NBA Tiers of Contention: 10 Teams That Can Make Lottery Reservations Now

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterSeptember 21, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC -  FEBRUARY 23: Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans is seen during the game against the Washington Wizards on February 23, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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With NBA training camps opening soon, it's time to set our expectations for the coming season.

Let's break up the 30 teams into groups of three to determine the contenders, middle-of-the-road squads and also-rans. And seeing as this was an Olympic year, we'll kindly refer to them in tiers of gold, silver and bronze.

As nice as "bronze-medal winner" may sound, as we kick off our look around the league with the also-rans, we know these lottery-bound teams are sure to be given much worse monikers as the season progresses. But just competing in the Olympics is a reward, right? Right?

No matter, let's take a look at the key questions and answers for each team in the NBA's lowest third, counting up from the bottom to those franchises that could sneak into the playoffs if everything breaks right but likely won't.... 

    

BRONZE MEDAL TEAMS   

10. Brooklyn Nets

Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press

What's going on here?

Here we have the results of mortgaging the future with minimal regard for the percentage chance of winning a championship in the present. This roster would have three, four, maybe five legit young players if owner Mikhail Prokhorov patiently invested the war chest of draft picks the Nets once had instead of dealing them every which way for the honor of adding past-their-prime stars and losing early in the playoffs.

     

What would make this season a success?

Fast-forwarding to the 2018 draft? With next year's pick likely headed to the Boston Celtics (who have the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets), Brooklyn's fight will be for relevance amid all the moves the team in Manhattan made. Luckily, it may have just the vehicle in Jeremy Lin, who returns to the city where he built his legend. Should Lin rekindle the magic he found with Kenny Atkinson, who was a Knicks assistant during the Linsanity era, he may make a whole lot of underdog-minded folks proud to think of the Nets for a minute.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Chris McCullough. When you are rebuilding, you have time—the kind of time that allows you to take a first-round flier on talent over polish. The Nets drafted McCullough, who barely played at Syracuse before tearing his ACL, 29th overall in the 2015 draft with the realization he likely wouldn't play much as a rookie. He'll have every opportunity to learn on the fly how to apply all that athleticism and 7'3" wingspan in a 6'11" forward's body, but he sure looks like the kind of guy who will figure stuff out right about the time his rookie contract expires in three years.

         

9. Philadelphia 76ers

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JULY 4: Ben Simmons #25 of Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket during the game against the Boston Celtics during the 2016 NBA Utah Summer League on July 4, 2016 at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: Use
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

What's going on here?

The next steps. Former general manager Sam Hinkie and his manifesto may be a memory, but the results of his radical tank-and-draft plan are under the stewardship of a front office that wants to win games, not more lottery balls. Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel will draw a lot of attention, for sure. But how No. 1 pick Ben Simmons pulls everything together is how this team will be judged.

Attendance isn't enough. Simmons is the one the fans and team are counting on to be special. Not only would Simmons playing up to expectations help the Sixers finally take a big step out of the league basement, it would answer all of those NBA folks who are not sold that he has the drive (or shooting ability) to be truly special.

    

What would make this season a success?

It can't be any worse than it has been, but for it to be substantially better, an awful lot of parts have to spring forward—like, say Simmons. Competent guard play from retreads Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson—old men on this squad at 28—would also help, but any night when Robert Covington's three-point stroke is off is likely a loss, too. Covington's ability to be a floor-spreader is one of the few perfect fits on this funky roster.

      

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Embiid. Yes, even with the focus on Simmons. Please do not forget just how mind-blowing Embiid's potential was before his foot broke down. Besides his hellacious social media skills, Embiid has such upside to his game and aptitude in every way that it would not be shocking for him to shake off all that rust and look as if he had not missed the first two seasons of his career.

    

8. Phoenix Suns

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 18: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns goes for the layup during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 18, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What's going on here?

If you don't have the talent and experience to win, you can still feel good if you're growing toward winning. The Suns have accepted their state, and general manager Ryan McDonough not only has settled on his vision, but also has sold it to a fanbase that hasn't seen the playoffs since 2010. That's impressive. Second-year sharpshooter Devin Booker will keep improving, but do teenage forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss have the types of tools that will be worth building around in this league for a long time? If they do, McDonough will have an easier time selling Suns fans on brighter days ahead.

      

What would make this season a success?

Man, it was exciting for a sec! Now it's just, well, awkward. The Suns signed Tyson Chandler (four years, $52 million) last summer with the possibility LaMarcus Aldridge would follow and bring immediate legitimacy. He didn't, and now the Suns embark on year two of a team built to contend that doesn't have all the pieces it needs to do so.

Chandler, who will turn 34 during training camp, isn't likely to slog through a massive rebuild for long. But as long as he stays healthy, his future salary is reasonable enough in the upgraded salary-cap landscape that he could bring back the type of assets a rebuilding team needs.

   

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Tyler Ulis. For as many guards on this team who are flat-out better players right now, Ulis may be the Suns' little engine that can. Though 5'10", the No. 34 overall draft pick aced summer league, averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 assists and 2.8 steals in six games in Las Vegas. That's one sweet showcase.

