NBA Tier List: Raptors keeping pace as they navigate through injuries

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) attempts a 3-pointer as Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

New year, new edition of the NBA Tier List.

Though the playoff-picture is still far from set in stone, as the calendar inches ever-closer to the trade deadline, where teams sit in the standings — and where they appear to be headed — takes on greater importance.

From franchises sitting on the playoff bubble, to good teams enduring tough stretches and those who remain indisputable top contenders, here’s where teams sit at the start of 2020:

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The Milwaukee Bests

Like last week, the Milwaukee Bucks stand alone at the very summit of our esteemed tier list, and deservedly so, too.

Since dropping a game on Christmas Day, the Bucks picked up right where they left off prior to that hiccup and have now rattled off five-straight wins — with three of those victories coming by double digits.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing to dominate — he’s averaged 29 points on 58.3 per cent shooting and 11.7 rebounds per game over Milwaukee’s last three contests — and a favourable schedule that sees their next five games come against non-playoff teams, the Bucks are in prime position to keep that winning streak alive until at least Jan. 16 when they take on the Boston Celtics.

That’s for a little further down the road, though. For now, all we can do is bow down before Milwaukee’s might.

Top contenders (for now)

This tier is best encapsulated by the performance of the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

On one hand, the Lakers sit atop the Western Conference standings and have won five in a row, but looked a little vulnerable prior to this five-game spurt — losing four-straight games, all to quality opponents.

On the other hand, there’s the Jazz who, after a rough start to their season, have won 11 of their last 13 games and — at long last — look like the Championship contender many pegged them as before the season started.

Even more impressive for the Jazz, they’ve gone on this run without star off-season acquisition Mike Conley, who has been sidelined for more than a month now with a strained left hamstring and is still considered week-to-week.

Both the Lakers and Jazz are good teams that have endured the ups and downs that come with the NBA season, and like the other three teams placed in this level, for the time being, should be considered among the league’s elite teams.

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Ugly stretches from good teams (and one surprising team on a roll)

From the Toronto Raptors with the injuries they’ve sustained, to the uneven play seen of late from the likes of the Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers, this is a collection of squads that a larger sample size tells us are quite good, but are just going through some rough patches right now.

The exception to this rule, of course, is the promotion of the Oklahoma City Thunder to this tier, a team that is absolutely rolling right now, having won nine of its last 10 games and 12 of its last 15.

Their extended run of stellar play, led by Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — who’s averaged 22.3 points per game on 50.2 per cent shooting from the floor during the Thunder’s last 15 games — has led to questions of whether OKC might end up being buyers at the trade deadline or, at least, not sellers.

That would run in contrast to early-season expectations when they were assumed to be sellers, having loaded up on draft picks in the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades and holding many high-priced veterans on the roster — including, most notably, Chris Paul.

The Thunder are currently seventh in the Western Conference and only two games back of sixth place. They’re a balanced team that plays a slow, deliberate style that could cause problems for opponents in the post-season if they’re able to hold on and reach the playoffs.

As we near the midway point of the season, and sample sizes become large enough to draw meaningful conclusions about who a team can be, the Thunder find themselves in an unexpectedly good position. There’s no reason to think they can’t sustain what they’ve been doing — as long as they choose to stay the course and refrain from a trade deadline roster teardown.

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The playoff bubble

What you see above is a list of nine teams that figure to be part of the playoff bubble mix for the final spot in their respective conferences.

Among the most surprising of this bunch are definitely the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that looked to be going through another typical doormat season that has suddenly turned it on, winning five of its last six games, including big-time victories over the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets.

This coupled with news that prized rookie Zion Williamson could be close to making his season debut has revitalized the Big Easy birds and could see them go from bottom-feeders to playoff-bound in dramatic fashion if they stay on this upwards trajectory.

The season is already (or damn-well close) to being over for these teams

If any of these teams haven’t already, then now is the time to start thinking about waiving the white flag on the season.

The Atlanta Hawks completely disappointed despite the apparent step Trae Young took in his sophomore year; the Detroit Pistons may be without Blake Griffin for the rest of the year as he contemplates season-ending knee surgery, and are reportedly exploring what the trade market looks like for their other prized big man, Andre Drummond; the injury addled Golden State Warriors were doomed to begin with this season; the New York Knicks, despite having shown signs of life in winning three of their last five games, are the New York Knicks; and the Sacramento Kings are in complete disarray, having now lost 10 of their last 12 games.

There’s an argument to be made that there’s still time left for teams to turn things around. But in these teams’ case, it’s hard to see how any of those arguments translate from being a hypothetical thought experiment into playing out on the court.

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The team Kevin Love no longer wants to play for

In case you missed it, Kevin Love is not happy with his situation right now, reportedly blowing up at Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman, showing visible frustration on the court with some of his teammates and then taking to social media to make up with said teammates.

One thing’s for certain, though, Love no longer wants to be a member of the Cavaliers. Which is an understandable position, given that Cleveland is 10-26 and only on pace to win 19 games this year while being outscored by a near-league-worst 9.2 points per game.

But letting those frustrations manifest on the court further complicates moving Love.

Love has three seasons left on his contract and is owed approximately $91.3 million during that span. When paired with his injury history and defensive issues, that’s already a tough contract for the Cavaliers to move in a way that would net them good value. Throw in the recent, overt dissatisfaction and Cleveland may struggle to find leverage in any negotiation.

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