NBA Tier List: Suns, Jazz battle at the top, Lakers on verge of play-in

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, shoots over Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Craig Mitchelldyer/AP)

There’s just one week left in the NBA’s regular season and then the quest for the Larry O’Brien Trophy will begin in earnest.

Despite this, only eight of the 12 official playoff spots have been locked up, as the play-in tournament has proven to effectively shake things up enough to keep the regular season interesting right up until the end.

In particular, the final day of the regular season, this coming Sunday, could be very exciting as all 30 teams will be in action for 15 total games on the day after a week of jockeying for position.

It’ll be like an NCAA Tournament Round of 64 day, but with NBA teams. Exciting stuff.

Here’s a look at how we view the league in the penultimate 2020-21 regular season NBA Tier List.

A top four no one saw coming

Outside of the Milwaukee Bucks, did anyone really expect to see these four teams among the league’s elite coming into this season?

In particular, there’s been some doubt that’s plagued the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns all season long, but they’ve held steady and enter this final week in a two-team battle with each other for tops in the Western Conference.

As for the Philadelphia 76ers, there was an expectation they’d be good, but there probably wasn’t any realistic hope during the pre-season that they’d be best-in-the-East good, which they've proven themselves to be this season.

And better yet for Philly, it gets to watch the Bucks and Brooklyn Nets battle with each other for the No. 2 seed while it likely gets some rest for players who are likely dealing with nagging injuries.

Unless you’re a Lakers fan, you’re cheering for the Mavericks and Blazers this week

Last week the big story in the Western Conference was the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers all battling to avoid the No. 7 seed and being forced into the volatile play-in tournament.

This week that race still remains a major storyline, but it appears the dust has settled a little.

The Mavericks look established as the No. 5 seed as they’re 2.0 games clear of the No. 7 seeded Lakers right now.

As for the Blazers, they earned a dramatic win over the Lakers Friday to take No. 6 in the West and now own the tiebreaker over them.

This is a stunning turn of events for the defending champion Lakers, who have once again been without LeBron James as he tries to recover from that ankle injury.

James could return Tuesday or Wednesday and the Lakers will need all they can from him to avoid the play-in tournament.

With that said, though, how amusing would it be to see James and the Lakers forced to earn their playoff spot via the play-in tournament -- especially after James blasted it? It would make for great television, particularly because the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup has the potential to be Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors.

Who doesn’t want to see Stephen Curry take on James in a win-and-you’re-in game?

So, for that reason alone, “Let’s Go Mavericks” and “Let’s Go Blazers!”

How much noise can the Wizards make in the post-season?

The Washington Wizards have been playing playoff basketball for about a month already and figure to enter the play-in tournament as one of the most feared teams of the four Eastern Conference play-in squads.

They beat the Indiana Pacers in an instant-classic game over the weekend to take No. 9 in the East and they could climb to No. 8 as they’re just 1.0 game back of the No. 8 Charlotte Hornets.

Regardless of who they play, though -- either the Pacers or maybe the No. 7 Boston Celtics -- the Wizards figure to be favoured, and there’s a growing expectation that they’ll make the playoffs proper.

Should they make it that far they’ll see either the Nets or Sixers. It's not exactly easy competition, but with how well the Wizards have played since the beginning of April it’s hard to bet against them.

The only thing that could derail this Washington train right now is the unfortunate news about Bradley Beal’s hamstring that will keep him out for at least two games. Here’s hoping this is just a precautionary measure from Washington and he’ll be good to go come next week.

Spurs in trouble

Though it hasn’t been publicized much, the San Antonio Spurs are experiencing a slide at a very inopportune time.

They’ve lost six of their last seven games, have slid down to No. 10 in the West and only hold a 1.5-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the final play-in spot in the West.

Worse yet for the Spurs, they have a killer schedule to close their season as they play the Bucks, Nets, New York Knicks and then the Suns twice in a back-to-back.

The Pelicans, meanwhile, have a slightly lighter schedule and are 5-3 in their last eight games. Granted, things will be tough as they’re without super-sophomore Zion Williamson (out indefinitely with a fractured finger), but given how poorly the Spurs are playing, the Pelicans could sneak their way in.

At least this is nearly over

The season is all but over for these three teams. All that remains is for a lower-case “e” to be written next to their names in the standings.

Better luck next season.

And for Raptors fans who might be particularly sad about this outcome, here’s a little timeline cleanser that’s sure to make you smile:

OKC battling all comers at the bottom

The Oklahoma City Thunder hold a 0.5-game “lead” over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves for the third-worst record in the league.

Being third-worst is significant because you get the same lottery odds for the No. 1 overall pick as being dead last and second-worst in the league.

It'll be interesting to see just what kind of stops the Thunder pull out to keep their edge over some steep competition of incompetence in the Cavaliers, Magic and Timberwolves.

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