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Los Angeles Lakers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Here’s to new beginnings as the Los Angeles Lakers embark on their seasonal voyage without the services of one Kobe Bean Bryant for the first time in 20 years. While no one within the organization was looking to kick dirt on his basketball grave, it is understandable if there is at least a slight amount of collective relief among the players as they head into a season with a significantly lower amount of expectations than this franchise is accustomed to. Any 17-win team coming off back-to-back-to-back “worst season ever” showings should be afforded such a luxury no matter what name is on the front of the jersey.

Diehard fans may still struggle to maintain perspective at times, but the freedom that should come from simply being free of the scrutiny that was a result of the extended farewell tour should be liberating for all parties. Newly hired head coach Luke Walton made it clear he intends to judge this team by the progress it shows rather than wins and losses. That’s because while he is obviously new to his official role, he also realizes the pressure that will already be on a team headlined by a second-year point guard and rookie scoring prospect. On top of that, Los Angeles will feverishly be looking for someone to ascend from the pack as the team’s new leader and wear the de facto “face of the franchise” tag.

The veteran additions of forward Luol Deng and center Timofey Mozgov should help with some of the transitioning, but there is obviously a ton of work to do in terms of reestablishing the team’s identity. Walton knows those things have to happen somewhat organically and wants to not only permit the process to take place, but also be afforded the same patience as he adjusts to life at the helm of a talented but still unproven team.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The dream of Russell Westbrook may have died, but with Brandon Ingram joining a core of youngsters that includes D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have reason to be optimistic about their future.

Timofey Mozgov became the poster child of the questionable contract, but he will absolutely fill a need for the Lakers this season. Though well past their primes, Luol Deng and Jose Calderon are each professionals who have been around the block in the NBA, and both know what it takes to be successful in the league.

The first season of the post-Kobe Bryant era will have one less distraction and could possibly result in more wins after just 17 last season. With Luke Walton presumably installing a free-flowing system that will help keep the young guns in Los Angeles loose and engaged, we will likely see some of the talent accumulated pay off this season. Depending on how steep the learning curve is, the Lakers may surprise a few this season and show some fight. The Warriors and Clippers are still far outside their reach, but they should be competitive for the third seed in the division. I’d still be inclined to put the Kings above them since they have the best player, but even that is no guarantee.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Los Angeles Lakers enter the upcoming season without Kobe Bryant for the first time in roughly two decades. This really is the beginning of a new era for the proud franchise and its fans. Fortunately, the team features a core of young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. This strong nucleus will be led by rookie head coach Luke Walton, who will need to do a better job communicating with and developing the young guys than his predecessor Byron Scott did. The team also added veteran free agents Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, plus made a deal for Jose Calderon. Deng and Mozgov were given a lot of money over the next four years, so the Lakers will need real production on the court from these guys and not just leadership in the locker room. Despite overpaying for Deng and Mozgov, the Lakers finally have a path towards rebuilding their team and a bright young coach to lead the way.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Lakers fans are ready to see this team turn the corner, and with young talent just dripping from the roster it’s easy to see why they’re so excited. Brandon Ingram’s name often is whispered in the same sentence as Kevin Durant’s, D’Angelo Russell could be on the brink of something really interesting this season, and we know what kind of young talents the team has in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. On the other hand, they also excitedly doled out the summer’s worst contract to Timofey Mozgov and brought Chinese star Yi Jianlian back into the NBA after his exile spanning the better part of the last four seasons. There’s some fascinating young talent, but outside of Jose Calderon, Luol Deng and Yi, the “youngster” theme on this roster is pretty overwhelming. That means no matter how badly the Lakers faithful want to believe things will turn around quickly, they probably won’t, but at least they can sleep at night knowing things are back on the right track. It’s just going to take some time for it all to marinate.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Lakers will head into training camp without the presence of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant. Through a combination of injuries and Father Time, the franchise has been prepared to move on to the next chapter for quite some time now. The Lakers have plenty of young talent with Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, and this summer the club invested in veteran free agent talent to surround their youth movement. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will be expected to help the young Lakers grow up and mature into top flight professionals and rookie head coach Luke Walton promises to remove the security blanket and throw his youngsters into the fire early. The Lakers will begin life after Bryant on the right foot, but unfortunately it won’t translate into significantly more wins in the short term.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

