NBA Tiers of Contention: Teams in the Playoff Hunt in 2016-17

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterSeptember 27, 2016

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 10: Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks box out Rudy Gay #8 of the Sacramento Kings on December 10, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. 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 Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

We began our NBA training camp preview with a look at the bottom 10 teams. (Sorry about that, Brooklyn. But your new alternate uniforms are fabulous!)

Now up are the teams that could have memorable seasons if a lot of things break right—and utterly forgettable seasons if those same things break wrong.

In 2016 Olympic lingo, the following 10 teams project to get Bleacher Report's NBA silver medals for being in the middle tier of the league…

    

SILVER MEDAL TIER    

10. Chicago Bulls

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 29:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Chicago Bulls is introduced at a press conference on July 29, 2016 at the Advocate Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photo
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

What's going on here?

Almost like a final relationship breakup, it can be awfully hard to commit to a full rebuilding process. When the Bulls were given reason to put theirs off, they opted to postpone dealing with the coldest days of rebuilding winter. Admittedly, it's tempting to give fans the chance to see whether Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade can turn the considerable tide. But these half-hearted refittings almost never go well, and Jimmy Butler's ownership of the team (and Jerian Grant's chance to run the offense) will be inhibited, too.

    

What would make this season a success?

Rondo turns Taj Gibson into Kevin Garnett, and Wade forms a productive scoring partnership with Butler. It's undeniable that Rondo and Wade have genius basketball IQs and are motivated to prove that they've still got it. It's also true that Rondo and Wade—unlike Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, both of whom are now in New York—have won at the highest NBA level. A touch of the old passing magic from Rondo (the old defending efforts seem too much to ask) and the old scoring creativity from Wade (his defense last season in Miami might've been worse than Rondo's in Sacramento) would at least bring a different flavor of fun in Chicago, where the Rose era grew stale.

     

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Denzel Valentine. The fact that we keep talking about who is affected by Rondo and Wade (poor Doug McDermott had to bequeath his beloved No. 3 jersey as a sacrifice to honor Wade) shows how bringing those two in has completely shifted the focus of the team. Valentine, the 14th overall pick, won't have quite as much of a chance to perpetuate his myth-making aura from Michigan State, but he's the sort of all-heart player with whom Chicago could fall in love.

    

9. Dallas Mavericks

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 21:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball against Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during game three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on April
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

What's going on here?

Rick Carlisle proved yet again last season that he is better than the average basketball coach, producing a winning record at a time when Dirk Nowitzki's relevant days seemed done. Mark Cuban even went into the year aware that tanking might be wise. This season, the Mavs have a bit more dependable talent than they did a year ago, when Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews weren't healthy. Dallas is due for a steep decline at some point, but Carlisle won't make it easy, not with a 38-year-old Hall of Famer who can still produce without having to work too hard.

    

What would make this season a success?

A solid return on the Harrison Barnes investment. Few know how to ignore noise and focus on value better than Cuban, so he's well aware of how many open shots the Warriors' system offered to make Barnes look good—and how bad Barnes was to finish the playoffs. Still, plenty of NBA insiders wondered before last season if Barnes, just the sort of all-purpose wing teams covet, might turn out to be more consistent if he's expected to be more aggressive. He'll get that chance this season.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

It didn't take long for Matthews to win over Mavericks fans the way he did Trail Blazers fans with a well-earned reputation of trying to do whatever it takes to win every moment and every game. That's probably why he was more beloved in Portland than LaMarcus Aldridge. And it's why Matthews returned from an Achilles tear to play 78 of 82 games last season. If anyone can be expected to live up to his big contract in Dallas, it's Matthews.

    

8. Portland Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 7:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers and C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers stand for the national anthem before the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals du
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What's going on here?

As unwavering as Damian Lillard is in his determination, there are reasons to expect slippage after Portland's strong showing last season. After flipping preseason predictions of doom into a playoff spot, C.J. McCollum and so many other Blazers will be better scouted from the get-go this time around. No more sneaking up on anyone. Head coach Terry Stotts will need to find new wrinkles to keep opponents backpedaling and deploy his deep frontcourt with laser focus yet again.

