NBA Tier List: Nuggets surging after adding Gordon, Lakers in free fall

Sportsnet's Michael Grange and Danielle Michaud talk who the Toronto Raptors will need to see more of in the remaining regular season games after only managing one win in the month of March.

Believe it or not, the 2020-21 NBA season is very nearly three-quarters of the way over, with that mark likely to be hit for most teams over the coming weekend.

This means that the stretch run to the post-season is officially underway here.

And just as a reminder, this final portion of the season figures to be a little more exciting than in most years as this will be the first real season with the new play-in tournament.

Taking place from May 18-21, the play-in tournament will see seed Nos. 7-10 in both the Eastern and Western Conferences battle it out for the final two playoff spots in each conference.

Therefore, the teams in those spots, and even lower now, theoretically, have an avenue to make the playoffs proper that wasn’t there before.

The actual post-season will begin a day after the play-in festivities conclude, on May 22.

Taking a quick look at the standings there are probably 23 teams who are either in a playoff/play-in tournament spot or are right in the thick of the race to make it into one of those two events.

So get ready for drama and intrigue in the league’s sprint to the end of the regular season.

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

Here come the Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets’ trade for Aaron Gordon has apparently worked out perfectly. They’ve yet to lose since acquiring Gordon and have now racked off five wins straight, including convincing victories over playoff teams and championship contenders like the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers.

During their last five games, the Nuggets have been scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions, an offensive rating that would see them atop the league by a wide margin if stretched out over the course of a full season.

Everyone predicted that the addition of Gordon to stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had the potential to supercharge Denver’s offence and so far that prediction has looked spot on.

And just as an aside, looking elsewhere here at the top of the list, you may notice the Utah Jazz are once again streaking. They own the longest active win streak at the moment, having won nine straight and have won 10 of their last 11 games.

The second-tier East

The Philadelphia 76ers have Joel Embiid back in the lineup and the Milwaukee Bucks just locked up Jrue Holiday to a massive max contract extension. Both teams are right there battling with the Brooklyn Nets for tops of the Eastern Conference but it’s hard to place them up top at the moment because of just how much better the West’s elite teams look.

Chances are one or both of these Eastern Conference powers will head back up sooner than later, but for now think of this week’s Tier 2 as more a celebration of just how good the West is, particularly when you take into consideration that the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks are both sixth and seventh in the West standings, respectively.

The Lakers really need LeBron and AD to return

The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the best teams in basketball, but are also incredibly reliant on their top-end talent in LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Without those two in the lineup, the Lakers have fallen from their snug top-three placement in the West to fifth in the standings, with a possibility to fall even further with the Blazers right on their heels and Luka Doncic carrying the load for a hard-charging Mavericks team right now.

Remember, if you finish seventh in the standings you have to play in the play-in tournament. It’s too soon to say that will happen for the Lakers, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for the defending champs anymore.

On the bright side for Lakers fans, though, James does look fantastic playing alongside Bugs and Lola Bunny in the new Space Jam trailer.

Can Fournier help turn the Celtics around?

Of all the teams that were expected to be contenders, no club has disappointed more than the Boston Celtics.

Due to a combination of bad injury and COVID luck and just head-scratchingly bad play -- especially on defence -- the mighty Celtics haven’t been anywhere close to the team they were last season.

However, there’s an indication that things may be looking up for Boston as the addition of Evan Fournier at the trade deadline could pay great dividends for the Celtics and shore up some of the depth issues the team has.

Boston is 2-2 since they traded for Fournier and in those two victories, Fournier has come off the bench and scored a combined 40 points. Reliable reserve shooting and scoring is always a luxury and now it looks like Boston has it.

And looking elsewhere here at Tier 4, the Sacramento Kings are actually right in the thick of a play-in tournament race, sitting in 12th place in the West and only one game back of the 10th-place Golden State Warriors. In years past being in the position they’re in now would mean their season is all but done, but with the addition of the play-in tournament, they figure to be competitive the rest of the way through.

Bad teams with play-in tournament hope

None of the teams at this level look particularly good at the moment, but that doesn’t matter as they all still have hope to reach the playoffs via the play-in tournament.

In particular, the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls are separated by just 1.5 games for No. 10 in the Eastern Conference, and with the Raptors having just demolished the Golden State Warriors by a franchise-record 53 points and the Bulls struggling to integrate Nikola Vucevic at the moment, there’s a chance we’ll see the Raptors back in a play-in spot next week.

Toronto and Chicago will play each other this week in a higher-stakes affair than anyone would have thought before this season began.

Roll in the tank

These seven teams must’ve been salivating watching Jalen Suggs’ heroics in the Final Four over the weekend. He, as well as the other top prospects in what’s expected to be a strong draft, are what these clubs are playing for right now.

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