NBA Hierarchy Tiers: Where Every Team Really Fits Heading into 2021-22 Season

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist ISeptember 24, 2021

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, center, looks toward referees after being charged with a foul as Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, left, and guard Devin Booker stand by during the second half in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Every NBA team starts from the same place in the standings to begin a new season, but not all have the same shot at winning a title. Realistic expectations matter when projecting what a "successful" season looks like, which is why success itself can look various ways depending on the franchise. 

For this exercise, we're grouping all 30 NBA teams into categories from "Develop Now, Win Later" to "Championship or Bust!" based on their 2021-22 outlooks. (There will also be one unavoidable dishonorable mention at the very end.) Along the way, we'll discuss goals for each team and what success should mean for each of them this season.

Something important to remember: Nothing here is written in stone. The goal posts can move for any team depending on how things play out. An injury can change a goal, as can someone returning from one. Trades, the buyout market and coaching changes can all influence a team's expectations for the season. 

Another note: Not every team will hit its goal. Three or four teams can be in the same grouping with only one being able to hit the mark. Remember, only one team can win the title even if multiple franchises enter the year in championship-or-bust mode.


Develop Now, Win Later 

Chase Stevens/Associated Press

This is one of the more crowded categories, even with the play-in tournament giving more teams a shot at the playoffs. There will be several teams whose goal is about development and not necessarily winning. 

Detroit, Orlando, Houston and Oklahoma City are all in this position. They are in total rebuilds, but each has good talent. 

Detroit has Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. Orlando has Jalen Suggs to build around. Houston did well in the draft snagging Jalen Green, Josh Christopher and Alperen Sengun to play alongside Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood. Oklahoma City has a future star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to go with Luguentz Dort and a roster full of recently drafted players.

These teams are not going to sniff the play-in tournament, but they can find success through their players' growth over time, regardless of game results.


Chart a Course

Darren Abate/Associated Press

The San Antonio Spurs are in an interesting position. 

They somehow managed to barely exceed expectations last season by qualifying for the final spot in the play-in tournament. Next season might be a bit different for this group, though, considering the offseason shakeups.

Since last season ended, the Spurs lost DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay to free agency while gaining Thaddeus Young and often-injured big man Zach Collins. They are bringing back Bryn Forbes to play alongside plenty of promising young talent, including Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Derrick White. 

The catch for San Antonio is the team is not good enough to be a lock for the play-in tournament but also not bad enough to tank. Running the treadmill of mediocrity is never a good place to be in the NBA. 

The Spurs could sell off all their young talent or look to package just a few to possibly bring in a centerpiece. A successful season in San Antonio will be defined by the organization deciding a path. Rebuild or try to go forward with the team they have—just pick a route and commit to it. 

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Cleveland had its moments last season with the Collin Sexton-Darius Garland pairing, and Isaac Okoro had a promising rookie season. The Cavaliers retained Jarrett Allen with a five-year, $100 million contract, selected Evan Mobley with the third pick and picked up Lauri Markkanen on a four-year, $67 million deal via sign-and-trade. There's more talent on the roster for the upcoming season, but Cleveland is in a peculiar position. 

The Cavs have over $134 million committed to this season's roster, putting them $22 million over the cap. Cleveland still owes Kevin Love $60.1 million over the next two seasons on top of the new moves they made. That is a lot of money to invest in a team not expected to make the playoffs. 

It gets even more complicated when discussing Sexton's future. He is up for a rookie extension, which means he could become a restricted free agent next summer or could be used in a trade. The Cavs are too talented and expensive to just focus on development. Unfortunately, they are not talented enough to make the postseason. 

In the end, Cleveland is at an inflection point: retool—and possibly extend—their rebuild in the hopes of prolonged future success or get more aggressive to make the postseason this year. Making that decision, as painful as it may be, would make this a successful season. 


Add Substance to Style

Nick Wass/Associated Press

LaMelo Ball turns the Charlotte Hornets into the top NBA League Pass team anytime he is on the court. He creates an anticipation that something exciting might happen. 

Outside of Ball's Rookie of the Year performance, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward (when healthy) and P.J. Washington all helped elevate the team. The Hornets made it to the play-in tournament, but got completely rocked by the Indiana Pacers. 

For as much fun as the Hornets were, they finished 2020-21 six games below .500 as Ball missed significant time because of a right wrist fracture. On top of that, they were 13-26 against teams above .500. 

Last season, Charlotte was more style than substance. That needs to change this season. 

