Around the NBA, most teams have either already or are just about to hit the unofficial quarter-pole of the season at the 20-game mark.
At this point we’re beginning to really get a good sense as to who and what teams actually are.
With that in mind, here’s a first-quarter grades edition of the NBA Tier List.
Grades A to A+
The Los Angeles Lakers won 15 of their 16 games in the month of November with the lone loss coming at the hands of a decimated-by-injury Toronto Raptors club, who after said injuries to both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, went 8-2 and are currently on a seven-game win streak with no signs of slowing down with Ibaka back and Lowry very close to returning.
Simply put, the Raptors are an elite squad in the NBA and more than deserving of being in the conversation among the top three teams in the entire league, particularly because they, along with fellow world-beater Milwaukee, are one of just two teams who currently rank within the top five in offensive and defensive rating.
The Raptors, for the time being, can do no wrong and any praised heaped upon them right now still probably isn’t enough.
Grades B- to A-
These nine teams in the second tier represent the rest of the best in the NBA. Along with the top three, this grouping has emerged as the clear-cut best teams in the league about 20 games in.
Admittedly, it’s come without many surprises as just about everyone was expecting the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics to be within the mix of their respective conference’s elite.
But let’s be serious here, how many actually saw Luke Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks taking this kind of step? Or what about the play of the Miami Heat? Did you actually expect Jimmy Butler and his supporting cast to perform this well? Or how about the Houston Rockets? When Russell Westbrook got traded there, many believed everything would blow up in Houston’s face as Westbrook and James Harden wouldn’t be able to co-exist, and the exact opposite has basically happened.
So yeah, there are the expected teams, but there have also been some surprises in the mix as well, giving more credence than ever that this season is pretty darn wide open.
Grades C to C+
Remember those comments that you either got directly or heard your buddy get back in high school from the teacher who used to say something along the lines of “You could do so much better if you just applied yourself”?
That’s what this quartet is.
All four haven’t been outright bad and, in the case of the Oklahoma City Thunder, some teams have likely been playing above their heads. But you still can’t help wonder if these squads could be so much more than they’ve shown thus far.
The Phoenix Suns, in particular, have been a bit of a drag as they showed early in the season how fearsome they could be, playing some of the toughest defence in the league. But that has dramatically regressed, and with it so have the team’s results. Seeing Devin Booker, one of the league’s top talents, finally playing winning basketball was a joy to watch, and we don’t want to see him recede back into the darkness, if possible.
Grades D+ to C-
Here we have the little teams that could. They each try hard, have some things that are quite likeable, but in the end it’s either already too little too late, just not going work out either way, or will makes some last-gasp attempt to reach the post-season and see it all go up in flames in about four or five games and then ponder what it all was for.
A team that could embody any of those the scenarios are the Portland Trail Blazers, a squad that just last season was in the Western Conference Final and now finds itself fighting tooth and nail to get into the bottom of the West’s playoff picture, even employing former NBA pariah Carmelo Anthony to help them in their task.
To their credit, the Anthony signing has worked out so far as the 10-time all-star has averaged 17.7 points per game on 46.2 per cent shooting from the field and 37.0 per cent from deep in the six games he’s played with Portland, leading to the current three-game winning streak the Blazers are on.
The strong play of Anthony has led to some seeking creative ways to beg Anthony for forgiveness, and while it’s true Portland has started to play better with him there, they still aren’t even in a playoff position yet, let alone remotely close to another West final appearance.
Grades D- to D
These are the teams that actually have no hope, but do just enough to not completely fail. Sure, long losing streaks will come their way, and yeah, some of these teams are probably tanking, but this isn’t to say there’s nothing redeemable about these squads.
This even includes the New York Knicks, who, as usual, have been complete disasters, but the glimmer of hope and shine that Canadian R.J. Barrett provides them makes you almost want to cheer for them.
Other examples are teams like the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies. Neither are good, but both feature electric guards in Zach LaVine and Ja Morant that you know will entertain you at the very least and give you a glimmer of hope that their respective teams might be something someday.
The example given in regards to the Bulls and Grizzlies with LaVine and Morant probably also applies to Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, but we’re still giving them an F because these birds are flightless.
Even with a luminary talent like Young, the Hawks have lost 10 straight and 12 of their last 13. Additionally, they feature the worst net rating in the entire league at minus-10.9, the only team in the league to feature a double-digit negative net rating.
Coming into the season the Hawks looked like they could be fun and make some noise as a bubble playoff team. Oh how wrong that prediction was.