All eyes will be on Luke Walton as he makes his head coaching debut with the Lakers this season. Walton did a terrific job with the Warriors when called upon, but many people wonder if his success was simply due to the star-laden roster. This is Walton’s opportunity to show what he can do and silence his doubters. Talking to players this summer, it’s clear that Walton has already started to change the team’s culture and everyone seems excited to play his brand of basketball. This is an intriguing team – a mix of young talent and experienced veterans – but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers seriously competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season. Instead, this year is about getting Walton comfortable, turning things over to him and developing the young core as they buy in to the new system.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s important to note this isn’t solely asking which player will lead the team in scoring, although Russell should certainly have the ball in his hands enough to also challenge for that honor. The Lakers not only need Russell to be a multi-faceted and efficient scorer, but they’ll also need their 20-year-old point guard to be the type of floor general and leader that can also create offensive scoring opportunities for his teammates (3.3 assists per game as a rookie in 28.2 minutes per contest) while fostering a positive chemistry on the court and in the locker room. A tall task for any player, but especially for one as relatively inexperienced as Russell. Regardless, that’s the role these Lakers will need him to fill as they lay the new foundation.

Top Defensive Player: Luol Deng

Serious thought went into placing Ingram in this position given his potential to actually make a serious impact on that side of the ball as well, but he’ll undoubtedly face his fair share of growing pains as he continues to add strength and size to his frame. Deng may be new to the Los Angeles Mix, but the 31-year-old remains an above-average defender that can be utilized at several positions depending upon the matchup. Oft-injured during the middle section of career, the Lakers will also need him to display the type of durability that allowed him to play 72 or more games in each of the last two seasons for Miami.

Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell

Like we mentioned, the Lakers need Russell to be special. No other way to put it. The “ice in my veins” moments are great and will always be a part of the Sports Center package, but this team needs more steak than sizzle moving forward. Russell (13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG as a rookie) is a better athlete than initially given credit and appears to be in better shape than he was at this point heading into his rookie campaign. Russell was a bit turnover prone at times as a rookie and saw his playing time and role fluctuate as a result, but the team has to hope the added conditioning and perhaps a slightly longer rope from the new staff could result in an increase in his overall productivity this season.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

Although unfair to expect a rookie player to “place the team on his back” with any regularity, one of the main reasons the Lakers drafted Ingram was because of his impressive offensive skill-set for a man of his size. Listed at 6’9 and likely right around 200-205 pounds by the time training camp starts later this month, Ingram can shoot over the top of most defenders as well as put the ball down and create off the dribble. Once he possesses the necessary strength to physically compete against the tougher or heavier opponents, this young man is going to be a matchup nightmare – throughout the flow of the game, but obviously in “clutch” moments as well. This team may not have all that many opportunities for moments of that nature this season, but Ingram could be one of the guys they look to go to from an early point in the year.

The Unheralded Player: Larry Nance Jr.

As beloved and appreciated as Nance Jr. is by the fan base on social media, it still feels like a good portion of folks not covering the team and outside of the market doesn’t realize how effective Nance Jr. could ultimately be under Walton. He’s much more than simply a high-flying act, as the 23-year-old former Wyoming Cowboy continues expanding his shooting range and has better touch around the basket than you might think. Nance Jr.’s greatest contribution could actually end up being on the defensive end and on the backboards, especially if he is able to earn additional playing time (20.2 MPG as a rookie in ‘15-16). He’s a high-energy guy that can not only be a disruptor near the basket and in the passing lanes, but also someone that will change ends with the quickest of big men and finish over the top of plenty as well.

