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NBA Tiers: Teams on the bubble

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These teams should compete for a spot in the play-in tournament

Orlando Magic v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Yesterday, we started a series breaking teams into tiers. We started with those probably locked into the lottery. The win total over/under for each team is in parenthesis. At the end, you will find our recommendation and whether to fade (stay away) or play.

Here’s a reminder of how the tier breakdowns work:

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

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

Playoff/Play-In Bubble

Chicago Bulls (42.5)

The Bulls are all-in on the upcoming NBA season. Let’s take a look back at how their offseason unfolded and how it will translate to on-court production.

The first decision the Bulls had to make was whether to use their cap space to negotiate and extend Zach Lavine. They ultimately opted to use the cap space to build the roster around LaVine and hope the talent upgrades would be enough to convince him to re-sign in unrestricted Free Agency. The contracts for Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball were fair. Ball has been linked to the Bulls for some time and it made sense for everyone involved. Then came the acquisition of Demar DeRozan. The Bulls gave up Thaddeus Young (who had first round value at the trade deadline), a protected first round pick, and two second round draft picks for the right to pay DeRozan $85 Million over three years. The opportunity cost of acquiring DeMar Derozan has the potential of crippling Chicago for the foreseeable future.

Let’s circle back to the decision they made regarding Zach LaVine. He now has the opportunity to walk at season’s end. Jimmy Butler once made the decision to leave Minnesota after they declined to use their cap space to renegotiate and extend his contract. We’ve also learned that Lavine is the new Klutch client. That could mean nothing or it could mean everything.

If this team struggles out the gate, there is a non-zero chance he asks for a trade before the deadline. Even if he stays put during the regular season, what would happen if the Bulls are non-competitive in a first-round playoff series. There are teams where DeMar DeRozan makes sense as a playmaking lead ball handler. The Bulls are not one of them. In late-game situations, the offense should be run through LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, not DeRozan. At that point, does he bring enough offensively to offset his inability to guard a traffic cone on defense? The Bulls will be a fascinating early-season watch but for all the wrong reasons. There are a ton of ways this can go wrong and the smart money is on the under.

UNDER 42.5 Wins (PLAY)

Charlotte Hornets (38.5)

The Hornets had the money and resources to address their center position during the offseason. Rather than outbid the Kings for Richaun Holmes, they chose to bring in Mason Plumlee and draft Kai Jones. Neither player appears capable of helping the team win games in the short term. Kelly Oubre Jr. is a stop-gap and doesn’t fill a long-term need for them. They gave Terry Rozier a contract extension fresh off a career-best season shooting the ball. If those numbers are real, the contract is probably a fair one. If he regresses to his career averages as a shooter, it can easily become a huge overpay. Gordon Hayward makes this team better but we all know the best ability is availability and he hasn’t been all that available the past few seasons. The Hornets need a second star to play alongside LaMelo Ball and have no clear path to acquire that player. Ball has too much upside to give up on this team’s future but it’s their short term that should concern fans.

Under 38.5 Wins (PLAY)

Washington Wizards (34.5)

It may be a case of addition by subtraction in the Nation’s capital. Despite trading away multi-time All-Star Russell Westbrook, one can make the case this year’s team is much better.

The addition of Spencer Dinwiddie helps replace Westbrook’s scoring and playmaking while improving the team’s perimeter defense. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gives the team a wing defender they’ve sorely lacked in previous years. Kyle Kuzma can be unpredictable on a night-to-night basis but he can help improve the team’s second unit. Deni Avdija should be afforded more opportunities to play with the ball in his hands. The Corey Kispert pick was a curious one due to his low ceiling but his shooting could help this team in the short term.

This team is a deeper than last year and has added players capable of holding up on the defensive end. They aren’t good enough to push for a top four seed but they could easily contend for a spot in the play-in tournament.

OVER 34.5 Wins (PLAY)

Toronto Raptors (37.5)

The Raptors could have a top-five defense this upcoming season. They may also have a bottom-five offense. It’s difficult to gauge how Masi Ujiri evaluates his current roster. Will he look to upgrade during the regular season and make a push for the playoffs or will he look to strip things down and make a push for a top 5 pick? Even if a playoff push is a desired outcome for this team, they may not have enough shooting to make a serious run at it. The Raptors have seen significant talent leave the organization since their championship run.

It may be time for us to take a step back and reevaluate how we look at this team’s short-term outlook. The Scottie Barnes pick could pay huge dividends but it won’t be in year one. Can Pascal Siakam regain his old form? Can OG Anunoby take a step forward? There are more questions than answers in Toronto.

UNDER 37.5 Wins (PLAY)

New Orleans Pelicans (38.5)

Are we sure David Griffin knows what he’s doing? It’s difficult to pinpoint a single decision he’s made the past couple of seasons that has worked out for the Pelicans. After failing to maximize Anthony Davis’s prime, they appear to be heading down a similar path with Zion Williamson. There is a non-zero chance Williamson opts to sign his qualifying offer and force his way out of New Orleans. The Pelicans are hoping their young core shows significant internal improvement next season. Even if that internal improvement happens, it almost certainly won’t be enough to push them into serious playoff contention. This is one of the easier bets to make on the board.