Charlotte did not make any big moves in the offseason, instead counting on good health and the development of its younger players. Finishing above .500 and getting into the playoffs would be a successful season in Charlotte. The Hornets will be fun, but that also needs to lead to wins. 


Time to Bounce Back

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat each had roller-coaster seasons last year. The COVID-19 pandemic and injuries affected these teams in various ways. 

For the Raptors, it was an entire year on the road. They played all their home games in Tampa, and it never felt like home. 

Then COVID-19 ravaged the team with several key players and coaches missing games. There was also the drama surrounding whether they would or wouldn't trade Kyle Lowry. Even after not moving him at the deadline, Toronto was not able to make a run into the play-in game. 

The Raptors are already ahead of last season's team just by returning back to Toronto. Even though they lost Lowry, the tandem of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam is strong. Gary Trent Jr. re-signed for three years to stay as part of the new long-term core. Sprinkle in another year of seasoning for OG Anunoby, and there is a lot of promise for the Raptors. 

Still, there could be a move to make before the deadline. Toronto can use Goran Dragic in the rotation, or it could look to trade the veteran guard—either way, the Raptors are in a good position. 

A return back to the playoffs would make this season a successful one for Toronto.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Celtics are a team that had an up-and-down season. Jayson Tatum caught COVID-19 and struggled with his wind once he returned. Kemba Walker was in and out of the lineup. Jaylen Brown finished the year with torn ligaments in his wrist.

All of that led to Boston making the playoffs through the play-in tournament and losing to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. 

All told, the Celtics just never looked like the conference finalist they were in 2019-20. Changes were made, beginning with Danny Ainge stepping down and Brad Stevens moving to the front office, resulting in Ime Udoka filling Stevens' spot on the sideline. The biggest move on the court was bringing back Al Horford and sending out Walker. 

The talent is there for Boston. Making the playoffs without the help of the play-in tournament would put the Celtics back on an upward trajectory. 

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The 2020 NBA runner-up Heat took a clear step back during the 2020-21 season. Tyler Herro could not find the magic he had in the 2020 playoffs. At times, Bam Adebayo looked timid to the point that Jimmy Butler called him out. The Heat made the playoffs outright, but they were run over by the Milwaukee Bucks in a four-game sweep. 

Miami's response to last season's disappointment was to retool. The Heat brought in Lowry in a sign-and-trade that sent out Dragic. They also stole P.J. Tucker from the Bucks and brought back Duncan Robinson on a five-year deal, not to mention Pat Riley took a one-year flyer on Victor Oladipo. 

Ultimately, the Heat's season will hinge on whether Lowry can thrive in "Heat Culture." Hosting a first-round playoff series and advancing to the second round would be a good 2021-22 campaign. 

Then there are the Warriors, who are coming off their second gap-year after making the 2019 Finals. Since then, they lost Kevin Durant in free agency and have been without Klay Thompson because of multiple long-term injuries. That has severely limited their expectations the past two years.

That changes this year.

Hopefully Thompson will return to the lineup during the season and regain most of his usual form. Without him, the Warriors missed the playoffs while losing two straight in the play-in tournament. Thompson's expected return should make Steph Curry's life easier, as defenses will not be able to key in on him like they have each of the past two seasons. 

There is a lot of hope in the bay, but let's dial back expectations a bit. The Warriors could jump into the "Championship or Bust" grouping, but it has been two years since Thompson played meaningful basketball. Playing it conservatively, a successful season for the Warriors would be a top-four finish in the West with a trip to the second round. 


Make the Postseason Already

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Sacramento's playoff drought has reached 15 years, tying the longest playoff drought in NBA history (Clippers 1977-91). The next-longest active NBA playoff drought is the Hornets at five (the play-in does not count). 

The Kings finished two games out of the play-in tournament in 2021, and qualified for the bubble the year before but were longshots to make the postseason.

With De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Tyrese Haliburton and Richaun Holmes as the core, the hope is this team can break through into the postseason. Ultimately, it will come down to whether the Kings will play defense this year. Last year, they finished with the worst defensive rating in the NBA at 116.5, a full 1.2 points worse than the Trail Blazers. 

Of course, the big challenge has been the overall strength of the Western Conference. Simply put: It's tough making the playoffs in the West. 

That's why success for the Kings this season is not ending the playoff drought. A successful season for the Kings would be getting into the postseason via the play-in tournament.

The city of Sacramento should throw a party if they make the playoffs. 

Hector Amezcua/Associated Press

Even though the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs just a few years ago, they have not come close since. In fact, that was their first appearance in 16 seasons, as the Wolves have just never been able to put it all together. 