Best New Addition: Brandon Ingram

We certainly don’t mean to be repetitive, and while cases could be made for Deng’s eventual impact and even how Mozgov could make a difference as a rim protector and in mentoring other young bigs like second-round pick Ivica Zubac (purple and gold fingers crossed, probably), the reality is Ingram is the best player they added this summer. They took him with the second overall pick because of that fact. Ingram is oozing with talent and potential and isn’t done growing into his frame.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Luke Walton

Walton returns to the organization after actually being traded away as a player at the 2012 deadline. Obviously, his path led him to even brighter things as a member of that successful Golden State Warriors’ staff over the past couple seasons, but few remember that his coaching career technically started back during the 2011 lockout when he took a position as an assistant under John Pastner and the same Memphis Tigers program that featured the exploits of a young Tarik Black. It’s almost shocking how quickly we’ve come full-circle, as Walton now has the opportunity to coach Black and this talented group of players for the organization he experienced so much success with as a player.

Walton may no longer have the luxury of coaching a team that is immediately within the title mix, but he’s certainly not returning to bare cupboards in terms of talent to work with. With any young coach, especially those also faced with the challenge of guiding primarily young talent, fans and the organization must have patience with this process since there will undoubtedly be games that lead to questions in the early going. Beyond the need to end the trend of having a revolving door on the bench (Walton is the fourth head coach since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011), he’s being asked to oversee a total shift in culture and direction. Players are noticeably excited about the opportunity to play in his new system, which is obviously a good thing, but now comes the time to actually adapt the approach and learn how Walton wants the game played.

While much has been made about how well the offense will fit some of these players, the real challenge for Walton and staff will be in establishing a defensive identity with this roster. Not only will this staff have to continue teaching defensive principles, but they’ll also be tasked with the duty of convincing young players to take as much (if not more) pride in shutting someone down as they take in scoring on them. It may take time, but Walton is definitely equipped with a strong supporting cast of assistants to ease his transition into the head role. Former Laker player/coach Brian Shaw joins Jesse Mermuys and Mark Madsen, who was also retained by the organization. Casey Owens and Will Scott have also reportedly been promoted into assistant and coordinator roles as well.

2. Julius Randle

Perhaps the most interesting roster “battle” – or at least positional juxtaposition – could come from Randle and Nance Jr. While significantly chiseled and in much better shape than when he joined the organization, Randle is still a guy that wants to lower his shoulder and bull-rush you around the basket. Injury to his right hand aside, Randle has reportedly been working like a madman to improve all facets of his game this summer. Being able to keep the defense in a vulnerable position by continuing to add touch and range on his shot will likely be key to his ultimate success on the offensive end at this level, but he also needs to take a step forward as a defender. He was a walking double-double in ‘15-16 (34 total) and was at least willing to challenge at the rim some of the time, but fell prone to the same lapses, poor angles and improper footwork that tend to plague young defenders. He also tended to get himself into early foul trouble due to those undisciplined tactics and poor positioning, especially early in the year.

Playing alongside more able-bodied defenders could and probably should help, but Randle will also need to improve his attention to detail and at least provide a consistent effort on that end if he wants to keep Nance Jr., Deng and others from potentially taking some of his playing time. It wasn’t exactly clear why the last coaching staff didn’t look to utilize more Russell-to-Randle pick-and-roll action – if for no reason other than to simply make scoring a bit easier for him – but we should probably expect to see more of it moving forward. Being able to effectively score around the bucket with his right hand and spread the defense out with the jumpshot are each vital, but sometimes giving a young player that extra space or step with some good pick-and-roll action can also make the difference simply from a confidence and comfort standpoint. The concern could have been with Randle’s ability to change directions once he gets his momentum going, but the 21-year-old did show improvement with his awareness and body control throughout the year.

