Breaking Down the Tiers of Teams in the NBA Bubble

Last week we released a tiered power ranking of all the teams in the NBA’s Orlando bubble. Since then, all the teams have played televised scrimmages, but little has been done to change the rankings as these games were largely meaningless. Instead of a new power ranking this week, we will provide better definitions for the tiers the teams were in and explain why the teams belong there. When discussing tier 4 factors will be used to break down a team’s chances at a long playoff run: star power, depth, coaching and chemistry, and motivation.

In the playoffs star power is essential, you need one or more likely two guys capable of lifting a team on their shoulders and powering them to wins. This first tier of participants just don’t t have that, or is just too far down in the standings for their star to make a difference. Experience and depth are important as well, and having chemistry and good coaching can make the difference. For this tier, the participants, the biggest factor is really just motivation. What are they playing for and is it enough to get the best out of them.

 

The Participants: 

 

22. Washington Wizards

Star Power: With Bradley Beal and John Wall out this team lacks stars, instead they have young guys with potential trying to prove themselves which can make for some entertaining games, but not a lot of success.

Depth: Without their 3 best players in Beal, Wall, and Davis Bertans, the Wizards don’t have much talent that belongs in an NBA rotation. Without the depth to make up for the lack of stars their prospects aren’t high for success in the bubble.

Coaching and Chemistry: Scott Brooks is a good coach and these guys have gotten used to playing without their stars this season. Adversity tends to bring people together so chemistry could be a reason for any wins they do have.

Motivation: This is a team playing without expectations on them. They’ll likely be playing looser than most teams in the bubble and if the young guys show out they might steal a few wins in the seeding games.

 

21. San Antonio Spurs

Star Power: LaMarcus Aldridge is out with an injury, but DeMar DeRozan is available to play, but at this point in his career, is a fringe star. He’s talented and consistent but just hasn’t adapted his game to the modern NBA.

Depth: Despite the lack of a true star this team does have good depth and some young talent poised to make a leap in the next year or two. 

Coaching and Chemistry: Greg Popovich is one of the best coaches in league history and the guys on this team have been together for a few years now. 

Motivation: This is where the Spurs’ argument as a dangerous team in the bubble ends. They have little chance to sneak into the playoffs and they know it. They are a team not talking about winning or playoff success, but instead are talking about development and preparation for next year.

 

20. Brooklyn Nets

Star Power: With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Spencer Dinwiddie not available for the bubble, this team does lack star power. Caris LeVert has flashed star potential in the past and Joe Harris is an elite shooter, but they likely can’t carry a star’s load.

Depth: This team’s depth was gutted due to the coronavirus and they will likely have to rely on some guys that haven’t been with the team all season.

Coaching and Chemistry: Jacques Vaughn is a decent coach and at least a view of their guys are used to playing together, but this could be a problem as well.

Motivation: After the scrimmage games it does seem we were a bit too high on the Nets, but there’s still a chance the individuals on this team do perform well. With a new coach and the return of their stars, this team may be looking at serious turnover so this will be a great place for players to show off their skills to other teams.

 

19. Sacramento Kings

Star Power: The closest thing the Kings have to a star is point guard De’Aaron Fox and after a breakout sophomore season his development seems to have stalled. It seems unlikely he could lead this team to any playoff success just yet.

Depth: The Kings do have a depth of talent in the likes of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, and Harrison Barnes along with some quality role players around them. Marvin Bagley’s injury really hurts the Kings’ chances of making any sort of run. 

Coaching and Chemistry: The jury is still out on Luke Walton as a coach and while there should be chemistry in the locker room, there may not be much trust between players and coach just yet.

Motivation: This is a relatively young team and they may feel like they have a better chance at success than they really do which could motivate them to play hard, but it’s likely not enough.

 

18: Phoenix Suns

Star Power: Devin Booker is a true star, he’s improved every season he’s been in the league and really does have the talent to be the number one option on a good team. De”Andre Ayton isn’t a star yet, but he was playing really well before the league went on hiatus. 

Depth: The Suns have a solid young starting lineup and a couple of decent role players off the bench, but against a real playoff team, this depth would get exposed.

Coaching and Chemistry: Monty Williams is a good coach and the players do seem to like each other which does go a long way to building a quality team.

Motivation: The Suns are far enough back in the standings that there’s no real path to the playoffs, instead they’ll likely use these seeding games to give their young core some extended run in preparation for next season.

