NBA contender power rankings: Who stands in 76ers’ way?

Joel Embiid, James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid, James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Tier 2: The lightweights

10. LA Clippers

9. Golden State Warriors

8. Memphis Grizzlies

7. Sacramento Kings

6. Cleveland Cavaliers

It’s impossible to count out the Clippers and Warriors, who employ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George or Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, respectively. Star power takes on elevated importance in the playoffs and few superstars have a better postseason track record than Curry and Leonard.

That said, we cannot ignore the regular season. Golden State has been completely incapable of winning on the road and, as the No. 5 seed, they will likely play every series as road underdogs. Andrew Wiggins has been away from the team for personal reasons, the defense isn’t at their accustomed level of greatness, and the speculation about next summer is looming large.

The Clippers are in the same boat: amazing talent on paper, but the on-court product has been wildly inconsistent. Even with Kawhi Leonard returning to All-NBA form, the trade deadline improvements haven’t done enough to push LA into the true contenders circle. Never say never, but Russell Westbrook being heavily involved in the offense now does not elevate my confidence.

Then there’s Memphis, maybe the most confounding team in the NBA right now. With no clear return date for Ja Morant, it’s hard not to feel particularly worried about Memphis’ immediate title odds. Even before Morant’s Instagram Live snafu, the Grizzlies felt particularly unstable for a team with a top-five record. Steven Adams remains sidelined, Brandon Clarke recently tore his Achilles, and the energy just feels off.

Frankly, one could argue that Sacramento and Cleveland deserve to be in their own separate tier. They may not employ Stephen Curry or Kawhi Leonard, but both teams have multiple All-Star caliber players on the roster.

Sacramento has been the most explosive offensive team in the NBA, surrounding Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox with a litany of sharpshooters. Sabonis has fared well in the playoffs before and the Kings will have the benefit of two decades of pent-up energy on their side. That Sacramento home crowd is going to go ballistic every night.

Cleveland has been remarkably balanced and efficient on the offensive end. The Mitchell-Garland backcourt has been, on balance, the best backcourt in the NBA this season. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are elite defenders, and Mobley in particular is built to shine the playoffs. Cleveland is closer to the top tier than many probably think.