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NBA

Biggest X-factors in the Eastern Conference for the 2019-20 NBA season

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Norman Powell, Markelle Fultz, Robert Williams [NBA Getty Images]

The Eastern Conference is headlined by three teams that are widely considered to be the favourites next season - the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

And rightfully so, as they are each loaded with talent. However, along with those three teams are a handful of others with the potential upside to make some noise in the conference. Among the contenders in the East, there are individuals on each team that have the ability to take their team to another level if they can put together a breakout season.

With that in mind, here are the five biggest X-factors in the Eastern Conference entering the 2019-20 season...

Norman Powell - Toronto Raptors

The Raptors will be without Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and starting shooting guard Danny Green, as both players elected to head out West and play in Los Angeles - the Clippers for Leonard, the Lakers for Green.

That's a combined 36.9 points and 26.7 field goal attempts per game up for grabs in Toronto, as well as two starting spots.

Norman Powell is likely to fill that starting shooting guard role, and along with that comes big responsibility and big shoes to fill.

Green was terrific on both ends of the floor for the Raptors last season - he shot 45.5% from 3-point land and took on a number of challenging defensive matchups for head coach Nick Nurse. It would be unfair to expect Powell - a career 34.5% 3-point shooter - to step in and magically become the marksmen Green was, but he's coming off of a season in which he shot 40.0% from beyond the arc.

Powell also posted a career-high 8.6 points per game in the regular season and flashed his potential as a scorer in the playoffs with three consecutive double-digit outings in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Raptors will need that version of Powell more often than not, as his increased playing time will likely require another uptick in scoring next season. Along with higher offensive expectations comes more defensive responsibility as well. Having flashed solid defensive potential before, Nurse should expect the five-year player to defend at a higher level at this point in his career.

All in all, Toronto needs Powell to shoot as consistent from 3-point range as he did last season on a slight increase in attempts. At the same time, they'll need to see a willingness to check the second-best scorer in the opposing backcourt throughout the season.

It's certainly not too much to ask, but if Powell can execute that role to perfection, he would be a big reason why the Raptors are a real threat in the East again.

Robert Williams - Boston Celtics

Head coach Brad Stevens didn't ask much of Robert Williams in his rookie campaign with the Celtics. The Texas A&M product was buried on the bench behind veteran centres Al Horford and Aron Baynes, as well as Daniel Theis. Playing time was tough to come by on last year's loaded Celtics roster, even if their success never matched their level of talent.

However, there was a handful of times where Boston would be trailing in a contest due to lackadaisical play and Stevens would give Williams some playing time to try and provide a spark on the defensive end or on the boards.

He only appeared in 32 games in his rookie season, averaging 2.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over 8.8 minutes of playing time, but Williams will have to be ready for a potential promotion next season.

Both Horford and Baynes are gone. Their two rim protectors and defensive anchors have moved on and their only replacement has been Enes Kanter, who is a talented offensive centre and a workhorse on the glass but a limited defender.

If anything, it just proves how much Stevens and the front office believe in Williams to become their defensive stopper down low.

Williams is freakishly athletic and a solid shot blocker, but his inexperience raises some concerns in taking on this big of a role early in his career. He was great in Summer League, averaging 9.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over four games, and the Celtics will need similar numbers once the regular season rolls around.

Defence is the No. 1 question surrounding this Celtics roster. If Williams can step up to the plate and succeed in what's asked of him, Boston will have a good a chance as anyone in the East to reach the NBA Finals.

Wesley Matthews - Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks were forced to move on from former Rookie of the Year guard Malcolm Brogdon due to the in-season extensions of All-Star Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. They had to fill Brogdon's role with a player that has a similar skillset, and they landed on veteran shooting guard Wesley Matthews to take on that task.

Matthews was a journeyman in the league last season - he started the season with the Dallas Mavericks before being traded to the New York Knicks, then was bought out by the Knicks to sign with the Indiana Pacers.

Over the course of the season, Matthews posted 12.2 points per game on 40.0% shooting from the field and 37.2% from 3-point range. He's been known as a 3-and-D guy for his entire 10-year career, and that is the exact role that he'll be taking on in Milwaukee.

No, they shouldn't expect a 32-year-old Matthews to do the things a 26-year-old Brogdon did, but he's going to have to be Brogdon-lite if the Bucks want to dominate the NBA the way they did last season. Brogdon shot 50-40-90 last season. They can't expect Matthews to match that either, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if he got his 3-point percentage up into the 40s.

Defensively, if Bledsoe is marking the opposing team's top scoring guard and Middleton is taking on a forward, it's going to be Matthews who has to be able to stop that other guard. In the East, those are challenging matchups including Jaylen Brown, Josh Richardson or Goran Dragic, to name a few.

If the Bucks are going to return to the top of the East and take another crack at a 60-win season next year, Matthews' 3-point efficiency and on-ball defence will have to have a hand in that.

T.J. Warren - Indiana Pacers

When Victor Oladipo went down with a quad injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season, the Pacers called upon Bojan Bogdanovic to take over as the team's leading scorer.

Bogdanovic averaged 18.0 points per game last season but once Oladipo got hurt, his average increased to 20.7 points per game. He was successful in leading the Pacers to the No. 5 seed in the East, but he is no longer in Indiana after signing with the Utah Jazz this offseason.

The Pacers had found his replacement before he even left, trading for T.J. Warren on draft night. Warren is a bucket-getter - you may not have heard much about him while he was buried on the Phoenix Suns for the first five seasons of his career, but he's a true scorer.

Over the past three seasons, Warren has averaged 17.2 points per game on 49.4% shooting from the field and 33.4% from long range. While that 3-point percentage isn't pretty, he's coming off of a season in which he shot 42.8% from beyond the arc - the best of his career.

The Pacers are expected to be without Oladipo until roughly December or January, so Warren, along with other newcomers Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb, will need to pick up the scoring load until he returns.

Warren should have no trouble scoring points for Indy, but they'll also need the 26-year-old to take on bigger defensive assignments. Warren isn't known for his defence, but in Phoenix, he was never really expected to be a stopper.

If the six-year veteran can keep the same energy on offence while taking a step forward on the defensive end, the Pacers will be right back in the mix for a top-four seed in the East.

Markelle Fultz - Orlando Magic

This one is more of a wild card than an X-factor, as we all know. But X-factor could be the perfect term to describe Markelle Fultz, should he maximize his potential in his first season with a new franchise.

The Magic traded for Fultz midway through last season, taking a low-risk, high-reward chance on the former No. 1 overall pick. Fultz never figured things out in Philadelphia, only playing 33 games over two seasons before completely shutting down last year with a shoulder injury.

It's been a disappointing start to the career of a No. 1 pick, but I'm here to remind you that Fultz is still just 21-years-old. He was an extremely talented college player and he still has a lot of upside.

Now with a fresh start, maybe he'll shake off the yips and perform to the level he was expected to from Day 1. There's less pressure on him in Orlando than there ever was in Philadelphia, as he was constantly being labelled as a "bust." He joins a roster with a core of young and talented forwards that he can grow alongside as he tries to fill their "guard of the future" role.

D.J. Augustin is solid - no, we haven't forgotten that he was the best player on the floor in Game 1 versus last year's NBA champion Raptors. Michael Carter-Williams is a serviceable backup, but if Orlando could get the most out of Fultz, he would be exactly what this team needs to take the next step in the East.

Magic forward Aaron Gordon seemed to be confident in his new teammate this summer, calling him a "monster" while telling SiriusXM NBA Radio that people are "sleeping" on him this upcoming season.

If Gordon is right, the Magic could emerge as a sleeper in the East.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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