From Three Champions Leagues to Three Managers

While a contingency of Dutch football fans did predict that Ajax would pull off a massive upset at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, only your neighborhood’s deluded Barca fan would have foreseen Real Madrid being humbled by a shock scoreline of 4-1 last week in the Champions League Round of 16.

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It may be the last thing that Madridistas want to hear right now, but my cousin, a die-hard Real Madrid fan, said it best: “Tuesday’s drubbing at the hands of Ajax is the best thing that’s happened to Los Merengues since becoming the first side in history to win the Champions League in three consecutive seasons.”

This season started off in Real ugly fashion for a number of reasons (see what I did there?), culminating at the Camp Nou stomping by Barcelona in October by a score of 5-1. That thrashing cost Julen Lopetegui his job, as he got the ax the following day after just three months in charge.

In came Santiago Solari.

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Solari was a different story from Lopetegui. A former Madridista himself, the Argentine was a decent footballer in his playing days, notably sending Roberto Carlos down the line in the buildup to Zidane’s masterful volley in the 2002 Champions League Final. Fast forward some years, and Lopetegui began working as an academy coach at Real in 2013.

With such strong family ties, Solari was always going to be well-received by the Real Madrid faithful. A former Real player like Zidane, he had a higher set of expectations for the future of the club. Plus, having previously worked with the youth teams (also like Zidane), he immediately injected young blood into the first team, most notably through his inclusion of teenage Brasilian phenom Vinicius Jr.

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Results were mixed: a 3-0 away defeat in the league to Eibar and a 3-0 home Champions League defeat to CSKA Moscow were contrasted by a successful Club World Cup. Four months in, Solari got an impressive away 1-1 draw at Barcelona and an even more impressive 3-1 away win against Atletico Madrid. Results aside, Los Blancos seemed to be rediscovering an identity that had gone missing during Lopetegui’s short tenure in charge.

That February form didn’t last too long though. In a matter of seven days from February 27th to March 5th, that “rediscovered identity” went out the window.

Three consecutive home defeats proved to be too much for the Real Madrid hierarchy to bear. Real lost 3-0 to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, and then again to their arch nemesis 1-0 in the league. Their horrific week then culminated with Real’s shock loss to Ajax, effectively ending their chances of winning an incredible fourth straight Champions League.

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Six days later, Solari was shown the door.

Welcome back, Zinedine Zidane.

The man needs no introduction. For those unfamiliar with the history of football, Zidane is the bald guy who headbutted an opponent in the biggest sports event in the world. To the football community, Zidane is one of the most talented and successful players in the history of the sport.

As of May 2018, Zidane is also the most successful coach in Champions League history, after winning three Champions League titles in less than three years as manager of Real Madrid. His re-hiring after only nine months away from the club came as a slight surprise, but nonetheless, it makes sense. Real Madrid needs silverware, and of the current coaches either in between teams or looking to start a new journey, Zidane is the most successful of the lot in the last five seasons.

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World class players know that silverware goes a long way in cementing their legacy. Zidane knew what it took to win as a player, and he quickly demonstrated that same ability as a manager. The opportunity to play under someone with such a thoroughly-documented winning mentality is a difficult one to pass up, no matter the team that they’re currently a part of.

While Zidane would probably be capable of overperforming with this current squad, he knows that his roster is in need of new life.

Eden Hazard, who is entering the last year in his contract at Chelsea, seems like the most sensible major signing to make this summer. Hazard has made clear his interest in playing for Zidane at Real Madrid, and his success in England has made him worthy of running the show for Real. This would allow Gareth Bale, who has looked unhappy at various points throughout his time in Madrid, to finally leave.

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Beyond Hazard, players like Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Milan Škriniar, and N’Golo Kanté are just a few names who Zidane could potentially sign. There is enough money in the bank for Florentino Perez to sign at least two players of the highest caliber. No matter who Real Madrid signs, they’ll be happy to have a winner at the helm.

At the end of the day, Real Madrid fans have Ajax to thank for Zinedine Zidane’s return to the Bernabeu.

Only time will tell what magic Zizou conjures up this time around.

The Wonderlic and the NFL Combine

Every year at the NFL Scouting Combine, future NFL players showcase their strength and skills through various tests and exercises. One test has nothing to do with physical skills but is a part of the Combine to measure critical thinking – the Wonderlic test.

What is the Wonderlic?

The Wonderlic test is a timed 50-question cognitive ability test that must be completed within a 12-minute window. The test is typically used by Human Resource departments at companies during a job interview to determine if a candidate would be a good fit at their company, or to help narrow down a large number of applicants for a job opening.

Questions feature basic arithmetic, logical reasoning and verbal reasoning related questions. The questions on the test are not necessarily difficult, but with a time limit of only 14 seconds per question, it is difficult to answer all of the questions before time runs out. You can take a sample Wonderlic test to see how well you might do on an official test.

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Visit freewonderlictest.com to take a Wonderlic Test!

The Wonderlic has been around since the 1920s, where it was primarily used as a cognitive ability assessment test for people in the military and at educational institutions – basically a shorter and faster version of an IQ test.

The Wonderlic at the NFL Combine

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Wonderlic became a part of the NFL. Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry started asking college football players that he was scouting to take the Wonderlic test. Other football teams quickly adopted this, and the Wonderlic soon became one of many tests administered at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Unlike other tests at the combine, Wonderlic test scores are not released to the public. They are given to teams, but they somehow always manage to find their way to the media.

What is a Good Wonderlic Score?

The Wonderlic is a 50-question test, and each question is worth one point – a person who answers 25 questions correct would have a Wonderlic score of 25.

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The Wonderlic is designed so that the average score for the general public is 20. While that may sound low, it is important to remember that the questions are not easy, and they have to be answered extremely quickly. Less than 1% of people who take the Wonderlic are able to complete the test without guessing on questions.

