With LeBron James departing Cleveland, the Central Division is up for grabs. Many are predicting Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the new face of the Eastern Conference.
Mike Budenholzer has moved from the south to the north to take on a head-coaching job fit for his type of style. He has arguably the most talented roster to guide since taking the Atlanta Hawks to new heights five years ago.
If any franchise can use stability to take the next step, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks. Budenholzer can provide that, which is exactly why the Bucks could be primed for a big season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
I’ve been a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks’ core of young talent for several seasons but the team has repeatedly fallen short of my expectations. However, I am very excited to see what new head coach Mike Budenholzer can do with this roster. Budenholzer is well-regarded around the league and may be the person who can finally make this roster more than just the sum of its parts. If Budenholzer generates some early chemistry between his key players, the Bucks could be one of the surprise teams of the season. Other notable items of business include Jabari Parker signing with the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee drafting Donte DiVincenzo 17th overall in this year’s draft, signing Ersan Ilyasova to a partially-guaranteed three-year, $21 million contract and signing Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. I’m not a fan of the deal for Ilyasova but I think getting Lopez on this contract is a steal.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
One thing is clear in Milwaukee after the summer of 2018: This is a franchise that’s acutely aware of how much longer star Giannis Antetokounmpo is under contract, and is clearly doing everything it can to show him progress. That started with the hiring of Mike Budenholzer for the vacant head coaching position back in May – Budenholzer comes with a fantastic track record, and the Bucks will hope he can get more out of their talent than his predecessors. They also made significant franchise moves on the personnel side, such as parting ways with former second overall pick Jabari Parker and smartly bringing in stretch center Brook Lopez for a cheap contract. If Budenholzer can unlock the bits of potential left in guys like Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of the strong talent on this roster, this could be a dark horse team to end up in the conference finals and maybe even threaten to play in June. If not, and if the Bucks can’t show us anything more than last year, the Giannis panic will begin in earnest next summer.
1st Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Giannis Antetokounmpo has established himself as one of the league’s premier young superstars. It’s just a shame that his team hasn’t followed suit. The Bucks have been one of the league’s biggest underachievers since the Greek Freak rose to prominence, but that might not be the case moving forward. Now that the Bucks have added Coach Bud and floor-spacing bigs, the Bucks have given Giannis the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Whether he develops a reliable jumper or not, Giannis has arguably become the league’s most unstoppable force not named LeBron. Should the Bucks’ additions work out, they may finally get past the first round.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Mike Budenholzer is going to be the best thing that happens to this Bucks ball club. The superstar talent is there. All it has needed is stability. Giannis Antetokounmpo has barely even scratched the surface. Khris Middleton is entering his prime as one of the top two-way wings in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe just needs to tap into that extra gear to achieve heights we know he is capable of achieving. It’s high time Milwaukee turns into a championship contender. One year with Coach Bud will instill a winning culture they’ve never experienced before, starting with taking the franchise’s first Central Division title since the 2000-01 season.
1st Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
All the talk in the East is about the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors. However, remember the old adage that the team with the biggest star will often win the most games. How aren’t the Milwaukee Bucks the leader in this clubhouse? It’s easy to forget about Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if he makes that jump from borderline MVP to full-fledged MVP front-runner, he has the supporting cast and a head coach in Mike Budenholzer that could not only collectively turn the corner, the Bucks could be legit front-runners to win the East. Looking at how well he has developed over the years, believing that as a possibility isn’t a stretch, which makes Milwaukee a sleeper team to win the East.
1st Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you’re going to see Antetokounmpo’s name come up in this preview quite a bit. He’s made the All-NBA 2nd Team in back-to-back years. He’s earned All-Star team honors in the last two seasons. It might not be far off to say he may be the best player in the entire NBA in as soon as a year or two from now.
In 2017-18, the man they call Greek Freak accounted for 31.5 percent of the Bucks’ offense according to Cleaning The Glass. His 26.9 points per game average ranked fifth in the league and he made the fourth-most amount of field goals (742) amongst his peers. Antetokounmpo got to the free throw line over eight times per game and had a 59.8 true shooting percentage.
Chances are if you dole out any statistic on this end for Milwaukee, he is at the top of the list across the board. As Antetokounmpo enters his sixth season as a professional, it’s certain that the 23-year-old will continue to dominate and add to his arsenal, especially with the long-range jump shot. Combined with the fact that he’s added a ton of muscle and weight this summer—it’s not going to be fun for opponents to deal with him.
