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NBA PM: The Sleeper Contenders In The East

The top of the East seems pretty predictable even after free agency, but there are some sleeper teams that might be ready to break through.

Basketball Insiders

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The Sleeper Team In The East

There is little doubt that the landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed. The Boston Celtics got better. The Toronto Raptors re-signed their impressive core. The Washington Wizards added pieces to their bench and the Cleveland Cavaliers still have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

The question facing the Eastern Conference is with so much shifting of talent to the Western Conference, is there a team that could enter the 2017-18 NBA season as a Sleeper team to not only challenge in the East, but maybe be a dark horse to sneaking into the Conference Finals, much like Boston did a year ago?

In what will be a weekly Thursday feature, we asked three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on this idea, and give us their “Sleeper Team That Could Challenge the East”

The Philadelphia 76ers

On paper, the Philadelphia 76ers roster is impressive. The obvious, important caveat here is that the Sixers need their key players to stay healthy, but this team boasts intriguing upside if they can keep their core on the floor.

After tallying just ten wins in 2015-16, Philly won 28 games last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that 18-win improvement from season-to-season was the second-highest in franchise history. The key to the Sixers solid start early in the 2016-17 campaign was Joel Embiid. After missing two years due to a variety of injuries, Embiid finally stepped on the floor and immediately made a strong impression.

Embiid only appeared in 31 games, but was extremely productive when he was on the court. Despite playing just 25.4 minutes a night, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 three-pointers and 2.5 blocks per game. In the process, he became just the second player in NBA history to average more than 20 points while playing fewer than 26 minutes. (The other player in this exclusive club is Michael Jordan, who averaged 22.7 ppg in 25.1 mpg during his injury shortened season in 1985-86.)

However, Embiid wasn’t the only rookie to exceed expectations last season. Dario Saric led all first-year players in points, field goals and rebounds. He was second in free throws, third in three-pointers, fourth in steals and seventh in assists. In addition, Robert Covington established himself as an elite 3-and-D wing, contributing significantly across the board. RoCo averaged two three-pointers, 1.9 steals and one block per game. Paul Pierce, back in 2001-02, is the only other player to match those numbers in those categories over the course of a full season.

This summer, Philly added a couple of important pieces to the puzzle. First, they traded up in the draft to select Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick. Fultz is widely regarded as a blue-chip prospect and one of the more promising point guards to enter the league over the last few years. After posting incredible numbers during his lone season at the University of Washington, he is ready to contribute right away.

The Sixers then made a splash in free agency. Needing to improve their outside shooting and add a solid veteran presence in the locker room, Philly killed two birds with one stone by signing J.J. Redick to a one-year deal. Redick has established himself as one of the NBA’s more reliable long-range marksman. He is one of only three players to have averaged at least 2.5 made three-pointers per game while shooting over 40 percent from behind-the-arc in each of the last three seasons (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the other two).

The Sixers will also anticipate getting Ben Simmons back on the court. Simmons was the top overall selection in the 2016 draft, but missed last year due to a foot injury. Like Embiid, the biggest question mark surrounding Simmons is his health. His remarkably versatile skill set has Sixers fans very excited. Both Simmons and Fultz will enter the season as two of the favorites to take home this season’s Rookie of the Year award.

With Embiid, Saric, Simmons, Redick, Fultz and Covington as the first six players in the rotation, Sixer fans have reason to be optimistic. Philadelphia’s bench is impressive as well. Jerryd Bayless and T.J. McConnell will provide depth at point guard. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Nik Stauskas will backup Redick at shooting guard. Justin Anderson and newly added Amir Johnson can be shuffled in at both forward spots. Richaun Holmes and Jahlil Okafor will provide solid minutes off the bench at center and serve as insurance should Embiid go down.

The Sixers are coming, and may arrive sooner than expected.

– Tommy Beer

The Milwaukee Bucks

Outside the East’s consensus top four of Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and Washington, the team with the most intrigue on the court next season might reside in Wisconsin. The Bucks have a budding superstar, a strong supporting cast and the kind of roster makeup to cause some issues for teams ostensibly above them in the conference pecking order.

It all starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo, last year’s Most Improved Player and a franchise-defining star. Set to turn 23 midseason next year, does Antetokounmpo have yet another leap in him? Opponents had better hope not, particularly if the improvement comes as a distance shooter – his one legitimate weakness to this point.

Even if we only expect roughly the same star-level performance from Giannis moving forward, there are other causes for optimism. Health is one: Khris Middleton missed most of last season and was never entirely himself upon his return, though he had his moments. Even a recovering Middleton was enough to lift the Bucks to a strong per-possession rating while he was on the floor, though, and he’ll be full throttle from the jump this season.

Jabari Parker also missed significant time last year, and that will continue into 2018. Bucks coach Jason Kidd recently placed a February target on his return, though expecting the same player after two serious injuries to the same ACL would be unwise. A look at team impact figures over the last couple years, though, reveals that Middleton was a larger influence on team success than Parker by a wide margin.

Outside the team’s top names, the Bucks are running a lot of the same program back next season. They got Tony Snell back for a fair deal after a solid season, and they’ll hope Greg Monroe can continue in a positive role he carved coming off the bench last year. No one is quite sure what Thon Maker will be able to do next year, but little would shock anyone at this point.

If they can get a little improvement from guys like Malcolm Brogdon and John Henson, plus continued depth contributions from Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic, this is a deep Bucks team that could rack up regular season wins over a weakened East. Come playoff time, Giannis and Middleton alone form a tough duo – throw a recovering Parker into the mix, and you might have a team that could make some noise.

– Ben Dowsett

The Charlotte Hornets

This was not an easy pick. I looked long and hard at the Miami HEAT and the Detroit Pistons, but in both cases I kept asking myself are either really better teams today?