This is intentional, as the test is not about one’s deep understanding of arithmetic, grammar, and logical reasoning, rather one’s ability to solve those types of questions quickly.

The following is a list of average Wonderlic scores when sorted out by player positions:leonard-williams-wig-jump

  • OT: 26
  • C: 25
  • QB: 24
  • G: 23
  • TE: 22
  • S: 19
  • LB: 19
  • CB: 18
  • WR: 17
  • RB: 17

Is the Wonderlic Effective at Predicting NFL Success?

There is a big debate regarding the effectiveness of the Wonderlic and whether it should be used at all to rank draft picks or to make any sort of draft day decisions.

While all players take the Wonderlic, scores from quarterbacks always get the most attention – largely due to implied necessary intelligence and quick thinking required to be a successful QB in the NFL.

There are many anecdotal examples of quarterbacks who scored well or scored poorly on the Wonderlic but went on to have both great and lackluster careers. For example, Terry Bradshaw scored a 15 on the Wonderlic, but went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Vince Young also scored a 15 and was still drafted as the 3rd overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, but had a passer rating of 74.4 in the NFL. Here’s a huge list of NFL Wonderlic scores of both former and active NFL players.

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Because success can be subjective and conclusions can vary based on what you are using to measure success, it could prove very difficult to compare results of the Wonderlic with the career of the player. Is it offensive yards? Passer rating? Number of starts? Playoff wins? Just like how there is no definitive list of greatest NFL quarterbacks, there’s no clear-cut way to measure success in the NFL.

The most famous study to evaluate if there is a correlation between quarterback success in the NFL and Wonderlic scores was a study conducted by Arthur J. Adams & Frank E. Kuzmits at the University of Louisville, where they did not find any connection between Wonderlic scores and NFL success.

However, another study conducted by Criteria Corp looked only at Wonderlic scores of quarterbacks who had over 1000 passing yards, to remove backup quarterbacks and quarterbacks with low sample sizes from the picture. They noticed something interesting when you look at quarterbacks who score higher than 27 on the Wonderlic (the median score for QBs) when compared to quarterbacks who scored lower than 27: “the QBs who scored below the median Wonderlic score (for QBs) of 27 averaged 5,202 passing yards and 31.2 TDs over their first four years, whereas those scoring above the median averaged 6,570 yards and 40.8 TDs over the same period.”

Why Keep Using the Wonderlic?

Because the Wonderlic has been used at the NFL Combine since the 1970s, there is a large amount of data that scouts can use at their disposal. The Wonderlic is designed so that the average score is 20, so Wonderlic scores from the 2019 draft class can accurately be compared to results from 20 years ago in the 1999 draft class.

Additionally, the format of the Wonderlic fits well with the overall structure of the NFL Combine. It is over in 12 minutes, and players can quickly move on to complete another test in their busy day.

In the end, most NFL scouts who have talked about the Wonderlic publicly have said that it is one of many factors that they value in evaluating a player before the draft. With the rise of advanced analytics, and more teams embracing data over gut feeling, the Wonderlic will likely be a part of the NFL Combine for the foreseeable future.

10 Trends to Keep an Eye on in the Second Half of the 2019 Premier League Season

1. Fullham’s Relegation Battle

Claudio Ranieri returned to the Premier League to take over as Fullham’s manager on November 14, 2018. Despite picking up a quick victory in his first match, Ranieri has amassed a total record of 2-3-7. While Fullham was just promoted, the footballing world expected the Lily Whites to compete right away, especially after spending £100 million this summer. Now, sitting in the 19th spot and seven points away from surviving relegation, it is time to panic for Fullham FC. It is difficult to imagine that any potential new January signings would provide a form-changing boost, though the Ryan Babel signing from Beşiktaş looks promising. Aleksandar Mitrović proved early into the season that he is a legitimate Premier League striker. Ryan Sessegnon must live up to his wonder-kid status, Jean Michaël Seri must live up to a price tag that had top six clubs looking for his signature this summer, and André Schürrle must show his Dortmund pedigree. Any hope of escaping relegation will depend on Ranieri’s ability to galvanize his group of talented players for the second half of the season.

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2. Wolves’ Top 6 Challenge

Wolverhampton Wanderers have proven to be the most interesting team in the Premier League this season. In nine matches this season against the top six, they hold a 3-3-3 record, showing that they can compete with any other team in the league. They currently sit in 8th place, but could find their way out of a 12-point deficit from the top 6 with only four difficult fixtures left on their EPL schedule. Additionally, after defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup, they face an easy 4th round draw to move on in the competition. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo has effectively gotten all of his players on the same page after overhauling their roster coming into the Premier League, which is unsurprising given his Portuguese background combined with the eight Portuguese players that they have listed on their 24-man roster. This includes key contributors like Diogo Jota, Rúben Neves, Rui Patricio, João Moutinho and Hélder Costa. This unique combination of team chemistry and natural talent could make for a surprising run for the Wolves in 2019.

3. Homegrown Player Rule as a Factor for Less January Transfer Activity

In an effort to make the EPL more competitive for clubs that don’t have as many funds as the high rollers and in hopes of bringing up more homegrown talent, the Premier League mandates that a maximum of 17 non-“homegrown” players could be on a 25-man roster at a time. For a player to be considered homegrown, they must have spent a significant amount of time at an English or Welsh academy, and/or be English or Welsh. For example, players like Paul Pogba and Hector Bellerin spent two years in an English club’s academy, meaning they can be considered homegrown. This has proven harmful in transfer activity, as teams are able to take advantage of other clubs’ ability to pay large amounts and necessity for English talent. This past summer, Aston Villa tried making Tottenham overpay for Jack Grealish, which they were unwilling to do. This January, history is repeating itself as we see players like Callum Wilson of Bournmouth being labeled with a £40 price tag. Given the stingy nature that we have recently seen from teams like Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal, we may be in for an uneventful transfer window.

