The six true NBA title contenders, and where the other 24 teams stand

NBA playoff contender teams: Where every team stands at the season’s midpoint

Throughout the entire NBA regular season, we do weekly Power Rankings, where teams often move up or down a spot or two each week, depending on how they performed the previous week. But taking a bigger-picture approach from time to time can be helpful to sort out the contenders from the pretenders.

In doing so this season, we can see that the race for the 2021-22 NBA championship is wide open. We’re fast approaching the midway point of the season (a handful of teams have already played 41 games), and a group of six title contenders has established itself at the top of the league. Meanwhile, at the bottom, only a few teams appear to be completely out of it, a function of the play-in tournament that sees two extra teams in each conference play beyond the regular season.

To help set the table for the second half of the season and separate the contenders from the pretenders, we’ve divided the league’s 30 teams into five tiers, based on who they have on the roster and how they’ve performed so far.

Tier 1: The six true contenders

There are three teams in each conference that appear title-ready at this point — and in each case, they’re not the top three teams in the standings. Let’s take a look, starting in the East.

Brooklyn Nets

25-14, 2nd in East | 2.6% chance to win title according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index | +250 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Nets are the Las Vegas favorites because they have more talent than anyone. Kevin Durant is playing at a ridiculous level, and if James Harden and Kyrie Irving can simply be available to contribute here and there, that might be all this team needs.

Still. there are three big reasons to doubt this team.

First is the durability, or lack thereof, of Brooklyn’s Big Three. That simple flaw upended the Nets’ chances last season, and Harden missed Monday’s game in Portland with a knee injury. Meanwhile, Irving — now a part-time player who can’t play home games — has played less than half of this team’s games since he joined the Nets in 2019. It takes a little blind faith to expect this trio to be firing on all cylinders in the 2022 playoffs.

Second, the East is suddenly stacked, and the path to the NBA Finals hasn’t been this hard in years. Miami and Chicago have joined Milwaukee as real threats to Brooklyn. In addition, both Philadelphia and Cleveland could become unusually difficult first-round opponents.

Third, the Nets aren’t playing well right now. While the Nets’ talent is frightening and deserves respect, the current reality is that they’ve won just four of their past 10 games, and they have the seventh-best record in the East since Dec. 1. They’ll have to get better in the second half if they want to make the conference finals, let alone win a title.

Milwaukee Bucks

26-17, 4th in East | BPI: 8.0% chance to win title | +700 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

After an awkward start that saw Milwaukee go 6-8 over the first month of the season, the Bucks are cruising again. There are four reasons the Bucks deserve your respect right now.

Since Nov. 17, Milwaukee owns both the best record (20-9) and the best net rating (+6.4) in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks have one of the best players in the world, a two-time MVP who is now squarely in his prime. Milwaukee is 2-0 against Brooklyn this season, including an impressive win last week at Barclays. In case you’d forgotten, the Bucks are the defending NBA champions. Exactly half of the previous 10 NBA champions got back to the Finals the very next season.

However, because the Bucks are currently in fourth in the East, they’re looking at having to win multiple playoff series without home-court advantage just to reach the Finals. This team is just 13-10 on the road this season.

Chicago Bulls

27-11, 1st in East | BPI: 2.3% chance to win title | +2500 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Bulls have been a great story this season. They have won 13 of their past 16 games and currently sit atop the East. If the season ended today, they’d have home-court advantage. But there’s one key indicator that helps explain why both BPI and the Vegas oddsmakers don’t see them as a true title contender just yet: defense.

The past 21 NBA champions have all ranked 11th or better in defensive efficiency during the regular season. After their win Tuesday night, the Bulls are up to 9th for the entire season but just 17th since Dec. 1. That’s a bad sign.

In their past 16 games, the Bulls rank 27th in points in the paint allowed per game, and that might be the specific flaw that haunts them in the playoffs against teams like Milwaukee or Philadelphia that both pressure the rim with elite big men. Chicago’s primary rim protector is Nikola Vucevic, who is giving up more points per game in the paint as the closest defender than anyone in the league, according to Second Spectrum.

There’s no question that Chicago has been a great story this season, but is it a legitimate contender? The answer hinges on that defense.

Golden State Warriors

30-10, 2nd in West | BPI: 15.0% chance to win title | +450 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Klay Thompson’s glorious return to action Sunday night reunited the Splash Brothers and briefly put the Dubs back atop the Western Conference standings. Golden State is winning with a familiar formula.

Draymond Green is once again leading the NBA’s top-ranked defense, while Stephen Curry has emerged as an MVP front-runner by scoring 26.8 points per game and torching opponents from downtown. Steve Kerr’s offense is again leading the league in assist percentage (by a country mile), while the roster is as deep as it’s been since the championship years.