    

7. New Orleans Pelicans

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 15: Buddy Hield #24 of New Orleans Pelicans handles the ball during the game against the NBA D-League Select during the 2016 Las Vegas Summer League on July 15, 2016 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

What's going on here?

For the sake of Anthony Davis—and because the franchise needs to get good at some point for us to stop talking about whether Chris Paul should've gone to the Lakers or Clippers—one hopes the Pelicans aren't this bad. But they could be. With Jrue Holiday missing at least the start of the season because of his wife's health crisis, who qualifies as even semi-high-end talent next to Davis? Omer Asik, who played like he was 39 instead of 29 last season? Buddy Hield, who hasn't played a minute in the NBA?

   

What would make this season a success?

The idea is to help Davis by bringing in solid, defensive-minded dudes (who hopefully stay healthier than the last crew). If someone such as Solomon Hill proves he is an admirable, all-purpose glue guy, and Hield translates his special college competitiveness to the defensive end on this level, then the Pelicans might be able to say Davis has some keepers with whom he can grow.

      

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Holiday's personal situation is frightening but might not turn out to be heartbreaking, so let's hope for the best. His wife, Lauren, retired from the U.S. women's soccer team last year, committing to building their family even though she is, frankly, a better soccer player than Jrue is a basketball player.

But after getting pregnant, Lauren was diagnosed with a brain tumor and plans to undergo surgery after she delivers their first child in the coming weeks. Holiday will stay with her until they are well on the mend; then he can turn his attention to mending the Pelicans.

    

6. Denver Nuggets

DENVER, CO - APRIL 5:  Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets takes a shot against Kevin Durant #35 and Enes Kanter #11 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at Pepsi Center on April 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Thunder defeated the Nuggets 124-102. NOTE TO
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

What's going on here?

This is a team on the rise that has many in the NBA divided over its potential. Yes, there are promising young talents like Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Jusuf Nurkic, but where is the superstar to lead them? This isn't a roster that has fans excited (see Minnesota), but it's a roster of players many NBA front office folks believe will pan out in this league. Solid? Yes. Superstars? Maybe not. And solid doesn't make for exciting, nor is it likely to make for the playoffs.

   

What would make this season a success?

Someone shows he is more special than we think. Danilo Gallinari averaged 19.5 points with only 1.5 turnovers last season before yet another injury. He's 28, but it was forever ago that Mike D'Antoni was sure Gallinari would reach greatness. A more likely option to surprise is Jokic. Only 21, the center can play both ends and looks like he might develop into the kind of player who could average a double-double with shooting range out to the three-point arc. Those are the sorts of abilities that could make everyone re-evaluate what this team is all about.

   

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Kenneth Faried isn't that interesting; the Manimal, though, is fascinating. And it's been awhile since we saw Faried in full Manimal form. His numbers have stagnated as has his energy level at times. It was only two years ago that Faried wasn't just a member of a USA Basketball team that won FIBA World Cup gold, but he was also on the five-man all-tournament team! Bring back the fire, Faried—release the Manimal!

    

5. Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 6:  D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against J.J. Redick #4 of the Los Angeles Clippers on April 6, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What's going on here?

The purple-and-gold NBA royalty is embracing change now that the king has stepped down. The Lakers have invested in youth from their analytics department to their Kobe Bryant-less locker room, including the youngest head coach in the league in 36-year-old Luke Walton. Walton is a proven winner, and hope is in the air.

   

What would make this season a success?

With it almost impossible for Jim Buss to meet his previously declared promise to have the Lakers in contention by next spring, he and GM Mitch Kupchak are selling the improvement Walton can bring out of the young players. That's the same rationale (after the fact) that the Lakers are using to argue they were better off signing 31-year-old veteran Luol Deng than the younger options who declined the Lakers' free-agent money. Deng, the theory goes, will mentor D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and the rest of the kids and accelerate their development. We'll see.

     

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

D'Angelo Russell. After a disappointing season that saw him benched by former coach Byron Scott and involved in the video confessions of Nick Young, Russell has found himself with a second chance to make a first impression.

Walton has spent much of the summer trying to build some rapport with his young point guard, who sounds like he's embracing the new era: "Honestly, man, I feel like this is my first year. Last year was just, I won't say bad, because it's definitely something I learned from, but it wasn't what I expected. So coming in from college and you get drafted and you just get thrown into this, and this is what you think is right. We didn't win a lot of games, so there's no way that could be right. … I got the chance to play and learn myself, but I wasn't taught. I didn't have that guidance that I needed, so I feel like this is my rookie year all over again. And last year was like a blur.”

    

4. Sacramento Kings

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 26: Chris Granger of the Sacramento Kings speaks to the media at a press conference to introduce the Kings new logo on April 26, 2016 at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

What's going on here?

The Golden 1 Center is opening, and a $500-plus million new home should be enough to get the locals fired up. Whether DeMarcus Cousins is happy is another story, though, as the roster has changed again without a clear direction. Darren Collison will have to be better than most people think he is for the Kings to make a big jump in the standings.