If you’re the Lakers, you might secretly love the idea of Nance Jr. functioning as a driving force behind Randle. As someone who has actually shown a fair amount of poise and maturity at an early age, Randle seems to possess a singular focus on simply being the best player he can be, and that will permit him to embrace the challenge in a manner that should be positive for both parties. The two of them could wind up pushing one another to the next level as players, and that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

3. Jordan Clarkson

Due to the traffic sensational headlines can garner during the free agency period, Clarkson’s four year, $50 million deal was somewhat swept under the rug this summer, but it has the potential to become an absolutely phenomenal value contract for this team. Clarkson (15.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG in ’15-16) may not have had the chance to join his teammates on Team USA’s Select squad, but that doesn’t mean the young man hasn’t been putting in serious work in the gym and weight room this summer. Fans and opponents alike may be in for a surprise when they see the results of his dedicated workout regimen as the third-year guard really appears to be exhausting all efforts in order to continue improving.

Clarkson was impressive as a rookie, particularly for a late second-round pick the Lakers actually purchased from the Wizards. He showed a solid level of improvement in year two, but if the 24-year-old can take yet another step as a playmaker and defender under the new regime then his deal would quickly become a steal. You don’t simply become a solid perimeter defender overnight, but Clarkson shows the physical tools of someone that is far more capable than he’s been in that department through two years.

The freedom of the new system will also need to come with discipline. Clarkson can get a bit “out over his skis” when attacking at times, but he can be the type of interchangeable player you want when adopting a less constrained system. He was up to 34.7 percent from deep with about as disjointed an offensive system as you can imagine, and should see far more quality looks moving forward. If Clarkson can consistently knock down the deep ball while developing into a player that can at least adequately defend a couple positions (as is the ultimate hope), the Lakers will be in business.

4. D’Angelo Russell

If Russell is truly that transcendent type of player that some scouts and analysts believed he could be when coming into the league, then we should start to see significant strides in his game on both sides of the ball as early as this year. Last year may have appeared to be an unmitigated disaster considering his difficulties with professionalism, with maintaining his role and even position on the court at times, but Russell did show some real flashes of brilliance at certain moments. Not quite enough to offset some of the sophomoric behavior and antics for some, but he was able to do enough to make the organization at least appear to remain comfortable with the idea of Russell at the helm.

Russell showed a clear ability to shoot the ball from distance at this level as the season wore on (38.8 percent or 57/147 from the start of February through the end of the season) and actually has a nice post-up and mid-post game you should probably anticipate seeing more and more of (especially against small or smallish opponents – yes, you, Isaiah Thomas and the like), but we have yet to see him consistently embrace being a playmaker as a Laker. After being intoxicated by comparisons to greats like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd when it came to his passing, it seemed as though Russell was a bit more comfortable attacking NBA defenders as a scorer than he was with generating offense for others.

To be clear, the 2015-16 Lakers didn’t have an awful lot of players capable of capitalizing on his creativity, but Russell also appeared to struggle against defenders that applied heavy pressure at times and he often adopted the “put your head down and go get a bucket” mentality many of today’s top scoring guards employ. With Walton likely to utilize a system similar to the one he was a part of in Golden State, there should be plenty of opportunities for Russell to display just how much ice his veins possess, but these Lakers need him to be dynamic and all-around offensive presence he was once advertised as being if they are to take the next step as a unit.

5. Brandon Ingram

We’d ask everyone to write, “I will not unfairly expect Ingram to immediately play like Kevin Durant” 100 times on the chalkboard if we thought it might help… but it won’t. Not with Ingram being built so similarly and being such a capable scorer at the same position. Especially not with guys like Durant himself making mention of it, as he did when the two faced one another during this summer’s Team USA training camp. While fans can’t be faulted for finding it difficult to curb their enthusiasm when it comes to this team, it will do all parties involved a service if a bit of patience is utilized with Ingram.

He’ll undoubtedly have some nights that look incredible along the way, but they’ll probably be balanced with some rough ones against certain teams, especially in the early portion of the season as he adjusts to the pace and physicality. As a swingman, Ingram is not only going to have to figure out how to consistently score against top defenders and schemes expressly designed with limiting his comfort in mind, but he’ll also be charged with the responsibility of at least slowing down some of the league’s most dynamic scorers on the other end.

