With exactly one month to go before the end of the regular season, it feels like the time is ripe to step back, take a look at the standings, and pick out which teams have a legitimate shot at going all the way. Not all playoff-bound teams are contenders, and the win-loss record doesn’t necessarily reflect title chances.
Just a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Some teams have been dealing with injuries which make the standings an inaccurate gauge.
- Returning players may swing championship odds, but fitness and chemistry cannot be accurately predicted.
- The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and this tends to get amplified tenfold in the postseason.
These are not strict power rankings, and the listed order within each tier doesn’t matter. If your team isn’t in any of the tiers, it’s because they were intentionally omitted (sorry, Bulls fans). As a bonus to celebrate #NBA75, I’m naming each tier after all-time greats and their Finals records. Here we go…
TIER 1: Michael Jordan/Bill Russell
(Jordan and Russell have a combined 17-1 Finals record—a 94% winning percentage. That’s the numerical rating for the teams under this tier.)
• Phoenix Suns (53-13, 1st in the NBA)
They’re a virtual lock to have home court advantage throughout the playoffs and they have a league-best 28-7 record at home. But they’re also 25-6 on the road, so perhaps it hardly matters.
Last year’s losing finalists have been far and away the best team in the league this season. They have the best point-differential, the fourth-best offense and second-best defense, and are on pace to become the only team to win north of 60 games this season—that’s already accounting for Chris Paul’s unavailability for the remainder of the regular season (they were on a 67-game win pace prior). The past ten NBA champions have either had a top 5 offensive rating or a top 4 defensive rating (the “5/4 Rule”); the Suns are both, so they’re in pretty good shape.
CP3’s return timetable is more definite compared to other injured stars, so I’m less concerned about this team getting fully healthy in time for the playoffs. There are a couple of silver linings with the timing of Paul’s injury too: (1) he gets to rest his 36-year-old legs and keep them fresh; and (2) his absence has allowed the “others” to step up and build their confidence ahead of what could be another deep postseason run. Cameron Payne, Jae Crowder, and Landry Shamet are each scoring at least three more points per game higher than their average after Paul got sidelined, but Cameron Johnson has been lights out. The reserve forward is averaging 23.4 points on .603/.585/.958 splits in five games without the Point God.
• Milwaukee Bucks (42-25, 2nd in the East)
The Bucks are better than what their win-loss record suggests. I wouldn’t say they’re coasting, but they’re not chasing wins. Mike Budenholzer has been forced to experiment with lineups because of the injuries they’ve had to deal with. Still, they sit second in the East and are riding a five-game winning streak, with three coming against teams hoping to make deep playoff runs (Heat, Bulls, Suns).
They’re a combined 8-4 against the top 4 of the East and top 3 of the West, plus 2-0 versus the Nets in games Kevin Durant has played. Their 4-player lineup of Giannis Antetokounmpo-Khris Middleton-Jrue Holiday-Bobby Portis is blitzing opponents by a net 15.2 points per 100 possessions. Their defense probably isn’t where Bucks fans hoped it would be (109.8 per 100); but they actually had a worse defensive rating last year before shutting off the valve in the playoffs. Don’t forget that these are now your defending champs—they’ve got another gear in them when it matters.
The Bucks are rounding into form and they’ll go as far as Antetokounmpo takes them. The Greek Freak is playing at an MVP-level and is arguably having a better season compared to his two previous MVP campaigns, at least based on some metrics. His PER of 32.6 would break the all-time record he set in 2020 and his .298 WS/48 is a personal-best.
TIER 1.5: Tim Duncan
(5-1 in the Finals – 83%)
• Philadelphia 76ers (40-25, 3rd in the East)
The Sixers are 5-1 with James Harden in the lineup. Despite their bad loss against the Nets, the trio of Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey are still outscoring opponents by 16 points per 100 in 139 minutes together. So far, the fit concerns—Embiid hasn’t played with a ball-dominant guard, Harden hasn’t played with a high-usage low-post big—appear to have been overblown.
They’re a juggernaut—perhaps the best inside-out combo since Shaq-and-Kobe. The playoffs historically favor superstars, and the Sixers have two. There appears to be a correlation between James Harden’s happiness and his on-court performance; he’s once again looking like a top 10 player now after slogging through the first four months in Brooklyn. Embiid, of course, is most folks’ MVP-frontrunner—while I personally don’t have him at number 1, I don’t have any major issues with the league’s leading scorer winning the award.
The reason I’m unable to put Philly on the highest tier is because they haven’t proven themselves in the playoffs yet. Harden’s postseason struggles have been well-chronicled, while Embiid has struggled closing out playoff games (see: 2019 vs. Toronto and 2021 vs. Atlanta). Oh, and Doc Rivers is their head coach, and the man has lost 29 playoff series-clinching opportunities in his career.
TIER 2: Shaq/Kobe
(Combined 9-4 in the Finals – 69%)
• Miami Heat (44-23, 1st in the East)
If I were to pick one word to describe this year’s Heat, it’s “grit.” They just find ways to win games. They sit atop the East with a two-game cushion despite Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and Bam Adebayo missing a combined 63 games this season. The best news is that all three, plus two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, were active in last Tuesday’s game against the Rockets (Butler sat out last night against the Suns due to a sinus congestion).
Yet I’m not so high on their championship prospects because there’s not one thing that they’re absolutely good at. They fall short of the 5/4 Rule—they’re 9th on offense and 5th on defense—and don’t have a superduperstar. The last team without a top 10 player to go all the way was the 2004 Pistons. It can happen, but the odds aren’t in the Heat’s favor.