    

What would make this season a success?

McCollum emerged last season to provide Lillard with a partner who could share the offensive load. Now it's time for someone in the frontcourt to be more than pretty good some nights. Meyers Leonard, 24, got four years and $41 million to prove he is ready to make a Steven Adams-like leap to prominence. Leonard's sweet shot in a 7'1" package makes it possible. Now heading into his fifth NBA season, it's on him to wrest playing time away from all the other capable power forwards and centers Stotts has: Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Festus Ezeli and Ed Davis.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

With no NBA teams in Seattle or Vancouver these days, Weber State four-year ace Lillard is well on his way to being the basketball beacon for the great Northwest. A signature pitchman for Adidas, Lillard has come to embody the fierce underdog, a role built in part on a string of near misses for All-Star teams and USA Basketball rosters. Don't underestimate what this guy can do. There is a risk, however, in being "The Man," and Lillard's less than stellar defense shows a willingness to let some details slide while trying to raise his overall stock. If opponents start targeting Lillard's teammates more, it wouldn't be a shock if his shot selection became more haphazard.

    

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL26:  Tom Thibodeau, President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves speaks to the media on April 26, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
David Sherman/Getty Images

What's going on here?

All of those cold, quiet nights at Target Center since Kevin Garnett's fire raged its wildest have led to the present: Everyone loves the Timberwolves, and Tom Thibodeau has come to town to coach them to greatness. Except…this team isn't quite ready. With Garnett having just retired, that leaves Ricky Rubio as the team's lone relevant veteran. And while he does have five years of NBA experience, he isn't nasty enough or consistently healthy enough to push this team. That makes Minnesota capable of spectacular highlights as well as head-scratching mistakes. But that's the whole point of being young, isn't it?

    

What would make this season a success?

Across-the-board progress by the youngsters, which would probably bring a breakthrough playoff berth with it. By now, most intelligent basketball people have become aware of how much more important and amazing Karl-Anthony Towns is than Andrew Wiggins. But there's plenty of reason to be dazzled by Wiggins' skill and impressed by Zach LaVine's drive. There's also reason to be confident Gorgui Dieng is versatile enough to play next to Towns and reason to be sold on Kris Dunn becoming the latest four-year college guy to rock the NBA. Major progress from all of them is absolutely possible.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Rubio isn't done yet, but he's running out of time and opportunities. How will the oft-ferocious Thibs affect sweet-eyed Rubio, who was shaken much of last season by his mother's lung cancer? She died May 25, and he learned to play without her around in the Olympics. Is he ready to make more of his tremendous talent in the NBA? Passing and stealing is nifty, but a point guard who shoots 36.8 percent for his career is untenable in today's league. And with Dunn on board, the pressure will be on Rubio to advance his game.

    

6. Atlanta Hawks

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 14:  Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks poses for a photo on July 14, 2016 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consent
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

What's going on here?

Al Horford is a mature man with the varied skill set and legitimate desire to find ways to make his teammates look better next to him. Dwight Howard has struggled to deviate from his personal strengths and see the world from others' perspectives. So while the Hawks didn't seem to suffer a total catastrophe in an offseason that included Kent Bazemore eschewing more money to stay, the Horford-for-Howard free-agent swap could be a major drain on team karma—unless Howard, 30, proves he is ready to make the most of his old comfort zone at home in Atlanta.

    

What would make this season a success?

Howard being a two-way star again. Simple as that. The Hawks were intrigued by the idea of Howard giving them a more traditional San Antonio Spurs look from the past, but is Howard the dominant rim-protecting big man Atlanta is expecting? The days of him averaging just shy of three blocks per game in his prime Orlando years appear long gone. And over his last three seasons in Houston, Howard saw his block average fall to under two per game. On offense, he hasn't embraced the idea of being a rolling big man either. On the bright side, he's still only 30, at home and with a franchise comfortable with making him the focal point of the team, so a bounce-back campaign isn't out of the question.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

There is no doubt Dennis Schroder is ready. In that sense, the trade of Jeff Teague to the Pacers came at the right time. Basketball fans will enjoy seeing Schroder's flash and confidence knowing he has all of the minutes he wants. But he also just turned 23 and will be tasked with making sure Howard, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver get their shots at the right times. That subtle part of his job might determine whether Schroder is just interesting or truly in command.