Much like the reality that Russell was faced with as a rookie, Ingram will likely see a steady diet of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Andrew Wiggins, Gordon Hayward and probably even Rodney Hood all within the first 30 days of the regular season. Good luck with that.

“Don’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows” may be one of the more commonly used clichés in sports when dealing with a young team or player, but it will need to be the approach taken with Ingram and most of these players. As long as they continue to show progress along the way, that’s all that can be fairly asked. If what we’ve seen from Ingram while a member at the University of Duke and during the Last Vegas Summer League are any indication of what is to come, then we have a feeling fans will be more than willing to wait for his total development.

6. Luol Deng

While Deng’s contract partially swept up in the general disappointment and outcry over the Lakers failing to bring in some of the summer’s top names, he is actually a really good addition to this team. He may be 31 and have some miles on his body, but as mentioned, he remains a relatively versatile defender that can be depended upon to knock down the deep ball at a respectable level (34.4 percent in ‘15-16, 35.5 in ‘14-15). Whether he’s used primarily at the small forward or Walton elects to move him around according to the lineup and opponent, Deng’s value won’t be limited to the box score.

He is the perfect guy for a locker room in need of guidance and professionalism. Last year in Miami really exemplified how Deng has somewhat seamlessly transitioned from being a primary focus and one of the main options of the offense – as he was throughout his time in Chicago – to a jack-of-all-trades member of the supporting cast. Quite honestly, it could have made a bit more sense for a player of Deng’s capability to join a roster that is closer to being an immediate playoff team.

However, Deng makes sense for L.A. While developing young talent, you need a glue guy like Deng to contribute and hold things together during the difficult periods that will come over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Similar to what guys like Joe Johnson (Utah Jazz) or even Al Jefferson (Indiana Pacers) did in accepting similar supporting roles, the fact that Deng decided to join this team at this time should absolutely be taken as a positive. Sure, money and the length of his deal (four years, $72 million) are factors, but Deng still has plenty to offer and could play a pivotal role in helping with the development of several others on the roster.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Lakers used cap space to acquire players like Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac and Yi Jianlian. Now over the cap, the Lakers still have their $2.9 million Room Exception – although their roster is full with 15 guaranteed players. The Lakers are looking to get out of Nick Young’s salary ($11.1 million over two years), which could open a roster spot for Zach Auguste, Travis Wear or Julian Jacobs.

Yi’s contract is unique in that it’s minimally guaranteed, ramping up by games played (20, 40 and 59), making Yi a potential trade piece starting Dec. 15. Looking ahead to next summer, the Lakers project to have at least $26.6 million in cap space, and more if they can get out of Young’s contract. That assumes the Lakers do not finish with a top-three pick in the 2017 lottery, instead sending their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers also have three easy decisions to make before November – the rookie-scale options for D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are all no-brainers.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The added talent will definitely help, but the refreshing feeling around the team with the new direction already appears to be taking effect. Although down the road there could be some revised appreciation for the time they played for the previous staff, to a man, the players have each expressed great optimism about the current trajectory. Also, as mentioned, while a certain level of pressure will always come with playing under the bright lights of Staples Center and for this organization in general, at least this team won’t have anyone truly expecting them to compete for a playoff spot in the ever-challenging Western Conference for at least another year or so. The transition to a more free-flowing and uptempo style should not only be a far more entertaining product for the fans, but should lead to guys actually having more fun while out there on the court.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Deng, Mozgov and perhaps Lou Williams aside, the majority of the core is still littered with early 20-somethings and guys that have less than three years of NBA experience. Randle was still in high school in 2013 and missed a year of action due to a leg fracture. As talented as he may be, Ingram was still playing high school basketball in Kinston, North Carolina in March of 2015. The NBA isn’t very forgiving on rookies and inexperienced players (see: last season), so there may be some games that look eerily similar to the more disappointing of nights over the past few seasons; but the main difference will be the team should actually be headed in a definitive direction these days. For fans, more disheartening than anything else over this stretch of futility was the fact that it at least appeared the front office may have been a bit lost over the past few years.

