimate number two option behind De’Aron Fox. Not only that, Haliburton’s ascension makes Buddy Hield somewhat expendable. They were dead last in Defensive Rating this past season. Haliburton’s play opens up the door for the Kings to trade him for a more defensive-minded player. Look for the Kings to shop him around for an upgrade on the wing. If they stick with Hield, they should form a high-octane offense that will land them in the 9-11 range.

Minnesota Timberwolves

2020/21 record: 23-49

Aside from the Kings, the Minnesota Timberwolves are the team most desperate for immediate success. They’ve made the postseason only once since 2004. That 2017 team led by Jimmy Butler lost in the first round to the Houston Rockets. Most recently, the Timberwolves finished the season as the 13th seed and 13 games below .500. In their defense, they were one of the more injured teams in the league. Karl-Anthony Towns missed the start of the season, and the team was never able to bounce back. In addition, D’Angelo Russell only played 42 out of 72 games. Malik Beasley, who was having a career year, missed almost half of the season due to a mix of injury and suspension. Expect the Timberwolves to be much better next season based on availability alone.

However, that’s not the only reason for their expected improvement. Rookie Anthony Edwards showed tremendous progression as the season rolled on. Post-All-Star break, he averaged 23.6 points per game on 56 TS%. That’s outstanding production for a first-year player. If Edwards can continue to improve, Towns might have found himself the running mate Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be.

Toronto Raptors

2020/21 record: 27-45

The Toronto Raptors are another former championship team that has stumbled last season. A title defense sans Kawhi Leonard saw them finish with the second-best record in the league. Yet the Raptors were unable to capture that magic for a second straight season. So what went wrong? For starters, the loss of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka decimated their center rotation. Aron Baynes is a worse defender than Gasol and a less productive offensive player than Ibaka. Yet, he was responsible for replacing both players. Khem Birch isn’t elite by any means, but having a center on the court who isn’t Baynes is an addition by subtraction.

I would also argue that the Raptors were better than their record last season. After it became clear the team wasn’t competing, they began resting players in one of the more blatant tank jobs in recent memory. Toronto will feel the loss of franchise legend Kyle Lowry in the postseason. That said, the rest of the team has shown the ability to step up when needed. The Raptors had a much better winning percentage without Lowry than with him. That’s not to say Lowry is to blame for the losing record. But it does mean that the team is still functional without him. Whether that translates to an entire 82-game season will remain to be seen. One final point; they get to play in Toronto this year. Having that familiarity on their home court will likely have an impact on the W/L column.

Charlotte Hornets

2020/21 record: 33-39

Sep 27, 2021; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) and forward Gordon Hayward (20) pose for photos during Media Day at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After receiving a ton of doubt heading into his rookie season, LaMelo Ball showed out. Ball averaged 15.7 points and 6.1 assists per game. His efficiency in scoring the ball was solid for a rookie. The Hornets will need the Rookie of the Year to take another leap in his second season. Ball’s development will impact the Charlotte Hornets’ ceiling. That goes double for Gordon Hayward’s health. When he’s actually on the court, he’s still as good as he’s ever been. But injuries have bothered him yet again, playing only 44 games last season. We’ll see how the loss of Devonte Graham affects them. While Graham functions as a high volume, high-efficiency three-point shooter, he shoots a putrid 38% from inside the arc.

The Hornets should be able to make up that shooting through other players. Terry Rozier has developed far nicer than anticipated. He is one of the best off-ball shooters in the league, shooting 43.3% on 5.4 catch and shoot threes per game. That said, it’s tough to see what the Hornets plans are long-term. Ball has star potential, but it almost seems like they made win-now moves too early. They would have benefitted more from acquiring one more high lottery pick to pair with him. There’s something to be said for playoff experience. But the Hornets risk making the same mistake they made with Kemba Walker and limiting themselves to purgatory.

Tier 4 – Playoff Team

It’s important to note that teams in this tier are considered a playoff team by the traditional standard. Meaning they have a good shot at being a top 8 seed in the East. With the NBA extending the play-in tournament, it’s a crucial distinction to make. Securing the eighth seed over an entire season is different from sneaking in through the play-in.