5. Indiana Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 29:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers battles for a loose ball with Delon Wright #55 of the Toronto Raptors in game six of the 2016 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NO
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What's going on here?

For years, Larry Bird has been trying to make the Pacers play faster, and with Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young joining a lineup that includes Paul George and Monta Ellis, he may have the recipe he wants. How much the change will cost the Pacers is the question, though, with Frank Vogel and his deliberate but defensively sound principles pushed out in favor of new coach Nate McMillan. Even if there are transition pains, the one thing Indiana can count on is George. The intensity with which he tried to be the tone-setting defensive maven when the USA Basketball team started gearing up for what would be a gold-medal Olympic run was the latest proof George, entering his prime now at age 26, demands dominance from himself one way or another. That could cover for any number of hiccups McMillan and his team suffer as they learn one another's ways.

What would make this season a success?

What a difference it would make if young, springy big man Myles Turner were ready to combine with George for an inside-outside, one-two punch. Turner has that aspiration in just his second season, and his 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 22.8 minutes for Frank Vogel last year suggest the potential. The 3.3 blocks per game he averaged during Indiana's first-round series against the Toronto Raptors hammered that potential home.

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Al Jefferson is an NBA dinosaur. Back-to-the-basket big men who move glacially are not in demand, especially if they aren't bouncy rim protectors. So why did the Pacers give Jefferson, 31, a three-year, $30 million contract? He's more of a professional than outgoing Jordan Hill and Ian Mahinmi, that's why. And there's something to be said for a bench guy who can get your second unit a decent shot just about any time.

    

4. Washington Wizards

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards talk during the game against the Toronto Raptors during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the NBA playoffs at Verizon Center on April 26, 2015 in Was
G Fiume/Getty Images

What's going on here?

Randy Wittman's exit was long overdue. Now Scott Brooks is being asked to create the sort of comfortable, confidence-boosting atmosphere for players that he did with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. And boy is it needed. A report this summer of the disconnect between John Wall and Bradley Beal offered more evidence of how rare it is for a point guard and shooting guard to have both of their games take off at the same time. But Brooks was able to guide Durant and Westbrook onto the same productive page, and there was a lot bigger spotlight in Oklahoma City than there is on this Wizards team, so there is reason to believe he can get the Wizards' duo pointed in a direction the team can build around.

    

What would make this season a success?

Given that the idea for years was to plug Durant in at small forward, it's kind of silly to say the guys the Wizards have on this roster can succeed by comparison. But Brooks is high on both Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr., believing their length and athleticism can make Washington one of the few dynamic defensive teams at the wing position. It's not merely wishful thinking. Porter, after all, was the third overall pick in 2013, and Oubre was considered one of the better athletes in the 2015 draft.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Markieff Morris came to Washington at last season's trade deadline with a negative reputation. But with the Wizards, he wasn't an issue in the locker room nor on the floor, where he improved his shooting mark from 39.7 percent in Phoenix last season to 46.7 percent. The team won more with him, but not enough to make the playoffs. A motivated Morris, though, far removed from the controversy that surrounded him in Phoenix, could change that in a ho-hum Eastern Conference.

    

3. Milwaukee Bucks

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 13: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles the basketball up the court on a fast break during the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at BMO Harris Bradley Center on April 13, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NO
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

What's going on here?

While the Philadelphia 76ers begin their experiment right off the bat of seeing how much control Ben Simmons should get of their offense, the Bucks are entering their first full season of unleashing Giannis Antetokounmpo as their point forward. His numbers might be mind-blowing; his dominance at age 21 could be franchise-changing. He hopes to bring an improved three-point shot to the table this season, too. And if his long-range game still needs polish, the Bucks did add legit long-range shooters in Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry for Antetokounmpo to set up.

    

What would make this season a success?