    

What would make this season a success?

The great thing about the Kings is that Cousins makes it so easy to read where the franchise stands. And he has been frustrated often enough in the past that a playoff berth would be a clear enough symbol of progress to think this is worth doing. By the same token, that progress won't happen unless Cousins finally focuses on all the little things that contribute to winning.

     

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Kosta Koufos. Really. Koufos is a uniquely beloved figure for his good cheer. Seriously, he is. He's also the best way for Kings vice president Vlade Divac (also a uniquely beloved figure for his good cheer, for what it's worth) to balance his roster with a dynamic perimeter player in a trade. After acquiring more bigs—Kentucky's Skal Labissiere and Greek center Georgios Papagiannisin the draft (who won't be ready to play this season) to go with Willie Cauley-Stein, Divac could legitimize himself as a basketball exec if he could flip Koufos, 27, for something useful.

    

3. Charlotte Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 23: Nicolas Batum #5 and Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets look on during the game against the Boston Celtics on December 23, 2015 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Kent Smith/Getty Images

What's going on here?

As good as things got in a 48-34 season, it'll be difficult for the Hornets to come anywhere close to that in a more competitive Eastern Conference this year. To remind, we're talking the likes of Cody Zeller and Roy Hibbert at center and Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky at power forward. Capable, but do any of those names scream "contender" to you? Williams also just signed a four-year, $54.5 million deal, so there is a danger that his motivation may not match what it was in a contract year.

For a team that outscored opponents by fewer than three points a game last season, the Hornets will need all the motivation they can muster to make any sort of significant step forward.

   

What would make this season a success?

When you talk about great one-two combos in this league, Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum rarely come to mind. But their partnership is how combos are supposed to work—one guy freeing up the other to do what he does best and is most comfortable doing. The Hornets' season rests on the ability of this combo getting even better so everyone else can just fill roles, because without an upper-echelon third player, this team's hopes depend on making the parts equal more than the individuals.

   

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a freakish defensive player—and he has a great defensive coach in Steve Clifford to unleash him. That makes for the cool possibility that we have a player who is going to do highly uncommon things. Kidd-Gilchrist lost much of last season because of shoulder surgery; now healthy, his work under Clifford will be worth watching.

        

2. Orlando Magic

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 7:  Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan and head coach Frank Vogel introduce new Magic player Bismack Biyombo during a press conference on July 7, 2016 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

What's going on here?

That's the question many in the NBA have been asking. It feels like the Dwightmare in Orlando was forever ago, which means this rebuild should not still be stuck on the ground floor, but here we are. While many of the moves of the past year have been questionable—trading 20-something talents Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo and signing Jeff Green to a one-year, $15 million contract—the deal for Serge Ibaka and free-agent addition of Bismack Biyombo mean this could be a dynamic defensive team if logical power forward Aaron Gordon can apply his athletic talents to be a killer defender at small forward.

    

What would make this season a success?

We've learned by now that Ibaka's ceiling isn't as high as we once dreamed (and he still dreams with free agency a year away), but his floor is higher than those of many big men. That said, for GM Rob Hennigan's trade of Oladipo (and the No. 11 pick and Ersan Ilyasova) to be worthwhile, he has to be right that Elfrid Payton not only can play better defense than Oladipo, but also shoot some, too. If Payton fills that void and becomes a team leader, the Magic will be thrilled.

   

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Oladipo's departure also opens up a massive opportunity for Evan Fournier, who has flashed signs that he can be the elite scorer this team needs. Last season, Fournier raised his scoring average by almost four points per game and his shooting percentage by 45 percent after the All-Star break. He also showed signs of having the ability to score at crunch time. He's only 23, and if he seizes this opportunity instead of being satisfied that he just got an $85 million contract, Fournier could wind up a fresh face high among the NBA's scoring leaders.

    

1. Miami Heat

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 11:  Aaron Brooks #0 of the Chicago Bulls shoots against Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat on March 11, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

What's going on here?

Who knows? Being with or without Chris Bosh is a big deal, and that situation has yet to be clarified. What we do know is that Pat Riley's move to acquire Goran Dragic in 2015 is going to be made or broken this season. With Dwyane Wade gone, the Heat will play faster so Dragic can do more—a look we saw some in the playoffs against the Raptors.

    

What would make this season a success?

Hassan Whiteside becoming a star. Riley is about going for the gusto, and Whiteside's upside is imperative for the Heat to be great again. Now that he's secured a four-year, $98 million deal, Whiteside will get every opportunity to pile up insane stats, and all the questions about whether he's serious about his craft will be answered.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

If Bosh plays while on blood-thinning medication to deal with his blood clots, a lot of eyes will be on him—and not just because he has been one of the league's best players for years. And with two-thirds of the Big Three playing in the Midwest, Bosh—assuming he is healthy—will get the chance to be a leader in a way he surrendered by leaving Toronto. With little word from the Heat, though, those are theoretical questions at this time. 

   

Coming soon: Silver (teams in the playoff hunt) and Gold (title contenders) medal hopefuls.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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