It’s time for our 13th annual NBA level – my alternative to power ratings. With exceptions both happy (San Antonio Spurs from the mid-1990s to the disaster with Kawhi Leonard, perhaps now the Golden State Warriors) and sad (KANGGGZZZZZ!!!), team building follows a gentle cycle of ups and downs. : the stars rise, peak and then fall, leading the teams along the same path.

Team grouping helps to clarify who is where on that spectrum and which teams may be on the verge of moving up or down.

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The order within the levels doesn’t matter.

INNER CIRCLE

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Golden State Warriors

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Milwaukee Bucks

Los Angeles Clippers

Boston Celtics

Philadelphia 76ers

Denver Nuggets

* A mild surprise here could be the Sixers and Nuggets over the Phoenix Suns and (if you put on Ted Lasso’s pink sunglasses) what the hell is about to unfold in Brooklyn.

Phoenix fans are unhappy. The Suns swept the Nuggets in the 2021 conference semi-finals and beat the Clippers – minus Leonard – a round later. Their idiosyncratic offense, relying almost entirely on mid-range jumpers, was the league’s best in last season’s playoffs until the last five games of their rout against the Dallas Mavericks – you can chalk it up to the COVID outbreak and the controversy surrounding DeAndre Ayton. which may have since been buried under a pile of cash.

Their defense crumbled in both postseasons, but an optimist can forgive that too; The New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix’s first-round opponent, were built to embitter the Suns’ weak rebounds, and there’s no shame in being the victim of a slow-turning, always-grinning kind of torture on Luka Doncic.

They’ve only lost one key player and even this guy Jay Crowder is still on the team. They will either find someone for Crowder or ask him to come back as reinforcements. The Suns are likely to replace the C-level shooter in Crowder with the A-plus in Cameron Johnson, which should lead to more threes and wider lanes — modern-day butt kicks in their old-school offense.

Johnson and Mikal Bridges should take on more custom creations. (Bridges should lift more triples.) Ayton is the most obvious route to stylistic diversity through post-ups, determined runs under the basket, and free throws.

Dario Saric is back to score minutes with both power forward and center, and the back bench is solid. If they stay healthy and united, the Suns should win plenty of regular season games.

But the West entrenched itself around them after a two-season interregnum. The Nuggets and Clippers are healthy. The Warriors should be better if contract renewal dramas – Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson – don’t open the cracks. A squabble in practice between Green and Pool on Wednesday, when Green faced a potential punishment, sparked a discouraging déjà vu. I trust Golden State to handle this.