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NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt From West to East?

Will NBA stars bolt to the weaker Eastern Conference going forward? Alex Kennedy asked players and agents.

Alex Kennedy

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NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt for the Eastern Conference?

When the Chicago Bulls held their free agency meeting with Carmelo Anthony last July, part of the franchise’s pitch focused on the Eastern Conference being wide open and how the star-studded Bulls could be a perennial contender in that landscape. They wanted to stress to Anthony that playing in the NBA Finals year after year could be a reality with Chicago’s talented roster and relative lack of competition, whereas making an annual title run would be much more difficult if he joined one of the Western Conference teams pursuing him.

Anthony, of course, re-signed with the New York Knicks. Then, the Cleveland Cavaliers added LeBron James and Kevin Love to become the clear-cut frontrunner in the East. Still, it remains true that the Eastern path to the Finals has significantly fewer obstacles than the Western route.

Players recognize this too, so don’t be surprised to see a number of middle-to-upper-tier players move from the West to the East through free agency or trades in the near future. Other things will obviously factor into players’ decisions too – such as the money, city, weather, playing time and much more. But all things being equal, East teams may be more attractive given how insanely competitive the West has become.

A number of players and agents who spoke to Basketball Insiders on condition of anonymity admitted as much.

“Players will consider going to the East, for sure,” one Western Conference player told Basketball Insiders. “The East is down right now and the West is a dogfight. The seventh- or eighth-seeded team in the West could possibly make the Eastern Conference Finals with how things are now.”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea [to join an East team],” added another NBA player. “I’m pretty sure Kevin Durant is going to start it off and go home to [the Washington Wizards in] D.C.”

That’s obviously just speculation about Durant (although it is a popular theory these days), but it’s easy to see why any player might want out of the West.

Five teams in the conference won 55 or more games this season (the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs), whereas only one East team (the Atlanta Hawks) accomplished that feat.

In the East, two teams made the playoffs with a losing record (the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets), while a 45-win team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) missed the postseason in the West. If the eighth-seeded Nets were in the West, their 38-44 record would’ve ranked 12th (or, in other words, fifth-worst in the conference).

For much of the season, the Cavaliers were expected to win the Eastern Conference and face little resistance along the way. That’s exactly what happened, as Cleveland swept two of their three East opponents and lost just two games before advancing to the NBA Finals. Oh, and they did this with Kevin Love out for the postseason, Kyrie Irving sidelined for some games and playing through pain in others, and LeBron James hobbling around the court as well. That sums up the East’s ineptitude.

By the way, Cleveland was the second seed in the East with their 53-29 record, but they would’ve been the seventh seed and faced the Rockets in the opening round if they played in the brutal West.

The analytics website numberFire uses the metric “nERD” to measure team performance based on statistical analysis. nERD assigns teams a rating on a scale of 0-100, with 50 being the league average. This season, West teams had an average nERD of 53.90 compared to 46.24 for East teams. Looking at just the playoff teams, the West’s top eight had an average nERD of 64.39 compared to 54.46 for the East’s postseason squads. In 13 of the last 14 years, the West has had a higher average team nERD than the East (with 2009 being the lone exception).

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And the head-to-head numbers aren’t pretty either. Western Conference teams went 263-187 in games against Eastern Conference teams this year. This is the 15th time in the last 16 seasons (and the sixth consecutive year) that the West has had the better head-to-head record versus the East, according to Cleveland.com.

There’s also the fact that the West has many more stars. Yes, the East has LeBron James, who’s arguably the best player on the planet, as well as John Wall, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Derrick Rose (when healthy) and Dwyane Wade (although he’s clearly declining) among others. But take a look at this year’s NBA end-of-season awards and it’s pretty clear which conference has more star power.

In the voting for the Most Valuable Player award, 10 of the 11 vote-getters played in the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson. The lone exception was LeBron James.

In the voting for the three All-NBA teams, 12 of the 15 players selected were from the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. The only East players were LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Pau Gasol.

In voting for Defensive Player of the Year honors, the top eight vote-getters were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tony Allen and Tim Duncan. There wasn’t a single East player who received a first-place vote.

In the voting for the two All-Defensive teams, eight of the 10 players honored were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Andrew Bogut and Tim Duncan. Jimmy Butler and John Wall were the lone East players who were honored.

This doesn’t even include other West household names such as Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki among others. And let’s not forget that the West’s pool of stars may continue expanding in a few years, as 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins continues to develop and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor could join the conference since the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers have the top two picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.

The difficult road to a championship is an understandable reason for a player to switch conferences, but the number of stars could influence that decision too. It’s harder for a player to build their brand or earn individual accolades (which often trigger contract bonuses) when they’re surrounded by so many star-caliber players. One agent who has prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft is privately hoping his clients don’t end up out West for this very reason.

“Players absolutely want to be in the East,” said one NBA agent who asked to remain anonymous. “[The conference disparity] affects the All-Star teams too. I want my kids in this year’s draft to get selected by Eastern Conference teams.”

Also, with the NBA’s salary cap set to rise significantly next summer due to the new television rights deal, just about every team will have substantial cap space. That means players will have plenty of options to team up in the East if that’s where they’d like to go. Some star players have already casually discussed the possibility of forming a new super-team together once the cap rises, according to league sources, and it’s possible that squad could decide to assemble in the East for strategic reasons.

Even though we could see some notable players cross the country in the near future, don’t expect a mass exodus from the West. As one player noted, that wouldn’t solve anything.

“I could see players leaving the West, but not if too many stars to go the East,” said the player, who has played in both conferences. “If too many stars switch, then the East is really tough and you have the same problem. Personally, though, I believe the top 16 teams should be in the playoffs instead of going by conferences.”

This idea to ignore the conferences and just allow the teams with the best records into the postseason has been discussed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and it seems that he’s strongly considering it.

“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” Silver recently said to Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area. “And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal… where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues, of course, but in this day and age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year two is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”

It’s worth noting that not all agents believe quality players will start fleeing Western Conference teams due to the competition from both teams and individuals. This agent feels that, in most cases, players are much more concerned about themselves when they’re weighing their free agency options (and several other league sources echoed this sentiment as well).

“I think players will always go where they can personally benefit the most,” said one NBA agent, who spoke off the record. “They’ll focus on what’s best financially first, and then on basketball second. Even if the money is equal, I think they’d go to the team where they can play the most. I think money and playing time will always impact a player’s decision more than whether they’re in the East or West. The one exception is the veteran who has money and is chasing a ring; I could see him favoring East teams.”

One executive pointed out that we may not see players make the switch from the West to the East until LeBron James retires. James has now been to five straight NBA Finals, so while there are fewer contenders at the top of the East, getting past James is very difficult (just ask the Bulls).

At the end of the day, factors like the money, city, market size, playing time, weather, management, teammate relationships and lack of state income tax will always impact a player’s move.

However, it’s possible that a team’s conference could play a role (even if it’s just a slight one) in the decision-making process going forward. Just as the Bulls brought it up in their pitch to Anthony, teams that are looking for any possible edge in recruiting will certainly include this among other things as they attempt to land free agents.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

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.

Drew Mays

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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.

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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.

Jack Winter

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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.

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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.

Chad Smith

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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 Pistons

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.

Orlando Magic

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.

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