Top Defensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
All things considered, Antetokounmpo would probably be the selection here because of his dominant season as a disruptive individual defender and a shot blocker, but we’ll give somebody else the nod here.
Bledsoe is a physical player. He’s aggressive on the ball with his matchups. He’s not tall by any means for his position, but 205 pounds of pure muscle and long arms definitely make up for it. “Mini-LeBron” averaged two steals per game and showed off his chase-down block skills in multiple instances.
The Bucks’ opponent turnover percentage was 16.5 percent with Bledsoe on the floor. As specified by Cleaning The Glass, that figure is in the 91st percentile compared to the rest of the league. He’s a bothersome defender as it is, but with one season under his belt with a new squad, he’ll know how to play off his teammates even and hopefully will give a more sustained effort.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Everything previously mentioned about Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee’s best player on offense didn’t even include statistics outside of scoring. What about his improving ability to share the basketball? He did average 4.8 assists per game and was responsible for 23.6 percent of his teammates’ made field goals in 2017-18, per CTG. If you don’t mention that, you almost have to bring up how he corralled 10 rebounds per game last season. That number is second to Anthony Davis among forwards in the NBA.
Whenever the Bucks need a guy to step up and make something happen on either end, Antetokounmpo is up to the task. If his year-to-year progression is any indication for what’s to come next, things should continue to trend upwards from here.
Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Who do you go to when the game is on the line? Your best player, of course. We saw this in action quite a bit last year. Perhaps his most impressive fourth-quarter performance came in the third game of the entire season.
Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 44 points in the final period. With 19 seconds remaining and Milwaukee down by one, he poked the ball loose from C.J. McCollum, received a bounce pass in transition and slammed the go-ahead bucket. On the Blazers’ ensuing possession, Antetokounmpo was hanging just outside the paint before he saw Jusuf Nurkic receive a pass cutting to the lane. He went straight up and blocked Portland’s big man on a dunk attempt to seal the ball game. The Bradley Center was loud and Giannis showed emotion. It was a star-defining moment.
That is only one example of the kind of impact Greek Freak can have on a contest going down to the wire. In the 41 games he was involved in clutch situations, Antetokounmpo had a plus-11.2 net rating according to NBA.com. Only Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis and Bojan Bogdanovic have a better net rating among those who have played in 40 or more games in the clutch.
The Unheralded Player: Malcolm Brogdon
Coming into last season as the reigning 2016 NBA Rookie of the Year, Brogdon had high expectations for season two of his career. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as planned for him. For starters, he was pulled in and out of the starting lineup. This went for both the regular season and the playoffs. It was partially because of the trade for Bledsoe, but the two played alongside each other often.
Secondly, the injury bug hit him hard. Brogdon missed over two months of action between February and mid-April due to a partially torn tendon in his left quadriceps. He was able to return in time for the postseason, but didn’t quite look like his usual self with the exception of two 16-point games.
Year three should be a perfect opportunity for him to get back on track. Brogdon offers the sort of size and length at guard that often creates mismatches. He can drive it, he can dish it and he can shoot it. That’s the hat trick for somebody who doesn’t need to force his role into an offense to produce. He lets the game come to him.
Best New Addition: Ersan Ilyasova
Ilyasova joining the Bucks organization is a reuniting on two levels. On one hand, Milwaukee drafted the 31-year-old forward back in 2005 and he played seven seasons for the team. In addition, Budenholzer coached the veteran forward during his short stint in Atlanta. It’s a sense of familiarity that will help him adapt with ease along with his new teammates.
Known for stretching the floor and rebounding the basketball, Ilyasova will likely play a key role with multiple sets of lineups. He can knock down the elbow three with the best of them and will provide second chances on the offensive glass. He is a great fit for a team that can use somebody who plays consistently on both ends.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Khris Middleton
Picking up where he left off before he tore his left hamstring in September 2016, it was a great season for Middleton last year. He’s the clear-cut second option to Antetokounmpo and provides a notable scoring punch, as he averaged a career-high 20.1 points per game on over 46 percent from the field. In addition to that, he was always available and played in every single game in the regular season and playoffs.
