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What’s at stake for eight teams in NBA play-in

All eight teams in the play-in — which tips-off Tuesday night — entered this season with much higher expectations than having to escape the play-in and earn their way into the playoffs. Four of them are about to be on their way to Cabo by Friday night.

Failing to reach expectations leads to firings and changes in the NBA — what is at stake for the teams in this year’s play-in? Let’s break it down by team, and we’ll start in the West (by seed) and move east.

New Orleans Pelicans

It took a punch to the gut from the Lakers during the In-Season Tournament to wake this team up, but Zion Williamson got serious and in better shape, Willie Green put the ball in his hands as a point forward, and the Pelicans have looked for stretches like one of the most dangerous teams in the West.

Missing out on the playoffs entirely would be another punch to the gut, but it could spur the front office to make more moves. The Pelicans core is solid and its needs are clear: A rim-protecting big who can space the floor a little and play with Zion, plus more shooting. If they fall in the play-in, it will be because of a lack of those things — Anthony Davis and the Lakers size inside gave them issues on Sunday. However, even with Jonas Valanciunas coming off the books, the Pelicans don’t have cap space because Zion, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum all make more than $33 million. The front office is going to need to be creative, but look for moves aggressive moves this summer New Orleans, this team’s time is now.

Los Angeles Lakers

No team — and no coach — is under more pressure in the play-in than Darvin Ham and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers were gifted LeBron James playing at an All-NBA level at age 39 plus a relatively healthy, All-NBA/All-Defense level season from Anthony Davis and they are the No. 8 seed? It’s not good enough for a franchise that only hangs banners (even in-season tournament ones). Changes are coming. There are rumblings that Ham’s message and communication is wearing thin in the Lakers locker room and he could be the fall guy for this season (not GM Rob Pelinka, who seems to have a golden ticket with owner Jeanie Buss). It’s something to watch.

It’s no secret the Lakers are going to go big game hunting for a third star this summer, but who is available via trade (the Lakers don’t have the cap space to chase a free agent)? Trae Young? Donovan Mitchell? Whatever big names come up, expect the Lakers to go all in on a three-star system this summer and hope it works better than the Russell Westbrook experiment.

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento bet on continuity and what they got was mediocrity. It’s not that the team got noticeably worse — 48 wins last season, 46 this season, and their net rating was only 0.9 lower — but while the rest of the West got better the Kings stayed the same. Staying the same next season would be another step back in a West where Denver isn’t going anywhere, Oklahoma City and Minnesota are improving, Memphis will get healthy and be a contender again, both Houston and San Antonio are poised to make leaps and… you get the idea.

Whatever happens with the play-in, look for the Kings to be aggressive in the offseason. They were basically the runners-up for Pascal Siakam, so expect more moves like that. The Kings have picks and players they can trade, but this team needs more talent — and two-way talent that can defend. Staying the same isn’t an option.

Golden State Warriors

There are only so many Stephen Curry seasons left in which he continues to be an All-NBA-level player — the Warriors need to maximize their roster for those years. Ownership wants to balance that with getting out of the second apron of the luxury tax, if not the tax altogether.

Those conflicting goals lead to questions that are bigger than what happens in the play-in — although missing the playoffs would be a shocking reality for the four-time champs. The Warriors’ questions start with Klay Thompson, who has found his groove in the final months of the season. Can the Warriors afford to bring him back if getting the tax bill down is the goal? Can they afford to let him walk and still win? Chris Paul likely comes off the books, but does he re-sign at a lower number (he made $30 million this season)? Will the Warriors look to trade Andrew Wiggins? It feels like everything is on the table, but the Warriors will be aggressive in trying to get talent around Curry that can chase ring No. 5, even if from the outside that feels like a long shot and the dynasty years are over.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia could be the most dangerous team outside Boston in the East playoffs, a team with a dominant force in the paint in Joel Embiid and good role players around him. A run to the Eastern Conference Finals (at least) does not seem crazy, so long as they get out of the play-in. Fail to do that, and things will get interesting.

This also could be the team that sees the most upheaval in the East next summer regardless of the play-in. Sixers president Daryl Morey has set the 76ers up to have max cap space so he can chase a star wing to pair with Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. Paul George is the name that comes up the most (although Steve Ballmer may pay to keep him in Los Angeles and open his new arena), but if not him look for the Sixers to be aggressive trying to lure other players. The reality is Embiid’s window is short — how long can he stay healthy, and do they need to get him more in-season rest? — and Philadelphia has to maximize those years. No need to be concerned if Morey will be aggressive, he knows no other way.

Miami Heat

Miami has Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Terry Rozier locked up for next season, plus Jaime Jaquez should take a step forward off his rookie campaign. That’s an impressive core, but one that again has them coming out of the play-in this season. That didn’t stop them from reaching the Finals last season, but the Heat don’t want to make a habit of it. This is a franchise that is hard to predict because they have the players — Duncan Robinson, Tyler Hero — to put in a trade if the right one comes along, but the Heat will be patient and smart, as always. They could go bold, or they could run this group back with some tweaks, grabbing a little-discussed player who makes a giant leap forward under them. Either way, any team with Butler and Bam will worry East opponents come the playoffs.

Chicago Bulls

What is the plan in Chicago?

Would not making the playoffs change anything?

We keep waiting for an admission this roster doesn’t fit, followed by a teardown and rebuild. We’ve been waiting for a while, either because ownership doesn’t want to they are filling the building and making money (the most likely reality, no matter what is said publicly), or the front office believes this core can work. The big questions this summer are will they find a trade for Zach LaVine that jumpstarts whatever is next? And, will they re-sign DeMar DeRozan or is he out as a free agent?

We thought we would get answers to those questions last summer and at the February trade deadline, yet here we are. Do we get answers this summer?

Atlanta Hawks

Whatever happens in the play-in, big changes are coming to Atlanta this summer. It’s no secret that the Hawks plan to test the trade market for Trae Young, but league sources told NBC Sports that more teams are interested in the well-rounded play of Dejounte Murray (plus, he has a more reasonable contract). Atlanta will trade one of them and retool the roster around the other, meaning big changes are coming. What happens in the play-in will not change that momentum.