The good news for Minnesota is it looked like a much more competent team after head coach Chris Finch took over midseason. The 'Wolves went 16-20 after the All-Star break and lifted their offensive rating from 105.0 to 113.5. Anthony Edwards made a late run for Rookie of the Year while looking more comfortable. 

However, the season is already off to an ominous start. Just a few days before the start of training camp, the Wolves parted ways with general manager Gersson Rosas.   

The dysfunction in the front office still should not change the goal for Minnesota.

A healthier Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell alongside Edwards should help put the team into postseason play. Getting into the play-in tournament is not the playoffs, but it is the step in the right direction for the Timberwolves. 


Make the Playoffs, Not the Play-In

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Going all in has different meanings for different teams. For some, it is trying to make a Finals run, and for others, it could be making the playoffs. Either way, it usually coincides with a team making several big moves in the offseason. 

The Chicago Bulls are all in on making the playoffs. They demonstrated their intent at the 2021 trade deadline when they traded for Nikola Vucevic, and they doubled down in the offseason when they handed out over $200 million in deals to continue overhauling the roster.

With Zach LaVine and Vucevic in the fold, they brought in DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso to put them in a position to make a charge into the playoffs. With LaVine's impending free agency next summer, it is imperative that these moves pay off for Chicago. 

The Bulls just missed out of the play-in tournament last season. With the upgrades made this offseason, the goal should be to make the playoffs outright and bypass the play-in games altogether. 

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Fans, media and even NBA executives have been waiting for New Orleans to break through and get into the playoffs since Zion Williamson arrived. It has been two seasons with high expectations, and the Pelicans have not met them.

New Orleans struggled mightily in the bubble in 2020. Last season, the Pelicans finished two games out of the last play-in spot. Williamson was a force last season, averaging 27 points on 61.1 percent shooting from the field. All of this dominance did not translate to wins. 

The Pelicans are on their third coach in as many years with Willie Green at the helm. Their biggest moves in the offseason were the sign-and-trade that sent Lonzo Ball to Chicago for a package including Tomas Satoransky and a separate sign-and-trade that landed Devonte' Graham from Charlotte. Not exactly a killer haul.

The clock is ticking with rumors that Williamson's family is unhappy with the direction of the team. The Pelicans NEED to make the playoffs this season, not just the play-in game. 

They are not far away from ending up in the "Keep 'em Happy" group if they continue to underperform. 


Get Out of the First Round

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Dallas Mavericks have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the L.A. Clippers in back-to-back seasons. Luka Doncic has emerged as a regular candidate for MVP, but the problem in Big D has been Kristaps Porzingis not playing at a second-star level. 

If the Mavs are going to do anything this season, it will be dependent on what they can get out of Porzingis on both ends. That's quite frankly because the team did not make any major changes to its roster this offseason despite the need for a secondary playmaker. 

The front office and sidelines did get a facelift, though. Donnie Nelson Jr. and Rick Carlisle are out with Nico Harrison coming in as general manager, Michael Finley getting promoted to assist general manager and Jason Kidd in as the new head coach. 

There needs to be just one goal in mind, and that is getting out of the first round of the playoffs this year. It's time.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

The Indiana Pacers saw their five-year playoff run get snapped last season. Each of those previous five appearances were first-round exits, meaning it's basically been Groundhog Day for Pacers basketball. 

Last season was plagued with injuries to T.J. Warren, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert. The Pacers also had drama on the sidelines with short-lived head coach Nate Bjorkgren, who was dismissed early in the offseason. They did qualify for the play-in tournament but got knocked out by the Wizards. 

Indiana's biggest change this season was bringing in Carlisle to replace Bjorkgren. Outside of losing T.J. McConnell, the Pacers are returning their core and with good health should compete for a playoff spot. They also have a potential move up their sleeves with the option to trade Myles Turner to strengthen their roster. 

Clearing the first round might be a lofty goal, but another early exit would just be status quo for the Pacers. It is time to dream a little bigger and get out of the first round for the first time since the 2013-14 season. 


Gap-Year Teams

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Over the past few seasons, some of the best teams in the NBA basically had a gap year because of injuries. The Warriors actually had a two-year run in this category with Thompson out. The Nets signed up for a gap year when they brought in Durant weeks after the Achilles tear he suffered in the 2019 Finals. 

This year, two potential contenders are in this category.