2. Brook Lopez
Similar to Ilyasova, the veteran Lopez will have an opportunity to space the floor as a versatile center. In the last two years, the 30-year-old has taken more than 300 threes. Before that, he hadn’t attempted more than 14. If need be, he’ll be utilized in the post, but chances are he’ll be sent to the corner in order to make room for the playmakers to drive.
3. Tony Snell
His career numbers aren’t going to wow you, but Snell is somebody who just plays team ball. There’s nothing fancy about what he brings to the table. If you need a stop, he’s capable of getting it. If you need a key three to swing the momentum or keep it in your favor, he’ll knock it down. You have to think that playing within a system Budenholzer-crafted system is going to only benefit him.
4. Thon Maker
Entering his third year in the pros, Maker may be poised for a jump. People forget that he’s only 21 years old and is still a raw prospect. This new coaching staff coming in should help continue his development and mold him into one of the better young big men in the entire league. There was somewhat of a regression for him in season two, but a brand new environment and a consistent culture should help turn things around.
– Spencer Davies
The Bucks boast a ton of length and the ability to exploit mismatches on both ends of the floor. They have a roster full of wide wingspans and size. As evidenced by how many turnovers they forced and the amount of shots they blocked last season, it’s hard to imagine them taking a step back. Milwaukee also loved staying in attack mode as a top-eight team in free throw categories across the board.
– Spencer Davies
Rebounding the basketball. Averaging fewer than 40 rebounds as a team is not a key to success. You have to believe that will be a point of emphasis. Everything that had to do with the perimeter did not work out in the Bucks’ favor last season, either. They took less than 25 threes per game and made only 35.5 percent of those attempts. On the other end, Milwaukee allowed opponents to hit over a 37 percent clip of their triple tries.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is Mike Budenholzer the man to finally get the best out of Milwaukee?
There is so much potential for greatness. We’ve seen what the Bucks are capable of. What we haven’t seen is the sustainment of it. Having a proven head coach like Budenholzer come into a situation with the mixture of veteran and young talent—the possibilities are endless. Regardless of who was going to be in charge, we knew Antetokounmpo’s goal this season was to cement himself as the top forward in the Eastern Conference. Middleton and Bledsoe are entering their prime years. With coach Bud handling the in-game decisions and guiding these guys, it’s high time these talented players are pointed in the right direction.
– Spencer Davies
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.
NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance
The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.
Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.
But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.
But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.
The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.
But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.
These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.
Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.
Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.
The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.
That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.
Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.
The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.
Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.
For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.
Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?
It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.
Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.
NBA Daily: Four Playoff Teams That Won’t Return
Making the playoffs is hard, and staying there is even more challenging. Revisiting last year’s postseason, there are four teams that could find themselves without a chair once the music stops at the end of this season. Chad Smith writes.
Forecasting tomorrow’s weather can be difficult. Trying to predict the outcome of an 82-game schedule for all 30 NBA teams can be just as hard. The playoffs are the goal for every franchise as the regular season gets set to tip-off next week. Every year, there are both surprising and disappointing teams that will shake up the playoff picture.
Despite all of the offseason movement throughout the league, the majority of teams that made the postseason last year should return. Other teams are on the rise and have their sights set on being one of the eight teams from their respective conferences. Here are four teams — two in each conference — that could find themselves on the outside looking in after mid-April, as well as the teams that will replace them.
Detroit had an outstanding season a year ago in large part because of Blake Griffin’s best season as a professional. The star forward spent a lot of time adding to his game last summer, and it showed during the regular season. Griffin carried the Pistons to the No. 8 overall seed, but they were swept after he went down with a knee injury that he tried to battle through.
Role players weren’t enough to prevent the sweep, but some of them showed promise for the future. Both Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown are trending upward, but the talent outside of the starting five could leave them with not enough star power to replicate the success of last season, especially if Griffin ever goes down again. Detroit will be competitive on a nightly basis, but the additions of Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, and Joe Johnson likely won’t be enough for them to return to the postseason.
Replacement: Miami HEAT
Jimmy Butler’s arrival in South Beach will get most of the attention, but it is the subtle moves that Pat Riley made this summer that should really improve Miami’s odds of returning to the playoffs this year. Tyler Herro was drafted No. 13 overall and the rookie should get minutes on a roster in which shooting and spacing are both needed. Better, Meyers Leonard will also help in that area and should make an immediate impact on offense.
