The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers are the teams to beat in the Western Conference once again, while the Greek Freak and the Milwaukee Bucks are trying to fend off the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference. Let’s take a look at the seven tiers of NBA teams, which we broke down into categories: Elite, Good, Above Average, Break-Even, Below Average, Bad, and Horrible.

Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers Tiers NBA Elite Teams Good Bad Break-Even
Joel Embiid from the Philadelphia 76ers taking a fadeaway jumper against Enes Kanter from the Portland Trail Blazers. (Image: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

We’re approximately 25 games into the 70-game NBA season, and five teams have achieved Elite status, while the majority of the league is lumped in the middle. Time to cue up the one-hit-wonder tune “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.


THE 7 TIERS OF NBA TEAMS
  • Elite: Utah Jazz, LA Lakers, LA Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks
  • Good: Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Brooklyn Nets
  • Above Average: Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings
  • Break-Even: Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers
  • Below Average: Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors
  • Bad: OKC Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic
  • Horrible: Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons

Of course, it wouldn’t truly be the NBA without a couple of truly putrid and terrible teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves are once again holding down the basement as one of the three “Horrible” teams that are fighting for a lottery pick instead of an NBA championship.

Best of the Best: LeBron, Freak, Kawhi, Spida, and Embiid

You can’t have an elite NBA team without an elite player. That’s the guy who will carry a team when it’s having a bad night. He’s the guy who talks to the swarm of media when things go sideways. He’s the man who takes the big shot when the game is on the line.

Sure, there are plenty of All-Stars and players who can fill up a highlight reel, but it takes a different breed of player to thrive in the limelight for an elite squad. Very few people have the constitution to handle the circus-like atmosphere of playing for the LA Lakers, but if there ever was a single player who was born to handle the job, it’s LeBron James. The Lakers (19-6) keep winning, especially on the road (12-2), and LeBron keeps ticking. Just last night, King James rattled off a triple-double, which isn’t bad for a guy who’s supposed to be in the twilight of his career.

The Greek Freak finally got some extra offensive weapons (i.e., Jrue Holiday) and a bona fide Sixth Man (i.e., Bobby Portis). After a shaky start, the Milwaukee Bucks (16-8) are rising to the top of the NBA ranks as one of the elite squads while riding a five-game winning streak.

While the LA teams garner most of the attention out west, the Utah Jazz (19-5) is the hottest team in the NBA with a 15-1 clip.

Good Teams: Suns, Spurs, and Nets

The streaky Phoenix Suns (14-9) jumped out of the gate with a hot start before COVID cancellations pushed them off track. The Suns won three in a row, and Devin Booker looks like he’s found his shooting groove again.

The Brooklyn Nets (14-11) are the hipster pick to win the NBA title after they acquired James Harden to complete their Big 3 with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. We think Harden is great at individual scoring and partying hard at strip clubs. When it comes to being a team player and leading his team to an NBA title, we’ll just say that he’s great at hogging the ball and grinding in the VIP room.

The San Antonio Spurs (14-10) are the surprise team in the NBA. Last season, Pops and the Spurs missed the postseason for the first time in 22 years. Now they’re on a mission to get back to the postseason. If the season were to end right now, the Spurs would lock up the #5 seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket.

Above Average: Kings Playoff Bound?

The Boston Celtics (12-10) and Denver Nuggets (12-11) both advanced to the NBA’s version of the Final Four before they were knocked out of their respective conference championships.

The Celtics have been plagued with injuries to starters (pick one) and COVID-19 rescheduling.

The Nugs are just a slow-starting team, but they’ll be ready (especially the Joker) when it’s time to get down and dirty in the postseason.

How about those upstart Sacramento Kings (12-11)? They won four in a row and currently sit in the #7 seed in the west. Luke Walton’s squad will have to fend off a half-dozen other teams if they want to retain their spot.

The Portland Trail Blazers (12-10) struggled with numerous injuries last season that decimated their forwards. The Blazers took another bad beat this season when CJ McCollum, the NBA’s top 3-point shooter, went down with a foot injury. Until he returns, It’s the Damian Lillard Show in Rip City.

Even Steven: Indy and Golden State

The Golden State Warriors (12-12) are a break-even team this year without Klay Thompson. Kelly Oubre has been trying to fill the scoring void, while rookie James Wiseman is still figuring out how the league works. Meanwhile, Steph Curry is still dangerous.

The Indiana Pacers (12-12) are sitting pretty at .500, yet currently occupy the #5 seed in the lackluster Eastern Conference. The Pacers are still shuffling their deck after they shipped Victor Oladipo to the Houston Rockets as part of the four-team Harden trade. The Pacers also suffered a bad beat when they lost Caris LeVert for an unknown time after he had a mass removed from his kidney.

Losing Teams Dreaming of a Playoff Spot

The next couple of weeks will drastically alter the future for seven teams that are just a few games below .500. A winning streak would boost their postseason aspirations. But, a losing skid could destroy their dreams of advancing to the playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors (11-13) are struggling in their new temporary home in Tampa Bay due to strict COVID-19 health protocols in Canada. The Raptors do have something going for them, though — the magical city of Tampa. The Lightning and Bucs both won their championships, while the Rays advanced to the World Series. Will the Raptors catch a bit of Tampa’s good luck and get hot in the postseason?

The Houston Rockets (11-12) are a different and better team without James Harden, which is weird to say, but the revamped Rockets rely on old-school defense to win games.

The Memphis Grizzlies (9-10) finally got Ja Morant back in the lineup after he suffered a nasty ankle injury. But, as soon as Morant returned, the Griz got screwed by COVID-19 health protocols and had several games canceled, which messed up their groove.

The NBA suits would love to see Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans (10-12) make a run to snag one of the last playoff seeds in the west. But, what will the Pelicans do at the trade deadline with Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick on the chopping block?

For the first time in a decade, the New York Knicks (11-14) are no longer the doormat of the Eastern Conference and the punchline to jokes. The Knicks are on the playoff bubble, and Thibs hopes the addition of Derrick Rose will help the young Knicks make the necessary steps to becoming a perennial playoff squad once again.

Bad and Badder: Hope for the Heat and Mavs?

What does it say about the NBA when nine teams are in the bottom two tiers? So, maybe the Miami Heat (9-14) don’t belong in this category; after all, they went all the way to the NBA Finals last season, right? But that was last season. This year, the Heat are five games under .500, yet just 1.5 games behind the #8 seed.

The Dallas Mavericks (11-14) thought this would be the big year when they made a leap to join the elite teams in the Western Conference. But right now, if it weren’t for the OKC Thunder (10-13) and Minnesota Timberwolves (6-18), the Mavs would be the worst team in the west.

The three worst teams in the NBA combined for 17 wins. The top four teams in the league have at least 17 wins each. Are the Detroit Pistons (5-18) tanking? And, can they out-suck the craptacular Timberwolves? Don’t forget about the Washington Wizards (6-15). We genuinely feel bad for Bradley Beal. He’s squandering the best years of his life in the Eastern Conference basement.

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