The decisiveness with which they locked in on Walton coupled with all the spoils of their recent inefficacy -whether gathered intentionally or with a bit of luck along the way- at least present the appearance of a stable and clear-cut plan. Their lowest point also happened to coincide with the league shifting both from a financial/structural and on-court standpoint. Laker fans may shake their heads in disapproval, but the truth of the matter is to have potentially turned it around in as quickly as four years on the heels of losing the organization’s long-time patriarch in Dr. Buss and having to figure out the eventual hierarchy, influence and control between two very different siblings in Jeanie and Jim Buss, all while watching an aging superstar transition away would be a bit of a miracle when all things are considered.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

The biggest question for this team will be: how long does it take them to individually develop so they can collectively improve? If a couple of the young guys were to actually take the next step on both sides of the ball while the other young prospects at least showed a steady rate of improvement, then a win-total as high as the upper-20s (or perhaps even low 30s if everything were to break somewhat favorably) is attainable. That prognosis may be a bit gloomy for some and is almost certain to outright anger others, but that’s why we’ve preached “perspective” throughout the preview. If the Lakers were to somehow reach a win range of even 28-32 games it would take a remarkable 11-15 game improvement from one season to the next, which would be a great accomplishment for any rebuilding team. Walton set the tone by establishing progress as his determining marker and that has to be the mindset and approach for everyone within the organization moving forward. This steady, even incremental advancement may be new for some of the younger amongst the fan base, but, by and large, these are the steps most franchises have to take when building a winner. The Lakers may not quite be there yet, but it is nice to see them headed in that direction once again.

– Jabari Davis

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NBA Daily: Playoff Implications In Week One

Douglas Farmer takes a quick look at a few matchups this NBA opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Douglas Farmer

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When the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the New Orleans Pelicans in last season’s first week, they had no way of knowing how costly the defeat would be. Flipping that 116-109 defeat, or any single one of the Clippers’ other 33 losses, would have kept Los Angeles from the buzzsaw of the Golden State Warriors in last spring’s first round.

That seems obvious now when every game feels important because it has been so long since any game has happened. But in no time, this week’s games will be diminished with “early season” qualifiers. They should not be. An October win has the same worth as an April victory. Losing before Halloween is as costly as falling after St. Patrick’s Day.

Some nights heighten those stakes even further. Facing the closest competition in the standings can have double the effect. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a few matchups this opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Tuesday: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – TNT.

To err on the side of obvious, as this is arguably the most-hyped game of the week, more than inane home-court advantage could be on the line in the second game of the league year. Neither Los Angeles team will have its full arsenal at its disposal, but that is part of the importance to the game: Both the Lakers and the Clippers have distinct hopes of managing their workloads this season. Getting off to a strong start is crucial to those intentions.

Consider last year’s Houston Rockets: If they had not struggled so mightily in October and November (not getting above .500 until Dec. 17), they would not have had to go pedal to the metal throughout the spring just to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Better seeding or fresher legs may have spelled better postseason fortune.

Wednesday: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers – 7:30 ET p.m. – ESPN.

The Eastern Conference pecking order is expected to separate these two, the Celtics among the also-rans while the 76ers chase the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed. For both, though, each game will matter. Boston will have the Toronto Raptors, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat all looking to slip by it, while the Bucks will inevitably rattle off enough wins to make Philadelphia’s pursuit a difficult one.

On top of that, studying how the wings of the Celtics fare against the size of the 76ers could be informative for both seasons.

Wednesday: Denver Nuggets at Portland Blazers, 10 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Perhaps only out of deference to continuity, both the Nuggets and the Blazers are trendy picks to finish among the top-four of the West. A year ago, they finished a game apart, only one game separating second-seeded Denver from falling to fourth in place of Houston.

Putting too much emphasis on one game the second night of the season may sound absurd, but the head-to-head matchups in this series will very likely determine playoff seeding among the league’s best. That is as true on Oct. 23 as it is on April 9.