UNDER 38.5 Wins (PLAY)

Memphis Grizzlies (41.5)

The Grizzlies have taken a methodical approach to team building. They punted on cap space and have been churning the back end of their roster and taking on salary in order to give themselves more lottery tickets. They’ve had a good run of luck in the draft and are banking on their ability to uncover hidden gems. In truth, both their short and long-term outlooks depends on whether or not Jaren Jackson Jr. can take a step forward. They are in a similar position to the Mavs with Kristaps Porzingis.

If Jaren Jackson Jr. can protect the rim at a decent rate, playing him at the five helps unlock their offense. If his health and lateral mobility prevent him from doing so, his offensive talents are neutered when forced to play the four.

Overall, the Grizzlies will be relying on internal improvement in order to take the next step. They are two deep at every position but may need an in-season trade or extraordinary year out of JJJ in order to significantly raise their ceiling. The over/under line is perfectly set and is probably worth staying away from.

UNDER 41.5 wins (FADE)

New York Knicks (41.5)

Some would argue this line is criminally low. NBA Twitter seems to think this team is closer to a 50 win team than one that will hover around .500. Let’s examine it. Offensively, Julius Randle had an unbelievable season in which he carried the offense behind a career-best 41.1% 3 PT percentage and some unbelievable shot-making on the perimeter. Collectively, we were all expecting him to cool off and it took until the postseason for him to come back to earth. The question is whether Randle is closer to the player we saw during the regular season vs the player that struggled to create clean looks in the postseason. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. On the other side of the floor, it’s easy to point to Tom Thibedeau as the reason the team took a step forward defensively. The numbers, however, showcase the fact the Knicks were lucky for most of the season. Based on the quality of the shots taken, Knick opponents should have had a top 5 FG%, instead opponents shot a bottom 5 FG%. There is going to be regression to the mean on both sides of the ball. Chances are Randle won’t shoot as efficiently on long-contested 2s as he did last season and opponents will hit a higher percentage of uncontested jumpers. Now, some will argue that the addition of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier should help mitigate the need for Randle to duplicate his shooting splits from last season. A counter would be that neither player is a dynamic enough playmaker. Kemba struggled to create space and was much better as an off-ball shooter than he was at getting into the teeth of the defense and creating easy shots for teammates. His contract is a reasonable one and certainly worth finding out how much the former Celtic has left in the tank. Fournier is probably better than what we saw late last season due to Covid but not as good as the player we saw in the Olympics. The Knicks are also counting on another healthy season from Derrick Rose. Overall, there is certainly a path to the over for this team but they will have to navigate a minefield in order for that to happen. This is probably an over but I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

OVER 41.5 Wins (FADE)

Boston Celtics (47.5)

Some may be surprised to find the Celtics in this particular tier as opposed to being a lock for the playoffs. On paper, they appear to be the 7th best team in the conference putting them firmly in contention for the play-in tournament. This offseason is proof that Brad Stevens is well aware that this current roster is not good enough to compete for a title. The Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and Josh Richardson extensions were made for one reason- salary matching. That hypothetical trade is more likely to happen next offseason rather than during the regular season. It’s the reason a second year was added to Josh Richardson’s deal. Dennis Schroeder was brought in in hopes of rebuilding his value and being dangled as a potential trade chip before the trade deadline. The asset they would acquire in return for Schroder is more important than anything he can do for them on the court since they would have no path to resigning him were he to exceed expectations. There was no reason to extend Robert Williams so early in the process. Steven’s hope is that Williams establishes himself as a starting-caliber center and the cost certainty of his contract would be appealing to a potential trade partner. Stevens is stockpiling what he believes are assets in case Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard decide to ask out of their current situations. In the short term, this team is marginally better. Schroder is a good playmaker but won’t provide the off-ball shooting Kemba could. Horford should be a welcomed addition to the locker room but his playmaking as a big man should help but not nearly enough to cure this team of all its woes. Josh Richardson is a dart throw. It cost them nothing to bring him in. if a trade for a star doesn’t materialize next offseason his expiring contract would then be shopped around. This team will be active in its pursuit to find a 3rd star to play alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

UNDER 47.5 Wins (FADE)

Portland Trailblazers (44.5)

Due to everything surrounding Damian Lillard, one would have to wear a hazmat suit before feeling comfortable enough to touch this line. In a vacuum, Larry Nance Jr. was precisely what this team needed. He improves their defense at the four spot while providing just enough playmaking and shooting to improve the team’s spacing. He can rebound and play passing lanes. He’s an upgrade in every imaginable way. The question is whether it’s simply too little too late. Lillard appears to have tabled a trade demand for the moment but those rumors are sure to resurface the first thing this team loses a few in a row. If you could guarantee that Lillard would finish the season as a Blazer, the over would be the smart move. Even then, will the constant questions about Lillard’s future affect the team’s on-court play. How can the team expect the team to buy in when its star refuses to do so. Also, if Lillard is indeed traded in season, the Blazers would probably start a firesale in hopes of starting an all-out rebuild. As a result, there is too much uncertainty for anyone to feel comfortable betting on the team’s season-long outlook.

Under 44.5 Wins (FADE)

Tomorrow we’re going to look into playoff locks.