These guys deserve to be the favorites to come out of the West, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. The last time both Curry and Thompson were healthy and the Warriors didn’t win the West was 2013-14, when the Kawhi Leonard-led San Antonio Spurs beat the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the Finals. A lot of things have changed since then. The greatness of the Splash Brothers has not.

Phoenix Suns

31-9, 1st in West | BPI: 5.5% chance to win title | +800 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Maybe the Suns are not as glamorous as the Lakers or the Warriors, but glamor doesn’t win games. Solid two-way basketball teams do, and that’s exactly what the defending West champs are. The Suns boast both a top-10 offense and a top-five defense.

The combination of Chris Paul and Devin Booker has been especially brilliant in clutch situations this season, and these two All-Stars can both make winning plays in big moments.

After missing the first half of December, Booker is back in action — and with Paul, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton, the Suns seem more than capable of proving that last season’s run to the Finals was not a fluke.

Memphis Grizzlies

29-14, 4th in West | BPI: 5.0% chance to win title | +6600 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Before the season began, Vegas pegged the Grizzlies as a .500 team and gave them +10000 odds to win the title. But the Grizzlies have proved the prognosticators wrong. They are officially a problem, and it’s not absurd to think that they could win it all this season.

Consider that since Dec. 1, Memphis has the best record in the league (18-4), best net rating (+12.6), best defensive rating (102.6) and third-best offensive rating (115.2). The Grizz also top the NBA in rebound percentage (54%), offensive rebound percentage (34.7%), fast break points per game (17.4), paint points per game (57.1), second chance points per game (19), opponent turnover percentage 16.5%) and points per game off turnovers (20.7).

Ja Morant is a human highlight film, but this squad is much more than just a viral video machine. It has won 10 in a row, including road victories over the Nets, Cavs, Lakers and Suns. If that doesn’t scream look out, I don’t know what does.

Tier 1.5: Dangerous loomers

Squint hard enough and you can convince yourself that the two teams that met in the Finals in 2020 could get back there in 2022. But this isn’t the bubble.

Los Angeles Lakers

21-20, 7th in West | BPI: 1.0% chance to win title | +1200 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

When they last won the title in 2019-20, the Lakers ranked 11th in offense and third in defensive efficiency in the NBA. At the halfway point, this season’s model ranks 23rd in offense and 15th in defense. Eek.

The bad news is that those are not the statistical hallmarks of a champion, and the Russell Westbrook experiment has not looked good.

The good news is that it’s still only January, and if there’s a team in the West that could easily elevate itself to the title tier in the second half, it’s this one, because it still has LeBron James, who has been to nine of the past 11 Finals. The Cavaliers teams he took to the Finals in 2015 and 2018 didn’t look like title contenders at this point in the season, either.

The Lakers’ recent lineups featuring James at center have been promising, but we need to see more from them (especially on defense) before promoting this squad into the title-contender group. Memphis came into Arena on Sunday night and poured in 127 points on these small-ball Lakers.

The key is obviously the looming return of Anthony Davis. Can a healthy frontcourt of Davis and James propel this team deep into the 2022 playoffs? I’m not foolish enough to bet against that, but this team has yet to prove it belongs in Tier 1.

Miami Heat

25-15, 3rd in East | BPI: 12.8% chance to win title | +1400 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

If there’s one team in the East that could make the leap into the top tier, it’s the Heat. Miami has won 11 of its past 15 games, thanks in large part to a red-hot offense, even though Jimmy Butler has played in only five of those 15 games.

The strength of this team is its depth, but the source of that depth is what makes it so unique. Miami has recently beaten Milwaukee, Chicago and Phoenix with a rotation featuring four undrafted players who are thriving. Omer Yurtseven, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Caleb Martin might not be household names yet, but they have provided this squad with incredible depth in a season that has demanded it at historic levels.

Meanwhile, Duncan Robinson has finally rediscovered his shot. Come playoff time, Butler, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry have each already proved they can make big plays during clutch moments.

This roster is dangerous. They have All-Stars, they have grit and they have depth. With Erik Spoelstra in place, they could do lots of damage in the playoffs.

Tier 2: Solid playoff teams

These teams shouldn’t have to sweat out their postseason fates, but don’t pencil them in for a deep run just yet.

Cleveland Cavaliers

23-18, 6th in East | BPI: 4.6% chance to win title | +10000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Like the Grizzlies, the Cavs have suddenly entered the chat. They might not be in the top tier yet, but that shouldn’t take away from what they’ve built in Cleveland.