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Chelsea target Callum Wilson (right) has a far greater price tag than his play would dictate.

4. Manchester United’s Manager Sweepstakes

Caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s success since taking over has made it difficult to look elsewhere for a long-term manager solution. Names like Mauricio Pochettino, Zinedine Zidane, Massimiliano Allegri and Gareth Southgate have caught the attention of United’s front office, but how could they demote a manager with a perfect record after half a season of turmoil? Higher ups are likely looking for any reason to demote Solskjær, so we can only expect him to keep the reins if other candidates refuse or if he continues his unfounded streak. Given the club’s current success, the best course of action would be to wait and see how things play out.

5. Is Sarri the Answer for Chelsea?

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri may have deflected his recent woes with the sale of Álvaro Morata and purchase of Gonzalo Higuaín, but it remains to be seen if Higuain has enough left in the tank to regularly contribute for a top-flight Premier League club. Sarri’s possessive footballing strategy has its drawbacks, and his lack of a consistent striker leaves him to rely offensively on Eden Hazard too frequently. While his fullbacks have quality, they lack the requisite pace to play on the wings simultaneously, which opens the pitch up for opposing wingers. A wide attacking team like Liverpool would surely expose Chealsea’s faults, which is why Antonio Conte played César Azpilicueta at the center-back position in his tenure as manager. Chelsea is trending downward, but Higuain’s arrival could hopefully change that. Please stop loaning Michy Batshuayi.

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6. Manchester City’s Cup Involvement

It comes as no surprise that, aside from Liverpool, their biggest competition is themselves. Manchester City is still contending in the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League. While the prospect of winning four cups in one season seems exciting, its completion would surely take a toll on the fatigue of the club’s players. A deep run in the Champions League appears likely, but could impact the fitness of the team’s top players for the Premier League. City must keep winning domestic games to keep up with Liverpool, and this could prove difficult if Pep Guardiola doesn’t get his tactics right.

7. Liverpool’s Wonder Season could Still End as a Flop

Call me a pessimist, but I can’t help but think about the possibility of Liverpool finishing without any silverware this season. Liverpool have crashed out of both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, leaving a Champions League matchup against a formidable (but Müller-less) Bayern Munich squad and a league lead of four points. A Champions League fallout would likely mean a strong domestic finish, so it is hard to believe that Liverpool will not walk away with ANYTHING at the end of May. Still, it could happen. The team has shown flashes of lacking defensive options, having had to sub in a teenager against Wolves after a Lovren injury, and having had to play Fabinho is the center back role in the following games. Still, a world-class front three, a top-three center back and goalkeeper and an electrifying manager should keep them in contention both domestically and in the Champions League.

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8. Tottenham’s Stadium Move

Dele Alli and Harry Kane are both out of commission until March, and Hueng Min Son is away on international duty. Lucas Moura is also dealing with an injury, leaving Spurs with very few attacking options at the moment. Fernando Llorente has scored more domestic goals for other teams this season than for Spurs, so they would do well to pick up an offensive threat before the January transfer deadline ends. However, it is difficult to expect Daniel Levy to reach into his pockets given the stingy attitude that he showed over the summer. The only hope for Tottenham’s next few months of fixtures is for their form to take a positive turn. This could take effect through a move to their new White Hart Lane, which has continuously pushed forward its grand opening date. Spurs have grown accustomed to calling Wembley their home over the past few seasons, but a move to their new stadium could provide the spark that Spurs need to continue challenging in all four levels of competition.

9. Özil’s Arsenal Involvement

Unai Emery’s squad is starting to show some life this season, but watching their play through 90 minutes makes it obvious that this team is missing the requisite creativity and flair in the middle of the pitch to take their team to the next level. The problem with fielding Mesut Özil as the playmaker of the team is that it often seems as though the team rides or dies with his performance. If Özil picks out the right pass for a goal off of the counterattack, the team will be successful. However, if he overthinks a simple ball, it could produce a costly turnover. This kind of make-or-break quality is shared by players like Paul Pogba who are involved on so many parts of the pitch that their level of play is integral. The truth is that Arsenal do not have the quality to finish in a Champions League spot without Özil’s influence in the middle, but if Unai Emery is unwilling to take that risk, he may very well find his team regressing in the final stretch of the season.

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10. The VAR Discussion Escalates

Everybody knows that VAR will eventually be instituted in all high-level footballing competitions – the question is simple when. Managers like Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho have spoken out about different problems that they have with VAR, scaling from the extra time that should be given due to its implementation, to the effect that it would have on the emotion of the game. Other managers have expressed a disinterest or ambivalence in the subject, expressing their understanding for the technological development of sport. Some managers have even expressed their enthusiasm for its institution. While providing video review for key moments in matches would certainly increase the percentage of correct calls, it does indeed disrupt the flow of the game and present its own issues that some fans would have initial issues with. In light of recent calls in the Premier League, it will be interesting to see how soon its implementation will come.

The All NBA Overpaid Team

The NBA operates on a soft salary cap, which has translated into several ludicrous contracts in recent history. This not only attributes to inflation, the latest collecting bargaining agreement and ownership’s necessity to put out a successful product, but it also speaks to the shifting power dynamics within the league. Players in basketball have more bargaining power than ever, which has understandably resulted in some players earning far beyond their worth. This not only shifts the power imbalance within the league, but it also compromises the amount of flexibility that a team may have. A team deep into the luxury tax without legitimate winning aspirations (Wizards, Cavs, etc.) faces few options in reversing its fortune, rendering it stagnant and forcing a rebuild. Players will then be traded for less than their market value, further deepening the cycle of loss, as the team hopes to strike gold in the draft lottery. These kinds of concerns reflect the importance of paying players adequately, and cutting costs where possible.

