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NBA Tiers: Playoff locks

These teams aren’t contenders but will be good enough to avoid the play-in tournament

Golden State Warriors v Utah Jazz - Game Four Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

This is part three in our series breaking the NBA into tiers. The first tier examined lottery bound teams. Yesterday, we looked into those teams on the bubble, close to making the playoffs, but also close to falling out.

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

Playoff Locks

Indiana Pacers (42.5)

Rick Carlisle may not be the most relatable person on earth but he can certainly maximize a roster. Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis on court fit has been and will continue to be the biggest question mark for this team. Turner established himself as an elite rim protector last season.

Keep an eye on Sabonis trade rumors. Replacing his back to the basket game with an athletic and rim running 4 could really open up the offense for the Pacers. They are getting Caris LeVert and TJ Warren back healthy. Chris Duarte, while older than a typical rookie, looks ready for a spot in the rotation from day one. This team is physical and should be a pain for other teams to play during the regular season. The right trade could propel this team towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

OVER 42.5 Wins (PLAY)

Denver Nuggets (47.5)

Jamal Murray’s injury cost this team a serious chance at making the NBA finals. The Nuggets were positioning themselves for a 2-3 year championship window before luxury tax concerns forced them to make difficult decisions. As great as Nikola Jokic is, this team probably doesn’t have enough firepower to contend with and beat some of the top tier teams in the league.

This season is all about Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets have yet to offer him a contract extension and this season could determine his future with the team. Porter Jr. has undeniable talent but the health concerns dating back to his days in college have not gone away. He is likely looking for the max and for a team already paying out two max contracts, the decision to sign him will be a costly one. A quick glance at the Brooklyn Nets cap sheet will illustrate how expensive a team with 3 max players can be.

Historically, the Nuggets have been extremely cost-averse. Will the Kroenke family commit the money it would take to keep this team together? Rival teams are probably skeptical and will probably sniff around to see if one of the Nuggets core players can be plucked away. Betting the under isn’t a bet against Jokic, it’s a bet against Porter Jr.’s ability to stay healthy.

UNDER 47.5 Wins (FADE)

Los Angeles Clippers (45.5)

Paul George has been consistently inconsistent. The Clippers will need George to have an MVP type season in order to stay afloat with Kawhi Leonard likely out all year. If Reggie Jackson regresses back to the Reggie Jackson we all know and love, Marcus Morris appears to be their second option. There are going to be many nights where that simply won’t be good enough. The Clippers showed a ton of heart during the postseason and no one can take that away from them. The smart money would be to fade their ability to show that kind of heart on a night to night basis for 82 games.

UNDER 45.5 Wins (PLAY)

Golden State Warriors (48.5)

As mentioned on a recent podcast, this may be the best under play on the entire board. We still don’t know when Klay Thompson will make his return to court, how many minutes he will play, and how effective he’ll be. Kevin Durant’s miraculous comeback from a torn Achilles heel has fooled fans into thinking Klay will make a similar comeback. Durant rehabbed for 18 months after his injury. Klay would be returning to the court just 12 months after tearing his Achilles tendon in November.

While Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody improves this team’s long term outlook, it is unlikely they will be ready for consistent regular season minutes. Igoudala, Bjeclica, and Otto Porter Jr. are good rotational players but none of them are good enough to catapult this team into a contender. Stephen Curry will have to be a superstar once again just to keep this team above .500 until Klay returns to the court. A 50 win season isn’t impossible but the Warriors will need for every break to go their way. That’s not a bet most should be willing to make.

UNDER 48.5 Wins (PLAY)

Atlanta Hawks (46.5)

This team is good and may have the deepest roster in the league by a wide margin. That being said, they probably max out as a second round team. They would greatly benefit from a consolidation trade in which they ship out a few of their promising young players in exchange for a star level veteran that can help them in the short term.

Few teams, if any, can outbid a package of John Collins as salary filler, and any combination of Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson, and Sharife Cooper. They can also include all of their own picks and the necessary pick swaps needed to close any deal. Bradley Beal, Zach Lavine, and Karl Anthony-Towns all make a ton of sense on this roster. They have the depth to hit the over. The question is whether they will sacrifice some of that depth in order to become a true contender.

OVER 46.5 Wins (PLAY)

Dallas Mavericks (47.5)

Simply put, this team is good enough to cruise to 50 wins in the regular season. Luka, a rim runner, and three shooters is hard for most teams to stop. Only teams with multiple wing defenders can make life difficult for the Mavericks. Assuming health, this team should finish as the fourth seed with home court advantage in the first round.

OVER 47.5 Wins (PLAY)