The top of the NBA’s heap has made itself known with teams like the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets asserting themselves as the cream of the crop.
There are teams creeping up on them, and there could probably be more if not for injuries some of the expected contenders have sustained, leading to a very packed and difficult to discern middle of the pack.
Here’s how we view the league in this week’s edition of the NBA Tier List.
Tier 1: Don’t sleep on Phoenix and Chicago
A lot of attention this season has, deservedly, been paid to the league-best Warriors as well as the drama-filled, star power featured on the Nets, but quietly the Phoenix Suns -- one of last season’s Finalists -- have won 12 straight and look like they could catch the Dubs for tops in the NBA.
And similarly, the Chicago Bulls possess the same 12-5 record as the Nets and look to have an early MVP candidate in DeMar DeRozan, whose combination of near-impossible efficient scoring from the mid-range and paint and playmaking has proven to be the glue to help bring in all the talent the Bulls boast.
Tier 2: Serge Ibaka did something mildly interesting
Los Angeles Clippers big man Ibaka returned to the lineup Sunday after choosing to take a rehab stint with Agua Caliente Clippers of the G League, something that has been an option for a while for a lot of players but is rarely used.
In his return, the Clippers won, snapping a string of ugly losses to the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. In all, the Clippers have won nine of their last 12 games and while it’s true Paul George looks to be carrying an unsustainably heavy load, as long as they continue to win it’s hard to drop the Clippers.
Tier 3: The injury and COVID list
From the Los Angeles Lakers just getting LeBron James back, to other all-stars like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid just being out with injury and in COVID protocols, there are a number of teams at this mid-range level that are just plain tough to get a handle on.
There’s expectation that the Lakers should get better, but there’s no guarantee. And it looks like the hot start that the New York Knicks got off to has ended as they’ve dropped seven of their last 11, while the nice story that was the Cleveland Cavaliers could be coming to an end with word that Colin Sexton is done for the season with a torn meniscus.
Tier 4: Maybe this is just who the Raptors are?
The Toronto Raptors were a pleasant early surprise, jumping out to a 6-3 start to the season and looking every bit the defensive juggernaut they were advertising themselves as before the season began. Ever since, however, they’ve gone 2-7 and their high-risk, high-reward defence completely cratered, and not even the return of Pascal Siakam to the lineup has helped matters much.
Yes, they remain shorthanded as OG Anunoby has missed Toronto’s last three games while they’ve been out on an extended road trip, but maybe – just maybe – a team that competes hard but ultimately falls short more often than not is just wat these Raptors are.
Tier 5: Kings fire another coach and Isaiah Stewart wants all the smoke
The Sacramento Kings fired coach Luke Walton following a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday, Sacramento’s sixth defeat in seven games. The Kings were only 6-11 on the season and were 68-93 under Walton’s tenure, so firing him doesn’t exactly come as a shock, but given the sheer amount of turnover this franchise has seen (Sacramento has had 11 different head coaches now counting interim bench boss Alvin Gentry since Rick Adelman departed in 2006) it’s small wonder this franchise has the longest playoff drought in the NBA.
Elsewhere, as you no doubt have already seen, Detroit Pistons forward Isaiah Stewart got smacked in the face by James and likely would’ve knocked the Lakers superstar out had it not been for just about everyone preventing him from getting to James.
Supplementary discipline will be on the way. Detroit visits Los Angeles on Sunday, so the league may look to suspend both one or both players for at least that length of time to avoid problems. However, from a destination television point-of-view, having the two players available Sunday would be far more interesting, no?