Despite the loss of Josh Richardson, the presence of Butler will be felt on both ends of the floor. He may be a headache at times, but he has proven over the course of his career to be a hard worker and an elite finisher when things get tight. A healthy Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, along with the continued improvement of Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo, should be the combination that puts the HEAT back into the playoffs.
Similarly to the aforementioned Pistons, the Magic realized their success after their big man had a monster season. Nikola Vucevic averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and effective field goal percentage. Orlando relied heavily on its rotation over the course of the season, which resulted in the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. After taking Game 1 on the road, the Magic lost four in a row to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.
Unless a few players take that next step in development, this could be a regression season for the Magic. In particular, Jonathan Isaac needs to make a big leap in his third season. Al-Farouq Aminu adds to a stingy defense that ranked eighth-best last season. Aaron Gordon could be the X-factor for Orlando if it isn’t Markelle Fultz. The ultra-athletic big man had somewhat of a down year in terms of expectations. If he can have a bounce-back season, the Magic could possibly squeak their way back in.
Replacement: Chicago Bulls
Simply put, injuries devastated the Bulls last season. The head coaching change was rocky, a decision that took its toll on an extremely young team. With those things behind them, Chicago is primed for major progression this year. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are both capable of having monstrous breakout seasons. The duo is a part of a talented frontcourt with Otto Porter Jr., who looked impressive and averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per contest over his 15 games for the Bulls last season.
The backcourt should be much improved as well, as Zach LaVine is finally healthy and the addition of Tomas Satoransky should prove helpful. Coby White gives the team an interesting young offensive weapon that will definitely push the pace and allow the young Bulls to thrive in transition. Veteran forward Thaddeus Young will add valuable stability and experience that should bring everything full circle in the Windy City.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Expectations quickly changed for the Thunder after their promising duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George was traded away. Their future looks extremely bright with talented young players and future draft picks. Steven Adams flourished at center for quite some time, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been showing his budding potential in the preseason as well.
Despite all of this, don’t expect Oklahoma City to just roll over. That is not in Chris Paul’s DNA and all of the players on that roster want to compete. Youngsters like Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson are intriguing adds to the rotation, suddenly afforded more playing time. The veteran point guard already has excellent chemistry with offensive weapon Danilo Gallinari. If they were in the Eastern Conference, this would be a playoff team — but the West, unfortunately, is just absolutely loaded.
Replacement: Los Angeles Lakers
After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season, LeBron James is hungry. He and Anthony Davis could be the most dynamic duo this season should they both stay healthy. That will be the key for them, without a doubt. The role players surrounding them are a good enough supporting cast to get them into the postseason.
Like most teams with LeBron, this roster could look much different towards the end of the season. The buyout market likely will provide them with significant pieces needed to get them to their peak later in the year. A championship may be lofty expectations for the Lakers this season, but a return to the playoffs after a seven-year hiatus is a fair benchmark for this group.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard may have single-handedly destroyed an organization in the playoffs last year, but he might not have the opportunity to play more than 82 games this season. He and CJ McCollum are an elite one-two punch, but Portland is a far cry from the team that made it to the Western Conference Finals. The team brought in Hassan Whiteside to fill Jusuf Nurkic’s spot as he continues the rehab on his broken leg. Kent Bazemore is a quality addition, but guys like Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja don’t figure to move the needle.
Losing underrated role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard will ultimately hurt them. Anfernee Simons is oozing with potential, but how the second-year guard fits into the rotation is a mystery at this point. While most other teams made sizeable additions to their roster this summer through the draft or free agency, the Blazers didn’t exactly do themselves any favors in the tough Western Conference.
Replacement: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans could absolutely have the biggest season turnaround this year. After making the deal with the Lakers, New Orleans has dramatically reshaped its roster around All-NBA guard Jrue Holiday. The addition of Zion Williamson will seize all of the eyeballs, but David Griffin has seamlessly put together an incredibly impressive roster of talent.
Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart should thrive in a system outside of Los Angeles. The trade to acquire Derrick Favors was arguably the best low-key addition of the summer. JJ Redick was a home run. The Pelicans also seem to have struck more gold in the draft with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and big man Jaxson Hayes. New Orleans has sensational depth at nearly every position, and it will be up to Alvin Gentry to put it all together. Not only will the Pelicans be fun to watch, they should be able to claim one of the final playoff spots in the West.