Tier 5: Legitimate title contenders
7. Denver Nuggets
Previous Ranking: 6
Bubble record: 3-2
The Nuggets haven’t been the most consistent team in the bubble, but they’re still one of the deepest. Nikola Jokic has to be better on the boards, but man, how about Michael Porter Jr.? How did he fall to the Nuggets in the draft? He’s been an absolute stud and he leads the team in scoring in their four games with 26 points per game.
Denver needs to be better on the defensive end, but the top-to-bottom talent on this team can match nearly anyone.
6. Miami Heat
Previous Ranking: 7
Bubble record: 2-3
The Heat’s blown lead against the Bucks was inexcusable. But it goes to show that this team can compete with anyone.
You’d like to see some more efficient offensive output from Jimmy Butler, but Goran Dragic, and Duncan Robinson have been outstanding enough to pick up the slack.
This is a tough, gritty defensive team and they’re going to give their playoff opponents an absolute dog-fight. If their shots start falling, the Heat can win it all.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Previous Ranking: 3
Bubble record: 2-4
The panic button hasn’t quite been pressed in LA, but it’s on the table. Despite clinching the first seed in the west, the bubble hasn’t been kind to the Lakers.
LeBron James hasn’t been himself. Maybe he’s coasting, or maybe the inevitable decline is beginning. We won’t know until the playoffs.
But James isn’t the cause for major concern. The Lakers’ guard play has been abysmal, despite some flashes from Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters. LeBron will rev up his motor in the playoffs, but the Lakers supporting cast needs vast improvement for LA to make a deep run.
Right now, there is a universe where the Lakers lose to Portland in the first round. LA needs to figure some things out before that hypothetical becomes reality.
4. Toronto Raptors
Previous Ranking: 5
Bubble record: 3-1
That Boston game … Yikes.
The Raptors trailed by as many as 40 (40!) against the Celtics in a total destruction at the hands of, well, everybody. Boston had seven players score double-digits, and Jaylen Brown led all scorers with just 20 points. The Raptors are an excellent defensive team, that much is indisputable. But if Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry both score just 11 points each against one of the best teams in the league, they’re not repeating as champs.
Of course, it was just one bad game. The Raptors are still a top-five team in this league and have the defense to repeat. If Toronto matches up with Boston in the second round, get your popcorn ready.
3. Boston Celtics
Previous Ranking: 4
Bubble record: 3-2
And on the other end of that thrashing, we have the Celtics. They’ve been getting all-around solid performances from all five starters. Gordon Hayward is starting to look like Utah Hayward again, and that’s an excellent sign for them.
Jayson Tatum rebounded from a tough bubble opener and has put together great games. Jaylen Brown is showing why he was a top-three draft pick, with stellar defense and the ability to score in a number of ways. They’re playing solid defense and unselfish basketball. Brad Stevens has his best team yet in Boston.