In the end, I settled on the Charlotte Hornets for a couple of reasons. The biggest being Kemba Walker. As we saw last season, Walker is as a good as any guard in the East and may be headed towards an All-Star nod if he takes another step forward.

Injuries were another factor — last year Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist never seemed to get completely right.

Kidd-Gilchrist has endured several seasons of injuries and started last season with a back issue. He did end up playing more games than we’ve seen in a while, but his timing and rhythm never seemed quite right. Kidd-Gilchrist entered this off-season without needing to rehab for the first time in a long-time and could be poised for a breakout season.

Batum had a tough season himself last year dealing with a knee issue, ankle issue and freaky migraines that derailed his season. Fresh off a huge payday, the Hornets were hoping for a franchise season and got anything but from Batum. He was not terrible when he played, but he certainly didn’t change the season as some expected or at least hoped for.

Assuming both Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist bounce back and can stay healthy, along with the addition of Malik Monk in the draft, the Hornets should be markedly better. Additionally, the pre-draft trade for Dwight Howard should give the Hornets more production in the front court.

The Hornets have a loaded roster, they just have to live up to expectations. If they do, they might have the talent to really challenge in an sneaky and unexpected way.

– Steve Kyler

Every Thursday we’ll ask three of our guys to chime in on a common subject. If there is something you would like to see us address. Drop it to us on Twitter at @BBallInsiders using the hashtag #ConversationThursday.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Six Pointers For The Season

On a night that is sure to be full of hot takes, highlight videos and overreaction, Spencer Davies has some pointers that you should take into consideration for the upcoming season.

Spencer Davies

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It’s time to celebrate, NBA fans.

We are officially one sleep away from tipping off the 2018-19 season. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, two heavy Eastern Conference title favorites, will square off first, followed by the defending champion Golden State Warriors hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On a night that is sure to be full of hot takes, highlight videos and overreaction, here are some pointers headed into the year that you should take into consideration within the grand scheme of things.

Reminder: There Are 82 Games

The first week of the NBA season is under a gigantic microscope. Some teams are going to look unbeatable, others may not look quite as good and a handful might seem downright awful. We have to remember that a lot of these ball clubs have a different energy about them. Whether it’s a new front office, a new head coach, roster turnover or simply needing time to jell, not everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows from the jump—and even if it is, that could be short-lived.

Don’t Fall For Fake Accounts

One time or another, everybody has been bound to fall for a complete farce. Everybody is susceptible to seeing a fake account on Twitter and immediately reacting without checking the validity of the source. It’s a natural response. But make sure that if you’re following along with a trade rumor and/or developing event, the information is coming from a reliable reporter with multiple confirmations. This is especially important on trade deadline day.

Rookies Will Have Ups And Downs

Arguably the best part about the start of a new NBA year is seeing fresh talent hit the hardwood. They are living a real-life dream and, for most of them, you see the true love they have for the game through their play. In any case, they are getting used to an unfamiliar stage and a higher level of basketball. There will be flashes and struggles, but more often—inconsistencies. It’s hard to find out if a player is the “next ________” just as it is dubbing a rookie a bust right away. Give these guys time to mature and enjoy it.

Watch For Quotes Taken Out Of Context

This happens a ton in the world of sports. When reading what a player says ahead of or after a game, make sure you’re getting the full story. It’s easy for a video to get chopped and edited to create a juicy narrative and rile things up. While we do have plenty of feuds in the league stemming from what happens in between the four lines—in addition to an abundance of intriguing stories—there’s a lot of something made out of nothing situations that are best to just ignore.

Referees Are Not Out To Get Your Team

Last season was an especially complicated one for the NBA officiating contingent. Criticism came from all angles, from media to players to coaches, as it does almost every season. Part of it is warranted, but let’s not forget how difficult the job is. The frantic pace of the game is evolving with each year, and the bang-bang plays are growing tougher to determine because of it. Missed calls and anticipated calls are a killer for momentum in any case, but the stripes are here to do their job the best they can. It’s fine to look at tendencies, but don’t come up with conspiracy theories because your team isn’t getting a favorable whistle.

Surprises Happen: Good Or Bad

With 30 squads loaded with the best basketball talent in the world, it’s truly an “any team, any night” kind of league. There are going to be upsets and there are going to be blowouts. Aside from the teams on the wrong side of the rout too many times, most of these won’t matter with the bigger picture intact. If a ball club makes the playoffs and is set to contend, they ultimately won’t care about a lopsided defeat from November.

There are also factors beyond teams’ control that are inevitable, unfortunately. We don’t know who will go down with injuries, but they are a part of the game. You hope that the severity of the setbacks are never the worst-case scenario, yet somehow it always tends to occur and, in turn, affects his organization’s plans for the season. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, and if it does, have it be at the bare minimum.

These pointers arent’ meant to be a buzz kill, of course. This league is all about entertainment and enjoyment for its fans, so have fun with it. That’s what it’s here for.

There’s much more to a season, but we’d figure to pass along some tips as we await for another great year of NBA action.

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NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.

Matt John

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It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.

It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.

There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.

Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.

Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.

The NBA Champion

As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?

There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.

Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.

If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…

Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.

Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.

Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.

It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.

After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.

The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much

If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.

After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.

So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.

Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!

One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.

While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.

When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.

Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.

“Success Is Fleeting”

It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.

Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.

Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.

Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.

One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.

The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.

There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?

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NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division

With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.

Ben Nadeau

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While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?

For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?

Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.

Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.

This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*

*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15

Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls

For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.

He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.

Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks

By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.

Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.

Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.

Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons

After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.

Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.

Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers

Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.

Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.

Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.

Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.

Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers

Everybody loves Cedi Osman.

Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.

Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.

Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.

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