The Cavs have quickly developed one of the strongest defensive identities in the league, thanks in part to the outstanding play of rookie Evan Mobley. He has Giannis Antetokounmpo-like length and versatility, which gives Cleveland the flexibility to keep two rim protectors on the court at the same time — a rare achievement in the modern NBA. Cleveland plays physical defense all over the floor but manages to contest shots without fouling.

The front office deserves credit for assembling a great roster full of willing and talented defenders. However, the reason the Cavs are not a full-fledged contender is on the other end. The injuries to Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton cost the offense a lot of firepower, leaving Cleveland a level below teams like the Nets and Bucks.

Utah Jazz

28-13, 3rd in West | BPI: 17.2% chance to win title | +1200 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Once again, the Jazz have been awesome. They have the highest BPI title chance of any of the league’s 30 teams. But BPI doesn’t include “ghosts of playoffs past” in its calculations. It seems like this Utah team has been dominating regular-season games for years now, only to flame out in the postseason.

Over the past three seasons, the Jazz have escaped the first round just once. That came last year, when Utah promptly blew a 2-0 lead against the LA Clippers, dropping four straight — including two bad losses that occurred after Kawhi Leonard’s season-ending injury — to halt its campaign.

Given that recent postseason track record, it’s hard to count on Utah upending teams like Golden State and Phoenix in the postseason. And based on the current playoff bracket, the Jazz would likely have to beat both those teams in series without home-court advantage to reach the Finals.

Tier 3: Fighting to avoid the play-in

With a little more luck or success in the second half, these teams can secure one of those coveted top six spots in their respective conferences, thus avoiding the dreaded play-in.

LA Clippers

21-21, 8th in West | BPI: 1.6% chance to win title | +2500 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Ty Lue is one of the best coaches in the league, and the fact that this team is hovering around .500 is impressive. The Clippers have been decimated by injuries, and it feels like they’re just treading water until they get Paul George and maybe even Kawhi Leonard back in their rotation. If both stars come back, this team could be a problem in the postseason. If they don’t, it won’t. It’s that simple.

Denver Nuggets

20-19, 6th in West | BPI: 3.6% chance to win title | +2500 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Injuries have derailed Denver’s chance to earn a top seed this season, and within the context of an unforgiving Western Conference, reigning MVP Nikola Jokic could very well end up in the play-in tournament through no fault of his own. Denver is virtually tied with LeBron James and the Lakers in sixth place, and Los Angeles should eventually get Anthony Davis back — something Jokic can’t say definitively about either Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr.

Jokic has been so great that the Nuggets can still finish in the top six, but there is little room for error.

Dallas Mavericks

22-18, 5th in West | BPI: 4.5% chance to win title | +4000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Mavs went 13-16 in November and December, but they’ve flipped the script and figured out their identity. Not only have they won 10 of their past 15 games, Jason Kidd’s squad has had the best defense in the NBA over that span. They rank second in the league in net rating over that span too. In the three previous seasons of the Luka Doncic era, Dallas never finished better than 18th in defensive rating. I’m not sure if their current elite defensive numbers are sustainable, but if the Mavs can become a top-10 defense, that’s big, because we know what Doncic can do on offense in critical games.

Minnesota Timberwolves

20-21, 9th in West | BPI: 3.0% chance to win title | +20000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Wolves have made the playoffs just once since 2004, but after a turbulent offseason, they have been a nice surprise in the first half. They are .500 and in the eighth spot, and they seem to have more in common with the teams ahead of them than the teams behind them. Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards are both averaging more 20 points per game. The Wolves have to be thrilled with the improvements in Edwards’ game, especially as a scorer. If he keeps it up — and a few teams above them slip up — there’s an outside chance the Wolves could climb up to the sixth spot.

Philadelphia 76ers

23-16, 5th in East | BPI: 4.5% chance to win title | +2500 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The 76ers are the hottest team in the East right now. They’ve won seven in a row, including an intense and impressive win versus the Nets last week in Brooklyn. However, Philadelphia is currently in fifth place in the East, and the 76ers will need to stay hot if they want to distance themselves from play-in talk.

Setting aside the $177 million Ben Simmons question, the million-dollar question in Philadelphia is whether Joel Embiid can stay healthy. If the answer is yes, the 76ers should avoid the play-in. If the answer is no, they will drop like a rock. The Sixers are 19-8 when Embiid plays this season and 3-8 when he doesn’t. Philadelphia has a net rating of plus-6.8 with Embiid on the floor; it is minus-2.9 with him not playing.

Philadelphia currently leads a pack of seven teams separated by just four games, but the 76ers’ ability to hold that position hinges entirely upon Embiid’s availability.

