Basketball

NBA’s 30 teams rated from top contenders to bottom tier

Some people like power rankings. I prefer tiers. It’s a big-picture method of capturing how good teams are today, and where they are in the NBA’s rise-and-fall cycle. It is an especially interesting exercise approaching the most wide-open season in recent memory. More teams than usual have claims to membership in the highest tiers. Boundaries are fluid.

As always, the listed order within each tier does not matter.

Tier 1: Top title contenders

• Some have eight teams here. Others cap it at the first four listed. Let’s split the difference.

Clippers

• When healthy, the Clippers probably have the most complete postseason-ready roster. They are still one player away — either a ball handler or a big man — from being airtight on both ends, but no team is perfect anymore. The Kevin Durant-era Warriors created an impossible standard of star power and two-way balance. The 2017 and 2018 versions might well be the greatest teams ever built. Only injuries could defeat them.

Concerns about LA’s overall ballhandling might be overblown. The Clippers could build closing lineups around the quartet of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. Leonard is arguably the league’s best player — a shoulder-checking isolation bully who has made just enough progress hitting the open man. George is overtaxed as a No. 1 option, perfect as second banana. Beverley is a little underrated as an off-the-bounce threat, and he’ll almost always catch the ball with a head start.

Is that enough against the league’s very best defenses? Who are the best defensive teams in the West? The Clippers don’t have to play themselves. Basketball gods forbid they acquire Andre Iguodala. Utah has been the conference’s stingiest team two years running, but with apologies to Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum, they don’t have wing defenders who unnerve Leonard and George.

Lou Williams, a walking shoulder fake who makes sweet, sweet pick-and-roll magic with Harrell, is LA’s ballhandling boost — provided he can survive on defense in high-stakes moments. He might be able to hide somewhere against Utah’s new closing lineup of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert. Utah has more ammo with both Conley and Mitchell to break from its offense and hunt the opponent’s weakest link — as Mitchell did in all but ending Carmelo Anthony’s career during the 2018 playoffs. But with mean, long help defenders flanking Williams everywhere, I’m not sure Conley and Mitchell attacking him one-on-one will scare the Clippers. LeBron and James Harden are different stories.

If the Clippers have to yank Williams in favor of a superior defender — Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green, Landry Shamet, someone yet to be acquired — they can still put a decent amount of scoring firepower on the floor.

Lakers

• It’s fun teasing the Lakers for falling ass-backwards into LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and swinging wildly between schools of thought in building out their team. Last season: We don’t need shooting! We want playmaking! We paid no attention to the first 15 years of LeBron’s career! One year later: Turns out shooting is important!

Both James and Davis seem determined to play out of position, forcing the Lakers to shoehorn Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee into major roles. A year ago, Kyle Kuzma was a spot duty small-ball center. Now he’ll have to defend some shooting guards to get on the floor with James, Davis, and one member of the Lakers’ big man comedy duo. Weird.

But Kuzma chased wings last season with a grit that would surprise critics branding him an empty calories gunner. His 32% mark on wide-open catch-and-shoot 3s is alarming, but the bet here is that he rebounds to something closer to 38% — his hit rate as a rookie. When it matters, the Lakers will slide Davis to center, allowing Kuzma to play closer to his natural position. Some Davis-at-center lineups won’t include Kuzma at all. Remember: He is L.A.’s best (only?) realistic trade asset.

A more substantive problem: Rajon Rondo is the only perimeter player aside from LeBron who can, like, dribble multiple times in succession. LeBron’s best teams featured All-Star secondary ball handlers.

Defenses ignore Rondo. Opponents outscored the Lakers by 5.4 points per 100 possessions last season when LeBron and Rondo shared the floor. Their best lineups probably don’t feature Rondo. I don’t really care that he drained at least 35% from deep in three of the past four seasons. That is a blah mark considering how open he is, and he’ll never take and make enough to outweigh the damage he inflicts on spacing.

But Rondo’s relative lack of shooting isn’t as harmful in lineups featuring James, Davis, Danny Green, and one ambulatory perimeter guy with average 3-point accuracy. And when the Lakers excise Rondo, Davis can take on more of the playmaking burden from the post and elbows, and even by just dusting suckers one-on-one from the outside; Davis quietly averaged four dimes per game last season, by far a career high.

Green is rock solid. Alex Caruso can handle it some. He’s good — more than a meme. Someone from the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Avery Bradley/Quinn Cook pile will exceed expectations. (Bradley is getting all the camp buzz, but I’m more intrigued by KCP’s size and versatility on defense.) They’ll snag someone in the (rigged) buyout game.

That guy won’t be an elite ball handler. Every contender has minor flaws in a post-supervillain Warriors world. The Lakers have two of the league’s five best players — a symbiotic pick-and-roll combination — and competent shooting around them. Be afraid.

They will have to navigate the draining melodrama that follows LeBron. If things go badly, there will be passive-aggressive eye rolls and drooped shoulders. The Lakers volunteered for tension by hiring Jason Kidd as Frank Vogel’s No. 2. Like any classic LeBron team, the Lakers are a 2-3 start away from DEFCON 1 speculation. I’m tired already.



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