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NBA preview 2019-20: Eastern Conference teams on the rise, fall, Rookie of the Year & predicted finish

Kawhi Leonard's departure from Toronto to Los Angeles has left the Eastern Conference wide open.

For the second consecutive season, a basketball titan has fled from the Eastern Conference to Los Angeles, and Kawhi Leonard's departure from the Toronto Raptors has opened up the NBA's weaker conference.

That means a new team could rise to prominence and steal the reigning champions' spotlight.

Some franchises have had postseason success and are a step away from making an NBA Finals appearance while others are undergoing complete rebuilds.

All this will make for some exciting team and individual battles in 2019-20, and here's what we think you can expect this season.

Team on the rise: Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia came agonisingly close to defeating Toronto and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and the Sixers made some major moves over the offseason that could help them reach the championship series. They acquired one of the players most adept at guarding Joel Embiid by adding often-underrated Al Horford to their frontcourt rotation in free agency.

Philly also added a talented wing defender in Josh Richardson, giving them even more size.

Their starters could very well be the best defensive unit in the league, and Philadelphia added another specialist coming off the bench in 2019 first-rounder Matisse Thybulle, who has averaged 4.9 steals and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes in five preseason appearances.

Philadelphia could also have much more offensive upside, despite losing JJ Redick in free agency this summer. One of the team's main problems has been spacing because of Ben Simmons' reluctance to shoot the ball outside the paint, but he's shown more confidence firing from range in preseason play.

The 76ers have one of the most dominant post players in basketball in Embiid, a freakish point guard with dazzling ball skills in Simmons and room for growth. This could be the 76ers' year.

Team on the slide: Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte were respectable last season and finished ninth in the standings — just two games back from the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons. But losing their lone All-Star Kemba Walker will do obvious damage. It is unclear what the Hornets can do to turn things around, as there are quite a few questions they need to answer.

Terry Rozier will have big shoes to fill as he steps into Charlotte's starting point guard spot. Replacing an All-NBA talent is no simple task, and Rozier will have a lot to prove as the first offensive option on a team for the first time in his pro career.

Then there's the young core. The Hornets used a first-round pick on PJ Washington in the 2019 NBA Draft, but could also start Miles Bridges at that position. Marvin Williams logged 75 starts last year while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a deteriorating Nicolas Batum also split time there. The jury is out on Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk, and Devonte Graham, and every decent team in the Eastern Conference will have more consistent rotational pieces.

It's unlikely Charlotte will be able to move Batum's and Bismack Biyombo's undesirable contracts, so there's not much flexibility to acquire assets for the future. The Hornets have basically no shot at landing a big-name free agent, so they'll need to be bad enough to get some top-tier draft picks to avoid remaining a middling franchise just outside of the playoff picture.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Reigning MVP Antetokounmpo led his team to the best record (60-22) in basketball last year and essentially has his supporting pieces returning for 2019-20 — save for Malcolm Brogdon.

Each year, Antetokounmpo adds to his bag of tricks, and a step up from the 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds on 57.8 per cent shooting certainly would be something.

Whether it's shooting, playmaking or handling the ball that he improves, it'll make him more dangerous. He'll continue to be a nightmare for opposing teams and will have plenty of eyes watching his development entering year seven.

Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Few rookies will handle the ball as much as Morant will this season, and that's reason enough to believe he has a good shot at competing for Rookie of the Year.

Morant will be Memphis' floor general and basically be handed the keys to the offense. He's done a great job so far, tallying 7.3 assists per contest in preseason while averaging only 21.9 minutes. Morant will get more playing time in the regular season and will benefit from playing alongside the athletic Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson. 

Stat shot: Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

Robinson was an enigma protecting the rim from the post and the perimeter last season with his natural shot-blocking ability, and it'll be interesting to track how he follows up his rookie season with the Knicks.

He totalled 161 blocks in just 66 games and averaged 2.4 per contest. His average was the second-best mark in the NBA — behind Myles Turner — while his total of 161 was just 34 shy of what the Cleveland Cavaliers' entire team recorded last season. He's projected to be New York's starting center and could very well notch more blocks than an entire NBA franchise if he remains healthy. Imagine that.

Three storylines

1. Kyrie Irving's trial run: Irving is helping kick off the new era of Brooklyn Nets basketball, but he'll have to do it without injured co-star Kevin Durant. Can Irving thrive in a leadership role on yet another young team?

2. The Kawhi-less Raptors: Many are counting out the Raptors now that they've lost 2019 NBA Finals MVP Leonard to the Clippers. How will they respond to sceptics as the defending champs?

3. Markelle Fultz's development: The 76ers traded Fultz, but the Orlando Magic are confident he can still become a valuable contributor on an NBA team. Will he put together a complete season?

Prediction

1. 76ers*
2. Bucks
3. Raptors
4. Celtics
5. Heat 
6. Nets
7. Pacers
8. Magic
9. Pistons
10. Hawks
11. Bulls
12. Wizards
13. Hornets
14. Cavaliers
15. Knicks

*NBA Finals representative