Toronto Raptors

20-18, 8th in East | BPI: 1.6% chance to win title | +20000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

It’s beginning to look like the East has seven teams fighting for the six guaranteed playoff spots. As it stands, Toronto is in eighth, but the Raptors have won 11 of 16 and are starting to look like a threat to climb into the land of, well, The Six. If Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam continue to play as well as they have been recently, Toronto will avoid the play-in.

Tier 4: Fighting to make the play-in

The play-in tournament gives postseason life to four extra teams, making for deeper playoff pushes than in seasons past. For some teams, being in this tier is exciting; for others, it is wildly disappointing.

Boston Celtics

20-21, t-10th in East | BPI: 1.7% chance to win title | +6600 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Celtics have reached the East finals in three of the past five seasons. That’s why it’s hard to fathom that they’re so mediocre halfway through this season. Their dynamic young core, led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, is intact, but this team simply isn’t scoring enough to win games. Boston’s 24th-ranked offense would be the franchise’s lowest ranking since Brad Stevens’ rocky first season as head coach, when the team went 27-55 and Tatum and Brown were still in high school.

Tatum’s isolation habits are a big culprit here. He ranks third in the NBA in total isolations this season. Of the 19 players who have run at least 200 isos, he ranks 17th in efficiency when shooting out of these plays. Boston has to find other ways to get him shots.

New York Knicks

20-21, t-10th in East | BPI: 0.1% chance to win title | +10000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Atlanta Hawks

17-22, 12th in East | BPI: 0.1% chance to win title | +4000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Hawks and Knicks treated us to a highly entertaining playoff series last year. But that was then; this is now. Both teams are struggling to get stops and, as a result, failing to win games. Last season’s Knicks ranked fourth in defensive efficiency; this season’s team ranks 18th. If this team has any chance of making noise again this season, it must regain its defensive form — and fast.

Charlotte Hornets

22-19, 7th in East | BPI: 4.5% chance to win title | +15000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Hornets have the best offense in the East. The Hornets have the worst defense in the East. In other words, if you like scoring, watch more Hornets games. But if this team wants to compete at a higher level, it must improve that defense. According to Second Spectrum’s shot quality estimates, no team gives up better looks than Charlotte does; and it has some of the worst defensive rebounding numbers in the league too. Even if it could generate an average defense, its record would quickly improve.

Washington Wizards

21-20, 9th in East | BPI: 0.3% chance to win title | +20000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Remember when the Wizards started 10-3 and had the best record in the East? It’s not November anymore, and reality has hit Washington hard.

Indiana Pacers

15-26, 13th in East | BPI: 0.1% chance to win title | +25000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

Two seasons ago, the Pacers lost in the first round and fired Nate McMillan. Then last season, they lost in the play-in and fired Nate Bjorkgren. This season, under Rick Carlisle, they might not even make the play-in. That’s not the direction Indiana wants to be trending in.

Portland Trail Blazers

16-24, 10th in West | BPI: 0.2% chance to win title | +12500 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Trail Blazers have the longest active playoff streak in the NBA at eight seasons, but that seems like it could end this year. If Damian Lillard continues to miss time and their defense continues to give up 114.5 points per 100 possessions (29th in the NBA), the Blazers could finish near the bottom of the West.

San Antonio Spurs

15-25, 11th in West | BPI: 0.1% chance to win title | +50000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Spurs were once a postseason mainstay. Now it looks like they could miss out on the playoff for a third consecutive season.

Sacramento Kings

16-27, 12th in West | BPI: <0.1% chance to win title | +50000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

The Kings are the anti-Spurs; they haven’t competed in a playoff game since 2006. Simply making the play-in tournament and giving themselves a shot at the playoffs would be an accomplishment for the Kings.

Tier 4.5: The in-limbo Pelicans

New Orleans Pelicans

15-26, 13th in West | BPI: <0.1% chance to win title | +50000 to win title at Caesars Sportsbook

If Zion Williamson returns at some point in the second half, the Pelicans could find themselves in the group above, making a play-in push. If not, they’ll be getting ready for the draft early, just like the group below.

Tier 5: Counting lottery balls

That leaves us with four teams — the Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic — that are jockeying for draft position already. Orlando and Detroit are the two worst teams in the league right now, but with the lottery rules, the league’s three worst teams all own equal odds of landing the top pick in the draft. The other benefit for any of these teams in finishing lower in the standings is that they wouldn’t potentially drop as far if other teams hop over them in the lottery. The Pistons and Thunder have actually traded the rights to their first-round picks this year but also have put protections on them; fans in Detroit (top-16 protected) and Oklahoma City (top-14 protected) can safely plan on their teams keeping those picks.

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