The Los Angeles Clippers will enter the season without No. 1 option Kawhi Leonard after he partially tore his ACL midway through L.A.'s playoff series against the Jazz. Leonard had surgery to repair it in mid-July with no timetable of a return reported, and with his injury history, it could be a long while before he is back on the court. 

This takes a supremely talented Clippers team out of the contenders realm. 

The Denver Nuggets are in a similar boat. After the 2021 trade deadline, they looked like legitimate contenders, but then Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL in April. 

This was devastating to the Nuggets' chances last season, and it will carry over into 2021-22. 

Ultimately, both teams will be competitive but far from threatening to win a title with their injury woes. A top-six finish for the Clippers and Nuggets will be a successful run. The Clippers still have Paul George and Reggie Jackson, while the Nuggets have the reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic. 

Those projections can all change for the better if either Leonard or Murray returns earlier than expected. That might move either team into the "Championship or Bust" category. 


Keep 'Em Happy

Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

Two franchises face the tall task of proving to their star player that they are viable. Each of these teams is in a different situation, but a bad season could lead to an acrimonious split.

Portland has been the epicenter of one of the bigger NBA dramas this offseason. There were plenty of rumors as to whether Damian Lillard would demand a trade. He made it known he wants to be on a contender, and that he would prefer to do it in Portland.

However, the Blazers are not realistically in the contender conversation.

The Blazers did not have a notable offseason in terms of free-agent acquisitions, as their biggest change was along the sidelines. They removed Terry Stotts and brought in Chauncey Billups as head coach. Portland has made the playoffs eight consecutive years but has only one conference finals appearance during that stretch.

That has not been enough to satisfy Lillard—he wants to contend. A successful season ends with the Blazers showing they are closer to contending for a championship. Finishing in the top four in the West would be a good starting place, but even better would be making a run back to the conference finals.

Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Whether true or not, the NBA rumor mill was running all last season with the notion that Bradley Beal would ask to be traded from the Washington Wizards. That request never came, and the team ultimately made the playoffs. 

At the end of this season, Beal could opt out of the final year of his deal and become a free agent. There will be a robust market for him should he do that. 

The Wizards were aggressive this offseason, bringing in Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell to offset trading Russell Westbrook. All in all, it was a good offseason, but for it to be a truly successful 2021-22 campaign, the Wizards have to do more than sneak into the playoffs. Washington has to make it outright and show Beal the team is trending upward. 


The Leap

Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

This category is usually reserved for young teams. Once upon a time, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a great example of a young team that developed into a contender. From the 2008-09 season up until Durant's departure in 2013-14, OKC went from missing the playoffs to regularly making deep playoff runs. 

The leap team for this year is the Memphis Grizzlies

Just looking at the past few seasons, the Grizzlies lost in the play-in game in the bubble and then last year upset the Warriors in the tournament to get into the playoffs. They even stole Game 1 on the road against the top-seeded Utah Jazz. 

The Grizzlies are powered by Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. Those core players are surrounded by plenty of support from Desmond Bane, De'Anthony Melton, Xavier Tillman Sr. and Kyle Anderson. 

The goal in Memphis this season should be to make the playoffs outright by finishing in the top six in the West. A bonus would be winning their playoff series to boot, but a top-six finish is another sign of growth. 


Show They're Not a Fluke

Elsa/Associated Press

Every season includes a few teams that surprise everyone. The true challenge comes the following year when those teams need to prove their prior breakout was the real deal. 

The three such candidates for the upcoming season are the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns.

Tom Thibodeau got the Knicks to exceed expectations last season with a 41-31 record and home court in the first round of the playoffs. That was a 20-win turnaround from the previous year. 

Julius Randle won the Most Improved Player award and was a first-time All-Star. In the offseason, the team signed Evan Fournier and traded for Kemba Walker to help build on last season's success. 

Just repeating the success of last season and finishing in the top four in the East again would be a huge win for the Knicks. An even better year would be advancing into the second round of the playoffs or beyond.

Elsa/Associated Press

Atlanta turned its season around by getting healthy and making a coaching change. Once Nate McMillan took over, the Hawks began to soar, going 27-11 after he replaced Lloyd Pierce. 

Behind Trae Young's heel turn in the Garden, they moved past the first round and then shocked the Philadelphia 76ers in the second. Atlanta gave Milwaukee a run for its money in the conference finals before a Young injury grounded the Hawks. 

This team provided the NBA's playoff Cinderella story last spring. For Atlanta to prove it's more than a fairy tale, it needs to secure home court for the first round this season.