 

I call this next tier the “If lightning strikes” tier, as if their stars go nuclear or in the case of the Magic their depth and continuity come together in the perfect way. I call it “if lightning strikes” because that’s the type of miracle that would be needed for any of these teams to make a deep playoff run. The Magic could catch fire from three, Ja Morant could make a leap and just start to pick teams apart, or Damian Lillard could elevate his team enough to outlast the other teams competing for the 8th seed despite their tough schedule. All these things seem unlikely, but they are possible which is why they sit in this tier.

 

If Lightning Strikes:

 

17. Orlando Magic

Star Power: Jonathan Isaac has flashed star potential, but is also coming off an injury so it isn’t likely he’ll reach that potential in the Orlando bubble. Absent a star they’ll have a tough time advancing in the playoffs.

Depth: Orlando has a lot of quality NBA rotation pieces and should be able to stay competitive against a lot of teams because of it.

Coaching and Chemistry: Steve Clifford is a solid coach, but their real advantage is simply that the core of this team has played together for a long time, and continuity matters especially in these strange circumstances.

Motivation: The Magic will be looking to move up out of the 8th seed in hopes of avoiding the Bucks in the first round. 

 

16. Memphis Grizzlies

 

Star Power: Ja Morant, although just a rookie, looks like a real star. His lack of experience will likely hurt Memphis in the playoffs if they do make it, but his talent is undeniable and it might be enough to make waves.

Depth: With a mix of youth and solid veteran leadership, the Grizzlies have a decent 8-9 man rotation. Outside of Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson, however, they don’t really have any playoff experience to fall back on.

Coaching and Continuity: Between some youth and recent trades, this team hasn’t played together long and for first-year coach Taylor Jenkins (who should be in the running for COY),  the hope has to be to continue to build chemistry.

Motivation: Expectations are low for this team but its stars are too young to realize that, and thus will likely play like they are title contenders and that could be a nice boost for them.

 

15. Portland Trailblazers

Star Power: Damian Lillard is a true superstar and CJ McCollum is a solid sidekick for him. If this team were better positioned in the standings they’d likely be in a higher tier because of these guys.

Depth: The Blazers having to rely on Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside as starters isn’t ideal, but they are vets and can put together some good minutes for them and with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, should get a boost.

Coaching and Chemistry: Terry Stotts is an excellent coach and he usually gets a lot out of the rosters he handles. The return of Nurkic while a good thing, could cause chemistry issues as he’ll likely have to play out of position at power forward next to Whiteside and it pushes Carmelo back to the small forward spot which is no longer his ideal position.

Motivation: Lillard and McCollum especially are just competitors despite the odds not being great for a playoff berth they aren’t going to phone this in, expect this team to be highly motivated.

 

The next tier is the “If Everything Goes Right” tier, this group of teams has some serious question marks but have also looked very dangerous when everything meshes together. The Jazz sit in the 4 seed, but one of their best offensive players is out, so if they can figure out how to fill Bogdanovic’s shoes they can make a deep run. The Pelicans have had injury issues all year but when their starting five plays it’s been lethal. The Pacers will have a tougher time now that Domantas Sabonis is out, but Oladipo still gives them enough star power that they could still put together a very competitive team. Finally the Thunder, led by Chris Paul have good talent and depth and were the most clutch team all year, if they can keep games close they will always be a threat.

 

If Everything Goes Right:

 

14: Utah Jazz

Star Power: Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are stars, but have a history of inconsistency in the playoffs and have recently had a very public feud.

Depth: Losing Bojan Bogdanovic hurts, but Joe Ingles is a good player and should be able to capably fill his starting spot. However, that does hurt their depth, and relying on the likes of Jordan Clarkson and Emmanuel Mudiay off the bench is not where Utah wanted to be.

Coaching and Chemistry: Chemistry is the key here, have Mitchell and Gobert really buried the hatchet or will their off-court issues bleed onto the court?

Motivation: This team has been written off by many, so proving critics wrong could be a huge motivator for them.

 

13. New Orleans Pelicans

Star Power: Zion Williamson hasn’t played much but has been dominant when he has, and Brandon Ingram has emerged as a star as well. Whether their inexperience will get in the way of their ability to lead this team on a playoff run is yet to be seen, but having Jrue Holiday a veteran star can help their development.

Depth: Another team with a mix of young talent and veteran leadership, they benefit from being able to go to someone like JJ Redick off their bench.

Coaching and Chemistry: This team was hit hard by injuries and hasn’t been able to play with a full rotation much this season, but Alvin Gentry is a good coach so he may be able to smooth over and bumps in the road.

Motivation: Half this rotation were Lakers cast-offs and their reward for making the playoffs would be a chance to get revenge on the team that gave up on them.

 

12. Indiana Pacers

Star Power: Victor Oladipo has proven he can be a star, but will his recent injuries keep him from playing at that level?

