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NBA Tiers: Lottery-bound squads

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These teams are unlikely to make the 2021-2022 postseason

NBA: NBA Draft Lottery Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With less than 50 days until the start of upcoming NBA season, let’s divide 30 teams into five tiers. In parentheses, you will find the line for their win total over/under. At the end, you will find our prediction and whether to fade(stay away) or play.

Contenders — Assuming health, these teams appear poised for a conference finals run

Borderline — These teams can become contenders with a trade and/or internal improvement

Playoff Locks — These teams should make the playoffs but may not have a high enough ceiling to make a long playoff run

Play-Off/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

Lottery Teams

Orlando Magic (22.5)

For the first time in a very long time, the Magic may have had some luck in the draft. Orlando typically finds itself on the outside looking in at the top of most drafts. This year, they landed the fifth pick in what many people projected to be a four player draft. After Toronto chose to take Scottie Barnes, Jalen Suggs fell into the Magic’s lap.

In the long term, Suggs undoubtedly improves this team’s outlook. In the short term, they will probably finish at the bottom of the standings.

Under 22.5 Wins (Fade)

Oklahoma Thunder (23.5)

Unless Josh Giddey turns into a bonafide star, this may have been a disastrous offseason for the Thunder. For a team that went so far out its way to tank last season, the juice doesn’t appear to be worth the squeeze.

The Thunder are still flush with an abundance of draft capital. At a certain point that draft capital has to turn into meaningful NBA players. They decided to trade the 16th pick in the draft to the Houston Rockets. That pick turned into Alperen Sengun. After summer league, the Thunder may have been better off drafting Sengun as opposed to kicking the can down the road.

On paper, this team should win more than 23 games but I expect Sam Presti will do whatever it takes to have another chance at the number one overall pick. Ultimately, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may simply be too good for this team to truly bottom out.

Over 23.5 wins (Fade)

Detroit Pistons (24.5)

Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart look like promising young players. Hamidou Diallo was signed to a reasonable contract for a player with his upside. Jerami Grant may not be an elite go-to scorer, but he has shown the ability to do more than what he showed in Denver. They could opt to keep him or use him as the centerpiece of a potential trade. And finally, winning the lottery and ultimately drafting Cade Cunningham was an absolute home run.

Even if Jalen Green proves to have a higher upside, Cunningham should be the engine of a good to great NBA offense for years to come. The post-Blake Griffin rebuild appears to be going well for the Pistons.

Over 23.5 Wins (Fade)

Cleveland Cavaliers (28.5)

What exactly is Cleveland doing? After handing out a $100 million contract to Jarret Allen and drafting USC big man Evan Mobley third overall, the Cavs traded away Larry Nance Jr. and acquired Lauri Markkanen as part of 3 team deal.

It was a confusing move on a number of levels. First, paying $20 million a year to a non All-Star caliber center seems like an overpay. Secondly, Larry Nance Jr. is a better player than Lauri Markkanen in every way. He provides more versatility on both ends of the floor than Markkanen. Many NBA insiders believed the Cavs could have fetched a couple first round picks for Nance before last season’s trade deadline. Trading him away for the right to overpay a player with a limited market was simply foolish.

Playing Mobley next to Allen was always going to be a tricky situation. Mobley may not have the body necessary to man the center position in his rookie year but his ceiling as a player will be reached with him playing the five. Committing significant resources to players that shouldn’t close games for you is a gross mismanagement of resources. Because of those contracts, the Cavs won’t have significant cap space even after the Kevin Love money comes off their books. After finding out that Collin Sexton’s market wasn’t what they expected, they may be forced to overpay him as well. As a whole, the Cavs may have sacrificed their future for the chance to win a handful of more games the next couple of seasons.

Under 28.5 Wins (Fade)

Minnesota Timberwolves (34.5)

Despite an impressive late-season run by Anthony Edwards, this team appears to be heading nowhere fast. The trade for D’Angelo Russell was a disaster. The recent trade of Jarrett Culver was an admission by the team that they blew the pick. Malik Beasley can score but he projects as a scoring sixth man off the bench for a good team. Jaden McDaniels was a pleasant surprise but he alone is not nearly enough to significantly raise the team’s ceiling.