Friday: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics – 7 p.m. ET.

Activate your League Pass subscription. While the defending champions may have lost a lot this summer, they still have playoff aspirations. By no means do those expectations equate to slipping in among the Eastern Conference’s barely-competent middle class. The Raptors anticipate fighting for home-court advantage. The Celtics hung on to such by one game last season. There is no reason to expect that gap to be bigger this year.

Friday: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET – ESPN.

The legitimacy of these playoff hopes may as much hinge on fall-off elsewhere in the West as the progress of these upstarts, but the odds of both the Mavericks and the Pelicans reaching the playoffs are slim. With or without Zion Williamson this week – and it’ll be without – New Orleans will need to boost its record while knocking Dallas’ early if it wants to find the postseason at the dawn of the Zion Era.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, are looking to prove the viability of the Luka Dončić and Kirstaps Porzingis pairing. Floundering into the draft lottery will not do much in the eyes of prospective free agents.

Friday: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Much akin to the Nuggets and Blazers, the Jazz have stayed in the contention conversation because of continuity more than anything else, while the Clippers jumped into it via their active offseason. At some point, some of these teams have to end up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s just math.

Last season, two games separated the fifth seed from the eighth. Los Angeles may be without Paul George right now, but how it does without him will thus directly impact what awaits George in the spring.

When the Clippers lost to the Pelicans 12 months ago, their leading scorer was Tobias Harris, who tallied 26 points yet was still a minus-3 while on the court. By the playoffs, Harris was working for the 76ers, but his showing in October still altered Los Angeles’ spring.

The same can be said of many games this week, early season or not.

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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Pacific Division

Shane Rhodes takes a look at players in the Pacific Division that have a great chance to take a significant leap in the upcoming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Anything can happen in the NBA.

Every season, there are so many things that seem to come out of the blue, whether it be a team that was or wasn’t expected to be competitive or big trade that no one saw coming. There is just too much randomness involved in the day-to-day to be certain about anything.

But, if there is one thing consistent in the NBA, it’s that there are always a few breakouts every season.

Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Jokić are a few that have made stepped out from behind the curtain and made their way to the NBA’s center stage over the last few seasons.

Basketball Insiders has already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest — but which players could step into those shoes from the Pacific Division?

Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers

After the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet shined in a primary role. And now, after the Clippers’ serious roster improvement, the game should come even easier to Shamet in his sophomore season.

In 25 games with Los Angeles, Shamet averaged 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while he shot 41.4% from the floor and 45% from three-point range with relatively little room to operate. On the season, he shot 42.2% from three, good for 11th-best in the NBA.

Now with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard expected to draw much of the defensive attention, Shamet – and the entire Clippers’ roster on the whole – should have plenty of room to operate.

Given weapons of George’s and Leonard’s caliber, opposing defenses should be stretched quite thin against Los Angeles; although he proved he was a plus-shooter, Shamet may find that other teams pay him relatively little mind when he has the ball. And, because of that, a jump in efficiency is firmly in Shamet’s range of possible outcomes in 2019, however hard that is to believe.

The Clippers won’t need Shamet to be a world-beater, just good enough to keep defenses honest when faced with George, Leonard and others. So, he may not see a meteoric rise in his total touches or field goal attempts per game, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a leap in his counting stats, namely points and assists.

If Shamet can take that boost and maintain a spot near the top of the league in three-point percentage, expect the NBA to take notice.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton had quite the impressive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most because of the hype machine that was Luka Dončić.

Now in his second season, his first with a capable point guard on the roster, the NBA may not be ready for him.

Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.3% from the floor as a rookie in an offense that lacked a floor general and, outside of Devin Booker, struggled to create space. While Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite guard, he is more than capable of injecting some life into a Suns offense that was one of the worst in the NBA, both in terms of scoring and turnovers.

What does that mean, exactly? Some cleaner looks underneath should allow for a few more field goals, while the added spacing from Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Šarić and others should open things up even more down on the block.

