NBA Tier List: Jazz in a class of their own, Raptors back on the rise

Follow the Money discusses why the Toronto Raptors' bench struggles this season not only make them underdogs against the top NBA teams, but have also cost them games.

Where has the time gone? It’s hard to believe that in just a week’s time we’ll be at the official midway point of the season, with the all-star game playing out a few days later.

And while the league -- the Eastern Conference in particular -- is still something of a jumbled mess, we’ve at least seen some separation among the best teams and the bottom-feeders, providing us with some needed clarity.

Here’s a look at how we view the league in this week’s edition of the NBA Tier List.

They lost a game, so what?

For the first time in their past 10 games, the Utah Jazz lost, falling to the Los Angeles Clippers in the back end of their two-game set at Staples Centre on Friday.

Despite the loss, the Jazz are still the clear class of the league, having amassed an incredible 20-2 record since Jan. 8. Plus their loss to the Clippers may ultimately help them down the road, as it gave them some much-needed experience in tight games — the only real weakness you can point to them having right now.

Strong and streaking teams

This quintet represents some of the league’s all-around best teams -- i.e. the two L.A. clubs -- and teams that are hot at the moment (Brooklyn, Phoenix and Portland).

The Nets look to be particularly on fire with six-straight wins, the majority of which have come without Kevin Durant, who’s dealing with a hamstring injury but could return to the lineup soon. More importantly, Brooklyn may have found some of their defensive footing, as a strong defensive showings against the Lakers and Clippers have indicated recently.

Descending teams and one ascending club

There’s legitimate worry for the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, all of whom can certainly play better than they have of late, but have stumbled for reasons such as health and safety protocols, injuries and just plain inconsistent play.

On the flip side, the Toronto Raptors have finally dug out of their 2-8 start and are now a game above .500. They're playing some great basketball, having re-discovered their defensive identity and playing with some of that same old swagger they had their past two seasons. The Raptors appear to be back.

Plenty of room for improvement

Given the nature of this season -- and the fact there’s going to be a play-in tournament -- there are certainly worse spots for each of these five teams to be in at the moment. However, what’s frustrating about them is that you just know they likely have more to give than what they’ve shown so far.

For example, the Miami Heat, still with star talent like Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, should be playing much better than they have been — particularly since Butler returned to the lineup.

The Dallas Mavericks should also be better because of the singular talent of Luka Doncic. Yes, the Western Conference is extremely tough, but Doncic is an MVP-calibre talent and should be able to elevate his team more than he’s done thus far.

Maddeningly mediocre

The Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic are all very lucky to be playing in the Eastern Conference because they’ve all been pretty bad of late and yet haven’t really been punished for it because of the bad conference they play in.

The Celtics, especially, have been frustrating to follow as they’ve been hit by the injury bug and have played poorly. A team expected to be among the Eastern Conference’s elite has seriously faltered over the past two-to-three weeks and it’s been confusing to see.

Check out this awesome Anthony Edwards dunk

Some quick notes on these bottom-feeding teams:

• The Washington Wizards have won four straight. So congratulations to them!

• After winning six of seven games, the Sacramento Kings proceeded to lose seven straight.

• The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost 10 straight and 12 of their past 13. So much for possibly going for it and sneaking into the play-in tournament.

• Lastly, not a comment, but check out the likely dunk of the year from Anthony Edwards on Yuta Watanabe:

Four games postponed and counting due to COVID-19

As the sub-head says, the San Antonio Spurs haven’t played since Valentine’s Day, making it difficult to judge them. Therefore, we’re not including them on the list proper this week.

It’s worth noting, however, that before their postponements, San Antonio was looking real nice, with seven wins in their past 10.

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