Players who are on the last years of their deal or with a team option have been left off the list. Additionally, while some NBA stars are being tremendously overpaid, their value and usage as players will usually make for a better deal than that of a player who gets paid a bit less but never plays. Without further ado, here are the 15 most overpaid players in the league, with some honorable mentions at the end.

First Team

Otto Porter Jr. (WSH): $27m owed for next 2 years + 1 year PO for same amount – When it comes to Otto Porter, the Wizards trapped themselves in a deal that could very well be the reason for their lackluster season. As a restricted free agent in 2017, the Brooklyn Nets offered Porter 4 years, $106 million – and the Wizards matched the offer sheet. Given that this happened later into free agency, the Wizards had few options to replace his production, especially as a promising young player who is prototypically catered for today’s game. Don’t get me wrong; Otto Porter is a good player who can catch and shoot, play efficient basketball and get back on defense. Unfortunately, Porter seems to be showing some signs of regression after improving in each of his previous seasons, and he is simply not worth three more years of $27 milion.

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Nicolas Batum (CHA): $25.5m owed for next 2 years + 1 year PO for same amount – While the Hornets are currently surging behind big performances from Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum slows down their development as a relevant team in the East. In 2016, Batum signed a 5 year, $120 million extension with the Hornets after posting solid career numbers in his first year with MJ’s team. Charlotte backloaded this deal so that they had to pay less of it in the first few years, which will come back to hurt them in these important upcoming seasons. As Kemba continues to prove his ability, the Hornets will be sure to make some moves as to make room for his max contract, while also improving their roster, meaning that Batum could be on the move.

Chandler Parsons (MEM): $24.5m owed for next 2 years – This is likely the worst contract in the NBA. Since signing a max deal worth 4 years, $94.8 million in 2016 with Memphis after posting encouraging stats in Dallas, Parsons has shown that he has nothing left in the tank. He hasn’t been able to return to his previous form since coping with injury, which has resulted in only 73 games in the past three seasons, having been unable to eclipse 20 MPG or 8 PPG. Memphis is stuck paying a backloaded sum for the next two years, for a player with no trade value.

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Ryan Anderson (PHX): $18m owed for next 2 years – Houston was finally able to offload Ryan Anderson this past offseason after agreeing to pay him $80 million over 4 years in 2016. This deal is not as bad as it initially seems, because the Rockets front-loaded his salary, and Phoenix only owes him $15.6 million next season. The Suns can also afford to absorb the $20.4 million payout that he is owed this season, given their wealth of young talent. Anderson has only played 20 MPG this season and is averaging less than 5 PPG on horrible shooting.

Timofey Mozgov (ORL): $16.4m owed for next 2 years – Mozgov is a product of one of the most head-scratching deals in recent history. In the 2016 offseason, the Lakers signed Mozgov to a four year, $64 million deal. This money came completely unprecedented, given that Mozgov was averaging 6 PPG and 4 RPG in 18 MPG the year before. Unsurprisingly, this deal was quickly labeled a mistake, and the Lake show immediately traded him to Brooklyn a year later. Today, Mozgov gets paid more than Clint Capela, yet hasn’t played a single minute in Orlando. I’d be surprised to find this man playing more than 10 MPG in the NBA ever again.

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Second Team

Tristan Thompson (CLE): $18m owed for next 2 years – Whether it was a result of scrambling or a result of courting LeBron, the Cavs offered a bevy of players ludicrous contracts in the past decade. One of these players is big man Tristan Thompson, who signed a 5-year, $82 million deal in 2015. Since the deal, the big man showed little signs of improvement, showing a lack of versatility. This most recently culminated in his being dropped down in the Cavs’ rotation this past postseason, seeing his MPG decrease to 22. Thompson still produces, averaging a double-double for the league’s worst team in the league, but this is likely due to the fact that Kevin Love has been injured. Expect Thompson to be a role player for the rest of his career.

George Hill (CLE): $18.5m owed for next 2 years – The Sacramento Kings signed Hill to a 3-year, $57 million deal in 2017, with plans for him to mentor then-rookie D’Aaron Fox. With multiple promising young guards on this roster, Sacramento eventually offloaded this deal to the desperate Cavs amidst their mid-season rebuild to keep the Cavs in contention for a playoff run and keep LeBron. Cleveland eventually made the Finals, but Hill proved to be underwhelming. Neither the Kings nor the Cavs were able to replicate the production he had for the Jazz in the season prior to his deal, putting Cleveland in the unfortunate position of owing star-level money to an average point guard.

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Evan Turner (POR): $18m owed for next 2 years – Turner was always a solid defensive two-guard who thrived in a bench role with the Celtics in 2016. That, coupled with a 17.4 PPG season in 2014 with Philadelphia gave Portland enough confidence to offer him $70 million over four years. Turner has played an integral bench role for Portland over the years, but his overall performance and lackluster shooting certainly does not merit the price tag.

Allen Crabbe (BKN): $18.5m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – As a restricted free agent in 2016, Crabbe leveraged Brooklyn’s 4-year, $75 million offer to get his Portland Trail Blazers to match a lofty offer sheet. Just as the Nets did to the Wizards, Portland was left to overpay another bench player. Crabbe eventually found his way onto the Nets anyway, but has started less than half of his games this season and is shooting a .306 FG% on 8 PPG. After completing this deal, Crabbe will likely be a bench guy for the rest of his career.