That buzz over Greg Monroe choosing a small-market destination in free agency quickly turned into a deafening silence. Because Monroe protected his decision with a player option in 2017, the Bucks have no choice but to consider trading him this season. What a wonderful match, huh? Well, winning would change a lot of tunes. The Bucks would love to find a workable solution, whatever it is. The end goals come a lot easier if Monroe is typically efficient on offense, even if Milwaukee isn't as committed to pounding it to him in the post. But just as important is him being atypically active on defense.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Being injured in Milwaukee would cause anyone to vanish from the basketball spotlight, but after a slow start last season, Jabari Parker played quite well late in the year once the Bucks fell out of playoff contention. The No. 2 overall pick in 2014 is the restaurant chef who deserves for critics to visit him again. Parker further refined his game as part of the youthful USA Basketball select team before the Olympics, and he was undeniably impressive. He will be better than you expect in the coming season.

     

2. Houston Rockets

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets watches on as the Houston Rockets face the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 Las Vegas Summer League on July 13, 2016 at The Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

What's going on here?

Truly talented people with chips on their shoulders make for a potentially pyrotechnic tandem. James Harden and Mike D'Antoni really want this to work for the NBA to appreciate anew what they do so well. Don't be surprised to see Harden become a top MVP candidate again with all that D'Antoni will encourage him to do. Without Dwight Howard to feed in the post, the Rockets will open a lot of eyes with how well they flow. The three-pointers will be sailing in from everywhere courtesy of Patrick Beverley (40 percent last season), Trevor Ariza (37.1 percent), Ryan Anderson (36.6 percent) and Eric Gordon (38.4 percent) playing with Harden.

     

What would make this season a success?

As potent as this D'Antoni-Harden offensive partnership may be, this team must defend adequately for anything to matter in the standings. The onus is on third-year center Clint Capela to change and block shots as the last line of defense, and Capela has shown in the past he is eager to challenge whatever he can. Another important element at work here: An improved team chemistry on offense will go a long way toward an improved defensive cohesion.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

It seems as if Gordon has been around forever, yet he's just 27. Injuries have hindered his career, but no one in the NBA is as well-suited for the job he is assuming now. Gordon is a special scorer who will convert open looks from Harden and pick his spots otherwise, all while coming off the bench and not having to overexert himself. Hello, 2016-17 NBA Sixth Man of the Year.

    

1. New York Knicks

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 24:  Derrick Rose is introduced at a press conference as the newest member of the New York Knicks on June 24, 2016 in New York, NY. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph,
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

What's going on here?

A lot of hoping and wishing. The Derrick Rose who won the MVP in 2011-12 and the Joakim Noah who was named 2014 first-team All-NBA center are figures of the past. However, Rose is healthy and playing for a contract, and Noah likely is motivated after overhauling his body for a big bounce-back year last season only to find new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg didn't have a consistent role for him. So there are valid reasons to believe Rose and Noah can bring their levels back up now that they have come to the Knicks. There also are valid reasons—health, chemistry, off-court distractionswhy the newcomers and the team could fall apart.

     

What would make this season a success?

Jeff Hornacek shaping this roster into a cohesive unit. If Phil Jackson is qualified to do anything, it should be making sure his team is well-coached. Like Rose and Noah, Hornacek has a nice line on his resume: 2014 NBA Coach of the Year runner-up (to Gregg Popovich). Hornacek is also looking for redemption himself after Markieff Morris derailed Hornacek's Suns team. That level of sabotage shouldn't happen in New York, especially with Carmelo Anthony demonstrating a new level of responsibility in his willingness to take Kristaps Porzingis under his wing while speaking out publicly about social justice issues. This is a group that should have plenty of motivation to set aside agendas and win.

    

Who's the most interesting player on the team?

Brandon Jennings is a character, and the Knicks actually could use one of those to spice things up. But Porzingis is still the most interesting guy on this roster. What other dimensions will Porzingis unveil in his second season? Posting up more and flipping in easy buckets using his 7'3" frame to improve his 42.1 field-goal percentage? Ratcheting up his blocks from nearly two per game to nearly three? Or fading a bit from prominence amid the upgraded talent around him as Jackson tries to give Anthony a winner as soon as possible?

    

Coming next week: the Gold tier (the top 10 teams in the NBA)

    

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

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