Golden State Warriors

2020/21 record: 39-33

The Golden State Warriors are at somewhat of a crossroads. They have a generational talent at the tail end of his prime. Andrew Wiggins is who he is; not a star but still a solid starter. They also have Draymond Green, who remains one of the best defenders in basketball. The real wildcard is Klay Thompson. While I would like to be optimistic, it’s difficult to see him returning as the same player. Thompson suffered both an Achilles and ACL injury. His defense and lateral movement will take a hit. However, if he’s still able to provide 90% of his pre-injury production, it will change the entire makeup of the team’s offense. They’ll need him to be old Klay if they want to improve their 20th ranked offense.

There’s also the question of whether this will be yet another development year. While James Wiseman has a high ceiling, he was a net negative player last season. The Warriors had a 21-12 record without Wiseman but were just 18-21 with him in the game. This pattern might hold with Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Often when you put a focus on development, it comes at the cost of securing wins. That’s fine for an up-and-coming team. But when you have Steph Curry in his prime, it’s irresponsible to spend three seasons in a row not contending. At some point, they’ll have to commit to a direction. That could include packaging their trio of young players for more win-ready bodies. I have them as a playoff team for now, but I put an asterisk as that can change depending on the health of Klay Thompson.

New York Knicks

2020/21 record: 41-31

New York City can rejoice; the Knicks are finally good again. Led by Julius Randle and their 4th ranked defense, the Knicks secured the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Hawks managed to get the better of them in the first round. But it was still a vast improvement for a franchise that missed the postseason seven years in a row. They did struggle offensively both in the regular season and playoffs. The additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier should help offset those deficiencies.

While Walker is no longer the star he was with the Hornets, the Knicks now have secured a back-court duo capable of creating their shot at a high level. Not only that, they acquired the two through free agency. This distinction is essential because they didn’t lose pieces that were key to last year’s success. They’re adding on to something that’s already proven to work. There’s also the internal improvement factor. RJ Barrett made a leap last season, averaging 17.6 points per game while shooting 40% from deep. If he can continue to build on that improvement, the Knicks ceiling could be higher than most expect. With the emergence of the Chicago Bulls, they might not be able to secure a top 4 seed. But at the very least, they should be able to secure a playoff position.

Dallas Mavericks

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 13: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks brings the ball up court against the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Spectrum Center on October 13, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
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2020/21 record: 42-30

The Dallas Mavericks had the most typical Mavericks offseason possible. After links to Kyle Lowry, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Lonzo Ball, the Mavs settled for Reggie Bullock as their free agency acquisition. Bullock is a solid addition, shooting 41% on six threes per game last season with the Knicks. For a team whose best player is second in the entire league in drives per game, having that extra spacing in place of Josh Richardson will help Luka Doncic operate on the inside. Richardson himself was underwhelming in his time with the Mavericks.

Despite his playoff struggles, Kristaps Porzingis had himself a stellar regular season. Posting averages of 20.1 points per game on 58.2 TS% last season. A true floor-spacing center, Porzingis will continue to launch deep threes at a high percentage. Of course, the team will revolve around its superstar in Luka Doncic. The fourth-year guard/forward hybrid gives them a clear floor as a playoff team. There are still improvements to be made. His efficiency needs to improve if he wants to be there with James Hardens and Stephen Currys. But even if Doncic comes back as the same player as last year, it’s hard to see the Mavericks land outside of the top 6.

Portland Trailblazers

2020/21 record: 42-30

Portland Trailblazers fans can let go of their breath. Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere, for now at least. The superstar appears committed to trying to bring a championship to Portland. That said, he’s given off the vibe that this is a do-or-die year before an eventual trade request. The situation in Portland is tricky. They’re an elite offensive team (#2 ORTG) that gives it all back in the defensive end (#29 DRTG). They’ve tried to rectify that by trading CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons. But the Philadelphia 76ers seem intent to wait out in hopes of snagging Lillard instead. Assuming the roster doesn’t change, there is hope for the Trailblazers’ defensive improvement. Norman Powell is a fine guard defender but too undersized to defend bigger forwards.

The x-factor for Portland is Jusif Nurkic. When he was healthy, Portland was able to put together a functioning defense. But injuries limited Nurkic yet again, holding him to 37 games last season. The Trailblazers need Nurkic to be healthy if they want to make noise in the playoffs. Additionally, the acquisition of Larry Nance Jr. from Cleveland will pay dividends. As much as the bounceback of Carmelo Anthony was a feel-good story, his lack of defense was as detrimental as much as his scoring punch beneficial. That goes double for Enes Kanter. Nance taking up the backup minutes at both the power forward and small-ball center position unlocks interesting, versatile lineups for Portland that could make them a more balanced team. At the very least, they’ll be as good as they were last year, with the potential to be a top 4 seed if healthy.