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Hassan Whiteside (MIA): $25.4m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – There was a time when it seemed like Whiteside was worth every penny of this four-year max deal. He re-signed after a 14 PPG, 12 RPG, 4 BPG season on extremely productive shooting, but has shown little character after collecting his paycheck. A promising first season of the deal was followed by a 2017-2018 season full of disappointment, even being benched in fourth quarters. It seemed as though Whiteside had taken a step back in his career, and while this season looks like an improvement from last year, much remains to be sought after. Whiteside finds himself on this list because despite still putting up a respectable 13 PPG, 14 RPG and 3 BPG this season, his shooting is less productive than ever, he has been committing more fouls than ever, and his character in the locker room is simply not worth the talent.

Third Team

Tyler Johnson (MIA): $19.2m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – The Heat overpay plenty of players, and none of them are more unknown than Tyler Johnson. This man is a mystery to any NBA fan who lives outside of Miami. In reality, Johnson is a solid two-guard who brings plenty of energy and speed. These qualities are hardly worth the lofty price tag, and despite being young and having plenty of time to turn his career around, there is little expectation that he lives up to the money. Johnson hasn’t started this season after only starting half of the Heat’s games last year, and has seen his minutes and production consistently decrease since signing a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Nets, which was matched by the Heat. This deal was heavily backloaded, and Johnson is owed almost 80% of the money over the next two years.

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Gorgui Dieng (MIN): $16m owed for next 3 years – Dieng signed a four-year, $64 million contract for the Timberwolves in 2016 to keep him through 2021. Minnesota essentially gambled on Dieng’s development as a player, and lost. A defensive specialist who sets good picks and has some range, the Senegalese international has declined in his last two years because of his offensive limitations. Dieng gets paid big money to play backup to KAT, and will likely continue to play a bench role for the rest of his career.

Ian Mahinmi (WSH): $15.9m owed for next 2 years – This veteran has averaged more than 20 MPG in only one season in his NBA career. Washington decided to give him the same contract as Dieng after averaging 9 PPG, 7 RPG and playing hard defense for the Indiana Pacers post-Roy Hibbert. The big man wouldn’t see the floor on any other team in the NBA, but has been forced into action this year because of Washington’s lack of big men. Still, he hasn’t had less minutes since 2011, and gives the Wizards zero wiggle room when it comes to cap space.

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JR Smith (CLE): $15m owed for next 2 years – Everyone’s least favorite player re-signed with Cleveland in 2016 following their NBA title and a lengthy contract dispute. The deal came to four-years, $57 million, keeping an aging locker room distraction who is on the decline for much more than he is worth. The detrimental effects of these contracts have only become evident upon LeBron’s departure, when his presence would guarantee a constant inclusion in the finals, and therefore a justification for the payouts.

Bismack Biyombo (CHA): $17m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – Biyombo’s payday came as a product of his performance in the 2016 playoffs with the Toronto Raptors. His rim-protection was highly coveted by the Magic, enough for them to offer him a whopping four-year, $72 million deal. As a combination of seeing his minutes decline in Orlando, the drafting of Jonathan Isaac in 2017 and Mo Bamba in 2018 and the play of Nikola Vucevic, Biyombo was dealt to Charlotte in a deal that swapped him with Mozgov. This deal was likely done as a favor to Biyombo, who could potentially revitalize his career with the Hornets. Unfortunately, the Congolese international has been unable to pass Cody Zeller and Willy Hernangomez on the depth chart.

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Honorable Mention

Brandon Knight (HOU): $15m owed for next 2 years – Hasn’t played all year, part of Houston’s dump of Ryan Anderson, could potentially see minutes when healthy.
Solomon Hill (NO): $12.7m owed for next 2 years – Has barely played in last two seasons with low production, but contract isn’t big enough to make the list.
Marvin Williams (CHA): $14.5m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – Long time NBA journeyman, hasn’t been bad (career 10.5 PPG)
Miles Plumlee (ATL): $12.5m owed for next 2 years – Averages 12 MPG for one of the worst teams in the leauge, solid defender and relatively efficient on offense, but one dimensional and a dime a dozen. Hawks don’t really need the cap space though.

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Meyers Leonard (POR): $11m owed owed for next 2 years – Great size but stopped developing after getting paid. Hasn’t played 20 MPG in three years.
Matthew Dellevadova (MIL): $9.6m owed for next 2 years – Contract is a product of his hard play in the playoffs on the Cavs, lacks high athletic ceiling, hasn’t played much.
Cristiano Felicio (CHI): $8.1m owed for next 3 years – Only 15 MPG on a bad NBA team, doesn’t look like he will get much time over next three years when he is on contract.
Harrison Barnes (DAL): $24.5m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – Gets paid like a star but could never be better than the fourth player on a championship team. Still, didn’t make top 15 because he has averaged 18 PPG since joining the Mavs.

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LeBron’s Near Triple Double not Enough in Lakers Debut

An interesting stat ran across the screen as the TNT crew talked about how LeBron James’ teams have won at least 50 games in the last six seasons – the Los Angeles Lakers have not won 50 games since the 2010-2011 season, in which Kobe Bryant was still a major part of their team.

LeBron came out to a mix of cheers and boos from the crowd in Portland as he geared up for his first game as a Laker. LA made many moves in the offseason including signings of James, Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.

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The Lakers came out looking like they had put the pieces together, but their play declined after every quarter. LeBron finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists in his debut for the Lakers, but this collective team showed that they have a long way to go. Josh Hart led the bench in scoring with 20 points, Brandon Ingram added 16 and Kyle Kuzma put up 15. These sound like fine outputs, but the stat lines do not show how much this team struggled. They made their first three pointer in the third quarter and were outrebounded by the Blazers big men.