Even if Anthony Edwards takes a significant leap forward, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the Wolves can generate consistent stops on defense. A Karl-Anthony Towns trade may be the best path forward for this team. If they were smart, they would explore the market for him now rather than wait for him to make a trade demand and significantly reduce what they might be able to get back in a trade. It’s highly unlikely they pursue something like that and they will probably opt to continue their failed bid to build around Towns. The Wolves have been mentioned as a possible suitor for Ben Simmons but they don’t appear to have the type of win now assets Darryl Morey is likely to demand.

With some luck, they may be able to contend for a spot in the play-in tournament but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. With no cap space and a roster just good enough to avoid a bottom five record, the path forward isn’t an obvious one for Gersson Rosas.

Over 34 Wins (Fade)

Houston Rockets (27.5)

The Rockets are a beautiful mish-mash of intriguing young players and aging vets. Christian Wood is the only player with youth on his side that isn’t on a rookie scale contract. Jalen Green showed why many scouts were high on him entering the draft. He’ll have to tighten up certain areas of his game but that will all come with time and reps. At the moment, Kevin Porter Jr. appears to have worked through his personal issues and shown flashes of offensive brilliance. Alperun Sengun, Jae’Sean Tate, Kenyon Martin Jr., and Usman Garuba round out an impressive collection of young talent. The decision to pay Daniel Theis was a curious one but not one that will disrupt the team’s plans for the future.

It will be interesting to monitor how active Houston is on the trade market. One would expect Eric Gordon and Danuel House to be moved before the trade deadline. If packaged together, they should be able to command a reasonably protected first round pick. John Wall is an interesting player to watch. Trading him wouldn’t be impossible but appears unlikely. Like Kemba Walker, would he be willing to give a significant amount of money back in order to choose his next destination? What about Wood? The Rockets appear to be two to three years away from serious contention. Would trading Wood away for a younger player and draft capital make sense?

The best thing for Houston would be to go all-in on its youth movement. With Wall and Wood getting significant minutes, the team could easily outperform their expected win total. While that would be a welcomed sight for Stephen Silas and the rest of a Houston team that had to endure the James Harden saga, it may be detrimental to their long-term future. The Rockets should be joining the rest of the teams in this tier in a race for the bottom.

Over 27.5 Wins (PLAY)

San Antonio Spurs (28.5)

The Spurs can be summarized in one word….meh. One has to wonder how invested Gregg Popovich is in this mediocre roster. His very presence is doing a disservice to this team’s long-term outlook. Like the teams mentioned above, the Spurs would be better off tanking in hopes of landing a top three pick. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are good players but don’t have best-player-on-a-contender upside. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vasell are promising young players, but again, no one will sing songs about them. The Spurs overpaid Doug McDermott and reached for Joshua Primo in the draft.

They are attempting to walk two paths simultaneously and will probably fail at accomplishing either. San Antonio doesn’t have enough talent to contend for a playoff spot and lack the kind of young star that helps accelerate a rebuild. Until Popovich retires, this team appears to be a boat without a rudder.

Over 28.5 Wins (Fade)

Sacramento Kings (35.5)

As Danny Leroux often says, “ownership is the biggest competitive advantage in sports”. Luke Walton should have been fired a long time ago. Financial losses for the Kings ownership group during the pandemic made the idea of paying Walton to go away untenable. Walton is clearly in over his head and has struggled to galvanize the locker room. On the court, his schemes and coaching decisions have been drawn a combination of side eyes and occasional smirks.

Two years ago, the Kings appeared to be a team on the rise. Rather than continue to build the team in a methodical method, they chose to cut corners and go all-in on moves that ultimately failed to move the needle. Harrison Barnes is a useful player, but is clearly overpaid. Barnes is the type of player a contender adds as a final piece. He is not the type of player that will catapult you from one tier to another. Buddy Hield, while still a deadly shooter, has done little else to contribute to winning. Bogdan Bogdanovic was allowed to walk as a restricted free agent for reasons unknown. The Kings are probably the best team in this tier but there is little hope they can do anything other than slightly outperform their expected win total.

Under 35.5 Wins (Fade)

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at those teams on the bubble