LA Clippers*

2020/21 record: 47-25

Under normal circumstances, the LA Clippers would be in the legitimate contender tier. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and a decent supporting cast vault a team into championship contention. That said, there’s no telling how long Leonard will be out recovering from his torn ACL. As of now, the consensus seems to be that he won’t play this season. That could change down the line. But for now, their ranking is based on the team without Leonard in the picture.

Still, even without Leonard, the Clippers project to be a competitive team. Paul George is only three years removed from his MVP-caliber season. In 2018/19, George averaged 28 points per game while being third in MVP voting. Keep an eye open for Marcus Morris Sr. to be an x-factor for the Clips. For obvious reasons, he has minor role-playing next to a healthy Kawhi. But before being traded to the Clippers, Morris was putting up 20 a night for the Knicks. Look for him to be the bonafide second option to Paul George. The roster contains good veterans that can string together a solid regular season. Through no fault of their own, the Clippers’ goal this year will be on continuity for the 2022/23 season.

Denver Nuggets

2020/21 record: 47-25

Like the Clippers, the Denver Nuggets are in this tier due to an injury to a key player. The Nuggets title hopes faded last season when Jamal Murray went down with an ACL injury. According to reports, Murray is expected back sometime in February or March. Considering the playoffs start in April, he won’t be ready for playoff basketball. Luckily, ACL injuries are not as career-ending as they once were. But Murray will still need some time to get back into game fitness and shake off the rust.

It says a lot about Denver’s drafting and development system that they’re in this tier even without their star guard. Nikola Jokic, the second MVP drafted in the second round, is a bonafide superstar. Jokic is an anomaly of a player and the best passing center ever to play basketball. Posting 26.4 points and 8.3 assists per game on 64.7 TS%, he has solidified his place as a top ten player. His case only gets stronger when you look at the playoffs.

Moving on, Jamal Murray at pick seven might be the best player from the 2016 draft. At 24 years old, we’re looking at a player who has three 50 point games under his belt, two of which came in the playoffs. Ridiculous. Finally, taking a gamble on Michael Porter Jr. at 14 has altered the ceiling of this Denver Nuggets team. Porter Jr. has stepped up in Murray’s absence. In 23 games without Murray, Porter Jr. 22.8 points and seven rebounds per game. He did so while shooting 55% from the field and 44.6% from three. That type of high volume, elite efficiency scoring for a second-year player is exciting. They need to improve defensively, which is why they brought in Aaron Gordon. But this Nuggets team has the potential to form one of the most potent offenses in the history of the league.

They’re in tier 4 for now, but expect them to jump into tier 2 for the 2022/23 season.

Boston Celtics

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 20: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics dribbles during the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2021 in New York City. The Knicks won 138-134. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
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2020/21 record: 36-36

The Boston Celtics have hit a bit of a road bump. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals three out of four years, the Celtics got ousted in the first round. There’s no shame in losing to the superteam Brooklyn Nets while missing Jaylen Brown. But the team went .500 during the regular season and were the seventh seed when Brown went out. They were one of the most injured teams in basketball last season in their defense. There does seem to be some curse on the Celtics’ point guard position. If it’s not Isaiah Thomas or Kemba Walker succumbing to injuries, it’s Kyrie Irving not gelling with the team. The Celtics’ struggle to find a mainstay option at point guard remains a challenge. Dennis Schroeder is both a poor shooter and playmaker, so his skill set is more suited to come off the bench.

There are bright spots on the roster, such as the center position. Robert Williams has shown improvement as a rim protector and lob-threat. Despite his vacation, I still think Al Horford has some juice left in the tank. Still, even a healthy Celtics team won’t have enough firepower to compete for a title. Jayson Tatum is ascending into a superstar. Jaylen Brown is a legitimate number two. But they need more help on the offensive end than the likes of Marcus Smart and Josh Richardson. There have been rumors of a Bradley Beal signing in Boston. He and Tatum are good friends, and if valid, they would change the ceiling of this Celtics team.

Tier 3 – Dark Horse Contenders

High-level playoff teams. You can see them finishing as a top 4 seed in the conference. Teams in this tier probably don’t win a championship this season, but they deserve to be in the conversation. If everything goes right and they get a favorable matchup, it’s not unreasonable.