Here is a quarter-by-quarter analysis of how the Lakers started their season:

It did not take long for LeBron to get things going, throwing down back-to-back tomahawk slams in the first three minutes of the game, instantly making Moda Center come alive. LeBron picked up right where he started as he continued to show his leadership and court vision in the first quarter. The King seemed as though he had a hand in every possession, just as he has done for most of his career. LeBron had no problems getting to the basket and continued to get the ball to his young teammates for easy scores. Taking his first break with three minutes to go in the first quarter, the Lakers went into the timeout with a six-point lead. The Blazers immediately took advantage of his absence and went on an 11-2 run to take control of the game. This development shows the kinds of game plans that Western conference teams will take against LeBron’s Lakers, while also showing just how big an impact LeBron had been having on the LA offense.

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The Blazers started off the second quarter just how they finished the first. Frustration from the Lakers became evident as they turned the ball over and continued to take bad shots. The pressure mounted for the Lakers as they went down by double digits. LeBron also picked up his third foul in the first half, which did not help the Lakers’ case as they continued trying to get back into the game. The Lakers rallied as LeBron sat on the bench for the last four minutes of the second quarter, surging off of solid play from youngster Josh Hart and veteran Rajon Rondo. The entire team failed to score a three pointer for the whole first half. Despite going 0-12 from beyond the arc, they only trailed by two heading into the second half.

The Lakers continued to struggle from the three-point line in the second half, a main contributor to their loss. They saw Brandon Ingram come to life in the third quarter (off of many LeBron passes) to bring the Lakers back into the game. The third quarter turned out to be the most exciting one so far as the Lakers and Blazers both upped the tempo and traded baskets back and forth.

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LA looked sloppy for the first six minutes to open the fourth quarter. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum caught fire for the Blazers as it seemed that the Lakers just did not have it. They got within two possessions throughout the fourth quarter, but just could not get over the hump. This was their 16th straight loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, but they will have three more chances to break this streak throughout the season. The Lakers and LeBron have their home debut on Saturday against the Houston Rockets.

10 Bold Predictions for the 2018 NBA Regular Season

My favorite time of year is nearing; a time in which baseball is dormant, and everybody’s sights are set on NBA basketball (with some football and hockey sprinkled in). After the first two days of the regular season, some inklings have been solidified as a solid possibility, while other outcomes seem more unlikely. Here are ten outcomes that you should keep your eye on throughout the year.

1. New Orleans will finish as a top three seed in the West.

In addition to the Pelicans looking really good, the Rockets (their biggest threat besides the Warriors) don’t look to hot. I can definitely see them missing the defensive intensity that Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute brought every night, and New Orleans has tons of weapons that can go off on any given night. Four players totaled more than 20 points last night, and Elfrid Payton turned in a triple double. Combining a savvy passer like Payton with a dominant player like AD maximizes Payton’s skillset and makes it seem as though Rondo never left. Nikola Mirotic is streaky, but Julius Randle can provide relief that is just as productive as that of the sharpshooter from Montenegro. We haven’t even mentioned Jrue Holiday, who proved last year to be among the NBA’s elite defensive guards. Lastly, expect Davis to be among the top three in MVP voting, further boosting New Orleans’ chances.

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2. Andre Drummond will be a top ten player this year

Drummond has been slowly but surely working on every facet of his game, and it has translated into results that nobody had ever thought possible. Coach Dwane Casey has given Drummond the OK to shoot threes this year, and after improving his free throw percentage by nearly .250 last year, Drummond has become one of the most versatile bigs in the league. Combine this with likely the best rebounding in the league, and you get a top ten NBA player. Look out for the Pistons to sneak into the playoffs and develop into legitimate contenders once they can get rid of that Reggie Jackson contract.

3. Meet the new Raptors Big 3: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and… Pascal Siakam

My Canadian housemate has been raving about this guy for weeks, and I didn’t want to believe him. However, Siakam won the starting job over Serge Ibaka on opening night, and made sure not to waste the opportunity. There are rumblings that Siakam has tailored his game to that of Draymond Green this season, playing a hard-working defensive supporting role that helps keep the ball moving while making plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. The man has range, a great eye for making passes, a complete defensive skillset, and a competitive mindset. Expect him to turn in an extremely productive season that gets him the respect that he deserves.

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4. The Brooklyn Nets make the playoffs

The Nets lost by three to the Pistons last night, but Brooklyn fans have to be optimistic. I don’t want to jump the gun on Caris LeVert being a star, but Jarrett Allen certainly looks like one. I’m optimistic that D’Angelo Russell will turn in a productive season, and Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the most underrated guards in the league. With Allen Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Demarre Carroll all returning at different points in the season, it will be interesting to see how Brooklyn looks at full strength – they have seven or eight solid players throughout their rotation that should make them competitive on a nightly basis. Welcome back to the playoffs, Brooklyn.

5. Devin Booker will be an MVP candidate

At just 21 years old, Booker already looks like a seasoned veteran. The Kobe comparisons are very legitimate, and truthfully, the man already put up MVP numbers last year. The reason that Booker wasn’t in the conversation or even an all star was because of the Suns’ abysmal record. That should change this year with an extremely interesting roster led by some young studs with some solid veterans mixed in. Booker will have the ball in his hands frequently with very few options at point guard for the Suns, which should translate to incredible usage. Expect Booker to be a dark horse MVP candidate this season, and to be a potential 30PPG scorer.

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6. Washington Wizards will be a top four team in the East

After the Wizards finished with the eighth seed this past season, people have been quick to write Washington off. The narrative for this team last season was dominated by the drama between Marcin Gortat and John Wall along with John Wall’s injury and whether the team is better without him. The undeniable truth is that the Wizards need Wall, and with a more unified core this season, they are sure to improve. Washington improved their backcourt by adding proven starter Austin Rivers, and solidified their front-court by adding Dwight Howard, who is coming off of a resurgent season. Toronto, Boston and Philly are essential locks for a a top four finish in the East, and the Wizards’ main competition will likely come in the form of Milwaukee. I’m betting on the all star duo of Beal and Wall to beat out an MVP candidate in Giannis and a fringe-all star in Middleton to take that fourth spot in the East.

