Jake Ruderman ’26
As we near the NBA All-Star Break and the ⅔ point of the season, it’s worth checking in on each team and determining who the title favorites are, who’s in the playoff hunt, and who’s ready for the draft lottery.
Just like every year, there are certain teams constructed better than others, thus giving them a better chance of winning the NBA Finals; this group is referred to as the contenders. These upper-echelon teams typically have deep rosters, with solid coaches and star players. These are almost always the teams with the most regular season wins, and typically also have players up for the most prestigious awards. In any given season, there are somewhere between three and six strong contenders, and a few more “fringe contenders”; these are teams who are close to that top tier, but not quite there for some reason.
This season, there are five bonafide contenders: the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers. These are the five teams who, as currently constructed, could win the NBA finals without a doubt. These five have more or less been the top five teams in the league this season, and are each currently a top three seed. They’re all ten or more games over .500, and have all made the playoffs in past seasons, winning at least one playoff round or more. Prior playoff experience is crucial to determining a team’s contending status, because it’s nearly impossible for a team to contend without at least having some semblance of a playoff run the year before. These five teams have five of the top seven or eight players in the league, all of whom are capable of carrying their team to the finals. These teams have strong all-star players, depth, and solid coaching (for the most part). If any of these teams won the finals, no NBA fan should be surprised.
After the top-tier contenders come the fringe contenders. These are the teams that are almost at that bonafide contender status, but have something slightly unsure about them. This year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the fringe contenders. Both these teams have seriously talented rosters, but haven’t quite guaranteed their contender status. The Warriors have looked shaky this year and can’t find their rhythm, not to mention their best player, Steph Curry, can’t stay on the court for more than a few weeks at a time. The Cavaliers have looked great for much of the year, but have struggled lately and lack any real playoff experience. Both of these teams could absolutely make a run to the finals (the Warriors did it last year), but have one or two things keeping them just on the outskirts of the highest tier.
After the top teams come the solid playoff teams. These are the teams who are firmly in the playoffs, and have good, but imperfect rosters. Their likelihood of making the playoffs is very high, although they’re not quite at the level of being labeled a contender. There are anywhere between four and eight solid playoff teams in any given season, and barring any major unforeseen injuries, none of these teams should fall out of the playoff race. This season, the solid playoff teams are the Sacramento Kings, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Dallas Mavericks, the Brooklyn Nets, the Miami Heat, and the New York Knicks. All of these teams have had solid seasons, but leave multiple boxes unchecked. Many of them lack depth or good coaching, while others lack playoff experience or secondary stars. Regardless, they’re all firmly in the middle of the pack, and will have a chance to prove themselves come playoff time.
The next tier of teams are the play-in teams, or teams who are most likely to finish in the 7-10 range of the playoffs, thus subjecting themselves to the Play-in Tournament. These are the teams that are in the playoff hunt, but not quite there; one injury could mean these teams drop out of the playoffs entirely, but they’re equally as capable of going on a winning streak and jumping up in the standings. This season, the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers, Atlanta Hawks, and Chicago Bulls make up this category. This group largely exists in a state of unknown, waiting to see if their best players are healthy and clicking at the right time. Teams like the Suns and Pelicans have the rosters to be considered solid playoff teams, but haven’t been able to stay healthy long enough to be considered real threats. They’re more than capable of jumping up in the standings should they ever get healthy, and should be put on “upset-watch” in the first round of the playoffs (depending on their matchup).
Right below the play-in teams comes the “tough season” teams, or teams whose seasons have been challenging, unsuccessful, and marred by a lack of winning. These could be teams whose rosters are depleted of talent or depth, or who struggled because of a serious injury, major trade, or front office shakeup. This year, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, and Washington Wizards make up this group. All of these teams are multiple games below .500, and are seen as having an outside shot of making the playoffs. Could it happen? Sure, but a lot has to fall in their favor for that to be the case. The play-in teams and the “tough season” teams together make up a larger group called “no man’s land.” These are teams who simply aren’t going anywhere really positive or really negative; they never have a strong chance of becoming a solid playoff team, but also aren’t quite bad enough to land a top five pick in the draft. No man’s land is the absolute worst place an NBA team can be in, especially if they’re stuck there for a season or two. (Some of the worst franchises have been stuck in no man’s land for years, or even decades. Washington Wizards, you should be ashamed of yourself).
At the very bottom of the list are the tanking teams; these are the worst teams in the league. These teams are typically in the early stages of a roster rehaul, where they’ve traded away their veterans for young players with potential and draft capital. These teams are considered “tanking” teams because they are currently trying to lose games in order to earn a higher pick in the draft. This group is always the most obvious to determine, with the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, and Detroit Pistons firmly solidifying this year’s tanking group. Four of these five teams are 25 games or more below .500, and they’re all pretty much trying to lose whenever they can. With this year’s #1 overall pick at peak value due to French super-prospect Victor Wembanyama, it’s likely that all of these teams double down on trying to lose, and are even joined by some of the “no man’s land” teams after the All-star break.
This season’s shaping up like most seasons do, with a few very talented, very fun contenders at the top, lots of teams with questions surrounding them in the middle, and some truly horrific teams at the bottom. In the weeks after the trade deadline, each of these teams will solidify their positions for the rest of the season, and we’ll have a pretty clear picture of how things are going to play out. Until then, this explanation should help to show who’s got a real shot at going all the way, and who’s already got the calendar flipped ahead to May.
Leave a Reply