- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
It’s time for our 12th annual NBA tiers, my alternative to power rankings. Grouping teams helps clarify the league’s big-picture anatomy: who is where on the team-building spectrum, and which teams have mortgaged too much of their futures — or sacrificed too much of their recent pasts — to end up there.
Order within tiers does not matter.
Tier of their own I, provided, you know … Brooklyn Nets
Tier of their own II: Milwaukee Bucks
It’s hard to know how much fear and awe to grant the Bucks after their crescendo to the NBA title. Milwaukee’s half-court offense, its fatal flaw in previous flameouts, ran aground against the best postseason opponent the Bucks faced — the Nets.
Through five second-round games, Milwaukee lost itself in a haze of misdirected isolations, awful pull-up jumpers, and profitable mismatches ignored. They recovered to squeak by a Nets team without Kyrie Irving, and with a hobbled James Harden.
Milwaukee’s half-court offense picked up against the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, but only toward league-average production, per Cleaning The Glass. The Hawks arrived ahead of schedule. Milwaukee roared back against Phoenix — an unexpected NBA Finals foe — behind its unstoppable transition attack, a bloodbath on the offensive glass, and the utter brilliance of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Are we sure the champs can upend the fully loaded, supernova Nets?
But in clearing the final hurdle, the Bucks discovered things about themselves. They shed some of the fretful caution that pockmarked failed playoff runs. Khris Middleton settled into his role as Milwaukee’s go-to pick-and-roll ace, in part because Antetokounmpo leaned into his own new identity as Milwaukee’s go-to screen setter. Jrue Holiday learned to fill gaps within that evolving ecosystem — including by assuming more ballhandling duties when teams hide weak defenders on him.
Milwaukee’s defense, its constant under Mike Budenholzer, never relented. And Giannis. My god, Giannis. He rampaged through one of the greatest postseason runs ever: 30 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, 57% shooting, and all-world defense — including his iconic block on Deandre Ayton to help seal Milwaukee’s Game 4 Finals win.
But it was more about how he looked. Antetokounmpo hit half his shots from floater range after Game 5 in Brooklyn. He appeared more comfortable, more confident, flicking half-hooks and easing his way into his preferred range.
A lot of us over-obsessed about Antetokounmpo’s experimentation with 3-pointers, raving about how unstoppable he would be if he could coax defenders into closing out. Maybe all Antetokounmpo needed was to become proficient from the extended paint — to open up more face-up attacks and post moves for use against mismatches.
Antetokounmpo clinched the Finals with an improbable 17-of-19 Steve Nash impersonation at the line. He has hit 72% on free throws in the regular season, but just 61% in the playoffs. That suggests either a mental block, or the fatigue of postseason minutes exacting an unusual toll. If Antetokounmpo sustained that 72% mark — if 17-of-19 portends any such thing — it would erase some half-court sputtering.
The Bucks have the air of a team emboldened by what they accomplished. The return of Donte DiVincenzo rounds out their starting five; George Hill and Grayson Allen do the same for their bench.
With P.J. Tucker now with Miami, the Bucks might not have — for now — the sort of stout, switchable fire hydrant who allows them to play Antetokounmpo at center without sacrificing size. Perhaps they don’t think they need that player — that they can split center minutes between Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, as they did for most of the last two playoff rounds, and that smaller Antetokounmpo-at-center constructions with two wings around Milwaukee’s star trio will be dangerous enough.
The issue of who might guard Kevin Durant looms. Maybe it’s Antetokounmpo in his next evolution. Maybe it’s Holiday, though that requires someone else to defend Harden.
The wild card: Semi Ojeleye. He has hit 38% on corner 3s, and he approximates Tucker’s switchy build — if not Tucker’s sly brutality. The Bucks did not sign Ojeleye by accident.
Brooklyn, meanwhile, might be one two-way perimeter player short of its optimal roster. The Nets are overloaded with bigs: Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, James Johnson, and the ultra-switchy Nicolas Claxton. Playing two at once slides Durant to small forward; the Nets are best with him at power forward or as something of a co-center, as he was alongside Jeff Green in lethal small-ball groups.
Durant will start at power forward alongside Irving, Harden, and Joe Harris. If one of those three is out, the perimeter replacement is either a minus defender (Patty Mills); a shaky shooter who limits Nash’s lineup flexibility (Bruce Brown, Jevon Carter); or a rookie (Cam Thomas). Johnson can fill Green’s role as Durant’s co-center, but Johnson is almost 35 and not in Green’s league as a 3-point shooter.
Irving’s availability is obviously in question. Is he going to refuse vaccination and risk missing home games all season? Will that cost him a gigantic contract extension? Will the Nets even accept Irving as part-timer? If this situation persists into the playoffs, Brooklyn falls into Milwaukee’s tier — at best. For now, let’s assume Irving joins full time at some point. Even then, Brooklyn’s stars have to show they can stay healthy at the same time.
Every non-Irving concern amounts to nit-picking. Brooklyn’s superstar trio has enough shooting and playmaking to absorb pretty much any combination of teammates and remain elite on offense. Griffin, Aldridge, and Millsap take enough 3s to keep defenses honest, and maybe to play alongside a screen-and-dive guy like Brown or Johnson. Carter quietly hit 37% on 7.6 3s per 36 minutes last season, including 40% from the corners.
The Nets before injuries flashed a surprising pass-and-cut chemistry, and a “just good enough” gear on defense. With a full roster, they are deserving favorites.
Before Irving’s future became at least somewhat in question, both these teams seemed primed for “we’ll show you” super-motivated seasons: the Bucks because of what they have just done; the Nets because their three stars, subject to so much scrutiny, barely got to play together. This could be a perfect rivalry.
Above the play-in fray: West
Los Angeles Lakers
* I almost slotted the Lakers in their own tier or with the Bucks. Look past the roster churn and the Lakers have been consistently great with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing — and even more potent when Davis slides to center alongside LeBron, which Davis did for only 173 possessions last season (per Cleaning The Glass) and figures to do much more.
Adding Russell Westbrook requires Davis play center at least as often as he did in L.A.’s 2020 championship season. The Lakers will fill Westbrook/LeBron/Davis-at-center lineups with two among Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Talen Horton-Tucker, Rajon Rondo, and Carmelo Anthony. Gulp.
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