The Whiteboard: Power ranking NBA teams by tiers

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports /

With the preseason wrapped and the regular season set to tip, we’re taking one last spin through the league power ranking NBA teams by tier.

Parity could be the name of the game this NBA season with no clear favorite and as many as a dozen teams with at least somewhat reasonable championship aspirations. With just one day left before the season starts I’m taking this last opportunity to project something that will make me look utterly ridiculous a few weeks from now.

Here’s how I see every team in the NBA right now, divided into five tiers of competitiveness.

NBA Power Ranking Tier: Inner circle contenders

Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors: Both teams are dealing with some organizational chaos but have arguably improved their rosters over the offseason.

Milwaukee Bucks: Short on wing depth but they still have the core of their championship team from 2020 intact, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Denver Nuggets: They have the reigning MVP and a lot more depth with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. It’s finally time to see what this group can do together.

Los Angeles Clippers: If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy, they have the talent to compete with anyone and a deep, veteran roster to help support them.

Philadelphia 76ers: It might not take more than health and a little luck for them to break through with Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, a healthy James Harden and some exciting bench tweaks.

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul is a year older and they’re dealing with off-court challenges but, like Milwaukee, the core of an NBA Finals team is still here.

NBA Power Ranking Tier: Outer circle contenders

Memphis Grizzlies: They absolutely need Jaren Jackson Jr. healthy and productive but Ja Morant and Desmond Bane could be the best backcourt in the West and their depth is phenomenal.

Minnesota Timberwolves: They’ll have to prove it in the playoffs but this roster is arguably more talented than the one the Gobert played on in Utah the past few seasons.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Rudy Gobert has more talent around him but so does Donovan Mitchell. The Cavs have phenomenal interior defense and might not be as vulnerable to playoff mismatches as the Jazz were the past few seasons.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic. That’s it, that’s the whole story.

Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes has another year of experience and this team is just unbelievably versatile and deep. It would take some luck for things to come together but that’s true of every contender every season.

NBA Power Ranking Tier: Fighting to avoid the Play-In Tournament

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks are probably better than they were last year. But I’m not convinced they’re better than the Raptors, Cavs, Bucks, Celtics or 76ers and they can’t all host a first-round series.

Chicago Bulls: DeMar DeRozan seems like a candidate for regression and this team’s ceiling just isn’t as high without Lonzo Ball on the court.

Miami Heat: The Heat are another year older and relying a bit too much on Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry for my tastes.

Brooklyn Nets: It seems pretty unlikely that the Nets finish this low in the standings if Kevin Durant is healthy. But I can’t decide if it’s more likely that the Nets are a top-four seed or that they completely self-destruct and have to shop Durant and Irving again. This is kind of a compromise position.

New Orleans Pelicans: I think the Pelicans are a cut above some of the other Western Conference teams with playoff aspirations but not quite good enough to bust into the contender tiers.

NBA Power Ranking Tier: Fighting to make the Play-In Tournament

Sacramento Kings: I know, they’re the Kings. But Mike Brown should be a stabilizing force even if he doesn’t raise their ceiling that much. Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox are excellent and Keegan Murray could be Rookie of the Year. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were the best of this tier.

Los Angeles Lakers: They’re going to look like contenders on some nights when LeBron and Anthony Davis are humming. But just as often, they’re going to miss games and/or get subverted by Russell Westbrook. To me, they don’t look that different than last year.

Portland Trail Blazers: They’re better. But nowhere near good enough to completely rise above the Play-In Tournament race.

Charlotte Hornets: Some of the shine seems to be off LaMelo Ball and the uncertainty around Miles Bridges removes some serious two-way production from their lineup.

Washington Wizards: I look at this roster and don’t see any reason to think things will turn out differently than they have the past few seasons.

New York Knicks: Meh.

Orlando Magic: This may be overly optimistic but I really like the Magic’s frontline and think they have enough talent to really pivot toward trying to make a play-in push.

Oklahoma City Thunder: I think they’re even less likely to make a play-in push than the Magic but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star, Josh Giddey is coming and some of their projects could start to hit this year (see: Tre Mann).

NBA Power Ranking Tier: Racing to the bottom

Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs and the Jazz seem like the only teams that will be clearly chasing the No. 1 pick by shedding veterans and prioritizing youth in their rotation decisions. But I think the Rockets and Pistons ultimately end up here as well, due to talent deficits. The Pacers are the best bet to escape this tier but they also could decide to trade Myles Turner and Buddy Hield and head the same direction as the Jazz and Spurs.

— Ian Levy

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Russell Westbrook rumors are here (and probably to stay for a while)

The Lakers have discussed a Russell Westbrook trade with the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, and Indiana Pacers, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.

  • McMenamin reported that the conversations hit a “snag” over the Lakers including two first-round picks in the deal. The Lakers prefer to trade just one.
  • Westbrook exercised his $47 million player option to stay with the Lakers this season and is a UFA this year. He is a favorable trade piece but with such a large salary the Lakers will likely need to include picks or players to make it worth it for the team that takes him on.
  • It will be a tough deal to force, but the trade does feel inevitable. For that reason, expect Westbrook rumors to continue, potentially all the way up to the deadline.

Jordan Poole gets his payday. How does it compare to other 2019 draftees?

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Jordan Poole got a 4-year, $140 million extension. Andrew Wiggins also agreed to a 4-year, $109 million extension with the team. Here’s what to know:

  • Poole, drafted in 2019, joins RJ Barrett (Knicks) and Tyler Herro (Heat) as players who have recently gotten big extensions from the teams that drafted them.
  • RJ Barrett’s extension is less than Poole’s at four years and a max of $120 million.
  • Tyler Herro’s extension is less than Poole’s at four years, $130 million.
  • AAV (descending): Poole, $35M; Herro, $32.5M; Barrett, $30M
  • Career VORP (value over replacement) descending: Tyler Herro, 1.9; Jordan Poole, 0.6; RJ Barrett, -0.3
  • All three players are now much more difficult to trade thanks to the “poison pill provision.” Don’t expect to see any of these players included in meaningful trade talks until their extensions officially kick in next season.

Who are the sportsbook favorites to win NBA Finals?

With the season starting up this week, fans may be curious about who the favorites are to win the NBA Finals.

  • DraftKings has the Celtics, Warriors, and Clippers at +600 for the most likely to win the title.
  • FanDuel has the Bucks as the favorite at +550. Their most likely out of the West are the Clippers and Warriors, both at +700.
  • Caesar’s has the Warriors and Celtics both at +575.

Unfortunate health news for former NBA players Dikembe Mutumbo, Nate Robinson

A pair of negative health stories came out for two former NBA players this weekend. Dikembe Mutumbo is starting treatment for a brain tumor. Nate Robinson is undergoing treatment for renal kidney failure.
Here’s what you should know about these unfortunate pieces of news:

  • The NBA said in a statement that Mutumbo is in “great spirits”. He will undergo treatment in the Atlanta area.
  • Tony Ressler, Hawks owner, said of Mutumbo: “We know he will approach this challenge with the same determination and grit that have made him a legend on and off the court.”
  • Mutumbo’s family asked for privacy and thanked the public for their thoughts and prayers.
  • Robinson revealed he has been dealing with kidney issues for four years.
  • In a statement, Robinson said he is coming public with his diagnosis in an effort to raise awareness and to, “come together for a greater cause for our health,” alongside others battling the disease.

— Josh Wilson

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