While he isn’t a marquee addition, Aron Baynes could also play a pivotal role on the Suns if he can get Ayton to buy in on the defensive end.

If he can step up his game on that end of the court, and take the necessary steps that are expected of him on offense, Ayton could prove one of the best young players in the NBA this season.

Bogdan Bogdanovič, Sacramento Kings

Like Ayton, the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovič had quite an excellent, if not under the radar, rookie season. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his second season and played a major role in the Kings’ turnaround after years of poor results.

That may seem like a breakout in and of itself. But, unfortunately, Bogdanovič’s play went largely unnoticed on the national stage because of his teammate, De’Aaron Fox, who had a breakout season of his own a year ago.

That said, with another offseason in the books, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bogdanovič elevate his game further.

Bogdanovič should spend much of his time with the second unit. And, as the leader of the bench, he certainly shouldn’t lack for touches. Likewise, against opposing second units, Bogdanovič should come into his fair share of open shots or easy plays.

With Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes clogging up space in the starting lineup, Bogdanovič may never see enough time to break out to a more national audience — barring a sixth-man role rise ala Lou Williams. That said, if he can maintain his efficiency, Bogdanovič’s play should prove competent enough to put him squarely in the conversation for Most Improved and, maybe, even Sixth Man of the Year.

And in his third season, if that isn’t a breakout for Bogdanovič then what is?

Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Lakers

It’s been an arduous journey for Avery Bradley.

In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Bradley was regarded as one of the NBA’s premier defenders and was more than capable on offense as he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

But since? Bradley has bounced between three different teams while his stats have dropped off and his defense has worsened. In two seasons between the Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, Bradley managed a meager 11.8 points per game while he averaged a defensive rating of 113, by far the worst of his career.

That said, Bradley’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers could see a return to form. While the “best shape of his life” story is a yearly cliché, Bradley may truly be in the best shape of his life, having lost 40 pounds between his trade from Los Angeles to Memphis and the start of free agency.

Alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a healthy Bradley should prove more than capable as a secondary scorer, a role which would afford him enough energy to wreak havoc again on the defensive end.

He may not post a career year, but expect Bradley to once again look like the player he was for seven years in Boston as opposed to the question mark that has taken the court over the last two seasons.

Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors

Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick back in 2016, has been a flop to this point in his NBA career. But with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss may be in line for his best season as a pro and a potential breakout year.

There’s a reason the Suns regarded Chriss so highly as a prospect too — while at Washington, he showed he had the tools necessary to play the role of the NBA’s modern, floor-stretching big. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot nearly 57% from the field and 35% from three-point range.

In Phoenix’s always dysfunctional system, Chriss struggled. After a production dip between rookie and sophomore seasons, the Suns cut bait and he bounced from the Houston Rockets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Chriss showed some of that spark that made him a top pick, thought

Now with the Warriors, Chriss has impressed enough in training camp to push Alfonzo McKinnie from the roster. With little frontcourt depth beyond Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, there is a clear opportunity here and a role for Chriss to fill.

If he can take advantage, Chriss would certainly prove a worthwhile gamble for the Warriors and a nice surprise this season.

Any player could find themselves on the fast track to NBA stardom. Fox, Harrell, Siakam and D’Angelo Russell represent a few prime examples from a year ago; players can come out of nowhere to make their mark on the NBA stage, and that could prove true again this season.

But these players, via a combination of opportunity and or talent, would seem to have a greater chance to do so – maybe more so than anyone else – in the Pacific Division. If they step up or show out, don’t be surprised – their respective teams certainly won’t be.

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NBA

How Magical Can Orlando Be?

In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.

Matt John

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As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.

It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.

There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.

Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.

And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.

There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.

And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.

If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.

But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.

If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.

But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.

It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.

Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.

We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.

Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.

Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.

With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.

He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.

As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.

There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.

Markelle Fultz

Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.

Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.

Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.

Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.

With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.

He can attack the basket.

And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.

Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.

We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.

The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.

Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.

We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.

Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.

Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.

Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.

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