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NBA Tiers: Borderline Contenders

These teams are a piece away from becoming Title Contenders

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After a short break, we’re back with the tiers series. The first tier examined lottery bound teams. Then, we looked into those teams on the bubble, close to making the playoffs, but also close to falling out. On Friday, we shared the playoff locks.

Here’s the breakdown of the tiers as I see them:

Contenders - Assuming health, these teams have a great chance of making a conference finals run

Borderline - These teams can become contenders with a trade or two and internal improvement

Playoff Locks - These teams should make the playoffs but may not have a high enough ceiling to make a realistic run at the conference finals

Playoff/Play-In Bubble - These teams could reach the 6th seed but will realistically be amongst a group of teams competing for a place in the play-in tournament

Lottery Teams - These teams have already begun scouting the 2022 draft class

Borderline Contenders

Phoenix Suns (51.5)

The Suns are a good team but probably a piece or two away from being considered a contender. On paper, the Suns are a deep team that goes two deep at every position but center. They missed Dario Saric during the playoffs but even a competent backup big may not have been enough to get them over the hump.

In reality, the Suns probably need one more player capable of creating their own shot on the perimeter. Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson are talented, but none of them can consistently beat defenders in isolation and put pressure on defenses. If teams can successfully limit the success of a CP3/Ayton pick and roll, the second option is usually a contested mid-range jumper from Devin Booker. That combination is good enough for a top 4 seed in the Western Conference but likely not enough to cement the Suns are title contenders.

If CP3 takes a step back in terms of his effectiveness, even internal improvement from the Sun’s young core won’t be enough to catapult them into the top tier. Dario Saric should be able to take on some of the playmaking responsibilities while on the second unit but what this team needs is a player good enough to close games for them. It’s hard to identify who that player is and even hard to pinpoint the Suns path to acquiring said player. Could Mikal Bridges be the centerpiece of a trade that brings back a vet capable of elevating this team’s ceiling?

UNDER 51.5 Wins (FADE)

Miami Heat (48.5)

This Heat team should be able to suffocate most teams on a night to night basis during the regular season. Miami will likely play a methodical, tough-nosed, and aesthetically unpleasant brand of basketball on both sides of the court.

Last season, the team relied on Eric Spoelstra’s genius to generate good looks on the offensive end. Jimmy Butler showed flashes of being able to carry the offense but at his age it’s unlikely the team can depend on him on a nightly basis.

Enter Kyle Lowry. If Lowry is the player we’ve seen the past few years, he should certainly help but it may not be enough come playoff time. This team is good enough to win 50 games in the regular season but very clearly have a glass ceiling. The team will need either a leap from Tyler Herro, or a trade in order to make a serious run at the finals. Pat Riley is aware of this and I expect the acquisition of Kyle Lowry won’t be the last move the team makes as they try to capitalize on what appears to be a rapidly closing championship window.

OVER 48.5 Wins (PLAY)

Philadelphia 76ers (51.5)

There are a handful of teams for which the regular season does not matter. The Sixers are one of those teams. Preserving Joel Embiid’s health is more important than the team’s seeding. The Sixers would love to go after the top seed and lock in home court advantage against the Bucks and Nets but the downside is simply too great.

That aside, it’s a guarantee that Ben Simmons will eventually be traded. The package the Sixers get back for Simmons will certainly be a better fit next to Embiid but the timing of that trade makes everything surrounding this team a huge question mark. Embiids’ health and conditioning are an unknown. Whether the Sixers can use Simmons to acquire a true star is an unknown. The package Morey settles for in case the market for a star never materializes is an unknown.

For now, don’t come within 100 yards of the Sixers win total.

OVER 51.5 Wins (FADE)