- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2017

There’s been a migration this offseason of NBA talent to the west — a movement that could open up the Eastern Conference this season for hopefuls like the Washington Wizards.

Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, part of a blockbuster trade, was shipped off to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Same for Indiana’s Paul George, dealt for pennies to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Atlanta’s Paul Millsap found gold — $90 million worth — with the Denver Nuggets. Chris Paul, already in Los Angeles, forced a trade from the Clippers to buddy up with James Harden and the Houston Rockets.

Three of the Eastern Conference’s premier players shifted to the Western Conference as teams try to reload to dethrone a juggernaut Golden State Warriors team.

Former Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward was the only NBA star to go east, joining the Boston Celtics after a brief “will-he-or-won’t-he” debacle on the Fourth of July.

Despite the Celtics’ major acquisition of Hayward and the ever-looming presence of LeBron James, the talent gap in the East between the haves and the have-nots seems larger than ever — creating an opening for the Wizards.

The young and improving squad led by All-Star John Wall stands to improve on this year’s 49-33 record, despite the franchise’s relatively quiet offseason — as quiet, that is, as $106 million can be.

That’s the four-year, max offer the Brooklyn Nets made for Washngton’s restricted free agent Otto Porter. It’s an offer the Wizards are expected to match, in part, because there aren’t many good options otherwise.

The Wizards are over the salary cap, according to spotrac.com, and wouldn’t have the space to replace the small forward. Kelly Oubre emerged as a nice backup, but Porter had his best season last year and is only 24.

Besides Porter, the Wizards have made a series of minor moves to beef up their bench. They signed sharpshooter Jodie Meeks and former U.Va. standout Mike Scott. How much the veterans have left will determine playing time.

Meeks, 29, has played just 39 games over the last two seasons, 36 of them last year with the Orlando Magic, because of foot and thumb injuries. He shot 40.9 percent from deep last year and if he’s healthy, could provide the Wizards with spacing.

Scott, 28, appeared in only 18 games for the Atlanta Hawks last season before being traded to the Phoenix Suns and was immediately waived. Scott gives the Wizards a backup power forward, but like Meeks, will be healthy? He had knee surgery that kept him out until December.

The better question for the Wizards: Can Meeks or Scott appear in a playoff game and not have it be a disaster? Brandon Jennings was a fine regular season point guard, but once the playoffs rolled around, his defense made him almost unplayable (opponents were averaging 115.5 points per 100 possession with Jennings on the floor in the playoffs).

The Wizards also attempted to solve their backup point guard void by trading the 52nd pick in the draft to the New Orleans Pelicans for Tim Frazier. Frazier had the best year of his career last year, filling in for starter Jrue Holiday at times and playing in 23.5 minutes per game.

If, and more likely once, the Wizards match Porter, the focus will shift to restricted free agent Bojan Bogdanovic, who Washington gave up a first-round pick for at the trade deadline last year. So far, the market for Bogdanovic has been less active because teams prioritized going after more marquee forwards like Hayward and Danilo Gallinari.

The Wizards will dip into the luxury tax for the first time once they sign Porter, so it’s unclear if the team will have the resources to bring Bogdanovic back.

Still, the Wizards, who finished as the No. 4 seed in the conference last year, are poised to take a step forward. The Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls, all playoff teams a year ago, have reshuffled their rosters. The Orlando Magic and the Brooklyn Nets figure to be among the East’s worst teams. The Knicks are still the Knicks.

The Wizards were already better than the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks and those teams didn’t do much to improve either. The Raptors opened the bank to keep Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but kept the contracts to three years, so they would have wiggle room if they ever decided to start over. The Bucks figure to take a step forward under Giannis Antetokounmpo, but don’t have the same overall talent as the Wizards.

Washington hasn’t had a 50-win season since 1979 and it’s entirely possible that finally happens next year. Of the 15 players named to the three All-NBA teams this year, only Wall and four others currently play in the East.

Washington’s biggest hurdles remain the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics — the team that ended the Wizards‘ season. Both will be favored to emerge from the East ahead of the Wizards.

According to ESPN, the Wizards have offered Wall a four-year, $170 million extension that would lock Wall up until the 2022-23 season. There’s no hurry to sign the extension as Wall has two years remaining on his current deal.

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