7. The second leading scorer for the Cavs this year will be… Cedi Osman

Osman is coming off of a lackluster rookie year, but showed many signs of promise with several postseason appearances. The Turk put up a solid stat line of 17-10-4 from the small forward position in the first game of the season, and also played the second most minutes on the team. His production will surely benefit from the lack of wing players on this team and the surplus of guards. Osman also worked out with LeBron and friends in the offseason, so he is sure to have a few new tricks up his sleeve. Look for Cedi to establish himself as one of the most reliable foreign players in today’s game.

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8. The San Antonio Spurs will comfortably make the playoffs with 50+ wins

Despite the lack of playing experience in San Antonio, DeMar DeRozan looks completely at home in San Antonio. Pop will surely maximize his abilities on the floor and tighten his defensive skillset to make him another MVP candidate this season. With Dejounte Murray out for the year, DeRozan will surely have the ball in his hands more frequently. LaMarcus Aldridge has shown that he can still play at a high level, and Rudy Gay continues to produce consistent offensive results. Keep in mind that the Spurs made the playoffs last year without Kawhi, so the addition of DeRozan puts them at another level.

9. Portland won’t make the playoffs, forcing a rebuild

The Trailblazers dug their own grave when they decided to pay Myers Leonard, Evan Turner and Mo Harkless the big bucks. These guys are decent players, but none of them should make more than $10 million annually, if that. It doesn’t help that they drafted two guards and spent their offseason adding, what do you know, another guard. Considering that Lillard and McCollum should each play at least 33 minutes per game respectively if they want a shot at greatness, that does not leave much time for the rest of their young prospects to develop or for Seth Curry to make a difference. Should they go with a smaller lineup, they will be consistently manhandled by western teams loaded with players that have freakish wingspans. Zach Collins, their lottery pick from last year, looks like a flop and sits behind Jusuf Nurkic at center to highlight an especially weak group at the forward positions. Portland will need to offload one of their stars in a deal that frees up cap space for them, and barring any interesting moves, it looks like they are headed for disaster.

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10. Terry Rozier will be traded before the deadline

Scary Terry put himself on the map last season, and with Kyrie verbalizing his long-term commitment to Boston, it doesn’t seem like the Celtics will be able to hold on to Rozier much longer. Marcus Smart has proven to be a serviceable backup and just signed an extension. Boston will look to get value out of Rozier before he leaves for nothing in the next offseason, and with teams like Phoenix, Denver, Orlando and Indiana still looking for a long-term solution at point guard, they could get some great assets in return.

 

Let’s Talk About the Western Conference: Too Much Talent

It is unbelievably difficult to predict the outcome of this upcoming Western Conference regular season. A few certainties come to mind, but only two teams seem unwaveringly destined to miss the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks are not ready to make the jump yet, with promising times ahead, and the rest of the conference is a crapshoot. On the top end of the standings, we can confidently say that the Warriors and the Rockets will capture the top two spots, but as we saw in the standings this past year where three wins differentiated the third seed and the ninth seed, we are guaranteed to see an extremely close battle. Here is how things may pan out:

The Favorites

Golden State Warriors:

Boogie won’t be ready for an NBA return until at least after the All-Star break, but that won’t stop a team of four more all-stars from remaining atop the league. The team will experiment with interesting rotations all throughout the season as they prioritize keeping their Hamptons Five lineup healthy, which could result in some surprising losses. This will come as no reason for worry, given that the Warriors are sure to step up come playoff time. Today’s NBA dynasty should have no problem continuing their reign.

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Houston Rockets:

Last year, we saw the Rockets finish seven wins higher than the Warriors in the regular season, amassing the best record in the league by far. While the title for best record may be in jeopardy based on the nightly competition that they should face in comparison to the Celtics, Houston should still finish comfortably in first or second in the West. As long as they re-sign Clint Capela and add Carmelo Anthony to fill the void left by Trevor Ariza’s departure, the Rockets should continue to be the team with the best chances of taking down Golden State.

Formidable Challengers

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Less is more for OKC, who certainly got a lot better by getting rid of Melo. While their roster is currently noticeably devoid of shooters, the talent on the team is certainly undeniable. On paper, the Thunder should have no problem being among the league leaders in defense (Westbrook, George, Roberson, Patterson, Noel, Adams), and added an underrated NBA point guard in Dennis Schroder. Props to GM Sam Presti for making a stagnant Thunder team better while also monumentally decreasing their luxury tax bill. If this team finds its stroke, they could certainly make a run that we would’ve expected last season.

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Los Angeles Lakers:

Any team with LeBron James on its roster immediately becomes a contender. The best player in the world has possibly his most interesting supporting cast ever going into this season, and one can only imagine that this season is serving as a setup season for the Lakers. The King has committed long term, and LA has several wildcards on one-year deals (Beasley, Rondo, Stephenson, KCP, McGee). Couple that with possibly the most promising young core in the game (Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, Hart), and we will surely see some intriguing basketball coming out of LA this year. It remains to be seen how far LeBron can take this rag-tag bunch come playoff time.

Portland Trail Blazers:

We can’t overlook the fact that Portland took the third seed in the West last season, but I’m not a big fan of the moves that they have made in the offseason thus far. The Trail Blazers are limited in the players that they could attract to such a small market, but they have stockpiled (undersized) guards and completely ignored their needs at the wing. Sure, it’s reassuring to have so much backup for Lillard and McCollum (Curry, Baldwin IV, Stauskas, Trent Jr., Simons), but in a constantly improving Western Conference, I’m not sure a starting lineup that includes Al Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless will be enough. Look for Portland to underperform despite their lofty expectations, thus forcing a full rebuild come next offseason.