Utah Jazz

2020/21 record: 52-20

Don’t let the talks of last season’s second-round exit being the same old Utah Jazz fool you. The team did take a significant leap last season. From 2016 to 2019, the Jazz were the fifth seed in the conference three years straight. The year after? The sixth seed. That changed last season when Donovan Mitchell led his team to the best record in the NBA. With a .722 winning percentage, the Jazz secured home-court advantage throughout the entire postseason.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t capitalize. The Jazz lost in six games to a Clippers team missing Kawhi Leonard. Still, writing off an outstanding season as only another early exit dismisses Utah’s improvement this past year. Small sample size, but Donovan Mitchell is fifth all-time in playoff points per game. Rudy Gobert is one the most dominant defenders in league history. Mike Conley only played a single match that series before going out with a hamstring injury. With most of their roster returning, the Jazz have established a clear floor as a top seed in the conference. We shouldn’t expect the Jazz to make the finals. But it remains possible if everything goes in their favor.

Miami Heat

2020/21 record: 40-32

The Miami Heat are one of the more challenging teams to gauge going into this season. Their last two playoff runs could not be more different. In 2020, they humiliated the Milwaukee Bucks as the fifth seed. They then took care of the Boston Celtics before finally losing in the Finals in six games. Last season, they got swept against that same Milwaukee Bucks team plus Jrue Holiday. While Holiday is an elite defender and can run an offense, he alone isn’t the difference between winning in six and getting swept. I’m also not quick to accept the 2020 bubble was the primary reason for the Heat’s success. It’s ten players on a basketball court.

Additionally, this is not the same team as last season roster-wise. I’m a firm believer in Kyle Lowry’s impact on his teammates. Always a player whose impact isn’t limited to the box score. Lowry is one of the best in the league at generating open looks for his team. Not only that, Lowry offers yet another elite floor spacer alongside Duncan Robinson. The ability to play both on and off-ball is part of what makes Lowry so valuable. His spacing is incredibly beneficial, considering both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are non-shooters. On defense, no team in the league has more grit on that side of the ball. Adebayo is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA. Bam can protect the rim, defend guards in space, and everything between. The additions of Lowry and P.J. Tucker will only improve their top-ranked defense.

Chicago Bulls

2020/21 record: 40-32

Sep 27, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Lonzo Ball (2) center Nikola Vucevic (9) guard Zach LaVine (8) and forward DeMar DeRozan (11) pose for photos during Chicago Bulls Media Day at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls had a busy offseason. They started by signing DeMar DeRozan to a three-year deal worth $85 million. They then completed a sign-and-trade for Lonzo Ball, a move that may cause them to lose a first-round pick. The Bulls have made it clear that they’re going all-in around Zach Lavine. And rightfully so. After finishing 21st in offensive rating last season, it was clear the Bulls needed some firepower. With Ball, DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic, that’s what they got. Lonzo Ball has emerged as an elite floor spacer, shooting 37.8% on 8.3 threes a game. With 27.4 points per game on 63.4 true shooting percentage, Lavine has become a premier scorer. While envisioned as a traditional point guard, Ball has adjusted his game to a more off-ball role. This ability can be observed as a positive while playing next to two ball-dominant players in Lavine and DeRozan.

Having upped his passing game with the Spurs, DeRozan will likely function as a point forward for the Bulls. Vucevic adds yet another player capable of scoring 20 a night. The real problem comes on the defensive end. DeRozan and Vucevic add two players who are negatives on the defensive side of the ball. Even worse, Vucevic plays the most critical position on defense. Sophomore Patrick Williams is already an excellent defender and still improving. That said, relying on a second-year forward to anchor a defense isn’t realistic. Due to their defensive limitations, the Bulls’ championship odds are low, but they do exist. This year is more about proving to Lavine that the team can be competitive ahead of his pending free agency.

Philadelphia 76ers

2020/21 record: 49-23

The talk of the summer. Let’s keep it simple without going into detail surrounding the Ben Simmons drama. Simmons is still on the Philadelphia 76ers roster. Until that’s no longer the case, we’re going to assume he suits up at some point this year. Morey will try to trade him the second Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal become available. Assuming that doesn’t happen, that leaves the 76ers in a similar place as last season—an elite defensive team who is sure to rack up regular-season wins. Due to Joel Embiid, we have to believe they have some chance of getting to the Finals.

That said, it’s starting to become a pattern, especially with Simmons.

