NBA Tier List: James, Lakers still on top despite Harden trade

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, right, dribbles past Golden State Warriors' Kelly Oubre Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

A slightly later edition of the NBA Tier List as the slate of games on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was too good to omit in what was quite the week that was in the NBA.

Of course, James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team blockbuster that promises to reshape the league this season and beyond, more games were postponed as COVID-19 continues to be a major hurdle that the league can’t seem to navigate and there was big injury news both in regards to key guys returning and others being forced out.

Here’s a look at how we view the league now.

Top tier

Don’t look now, but the Utah Jazz have won five straight and, unlike last season, it appears as though Mike Conley is fully settled into his relatively new digs in Salt Lake City. With him finally playing like the player Utah thought it was getting a season ago and Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert looking like the perennial all-stars they are, watch for the Jazz’s ascension to continue.

Elsewhere, while it’s true the Los Angeles Lakers blew a 19-point lead Monday to the Golden State Warriors, the fact remains this is a team with not only the best record in the NBA, but also the best defensive and net rating. One bad loss isn’t going to change the perception that LeBron James and Co. are still probably the best team in the NBA.

The last time Brooklyn’s placed anywhere but the top?

Odds are we’ll see the Nets in the top tier next week as Harden has looked every bit his old MVP self in his first two games with Brooklyn, and even without Kyrie Irving (who hasn’t played in six games) this Nets team is nigh-unstoppable. Overall evidence from this past week is keeping them down here at Tier 2, but we have a sneaking feeling that won’t last long.

On the flip side, we have the Portland Trail Blazers who very well might see a drop in the coming weeks on this list because of the devastating news about CJ McCollum suffering a hairline fracture in his left foot, forcing him out for at least four weeks.

McCollum was having a career year and was probably Portland’s best player this season. Combined with the earlier revelation about Jusuf Nurkic once again missing time to injury, things could get grim in the Rose City.

Solid teams that are turning their seasons around (for the most part)

Mired in poor play to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have now won three in a row and look like they might be able to turn it around, sitting on a 5-8 record now.

Toronto has a lot of work to do if it’s going to pull itself back into the contender status it was predicted to be before the season, but it appears the team may have finally discovered its identity at long last and the wins are following.

Another team that has appeared to find itself is the Memphis Grizzlies, who have racked off five straight themselves and, better yet, saw the return of star point guard Ja Morant after getting hurt to start the season.

Teams both regressing and disappointing

The Orlando Magic have lost six games in a row and eight of their last 10, spoiling their hot start to the season. The Cleveland Cavaliers are facing situation, having won just three games in their last 10.

Most disappointingly at this level, however, have been the Atlanta Hawks who made big free-agent splashes in the off-season with the acquisitions of Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and Bogdan Bogdanovic, all of whom are injured.

More troubling is that there could be a rift forming between Trae Young and John Collins, something that could threaten to derail Atlanta’s season.

The basement

The Houston Rockets managed to trade Harden and what a bitter pill that must be to swallow to see him flourishing again in another uniform. A big part of the deal hinges on Brooklyn imploding on itself, so the picks and pick swaps Houston acquired gain value.

The early returns haven’t been good on that front for Houston, and even though the idea of a John Wall and Victor Oladipo backcourt sounds exciting, is that really enough to battle in the ultra-competitive Western Conference? Particularly, because P.J. Tucker is a guy who reportedly also wouldn’t mind a change of scenery as well?

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