NBA Tier List: Raptors among title favourites as league restarts

Pascal-Siakam

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam, right, dribbles past Los Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis (3) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The NBA is back and so is Sportsnet’s NBA Tier List.

A lot has happened in the nearly five months since we’ve last seen any meaningful NBA basketball played with some teams getting healthy again in time for the restart, others losing players they probably wouldn’t have otherwise in normal circumstance due to injury and guys opting out of the bubble or other reasons.

Additionally, of course, only 22 teams made it into the bubble in the first place and these clubs will fight the eight playoff spots in their respective conferences with a traditionally-played post-season bracket following after eight “seeding” games.

The NBA isn’t kidding when it says this restart is “a whole new game.”

As such, almost like this is a brand new season, we’re also resetting the tier list a little here, placing teams according specifically to how they look on paper right now heading into Thursday’s official restart.

Let’s get to it.

Championship favourites

Take your pick of these four and you can envision realistic scenarios of each of them hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy when this whole thing is said and done.

Starting with the Los Angeles teams, it feels like their destined to meet in this year’s Western Conference Finals with both teams featuring impressive star power, a top-five player who can single-handedly take over and win games by themselves and enough depth from ancillary players to take home the whole thing.

The Lakers will be without Rajon Rondo to start. The veteran point guard underwent thumb surgery earlier this month and probably won’t be back until closer to the end of the second round of the playoffs. In the meantime, a player like Alex Caruso can assert a larger role for the Lakers, which actually probably isn’t a bad thing for them.

As for the Clippers, They’re fully loaded healthy-wise, but are dealing with the Lou Williams situation with him under quarantine at the moment, plus Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley are attending to personal matters with their families at the moment and will likely miss at least the first seeding game of the Clippers’ restart. There should be no worries for the post-season, however, and that’s what really matters.

Looking at the East contenders now, there isn’t much to say about the Bucks that you don’t probably know already. They feature the defending, and likely repeating, MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, play the league’s best defence and were better in nearly every facet of the game this season than last season and would’ve likely pushed 70 wins had the regular season been able to complete.

Even without Malcom Brogdon in the mix anymore, the Bucks have been the class of the East and are the heavy favourites to represent the conference in the Finals.

With that said, however, there’s still the issue of the Raptors who they’ll have to contend with as well, and even though Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green aren’t on the team anymore other key pieces from their championship run a year ago like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are.

Of this quartert the Raptors probably have the hardest road to win it all because you can’t point to that one singular gravitational-type player on the roster, but blessed with, perhaps, the most depth of any team in the bubble, along veteran group that now knows how to win and the presumptive coach of the year, it would be foolhardy to think the Raptors anything other than a legitimately dangerous championship threat.

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Championship darkhorses

This foursome of teams are all squads that also could conceivably make a deep playoff run and emerge with the chip if all goes right for them, but still appear to be a notch or two below the fantastic four mentioned above.

Each of these teams have the talent and depth to get the job done but there’s skepticism on our parts because of how unproven each team is in the post-season.

As unfair as this might seem the intangibles do still matter and these are all teams that still seem either too young Boston, Denver and Utah) or, quite frankly, have shown in the past an inability to put it all together when the chips are down (Houston).

Until we see otherwise, it’s hard to trust any of these teams title chances fully, no matter the talent.

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Good teams with question marks

All of these teams are good in their own right, but even more so than the previous group, there’s just too many questions around each of them to truly believe anything other than a second-round appearance at best in the cards for any of them.

Here’s a question for each team here:

• Luka Doncic is one of the most electric players in the NBA and has the talent to take over games by himself. But having only turned 21 in February, is he ready for this moment yet? And what of Kristaps Porzingis and his supporting cast? The Mavericks might not have a good enough team around Doncic just yet.

• It’s commendable that Victor Oladipo is making a go of things coming back during this restart when he wasn’t supposed to make his return until next season, but given how rough he’s looked in the scrimmages, is this really wise? Also, what of Domantas Sabonis, Indiana’s best player this season? It doesn’t look good for him to be able to play in the restart after he suffered a “significant” foot injury. Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren can’t carry the load for the Pacers by themselves.

• Miami could be the biggest surprise of the restart as, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, it’s sure to be a tough out in the playoffs. However, just because the team is well coached and is sure to be a tough opponent doesn’t mean they’re going to win. Do the Heat have enough talent on their roster at the moment to make serious noise?

• One of the best stories this season, the surprising Oklahoma City Thunder could make some serious noise but, similarly to the Mavericks and Luka Doncic, is star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ready to be “the guy” for his team at only age 22? Sure, veterans like Chris Paul and Steven Adams are also there, but the Canadian has been and is the Thunder’s best player and will need to continue to be that in the post-season.

• The great mystery that are the Philadelphia 76ers could finally be solved with Ben Simmons fully healthy again, however the big question mark of if Philly can make all the star power they have on their team work with each other still remains. With Simmons, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson the Sixers were supposed to be Eastern Conference monsters, but they were anything but and who’s to say anything will be different during the restart?

• Damian Lillard is true-blue superstar who can and has won playoff games by himself. Him coupled with streaky-shooting running mate CJ McCollum, the return of key centre Jusuf Nurkic and a strong supporting cast that all know their roles well saw them reach the Western Conference Finals last year, so why can’t that be the case again this year? This is a worthy question to ask, but our reservations lies in the fact the Blazers are currently on the outside looking in of the playoff picture, sitting 3.5 games back of No. 8 Memphis. So can they even get into the dance? And even if they do, will a date with the Lakers even be much of a reward?

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Hey, at least you’re in Disney World!

These six teams should, honestly, just feel happy they got park admission in the first place because the chances they make any real, significant noise is pretty slim.

All six of these teams certainly have talent – i.e. Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Nikola Vucevic, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox and DeMar DeRozan – but each squad simply doesn’t have enough of it and/or is just way too young to believe in them yet.

And this is all OK. A lot of these teams are still developing, anyway, so just making the cut into the bubble should be considered a win for these squads anyway.

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Why are you here?

As the sub-head asks, why are the Nets and Wizards even in the bubble?

In Brooklyn’s case, this is the team that’s been the most ravaged by injury and player opt outs to the point that their roster is nearly completely different from what we saw during the regular season. They’re currently No. 7 in the East, but that almost assuredly won’t last.

With that said, the team most likely competing with them for No. 8 in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards, are no better and in almost the exact same boat as the Nets. Like Brooklyn being without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, none of the Wizards’ best players, Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans, are playing.

And this leads us to a bit of a quandary. Both the Nets and Wizards are absolutely horrible, yet they made the cut in the bubble because the NBA wanted to go with a traditional conference-based playoff structure. It makes you wonder what could’ve been if the league had decided to be a little more creative in its return-to-play format, don’t it?

Scrubble teams

These eight teams didn’t make the cut and, quite frankly, it’s to the league’s and their own benefit.

The more teams in the bubble the higher chance of infection, so it made sense to cut teams from the bubble, and if you’re going to limit the number of teams, you may as well keep the scrubs out.

Additionally, it also ensured that these bottom-feeder teams didn’t have to ramp up and try to get back into game shape just to play meaningless games for themselves.

There’s been rumblings of a second bubble setup to allow these clubs a chance to make back some of the lost practice and development time that they’re missing out on by not getting invited into DIsney World, but there’s been nothing concrete in that regard. So, as things stand now we won’t hear from these eight squads until next season.

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