• Golden State Warriors (45-22, T-2nd in the West)
The Dubs still own the second-best record in the NBA and have the championship pedigree. But maybe I’m being too generous putting them in this tier. Since their Dec. 3 win against the Suns, they’ve gone 26-19, with a 20th ranked offense. They’re still third in defensive rating for the season, but they’ve slipped dramatically since Draymond Green went down in early January. They were giving up 102.2 points per 100 through Green’s last game on Jan. 5; they’ve been allowing 110 per 100 since.
Green is slated to return next week and I might move them up or down depending on how they look. But as important as Green is to what the Warriors do on both ends, his return is not a wonder drug that would magically fix lingering issues on this team.
Steph Curry’s Richmond Cliff affliction (43.4% FG/37.8% 3FG) has infected Klay Thompson (40.5% FG/35.6% 3FG) and Andrew Wiggins (44.3% FG/37.3% 3FG since Klay’s return). The pre-KD Warriors were always vulnerable in the postseason because they were a jump-shooting team. These percentages won’t cut it when teams can gameplan for them over a seven-game series.
• Denver Nuggets (40-27, 6th in the West)
They’re rolling (12-3 in their last 15; I wouldn’t penalize them for their loss against the Warriors today since they were playing their 4th game in five nights) and have the best player on the planet. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. could be returning soon. But as we’ve learned from the “look ma, no Klay!” Warriors, synergy isn’t simple arithmetic. Jokic’s style of play should make reintegrating them easier, but can they get back to 90% of who they were?
On second thought, Jokic is so good that perhaps even 70% of Murray and MPJ will be enough. If they face the Warriors in the first round, as things currently stand, I think the Nuggets pull off the upset.
The Nuggets have an offensive rating of 116.4 points per 100 when Jokic is on the floor, which is better than the league-leading Jazz (116.0), while their defensive rating of 107.2 points per 100 with Jokic would be right behind the fourth-ranked Cavs’ 106.8. He’s a one-man 5/4 Rule!
TIER 3: Kareem/Magic/Bird/Steph
(Combined 17-12 – 58%)
• Memphis Grizzlies (45-22, T-2nd in the West)
The Grizzlies have caught up with the Warriors as the West’s number 2. They have the fifth-best offense (tick the 5/4 Rule box) and are 26-8 since Christmas (second to the 27-8 Suns). Plus they’re an impressive 8-2 against the other Western Conference teams on this list.
Ja Morant is the most electrifying superstar in sports today—an unholy chimera of Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook. His dazzling rim attacks get all the attention, rightfully so, but look at his shot chart and you’ll realize just how disciplined he is. He rarely takes inefficient midrange shots, which speaks volumes of his basketball IQ. Despite their similarities as athletic combo-guards, Morant is the anti-Westbrook.
The biggest concern for Memphis is their lack of playoff experience. But young teams with rising superstars have made Finals runs before: LeBron James’ Cavs in 2007 and KD’s OKC in 2012. Is Morant on the same level? Only time will tell, but he is putting this team on his shoulders like those two did.
The 2007 Cavs and 2012 Thunder ultimately fell short of the title though, that’s why I’m hesitant to put the Grizzlies any higher.
• Utah Jazz (41-24, 4th in the West)
• Boston Celtics (40-27, 5th in the East)
I wrote about the Jazz last week and would’ve included them in the Shaq/Kobe tier, but they lost to the Pelicans by 34 and trailed by as many as 20 in a road loss against the Mavs (their potential first round opponent). Their metrics still look good on paper: they’re the best offensive team, third in net rating, and second in point differential.
The Celtics started slow but they’ve been the best team in the NBA since Feb. 1. They’ve gone 13-2, with league-bests +13.3 point differential and +14.3 net rating. They’ve been so good defensively that they’re now ranked first in defensive rating for the season despite their shaky start.
Both check the 5/4 Rule, but there are some red flags. The Jazz have slipped to 10th on defense despite Rudy Gobert’s return, which is counterintuitive and concerning. The Celtics have progressively improved their offense, but they still have nobody outside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown putting up more than 12 points per contest.
My common concern for these two teams is this: They may not have the best player in any series they play in (Jazz might draw Luka Doncic or Nikola Jokic in round 1, while Celtics may face Embiid, Giannis or DeMar DeRozan).
TIER 4: LeBron/Wilt
(Combined 6-10 – 37%)
• Brooklyn Nets (34-33, 8th in the East)
There are a lot of question marks and issues in Brooklyn, the overwhelming title favorites back in October, though none appear as terminal as the situation of the team from SoCal. I’ll be frank: the Nets have been awful to watch for the last two months, so there’s not much positive to write about other than they were second in the East before KD went down and now he’s back. Okay, they had a statement win today at Philly, but I’m not about to overreact to a single game.
KD can be the best player of any series, and almost willed them to a Game 7 win against the Bucks last season, so playoff seeding matters less. However, we have no idea what the Nets’ playoff lineups would look like. We still don’t know if Kyrie Irving will finally be allowed to play home games or when Ben Simmons will make his debut.
If it’s just Durant and a part-time Irving, I’m taking them off this list because there’s no way that team can win four playoff series. But I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt since we’re yet to see them at full strength. We didn’t know how good the Sixers will be with Harden until he actually played; the same goes for the Nets, Simmons, and a full-time Irving.
If New York City finally learns from Florida, if Simmons is in All-Star form upon his return, if Simmons can handle the postseason pressure, if Steve Nash can quickly figure out how to put the pieces together, if KD remains healthy, then the Nets theoretically belong to the vaunted Jordan/Russell tier. But those are a lot of ‘ifs’ and until we get definitive answers, having them at the bottom tier of contenders seems fair at this moment.