Lowe's annual NBA tiers: Ranking the league's best and worst teams

Illustration by ESPN

It's time for our 14th annual Tiers of the NBA -- my alternative to preseason power rankings. Grouping teams by where they are today and where they might go tomorrow is a useful way to step back and take broader stock of the league.

The order within tiers does not matter!

Let's go!


Denver Nuggets

Milwaukee Bucks

Boston Celtics

Phoenix Suns

* The loose definition here: It will be at least a mild surprise if the 2023-24 NBA champion does not come from this group. These are the four best teams -- the defending champions and three rivals who went all-in to catch them. The price of contention at this level -- aside from a billionaire's money -- is depth; all four will have to suss out rotations, use whatever assets they have left (Boston has the most by a lot) to get reserve help, and work to survive inevitable injuries. As always, one injury at the wrong time can torpedo years of planning.

* I've seen a lot of brow furrowing about how no would-be usurper -- including Milwaukee, Boston and Phoenix -- made any offseason move to counter the unstoppable offensive force that is Nikola Jokic.

I would argue Milwaukee, Phoenix and Boston did just that. There is no one-on-one matchup for Jokic anymore -- and no easy two-man method of defending the Jamal Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll. There is no defender who gives Jokic any real trouble on the block, no help scheme he can't outthink the first time he sees it -- or, at worst, the second. The Nuggets' core lineups have enough shooting around him; their starting five has one so-so shooter in Aaron Gordon, but the other four guys bring enough range to accommodate him. Gordon fits perfectly in every other way.

One answer for Jokic, if such a thing exists, is to stretch him as far as possible on defense -- make him cover more ground, skid between multiple long rotations, test his speed, and maybe tire him out.

There is no point in searching for some defensive answer that doesn't exist, or spending multiple roster spots on plodding centers just because they are large. The way to beat Denver four times in seven games is to expand Jokic's spatial responsibility on defense, score a lot of points, and hope that by skill and luck you hold Denver to a few less than you scored. (You do need decent perimeter defenders to do this.) Oh, and wallop the Nuggets in the non-Jokic minutes.

All three teams aimed this way with ultra-high-end talent.