Depth: Losing Sabonis has hurt this team’s frontcourt depth, but the guys in their normal rotation are high-quality players. Sabonis’ departure will most likely give Myles Turner a larger role, as Sabonis and Turner are both better when the other is off the court. 

Coaching and Chemistry: In a lot of ways Sabonis was the glue for this team, Nate McMillan has a real challenge ahead of him to rebuild the team chemistry without him.

Motivation: Their motivation has to be in question simply because Oladipo wasn’t sure he even wanted to play in Orlando and that was before Sabonis went down with an injury. It may be hard to stay motivated if not everyone is bought in.

 

11. Oklahoma City Thunder

Star Power: Chris Paul is one of the best point guards ever, and if he can stay healthy, he can give this team a real shot at a deep playoff run.

Depth: The return of Andre Roberson is not only a great story, but also improves what was already a pretty deep team.

Coaching and Chemistry: This team has meshed very well in their first year together and Billy Donovan seems to have gotten the best out of these guys. The chemistry issues that have seemed to follow Chris Paul throughout his career haven’t shown up in OKC.

Motivation: This team was counted out before the season even started, most expected them to sell off their veteran players for more future assets, instead they are poised to make noise in the playoffs. 

 

The next tier are the fringe contenders, the teams that have the talent necessary to compete for a title, but have questions regarding how that talent will translate to the playoffs. The Sixers have struggled to find the right mix of guys to put out on the court together to maximize their talents and have been a disaster on the road all season. The Mavericks are led by one of the league’s best in Luke Doncic, but he has no NBA playoff experience and carries a huge load for the team. Houston has two former MVPs on the but also not big men in their rotation. Their small ball has had mixed success and it’s unclear how it will fare in the playoffs. The Miami Heat have relied a lot on talented young guys, can they keep up their play in the playoffs? If not is Jimmy Butler capable of picking up the slack?

 

Sleeper Contenders:

 

10: Philadelphia 76ers

Star Power: In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers have two of the brightest young stars in the league. However, both have had their struggles in the playoffs before, can they step up and lead the Sixers to a title?

Depth: The Sixers have had their struggles finding consistent shooting, but they have good depth and guys deep in the rotation that can be used for situational shooting.

Coaching and Chemistry: Brett Brown is a good coach, but this team has serious chemistry issues. Simmons and Embiid are an awkward fit and they’ve struggled to maximize each other’s talents when they share the court and now they are going to start a whole new starting lineup, which may cause further chemistry issues.

Motivation: This team had high expectations and struggled a lot this season, I expect they will come out strong to show that those championship aspirations were not overblown.

 

9. Dallas Mavericks

Star Power: Luka Doncic is a superstar and led the Mavs to the best offense in NBA history, but he’s only a second-year player and has no playoff experience. Playoff gameplans may give him trouble and if he struggles the whole team struggles.

Depth: The lack of Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell, and even Courtney Lee hurts this team’s depth, but their chance at a deep run means big minutes from their starters regardless of who comes off the bench.

Coaching and Chemistry: Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league and this team does get along well. Kristaps Porzingis has gotten better as the year has gone on and Tim Hardaway Jr. has a career year.

Motivation: It’s their first playoff appearance and it’s hard to know how motivated a team like that will be as they may take the appearance itself as a point of pride and settle for it.

 

8. Houston Rockets

Star Power: Not much to say here. Houston has James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two former MVPs, and some of the elite stat stuffers in the league.

Depth: This will be a real concern for the team; it hasn’t been uncommon for Houston to only go 9 deep in the regular season and with Eric Gordon potentially missing a few weeks that will only get worse.

Coaching and Chemistry: Mike D’Antoni is great at working with unique systems and when the Rockets traded Clint Capela they committed fully to small ball. The chemistry is there but can this style of play win a title?

Motivation: Neither Westbrook nor Harden have won a title and they both really want one. It would cement their legacies and give them some bragging rights, this team will be motivated.

 

7. Miami Heat

Star Power: Jimmy Butler is the star of this team and the only player proven to be a high level playoff contributor. Bam Adebayo had a break out year and has the potential to be a great second banana.

Depth: This team is deep, they’ve got 10-12 guys that can provide valuable playoff minutes if necessary. The additions of Crowder and Iguodala could be big if their young gunners struggle in the playoffs.

Coaching and Chemistry: Spoelstra has proven he is one of the best coaches in the league and one of the most malleable. Chemistry issues are easier to work through when the coach is so good at adapting his schemes to his personnel.

Motivation: I’m not sure anyone has ever worried about Jimmy Butler being motivated.

 

This next tier is the one I called the “Likely Spoilers.” These are basically the teams that have all the talent necessary to compete with the favorites, but really have to be at their best if they wanna win. Here we have the Boston Celtics, who have talent all over the roster and multiple guys capable of playing like a superstar, but are not always at that level. The Denver Nuggets, who have a genuine superstar in Jokic a possible second guy in Jamal Murray, and a lot of high-quality vets around them. And finally, the Toronto Raptors fit into this group, as they have championship DNA and a guy who’s played like a superstar all year but hasn’t been forced to lead a team in the playoffs yet in Pascal Siakam.

 

Likely Spoilers:

 

6. Boston Celtics

Star Power: I think many have been too quick to label Jayson Tatum a superstar, but he’s about to turn that corner and Kemba Walker is a vet who consistently performs like a star. If either or both of them step up their game this team has a shot at a title.

Depth: A lack of size on the inside could be a problem for the Celtics, but they have more than enough wings to carry a big load and their top-end talent is some of the best in the league.

Coaching and Chemistry: Brad Stevens has much better chemistry to work with this year after having the distraction that is Kyrie Irving in the locker room last year. Hopefully that can translate to more playoff success.

Motivation: With tons of playoff experience and some heartbreaking playoff losses under their belt, this team is going to be motivated to make that a thing of the past.

 

5. Denver Nuggets

Star Power: While many fans still doubt Jokic, he proved last year in his first playoff run that he is a true superstar. With another year of experience, he and Jamal Murray are poised for a deep playoff run.

Depth: The Nuggets have had issues getting their whole team to Orlando and getting them healthy, but they have quality players up and down the roster so filling holes that might arise should be easy for them. Also, Bol Bol. 

Coaching and Chemistry: The core of this team has been together for 3 full seasons now and complement each other very well. Michael Malone’s challenge will be figuring out how to allocate minutes for a crowded rotation.

Motivation: This team struggled mightily last year and lost in the second round they thought that they could win a title and blew it. They think that again now and are even more motivated to prove it.

 

4: Toronto Raptors

Star Power: Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakia are stars in this league. The former hasn’t had much success on his own and the latter just elevated his game to the star level this season. Can they defend their title after losing their best player?

Depth: This team has struggled with injuries all season and still ended up with the 3rd best record, depth shouldn’t be an issue for them.

Coaching and Chemistry: Nick Nurse is unafraid to think outside the box when it comes to his game plans and this team is essentially the same one that won a title last year.

Motivation: These players are looking to prove that they don’t need Kawhi to contend for a title.

 

The final tier is simply the title favorites. I don’t think they need much explanation. These 3 teams are each led by a top 3 player in the league and have high level sidekicks to go with them. In all likelihood, one of these three teams will return from Orlando with a title.

 

Title Favorites:

 

3. Los Angeles Lakers

Star Power: They have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, few teams in history have ever had a duo of this caliber.

Depth: This is really the only weakness for the Lakers, especially after losing Avery Bradley and then Rajon Rondo. Lebron and AD are going to have to carry this team on their backs. We’ll see how J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters play. Hennything is possible. 

Coaching and Chemistry: With recent injuries, this team is going to have to rely on some newcomers to give them good minutes in the backcourt, otherwise their chemistry should be okay because LeBron is good at fitting guys into his system.

Motivation: LeBron is looking to win his 4th title in his 3rd city and prove once and for all he can compete in the West like he did in the East. You also have to think that he wants to win this ring for Kobe. 

 

2. LA Clippers

Star Power: Kawhi Leonard is fresh of a Finals MVP win with the Toronto Raptors, and with the help of Paul George, is looking to win another one this season.

Depth: It’s hard to believe, but if the Clippers can get their whole roster healthy and in the bubble they might have more depth than Kawhi’s last team that won an NBA title just a season ago.

Coaching and Chemistry: This team has had trouble keeping its two stars on the court, but in the games they have played together, the team has been dominant. Hopefully that chemistry can carry over into the postseason.

Motivation: Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were rumored to go to the Lakers, but instead joined their in-town rivals. I think both are looking forward to the chance to beat LeBron in his own town.

 

1.Milwaukee Bucks

Star Power: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world and is about to win his second-straight MVP. 

Depth: The Bucks have wisely built the perfect roster around Giannis and while other teams may have more talent deep into their roster, the Bucks have a lot of guys that fit really well next to Giannis.

Coaching and Chemistry: Some doubt Budenholzer’s credentials as a playoff coach, but he’s been smart in how he puts Giannis in the best positions to succeed. The team is largely intact from last season and knows each other very well, chemistry shouldn’t be an issue.

Motivation: Despite their incredible regular season and Giannis’s historic numbers people still doubt this team and that has to motivate them.

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