This first appeared in the Dec. 4 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
With every team in the NBA having played at least 21 games, marking the official passing of the regular season quarter-pole, now is a perfect time to gauge where the league stands.
Here’s a breakdown of all 30 NBA teams, separated into eight tiers, from the bottom feeders already focused on next spring’s draft lottery to the teams expecting to compete for a title in June.
The goal for these teams: See how many losses they can accumulate to best position themselves for the lottery. The Suns have fired their coach; the Kings, Bulls and Hawks are in various forms of disarray. None has the slightest chance of making the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Clippers
These teams, a.k.a. The Walking Dead, at least have a remote chance of becoming a playoff team. Orlando has plummeted back to Earth in recent weeks after a hot but unsustainable start from three-point range predictably cooled down. The Nets wound up here after losing ball-handling guards Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell for chunks of the season. The Lakers are headed in the right direction in the long term, but have lost five in a row. Both the Clippers and Grizzlies have been decimated by a combination of injuries and an aging core. The Mavericks finally committed to a full rebuild and don’t have the talent – despite Coach Rick Carlisle’s best intentions – to make a real playoff push.
New York Knicks
Four Eastern Conference teams performing outside their preseason expectations. Two have been better than expected (Indiana and New York); the other two have been worse (Miami and Charlotte). It still seems as though the Heat and Hornets will wind up with better records, assuming early injury issues for Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Hassan Whiteside eventually subside. But until either begins to surge forward, or the Pacers and Knicks sustain what they’ve done, they will remain bunched together.
Portland Trail Blazers
New Orleans Pelicans
While Portland, Utah and New Orleans are in playoff position and remain in range of the West teams with better records, none is at the same level from a talent standpoint. All have some elite talent (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland, Rudy Gobert in Utah and Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans) but are lacking in that department overall, making each nothing more than first-round playoff fodder.
Oklahoma City Thunder
All eight have had their moments this season, and on any given night could beat anyone else in the group. The five East teams — the Raptors, Pistons, Sixers, Bucks and Wizards — display the improved depth in that conference; Denver, Minnesota and Oklahoma City have each, at times, shown the potential to be the fourth best team in the West, but without the necessary consistency. The most surprising team on the entire list might be Oklahoma City, in this tier despite its sub-.500 record. But the Thunder’s overall metrics are still strong, tied for the league’s third-best defense and 10th-best net rating. Oklahoma City’s struggles in close games are likely to go away, so it should be just fine, and deserving of this spot.
San Antonio Spurs
All three have two things in common: They are enjoying excellent seasons, and should be near the top of their respective conferences. Yet none is a true championship contender. This might come as a surprise given the Cavaliers have that LeBron James guy, the Celtics have the NBA’s best record and the Spurs are the Spurs. But all have significant flaws that will keep each from true contention. For Boston, it’s a lack of offense. For Cleveland, it’s a lack of defense. And for San Antonio, it’s a lack of top-end athleticism to compete with the league’s best teams (not to mention the ongoing health issues for Kawhi Leonard). None of that will stop any of them from having terrific seasons or making deep postseason runs, which, for Boston and Cleveland, likely will last all the way to June.
Houston is in its own tier because it’s capable of playing at a higher level than any team below it — and that’s with Chris Paul still getting himself up to speed. While the defense has been stellar (it is currently ranked fifth), the Rockets ultimately need to prove they can play at that level all season. As it is, they still seem like the most likely team to stop Golden State — that is, if anyone is capable of beating the Warriors four times out of seven, which still feels exceedingly unlikely.
Golden State Warriors
Who else? Yes, Golden State has lost a few games it shouldn’t have. But the Warriors still have their four all-stars, not to mention an impressive array of depth that is the envy of the league. It’s that same combination that lifted them to a 16-1 postseason record last year en route to a championship, and it should be more than good enough to result in a repeat as long as they can make it through the season healthy. That’s why, until someone proves otherwise, the Warriors remain in a tier by themselves.
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