Skip to content

Ranking the NBA playoff teams by tiers

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The play-in tournament is done and the wannabes have been weeded out. Not all 16 teams left vying for the Larry O'Brien Trophy have similar aspirations, and theScore's NBA editors are here to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Tier 1: Title favorites 🏆

The Celtics enter as heavy favorites to represent the East in the Finals after a 64-win campaign. Boston was the NBA's most complete team, boasting the premier offensive rating (124.7) and second-best defensive rating (113.0). Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a No. 1 net rating (11.7), which is the third-best mark in league history behind the Chicago Bulls (1995-96, 1996-97).

The Nuggets have a better record and net rating than last year's championship-winning team and are running back the same starting five that powered through last year's playoffs. Though Denver ranks near the bottom of the league in bench production and minutes, its slow pace in a postseason atmosphere, along with fewer reserves seeing the floor, plays to its advantage. Plus, having arguably the game's best player in Nikola Jokic can't hurt.

Tier 2: Flawed contenders 🤔

Minnesota hasn't had much playoff success during its 35-year history, but this season's team could make some noise. Anthony Edwards took another step forward, Karl-Anthony Towns had one of the best 3-point-shooting seasons of his career, Rudy Gobert had a bounce-back year as the anchor for the NBA's top-ranked defense, and Naz Reid is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. However, expect the Phoenix Suns to test the T-Wolves right away. The Suns swept the season series 3-0 and limited Edwards to 14.3 points on 31% shooting.

If the old adage that stars win championships is true, then the Clippers should be slotted in the highest tier. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and James Harden have all been effective and efficient, forming a trio that heads one of the best offensive teams in the league. But L.A. ranks 17th in defensive rating and is extremely thin outside of its starting five and Norman Powell, especially with Russell Westbrook averaging a career-low 11.1 points on 27.3% from deep.

The Mavericks are coming together at the right time. They seemingly figured out the right players to complement MVP contender Luka Doncic and former All-Star Kyrie Irving, resulting in a 24-10 record since February. Catching fire closer to the postseason bodes well for a franchise looking to return to the Western Conference finals after missing out on the playoffs last campaign.

Oklahoma City had a bright future heading into this season, but nobody expected the franchise to make this much of a leap. The Thunder won 57 games - 17 more than the previous campaign - to secure the West's top seed. With an average age of 23.4, they're the youngest team in NBA history to finish atop the conference. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander blossomed into an MVP candidate, Jalen Williams emerged as a No. 2 option, and Chet Holmgren hit the ground running after missing all of the 2022-23 season.

Confidence in the Bucks' camp may not be at optimal levels due to its poor form to end the season and the uncertainty surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Reports suggest Milwaukee is preparing to be without its superstar to start against Indiana, and there's no guarantee he will be at 100% if he does make it back mid-series. On the plus side, the Bucks wouldn't catch the Celtics until the conference finals at the earliest, and anything can happen before then.

Tier 3: Dark horses 🐴

It's hard to dismiss a Suns team boasting so many offensive weapons. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker tied for fifth in the NBA scoring race, Bradley Beal has been a solid third option when healthy, and Grayson Allen led the Association in 3-point percentage. Jusuf Nurkic's rebounding and secondary playmaking has also been a nice addition alongside Phoenix's star power. The Suns' biggest concern may be a lack of depth, as they finished last in bench points this season.

With a fully healthy Joel Embiid, the 76ers have a shot against any team in the league, even as a No. 7 seed. However, after seemingly reaggravating his knee injury late in the regular season, the reigning MVP went 6 of 17 from the field in Philadelphia's play-in win and had clear conditioning issues after so much time off the floor. A limited Embiid and a lack of home-court advantage leaves the team with quite the mountain to climb.

The Lakers are returning most of the team that led the franchise to the Western Conference finals as a lowly seventh seed. Counting out the star tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is foolish, but a difficult rematch against the Nuggets is a situation that no squad wants to deal with, as Jokic and Murray inevitably have aspirations of defending the title.

Not having Julius Randle really hurts the Knicks, and it leaves All-Star guard Jalen Brunson as their only healthy player averaging more than 15.5 points per game. But with the NBA's slowest pace and second-best defensive rating, this classic Tom Thibodeau team can grind its opponents to a pulp, much like last year's Miami Heat squad that made a surprise run. The Knicks also have a potential bonus of back-to-back series with home-court advantage.

Tier 4: Party spoilers 🥳

The Pelicans cratered at the end of the season, finishing as the eighth seed when they were on course to avoid the play-in tournament. To make matters worse, New Orleans will be without Zion Williamson for at least most of its first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, and the team's wing rotation could allow for a surprise run against the league's youngest squad, but that's hard to imagine without the Pelicans' best player this past season.

Donovan Mitchell's status is Cleveland's No. 1 concern heading into what isn't the most high-profile first-round matchup on paper but should still be an even and hotly contested series against the Magic. While Mitchell vows he's healthy after a knee issue plagued him following the All-Star break, he will have to overcome the pressure from onlookers and surely knows a poor showing could derail plans for a lucrative, offseason extension offer from Cleveland.

Without Jimmy Butler in the lineup due to an MCL strain, the Heat won't be able to re-create their Cinderella run to the Finals as the No. 8 seed. Butler's injury at a crucial moment is just one example of the main obstacle Miami had to navigate as a team this season - injury troubles. However, Erik Spoelstra's side can rely on its defense, as it ranked fifth in defensive rating in the regular season (111.5).

Tier 5: Happy to be here 🤷‍♂️

Orlando is seeking its first playoff series victory since reaching the East finals in 2010. The Magic are one of the league's stingiest units, ranking second in points off turnovers (18.6 per game), third in defensive efficiency (110.8 points per 100 possessions), and fifth in steals (8.2). Paolo Banchero's an ascending star, Franz Wagner is just scratching the surface, and Jonathan Isaac has been a defensive force in limited minutes. A first-round upset against the Cavs isn't entirely out of the question, but Orlando should feel great about its future regardless of the outcome.

Considering the Pacers haven't participated in the postseason in any form since 2020 - and that was the unorthodox bubble playoffs - expectations for Rick Carlisle's squad are low. However, Indiana might be in a perfect predicament. Its first-round opponents, the Bucks, are underwhelming with Doc Rivers at the helm, and Giannis Antetokounmpo may be limited due to his calf strain. The Pacers also had the Bucks' number all year; Indiana was the only team to beat them four times, going 4-1 against Milwaukee during the regular season.

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox