NBA Season Outlook: 30 teams, 5 tiers

In a recent season preview, we touched on the idea that the Cavaliers and Warriors could be heading for a grudge match. Most NBA fans and analysts seem to be treating it as a foregone conclusion that the Cavs and Warriors will meet in the finals for a third consecutive year. But we’ve got about 80 games to go, at the time of this writing, and there are still 30 teams in this league. So in the interest of, well, finding interest beyond the Cavs and Warriors, we’ve taken the time to cover all 30 teams by sorting them into five tiers. Read on for the specifics, and as always let us know what you think @RoundballDaily.

Championship Contenders

Cavaliers, Celtics, Warriors, Spurs

Yeah, the Cavaliers and Warriors are, as mentioned, being treated as if they’re already in the finals. But that’s just not any fun. So we thought we’d look beyond the top two. A decade’s worth of data revealed that a true Western Conference contender averages 60 wins, and a true Eastern Conference contender averages 56 wins. By those numbers, these four look like logical picks as true finals contenders. Golden State and San Antonio both exceeded 60 wins with ease last season, and Cleveland had 57. The Raptors actually had 56 as well, but with many expecting Brad Stevens’s club to take over as the East’s second-best team, we’re betting they push 56 or more wins.

That justifies these four selections from a standpoint considering historical averages. But from a basketball viewpoint, too, these look like the four toughest playoff outs. We know what’s expected of the Cavaliers and Warriors, and in just a few early games, the Spurs have looked even better than both of them. Meanwhile, the Celtics look to have some 2004 Pistons potential to stand out with defense and cohesive team play despite lacking true superstars.

Conference Finals Contenders

Raptors, Pacers, Bulls, Clippers, Blazers, Thunder

This tier is reserved for rock-solid playoff teams that nonetheless look incapable of actually winning it all. The Raptors and Clippers have pretty much defined this category over the last couple of seasons, so we don’t really need to get into them. But the other four teams require a little bit of supporting analysis.

The Pacers have struggled out of the gate, but seem to have one of the more impressive starting fives in the league. Jeff Teague should provide the point guard play they’ve longed for in Indiana for years, and Myles Turner already looks to be exploding as a sophomore. Throw in bench support from the likes of Al Jefferson and Aaron Brooks, and this team is going to be a tough out. The Bulls are sort of the opposite—their starting five makes very little sense, seems to lack defense, and would have looked better a few years ago. But Fred Hoiberg’s team has been outstanding in the early going, earning them a boost in expectations.

In the West, we have the Blazers and Thunder. The Blazers became something of a league darling in 2015-16 behind the stellar backcourt play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and they’ve brought the band back (plus Evan Turner) for another run. They should improve upon last season’s 44 wins, and could conceivably make the conference finals. The Thunder, meanwhile, are definitely a little thin this time around. But with Russell Westbrook seemingly trying to average 40 points and a triple-double, Victor Oladipo already looking like their best shooting guard since James Harden, and Steven Adams asserting himself as one of the league’s best big men, they have a chance to be very successful.

Playoff Participation Ribbons

Hawks, Hornets, Pistons, Rockets, Jazz, Timberwolves

These are our picks for leftover playoff teams. In the East, the Hawks and Hornets are both steady enough to reach the 44- or 45-win threshold it will probably take to get in, but don’t really look capable of doing real damage. There’s also no reason to suspect the Pistons will drop out of last year’s eighth seed, though they’ll need Reggie Jackson to get healthy.

In the West, the Mike D’Antoni-led Rockets appear ready to challenge opponents to outscore them, and so far the James Harden-at-point guard experiment is working rather well. The Jazz are a popular pick as an up-and-coming contender, and we’re betting that the baby Timberwolves make a significant leap under Tom Thibodeau. The hype for Karl-Anthony Towns has arguably gotten out of hand, but between him, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and rookie Kris Dunn, this should be a fascinating and potentially strong team to watch.

Lottery-Bound Teams

Knicks, Wizards, Bucks, Heat, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Pelicans, Mavericks, Lakers

These are the teams that will shoot for the playoffs, but will come up short. And that means that for most of them, appearing on this list would be a disappointment. The Knicks’ front office seems to think that building a roster that would have competed for a title in 2011 will work in 2016; the Wizards have done nothing to improve upon a roster that’s proven not to have enough; the Bucks are fun to watch, but not reliable to win; and the Heat face a devastating and sudden rebuild following the abrupt departure of Dwyane Wade and the tragic health issues of Chris Bosh.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are relying heavily on Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons, both of whom have tricky injury histories; the Nuggets are on their way up, but probably not good enough to contend for a playoff spot yet; the Pelicans need to solidify a backcourt to assist the sensational early play of Anthony Davis; and the Mavericks simply have a strange roster, though Rick Carlisle could still do something with it. The Lakers are the real surprise here, we’re betting. Some expect another tanking effort, but the young collection of players in LA, free of the burden of Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour, should be able to win a few games. Lakers basketball is going to be entertaining once more. While they won’t make the playoffs, they won’t tank, either.


Nets, 76ers, Magic, Suns, Kings

Finally, we’ve got the tankers—the five teams that will realize after a month or two that they’re better off losing and shooting for some of the incredible prospects who will be in the 2017 draft.

Actually, of these five, only the Magic have looked this bad in the first few games. But the others will catch up. For all his talents, Devin Booker can only carry the Suns so far with their young and inexperienced frontcourt. The Kings are a guaranteed mess even if Ty Lawson and Rudy Gay don’t look disastrous so far. The Nets probably won’t tank because they owe their first-round pick to the Celtics, but they will absolutely be this bad. And the Sixers… as much fun as the fans will have watching Joel Embiid’s campaign for Rookie of the Year, they still don’t entirely resemble an NBA roster.

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