The NBA regular season is upon us. After a long, incredibly busy summer, the games begin again on Tuesday night – most notably with the Toronto Raptors raising their first-ever championship banner before taking on the New Orleans Pelicans at Scotiabank Arena.
But despite the Raptors’ defending-champion status, they certainly don’t feel like big favourites to repeat.
One obvious reason for this is the departure of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but another major factor is the insane amount of parity across the NBA this season.
For the first time in seemingly forever there’s no clear-cut favourite to win it all. Instead, there’s a large swath of good-to-very good teams that look like they have a legitimate shot or are, perhaps, just one piece or one big break short of one.
As such, this season we’re going to tackle the power rankings a little differently than in years past. Instead of ranking each team 1-30, we’re going to divvy up groups of teams into tiers.
So, before the ball tips and things get going for real, here’s the first edition of the NBA Tier List.
Due to a mixture of raw star power, depth and experience, these five clubs are the cream of the crop heading into the season.
Star capital is apparent across the board here, with players like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, respectively, in addition to reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Milwaukee Bucks, and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Denver Nuggets’ wattage isn’t as obvious, but Nikola Jokic was, and should still remain, an MVP candidate, while Canadian Jamal Murray could take the next step and become an all-star this season.
All of these teams are expected to compete for the top spots of their respective conferences on the strength of their top-end talent, but they all also feature a fair amount of depth in terms of role players and specialists who can help them get over the top.
As mentioned before, there’s a lot of parity around the league this season, but for the time being these fives team like the far-too-early championship favourites.
Good, but not quite championship material
This is what was meant by a ton of good-to-very good teams.
These eight clubs could easily leap into the group above if things break right. But the reason they’re not there now is because they each come with key questions that could hold them back.
For example, there’s little denying the Raptors’ depth, but without Leonard — one of the three best players in the league — how legitimate are their championship aspirations even if Pascal Siakam takes another step forward?
Or in the case of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, their top talent is literally MVP calibre, but what about their overall depth? And for teams like the Utah Jazz or Brooklyn Nets, while it’s true adding players like Mike Conley and Kyrie Irving is a big boost, the jury is still out on whether it’ll be enough.
All of these teams have questions that need to be answered before they can make a leap into the top tier.
The muddled middle
And here we have the NBA’s purgatory.
None of these 10 clubs are outright bad, per se, but it’s hard to see them pushing for anything beyond the final three playoff spots in their respective conferences.
The Sacramento Kings are a perfect example of this. They’re a team with depth and talent — see players like De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield — and look primed to make a leap back to relevancy. Unfortunately for them, the West is so deep that relevancy likely means scratching for a No. 7 or 8 seed.
And looking at an Eastern Conference example, the Orlando Magic are a well-coached team with intriguing talent that should only grow after a respectable five-game playoff exit to the Raptors. But what is the Magic’s realistic ceiling here? Can Nikola Vucevic make yet another leap and turn this Orlando side from a No. 6 seed into a top-three seed in the East?
All of these squads have talent. The problem is they either don’t have enough of it or they’re simply going to get gate-kept by clubs within the higher tiers.
A lot of fun, but probably gonna be bad
In sports, there are always going to be some bottom-feeders. But some of them manage to transcend their place in the pecking order because of the way they play. The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are primed to do just that.
The reason is obvious: No. 1 and 2 overall picks Zion Williamson on the Pelicans and Ja Morant on the Grizzlies.
Both rooks are explosive high-flyers sure to fill up the highlight reels this season, so even if their teams perform poorly there will be a reason to tune in to see them.
Williamson, of course, is dealing with a knee issue that will see him miss some time at the beginning of the season, but he’s such a unique and enticing athlete that when he’s back and healthy he’ll be a League Pass must-watch for sure.
The same goes for Morant, who looks like a young Russell Westbrook with his devilish quickness and moon-walker-like bounce.
It’s OK to be a bad team in the NBA, so long as you’re entertaining.
Not fun, and definitely bad
But what happens if you’re not an entertaining team and you’re still bad? Say hello to the Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards!
Each team has some moderately-to-actually interesting talent on their side, but they’re either so poorly run or not far enough long in the rebuilding process that losses seem like an inevitability.
The former is certainly the case for the Suns, who have apparently completely squandered an all-world talent in Devin Booker, a man who scored 70 points in a game once and just last season came two points shy of being just the fifth man in NBA history to drop 50 in three consecutive games.
Booker is a really fun player, but the Suns still need to be in this tier because it’s no longer fun seeing his immense ability go to waste year after year.
Pray for R.J.
R.J. Barrett, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft, plays for the New York Knicks. Please send your thoughts and prayers for the young Canadian as he begins his NBA career.