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On the Rise

Utah Jazz:

I love the identity of this Jazz team that prides itself on defensive stability. This team has solid depth but lacks star power and a scoring punch. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are certainly all-star caliber players, but Gobert is somewhat of an offensive liability and Mitchell lacks experience. That didn’t stop the latter from making a ton of noise in the playoffs last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead his team to yet another playoff berth.

New Orleans Pelicans:

The Pelicans’ commitment to position-less basketball is one of the most refreshing aspects of any NBA team. Elfrid Payton has plenty to prove this season, while AD looks poised to be one of the league’s most likely MVP candidates. The dominance that he showed in the playoffs last year speaks to the fact that he could be the next best player in the NBA. Mirotic and Randle each have the requisite ability to make up for the talent lost when Boogie decided to ruin the NBA, but New Orleans will have to fight on a nightly basis if they want to come out of the West in the toughest conference we have probably ever seen in the NBA.

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Minnesota Timberwolves:

When we talk about the Timberwolves, we need to think about the healthy Timberwolves. When Jimmy Butler wasn’t sitting on the sidelines, this team was slotted in as the third seed in the West. After his injury, they fell down the standings, but Butler is expected to stay healthy this upcoming season and KAT is looking to take another step in his career. Minnesota may be a bit less deep than they were last season, but they bring back all of their starters and could make some noise in the West with a legitimate big three.

Denver Nuggets:

The Nuggets missed out on playoff contention this past season in dramatic fashion, but they should find their way back into the race this upcoming season. This team has had probably one of the most successful free agencies, extending Jokic, drafting MPJ, and bringing on Isaiah Thomas. Their young core should continue to develop nicely and I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Isaiah revitalize his career in Denver. Paul Millsap also missed most of the past season, and will be looking to find his rhythm in a comeback season. Expect big things coming out of Denver.

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Wildcards

Phoenix Suns:

This Phoenix roster certainly has the talent to compete, but we don’t know how quickly they could be making that jump. With a bevy of young talents (Booker, Ayton, Jackson, Bender, Chriss, Bridges, Okobo), Phoenix certainly has a bright future; the question is, how long will it take them to develop into contenders? With excellent veteran presence coming from Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza, we could see a huge jump in wins coming out of Phoenix. Sadly, however, it likely won’t be enough to beat some of these other powerhouse teams into the top eight spots.

Memphis Grizzlies:

Many teams are likely counting the Grizzlies out given their nightmare of a season in 2017-2018, but we forget about how much Mike Conley means to this franchise. Their window continues to shrink as Marc Gasol continues to age, but new recruits like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson could turn this team around quickly. Nobody really knows what to expect from the Grizzlies this upcoming season, and despite being in prime position to improve on last year’s win total, they should still fall short of playoff contention.

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Los Angeles Clippers:

The Clippers have a ton of above average players, with not a single player who can be labeled as a star. They’ll surely be extremely difficult to play against on a regular basis, featuring some of the best depth in the league at pretty much every position. However, if they have any chance of making the playoffs, they need a player like Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari to step up and provide more of a scoring punch. They won’t be earning a spot in the top eight with Lou Williams as their leading scorer. Despite so many “if’s”, it is also worth noting that the Clippers were one of the most injured teams last season, and could be much more successful this year if healthy.

San Antonio Spurs:

We can never count the Spurs out when Pop is coaching. This team obviously lost their best player recently, but has retained depth at every spot on the floor. In addition, keep in mind that this team won 47 games last year essentially without Kawhi, so technically, DeMar DeRozan is surely an upgrade. Expect the Spurs to contend until the very end of the season, where they could just barely miss out on contention on the fact that their team is simply less talented than the other ones.

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Western Conference Standings Projections

1. Houston Rockets

Houston will once again care more about the regular season than Golden State will, which will therefore result in the first seed. When Chris Paul is healthy, the rockets are arguably unstoppable, and present a legitimate threat at dethroning the Warriors.

2. Golden State Warriors

We must remember how late Boogie will come back, leaving GSW relatively thin at the center position for most of the regular season. They’ll still probably win more than 55 games, though, if not 60.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

The friendship that Russell Westbrook and Paul George have developed speaks for itself. I think that without Melo, this duo will exhibit incredible chemistry to lead them to a resurgent season where they capture the third seed. Keep in mind that the team underperformed last year, and still got the fourth seed.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota simply needs to live up to their talent. Questions about Butler’s long-term commitment to the T-Wolves still remain, but winning solves everything. If Andrew Wiggins can finally make that next step and Karl Anthony-Towns keeps developing, the potential of this team is limitless.

5. New Orleans Pelicans

AD for MVP, I’m calling it now. Anthony Davis is going to will this team all season long; they likely won’t have much success in the playoffs, but they’ll sure be a fun team to watch during the season. I’m excited to see how Julius Randle fares on his new team, as he showed some stellar play in his contract year with the Lakers.

6. Utah Jazz

Despite finishing fifth last season, the Jazz will likely take a step back next year once they see that the rest of the West has come to play. Regardless, they’re sure to be in the playoff picture. Look for Utah to offer max money next offseason after they’re butted out in the first round.

7. Los Angeles Lakers

How about a first-round matchup between GSW and LeBron? The King is notorious for taking it easy during the regular season and stepping it up come playoff time. LeBron’s Cavs finished in fourth place in the East last year, and in a more competitive conference, he could drop even further. This team is built to take on the Warriors, not to beat the rest of the league. Keep in mind that I’m expected seeds 3-10 to be incredibly close, as well.

8. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets could finish higher depending on how well Isaiah bounces back, but the fact remains that their best passer is their center. The Nuggets will easily be among the league’s best in points per game, but could also improve on the defensive end. However, it is undeniable that their team is tailor made for today’s NBA, and it’ll be interesting to see how high Nikola Jokic’s ceiling really is.