With how good Brooklyn and Milwaukee are projected to be, a second-round appearance would be quite a successful season for the Hawks. 

Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Suns traded for Chris Paul before last season, they were not considered title contenders. Lo and behold, they secured the No. 2 seed in the West on their way to their first Finals appearance since Charles Barkley led the way during the 1992-93 season. 

Some might argue the Suns' 2020-21 run was a product of luck with several teams dealing with injuries. The Lakers lost Anthony Davis five minutes into Game 6 of their first-round series, the Nuggets were down several guards, including Murray, and the Clippers were without Leonard. 

Fair or not, the Suns have doubters, and this season is an opportunity to prove them all wrong. It is hard to make the Finals and does require some luck. However, the bar for Phoenix is to return to the Western Conference Finals again in 2022.

From there, they are playing with house money. 


Prove It in the Playoffs

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

This category could be named after the Milwaukee Bucks, which dominated two regular seasons, flamed out in the playoffs and then ultimately proved they could get it done on the grand stage. They are not the first team to dominate all year and struggle when it counts, but they're the most recent to exorcise their demons with a title this past season. 

Now it's the Utah Jazz's turn to prove they can do something similar. They were the top seed in the West a year ago but fell in the second round to the Leonard-less Clippers. They had some injuries of their own, with Mike Conley missing games and Donovan Mitchell robbed of his explosion with a left ankle injury.

During the regular season, Utah's defensive scheme can feel impenetrable at times. But that changes in the playoffs once teams put a plan in place. This past season, the Jazz had a defensive rating of 107.5. In the playoffs, their defensive rating rose to 121.7

Utah has made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons but has not gotten to the conference finals. The Jazz haven't made it out of the second round since 2007.

Regardless of what the Jazz do in the regular season, the goal for Utah has got to be making the conference finals in 2022.


Championship or Bust!

Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

As we head into the 2021-22 season, there are three teams that would regard anything short of holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy next June as a failure. 

The Bucks are the defending champions. They will be returning their core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Even though they lost Tucker, they have Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton and re-signed fan favorite Bobby Portis all returning to their roles. 

Milwaukee has also brought in Grayson Allen and George Hill to help shore up its guard rotation. 

After winning their first championship since 1971, the Bucks and Antetokounmpo are hungry to repeat. But they'll have to get through another Eastern Conference favorite from this title-or-bust category. 

That team, the Brooklyn Nets, were half a shoe length away from eliminating the Bucks in the second round last year. That was with Kyrie Irving missing most of their second-round series and James Harden also hobbled as he played through a strained hamstring. Durant sizzled in the playoffs and nearly led his team past the eventual champions. 

The Nets did not stand pat in the offseason assuming healthy returns for Irving and Harden alone will do the trick. They added Patty Mills, James Johnson and Paul Millsap while retaining Blake Griffin and bringing back LaMarcus Aldridge out of retirement. 

Deeper than last season—a 2020-21 team that was already first overall in offensive efficiency—and still armed with three of the top 15 players in the NBA, Brooklyn is expecting to bring home the Nets' first NBA title. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Lakers have reloaded. 

After getting knocked out in the first round against the Phoenix Suns, the team made major changes. Los Angeles did not bring back Dennis Schroder, and it sent Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the draft rights to Isaiah Jackson out for Russell Westbrook to form a new big three alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. 

The Lakers also added several new supporting cast members highlighted by Carmelo Anthony. Both Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan will play crucial roles in the frontcourt, while players like Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington and Rajon Rondo will support the backcourt.

At the end of the day, the Lakers will be contenders as long as James and Davis are on the court. Getting to the finals is great, but winning it all is the mission at hand.


No Clue

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The coming season of the Philadelphia 76ers could have more wrinkles than an episode of Marvel's What If…?

If everyone came back and locked in, Philly would be in the "Prove it in the Playoffs" group and just outside the "Championship or Bust" crew. It seems unlikely everyone comes back happy with Ben Simmons threatening to hold out until he is traded, something that the Sixers have explored all offseason. 

A Simmons trade will change the direction of this team no matter when it goes down. However, what the Sixers get back for Simmons matters more than the timing of a deal. They are looking to be contenders in Joel Embiid's prime, and if Daryl Morey is able to turn Simmons into a major piece, the Sixers instantly jump into the "Championship or Bust" category. 

If all Morey can get are draft picks and one or two role players, Philly drops into a "Gap Year" team as it gets its bearings togethers.

All in all, deciding what a successful season would look like for the Sixers is impossible until the Philly-Simmons divorce is final. 


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA


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