It’s gone beyond the absence of a jumper. Simmons’ lack of aggressiveness in the playoffs has held them back twice now. In 2019, Simmons attempted just 8.6 field goals per game against the Toronto Raptors, down from 12.2 in the regular season. It’s somewhat excusable, as those Raptors are one of the best defenses ever assembled. In 2020 Simmons was out with an injury, so he gets a pass.

That said, there’s no excuse for his showing against the Hawks. I understand he has limitations. But as a max contract player, he can’t be held to 6 field goal attempts per game. That level of passiveness shot the 76ers in the foot during the most wide-open postseason in recent memory. His defense deserves recognition. Simmons is elite on that side of the ball. But the offense needs to improve. He doesn’t need to be great, but he can’t be a liability either. The faith is still there for the 76ers, but it’s dwindling. If they can’t get past the likes of the Hawks or Bulls this year, it’s safe to say they’ve reached their ceiling.

Tier 2 – Title Contenders

The next step down, these teams have a real chance at winning an NBA championship. Teams in this tier aren’t favorites. But they have constructed rosters that can be competitive with any squad they meet.

Milwaukee Bucks

2020/21 record: 46-26

Sep 27, 2021; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and guard Jrue Holiday (21) pose for pictures during Media Day at the Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Your reigning 2020/21 NBA Champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. After hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in July, the Bucks come into the season ready to defend their title. They’re bringing back their core, and that’s a good thing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is remarkable: Two MVPs, a Finals MVP, and a Defensive Player of the Year award. At age 26, he’s already solidified himself as an all-time great. The Greek Freak has proven he can dominate, and we should expect him to continue playing at an MVP level. Khris Middleton has emerged as a legitimate number two option. Jrue Holiday is arguably the best perimeter defender in the league.

That said, they have their weaknesses. Middleton is a streaky scorer. Holiday’s scoring game abandoned him completely last postseason. He had a 48.2 true shooting percentage throughout the playoffs, identical to Eric Bledsoe’s postseason prior. Unlike Bledsoe, he is a great playmaker even when his shot is off. Holiday averaged 6.1 assists per game last season, and that number jumped to 8.7 in the playoffs. He’s never been the most efficient scorer, but it would help the Bucks to step up as that third scoring option.

Outside of their big three, the Bucks roster remains similar. They did lose P.J. Tucker to Miami. While he played his role well, he’s 36 and in the tail-end of his career. The Bucks shouldn’t feel his absence too much. They also picked up Grayson Allen in a trade, who will fit well with Antetokounmpo. Allen shot 39.1% on 5.5 threes per game last season. He provides much-needed spacing and tertiary ball handling. It does seem strange not to have the previous year’s champions as this year’s favorites. I’m not one to put asterisks on titles. That said, it’s hard to ignore how unique last season was in terms of injuries to All-Star players. Fingers crossed for healthy playoffs. The Bucks deserve a chance to prove last year was not a fluke.

Los Angeles Lakers

2020/21 record: 42-30

The 2020/21 season was a year-long championship hangover for the Los Angeles Lakers. They were dealt somewhat of an unfair hand. After winning the championship in 2020, the schedule makers rewarded the Lakers with the shortest offseason in NBA history. As a result, LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed 63 games combined. The reigning champs finished the season 7th in the West. Davis himself wasn’t able to complete their first-round matchup against the Pheonix Suns. Having an entire offseason to rest and recover should yield different results health-wise. That said, LeBron is 37 and has lost more than one step athletically. Davis is in his prime, but he’s never been the pinnacle of health, missing stretches throughout his career.

Moving onto their offseason acquisitions, I don’t like the Russell Westbrook fit. LeBron and Davis are good enough shooters, but they’re at their best when they’re attacking the rim. Adding a high usage, non-shooter who needs the ball in his hands to be effective is a strange choice. It screams of the Lakers going after the sexy name instead of the best fit on the court. For instance, there were talks of trading for Kyle Lowry last season at the trade deadline. Lowry is undoubtedly the better player at this point in their careers. Not only that, he would have cost much less. Lowry can play both on and off-ball, providing floor-spacing when LeBron is on the court while running the offense when he sits. And he plays defense!

The Lakers were also close to acquiring Buddy Hield from Sacramento. Hield is an elite floor spacer, shooting 39.1 on over 10 (!!!) threes per game. Meanwhile, Westbrook shot 33.3% from the field last postseason. Not only that, he’s shot below 40% four of the past five playoffs. He isn’t nearly efficient enough to be a third option.

The Lakers are contenders, but it’s despite Westbrook, not because of him. It’s because LeBron and Davis are so good at basketball that it gives them a clear floor as contenders, regardless of who else is on the roster.

