It's time for our 13th annual Tiers of the NBA -- my alternative to power rankings. With exceptions both happy (the San Antonio Spurs from the mid-1990s through the Kawhi Leonard disaster, perhaps the Golden State Warriors now) and sad (KANGGGZZZZZ!!!), team-building flows on a soft boom-and-bust cycle: stars rise, peak and then fall -- taking teams along the same path.
Grouping teams helps clarify who is where on that spectrum -- and which teams might be on the verge of moving up or down.
Order within tiers does not matter.
THE INNER CIRCLE
* The mild surprise here might be the Sixers and Nuggets over the Phoenix Suns and (if you slip on Ted Lasso's rose-tinted sunglasses) whatever the hell is about to unfold in Brooklyn.
Phoenix fans have a gripe. The Suns diced up the Nuggets in the 2021 conference semifinals and upended the Clippers -- without Leonard -- one round later. Their idiosyncratic offense, almost entirely dependent on midrange jumpers, performed at league-best levels in last season's playoffs until the final five games of their debacle against the Dallas Mavericks -- a sputtering you might chalk up to some COVID outbreak and dissension surrounding Deandre Ayton that may have since been buried under a pile of cash.
Their defense collapsed in both postseason series, but an optimist might excuse that too; the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix's first-round opponent, were built to brutalize the Suns' weak rebounding, and there is no shame in falling victim to Luka Doncic's slow-pivoting, always-grinning brand of torture.
They lost only one key player, and even that guy -- Jae Crowder -- is still on the team. They'll either get someone for Crowder, or ask him to return as a backup. The Suns are likely replacing a C-level shooter in Crowder with an A-plus one in Cameron Johnson, which should result in more 3s and wider driving lanes -- modern kicks-in-the-butt for their old-school offense.
Johnson and Mikal Bridges should shoulder more off-the-bounce creation. (Bridges should jack more 3s.) Ayton is the most obvious pathway to stylistic variety via post-ups, emphatic rim runs and free throws.
Dario Saric is back to fill minutes at both power forward and center, and the deep bench is solid. If they are healthy and cohesive, the Suns should win bundles of regular-season games.
But the West has fortified around them after a two-season interregnum. The Nuggets and Clippers are healthy. The Warriors should be better, provided contract extension dramas -- Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson -- don't open fissures. The Green-Poole practice altercation Wednesday -- and Green facing potential discipline -- brought a discouraging deja vu. I trust Golden State to handle it.