This year’s NBA playoffs promises to be one of the most exciting in years, as the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers will undoubtedly face challenges. This article will group all 16 NBA playoff teams into tiers. The teams, listed in no particular order, are:
Tier 1: The Elites
This tier is for those teams that would consider not winning the NBA title a failure. These are the overwhelming favorites to win it all.
Golden State Warriors
Any list of playoff favorites has to start with the current NBA champions. There seems to be no glaring weakness on this team, with the three-headed monster consisting of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson carrying their high-octane offense and Draymond Green anchoring their stout defense. However, this season has tested this team; the injury bug has hit them hard, including the players mentioned above, who all have lost considerable time because of it. Presumably, the four all-stars would be healthy come playoff time, which will be bad news for the rest of the NBA.
The addition of Chris Paul in the offseason has enabled the Rockets to match star power with just about any team in the league. All-world guard James Harden is enjoying an MVP-caliber season, and the Houston Rockets have to be considered one of the favorites to lift the NBA championship trophy. With Mike D’Antoni as the head coach, it’s no wonder that Houston is one of the NBA’s highest-scoring teams, and they also have a stout defense anchored by Mike Muscala and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets have played the Golden State Warriors in a tough regular season, taking 2 of 3, and they are the No. 1 seed this year. It will come as a shock to no one if Houston takes the championship this year.
This year has been a tumultuous one in Cleveland. With a chaotic trade deadline and an ailing head coach, there has been no shortage of drama. However, two facts remain: the Cavs play in the weaker Eastern Conference and still employ LeBron James. Having proven himself to be one of the greatest of all time, James seems just to get stronger in the playoffs. The rest of the team is still a question mark because they’ve only had a couple of months to play together. Unhampered by injury, they have managed to end the regular season relatively healthy and still learning the art of on-court collaboration. Having Kevin Love back after a long injury makes the Cavs the favorites to come out of the East, even if they aren’t the top-seeded team.
Tier 2: The Contenders
Although not considered the favorites to win the championship, these teams are indeed capable of making some noise in the playoffs. If everything clicks, they could make a deep run in the playoffs.
The Raptors, boasting one of the deepest benches in the league, are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That makes this regular season the most successful in the Toronto team’s history. Their all-star backcourt, anchored by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, will be a tough out for any team in the NBA playoffs. The big question is, how will the Raptors respond in the playoffs? They have disappointed in the previous season, and they will have to find a way to beat James and the Cavs; their fans will view anything less as a failure for this team.
“The Process” seems to be working well in Philadelphia. They’re coming together at the right time and have one of the best young cores in all of the NBA. Triple-double machine Ben Simmons partnered with Joel Embiid comprise one of the best young duos in the league. They have also done an excellent job of building a solid bench unit filled with solid shooters and defenders. Their lack of playoff experience keep them at tier 2, but they may be well on their way to becoming an elite team in the seasons to come.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Adding the talents of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook has created real title aspirations in Oklahoma City. Steven Adams has turned into one of the best defensive centers in the league, but the loss of Andre Roberson for the season hurts their team defense. It’s been a somewhat up-and-down season for the Thunder, but their star power will make them a tough team to face in the playoffs.
Probably the most surprising team of this group is the Utah Jazz, who deserve contender status because of the sum of their parts. They have a budding superstar in Donovan Mitchell, a defensive stalwart in Rudy Gobert, and a savvy playmaker in Ricky Rubio. Their interior game is formidable outside of Gobert, with Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder making baskets hard to come by for the opposition. Even though this team probably won’t win the championship this year, they will be making some noise.
Tier 3: The Dark Horses
This tier is for the teams that, while unlikely to win this year’s championship, are solid competitors. These teams would consider their season successful if they make it to the second round.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s hard to put perennial championship contenders like the Spurs in this tier, but with a combination of an aging roster and the Kawhi Leonard soap opera, the team doesn’t seem to have what it takes to win the championship this year. That said, never count out any team coached by Gregg Popovich and supported by the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, who is ending the season looking like a world beater. However, the dynamic duo of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili appear to be showing their age, and a deep playoff run may be beyond the team’s reach.
The Boston team indeed seems to have the talent to challenge for a championship in future seasons, and their defense is one of the best in the league. They could have been among the elites if not for a season-opening injury to their flashy offseason pick up Gordon Hayward, and a recent season-ending injury to their other star, Kyrie Irving. Despite having Brad Stevens, one of the best young coaches in the NBA, the Celts are just missing too much firepower to make any real impact in this year’s playoffs.
On paper, this Washington team is an intimidating force, especially in a weaker Eastern Conference. With an offense spearheaded by Bradley Beal and John Wall, they provide matchup headaches for most organizations. However, this season has not gone as planned since Wall suffered a severe injury, and the team hasn’t played to its capabilities, as their low playoff seeding reflects. At this point, a first-round win can be the only expectation.
The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and lucky for the Bucks, they have one in Giannis Antetokounmpo along with a solid supporting cast led by Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. That said, they have been up and down all season, and firing Jason Kidd mid-season does not create the coaching continuity many serious contenders have. Although the team is on the rise, this will probably not be the year to “Fear the Deer.”
Here’s a team that has exceeded all expectations this season, which is why Terry Stotts’s name often gets floated as a candidate for coach of the year. With a budding superstar in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum rounding out the backcourt, the Blazers have managed to obtain home court in the first round of the playoffs. However, they do not have enough talent to go up against contenders in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The Timberwolves would probably go up a few pegs on talent alone, but with prized acquisition Jimmy Butler missing a considerable amount of time, this season has been an inconsistent one. While this team is new to the playoffs, they certainly have the talent to win a first-round match-up. Tom Thibodeau will ensure a robust, hard-nosed defense that will complement the scoring exploits of Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler.
Tier 4: The Underdogs
These teams should be happy they made it to the playoffs. It would be an outright shock if any of them managed to make a deep run in the tournament.
The Miami Heat have Eri Spoelstra, one of the top coaches in the league, and the return of Dwyane Wade was a sweet story. While the Heat does boast a tough defense, which will translate well in the playoffs. But compared to the other top squads, there just isn’t enough firepower here to make a sustained run.
New Orleans Pelicans
If DeMarcus Cousins hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury, the Pelicans would have had the most imposing frontcourt in the playoffs. Anthony Davis is having an MVP-caliber season, but he can’t do it alone, as the Pelicans apparently spent all their energy just to qualify for the playoffs. Kudos to this team for making it this far, given the adversity they’ve faced, but it’s looking like this will be a short playoff run.
After losing Paul George to free agency, no one expected much from this Indiana squad. But with a budding star in Victor Oladipo and some good young pieces, they managed to snag a playoff berth in the East. Like the other teams in this tier, however, there just isn’t enough talent to sustain a playoff run. Nonetheless, this squad has already exceeded expectations by making the playoffs.
This year’s playoffs promises to be a lot closer than in previous years, as the gap has narrowed between the NBA’s elites and the rest of the pack. Of course, there can be only one winner, and with their championship pedigree and sheer talent, the Golden State Warriors are still the favorites to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.