Phoenix Suns

2020/21 record: 51-21

If there were a Most Improved Team award, last season’s Phoenix Suns would win by a landslide. The Suns improved by 17 wins in a season that contained only 72 games. Many would point to the Chris Paul effect, which is valid to an extent. CP3 has a habit of elevating pretty much every team he joins. It’s become a pattern for Paul, as we saw a similar occurrence the prior season in OKC. However, there were signs of the Suns’ breakout towards the end of the bubble. Frankly, the idea that Devon Booker was ever an empty stats player was always ridiculous. He’s improved as a decision-maker, but he’s always been a high-level scorer and shot creator. The main difference is that until recently, the Suns organization has been inept. By age 22, Booker was already on his fifth head coach.

Thankfully, Monty Williams proved himself when he coached the Suns to the NBA finals last season. Like the Bucks, they did have some injury luck. But the Suns are a deep, well-oiled machine led by their two guards. DeAndre Ayton has developed into a two-way menace and is living up to his expectations as a number one pick. Mikal Bridges is an absurdly efficient, medium-volume scorer who also happens to be an elite perimeter defender. Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, and Cameron Payne (yes, Cameron Payne, who was nearly out of the league two years ago) form a proven supporting cast. Last season proved that the Suns floor is a top-seeded team in the league capable of a deep playoff run. Ayton and Booker are both young and good enough to push the Suns’ ceiling to championship level.

Atlanta Hawks

2020/21 record: 41-31

Be careful not to take the Atlanta Hawks’ record at face value. They were a completely different team before (14-20) and after (27-11) their coaching change. Their record this season should more accurately reflect their talent, of which they have plenty. Trae Young is a superstar, and the Hawks organization has done an excellent job building around him. The group consists of many ball handlers, multi-positional defenders, and shooters up and down the roster. Averaging 25.3 points and 9.4 assists per game, Young has become the Hawks’ go-to scorer and floor general. His game is reminiscent of James Harden’s days in Houston. It’s no wonder Clint Capela hasn’t missed a beat. Young is elite at throwing lobs, and Capela is equally great at catching them. Trae’s passing game is so advanced that he ranked first in the entire league in points generated as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.

Aside from Young, DeAndre Hunter may have the highest ceiling on the roster. While the sample size was small, Hunter put up 15 points per game on 60.3 true shooting percentage while playing excellent defense. Take those numbers with a grain of salt, as he only managed to suit up for 23 games. Hopefully, he can remain healthy, as Hunter will be essential for the Hawks’ long-term title hopes. After upsetting the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, the Hawks pushed the Milwaukee Bucks to six in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, even that loss was indecisive as both Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo missed time due to injury. Had Young and Hunter been healthy, who knows?

There’s also the youth aspect. John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and Onyeka Okongwu are good players today with plenty of time to develop. Danilo Gallinari is the only member of the Hawks’ core who’s out of his prime, and even he still has some gas left in the tank. The ceiling for the Hawks is a championship, and Trae Young can lead them there.

Tier 1 – Championship Favorites

This category marks the best of the best. In June, the team(s) in this tier should be considered heavy favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien.

Brooklyn Nets

MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 19: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets drives to the basket during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on October 19, 2021 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images).
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

2020/21 record: 48-24

To the surprise of no one, the team with two MVPs and another All-Star are the favorites to win the championship. The Brooklyn Nets are so far ahead of the pack that they would be favorites even if Kyrie Irving only played away games, which is a real possibility due to his vaccination status. Unfortunately, injuries derailed the Nets last season. Durant and James Harden each missed half of the season while Irving missed 18 games. Those injuries continued in the postseason. Irving went down with an ankle sprain during game four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. This forced Harden to return from a hamstring injury much too early.

Even still, the Nets were able to push it to seven games. Kevin Durant put on a performance for the ages against the Milwaukee Bucks. Durant averaged 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game while shooting a hair under 50%. The fact that he played 43 minutes per game coming off a torn Achilles is a marvel of modern medicine. Joe Harris as a fourth option makes it even more unfair. What’s even more, the Nets looked competent defensively against the Bucks, even though it’s supposed to be an area of weakness. The Nets held Milwaukee, which averaged 120 points during the season, to 100 points per game. They’re not elite on that end, but they don’t have to be. They have Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. Make no mistake; if these three players are healthy, the Brooklyn Nets will be your 2021 NBA champions.

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