A July of massive player movement has changed the complexion of the NBA, especially in the Western Conference where the Mavericks hope to find a way to jump several teams and start a new era of playoff success.
Based on the incredible amount of change and how much some teams improved, it’s not going to be easy. But as coach Rick Carlisle likes to say, it’s not supposed to be easy.
Now that the free-agent dust has settled, we can look at the landscape and assess what the coming NBA season will look like.
Over the next several days, we’ll break down what’s happened to each team’s roster in the Western Conference and analyze how it will impact the Mavericks. We will culminate with our offseason power rankings.
My, how the balance of power has shifted in the Western Conference and it starts with the Northwest Division.
In 2016-17, Portland, Denver and Minnesota all were .500 or below and none of the five teams in the division were among the top four in the Western Conference in terms of best records.
It was not a strong division.
But the next season, all five teams finished above .500. And last season, Denver, Portland and Utah all won 50 games or more, Oklahoma City won 49 and the Northwest was arguably the toughest division in the NBA. And it’s going to get even better in 2019-20. The Jazz, Nuggets and Blazers all are mentioned as strong threats in the Western Conference after making roster upgrades and keeping most of their key players from last season mostly intact. While players move about the NBA relentlessly these days, continuity remains one of the best assets a team can have – at least when they know they have a competitive roster. Making smart additions can often be more pivotal than some teams making a big splash with major retooling of the roster.
Here’s a close look at the division, the players that came and went for each team and a look at how the division could shape up.
Impact additions: PF Jerami Grant, C Bol Bol, F Michael Porter Jr.
Regrettable subtractions: F Trey Lyles (signed with Spurs)
What the moves mean: For a team with a mostly young rotation that won 54 games last season, there wasn’t a whole lot of tweaking needed. The Nuggets were best in the league at defending the all-important 3-point line last season. And they were one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA. That’s not a bad combination to have on your side.
By acquiring Grant for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets added another young big man who took a nice step up last season by averaging 13.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and shooting 39.2 percent from 3-point range, all career bests, while playing 80 games for Oklahoma City. He figures to back up Paul Millsap and, perhaps, Nikola Jokic, too.
Porter is a wild card that could transform the Nuggets into a major championship threat. He sat out all of last season after back surgery. Denver took him with the 14th pick in the 2018 draft because they knew they could afford to let him rehabilitate his back for an entire season. Porter wasn’t able to play in the summer league, which is concerning, but if he lives up to the hype he had coming out of high school in 2017, the last time he played on a regular basis, he’s going to be a major impact player someday.
Bol, son of Manute Bol, may need seasoning, but his length and bloodlines make him an interesting prospect. Again, the Nuggets don’t need to rush young talent into battle. They can let him grow.
Bottom line: The Nuggets have to be considered the favorites to win the division and possibly set themselves up with the best record in the Western Conference come next April. Jokic is a legit MVP candidate who can do everything on a basketball court. Millsap, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Grant all can be difference makers. The Nuggets have a quality coach in Michael Malone, the star power in Jokic and plenty of depth to make lots of noise this season.
Impact additions: PG Mike Conley, F Bojan Bogdanovic, PG Emmanuel Mudiay, C Ed Davis, F Jeff Green
Regrettable subtractions: PG Ricky Rubio, F Jae Crowder, F Derrick Favors, G Kyle Korver
What the moves mean: The Jazz were good with Ricky Rubio running the point. They could be great with Mike Conley getting the keys. It allows Donovan Mitchell to play off the ball more and take advantage of his skill set. Conley had a great run with the Grizzlies and averaged better than 21 points and six assists last season on a woeful team. He should fit perfectly with this group.
Bogdanovic is nothing short of a drop-dead shooter and he should fill the void left by Korver’s exit – and then some. He shot 41.3 percent from 3-point range in two seasons with Indiana and averaged a career-best 18 points last season. He’s not completely bankrupt in the rebounding department, got to the line nearly four times a game last season and has been very durable. He’s missed only four games in the last three seasons.
In Ed Davis, the Jazz could not have hand-picked a better fit for what they needed on the front line behind Rudy Gobert. He will come in right where Derrick Favors left off. Davis has always been a good rebounder and knows his limitations offensively. He doesn’t need a steady stream of touches to be impactful. The same goes for Jeff Green, although he’s a little different style of player. He’ll help the Jazz on the perimeter and has loads of playoff experience that should serve the Jazz well.
Mudiay? He’s had potential for several years now but has had trouble living up to it. He’ll have a challenging time carving out minutes behind Conley and Dante Exum.
Bottom line: The Jazz already were one of the best-shooting teams in the NBA and adding Bogdanovic and Conley won’t hurt that one bit. They also were one of the stoutest defensive teams, thanks to the interior presence of Gobert. His rim protection changes everything for opponents. They are a little light on depth in the backcourt. Plus, they were one of the worst teams in the league last season at taking care of the basketball (15.1 turnovers per game, 27th in the NBA). Addressing that with Conley could make the Jazz legitimate title contenders.
Impact additions: G Kent Bazemore, C Hassan Whiteside, F Mario Hezonja
Regrettable subtractions: F Al-Farouq Aminu, F Maurice Harkless, C Enes Kanter, G Evan Turner, G Seth Curry.
What the moves mean: The Blazers rode Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to the Western Conference finals last season, but they lost a lot of key role players. And they took on some iffy replacements.
Bazemore is not one of those iffy replacements. He is a grizzled veteran who is very solid at both ends. He spent the last five seasons in Atlanta and shot the 3-ball well while also providing hard-nosed defense. The Blazers clearly feel he gives them what they need more than Evan Turner, who they traded for Bazemore.
In Whiteside, it appears the Blazers have bought some insurance in the event that Jusuf Nurkic misses the entire season – a possibility given the gruesome nature of his broken leg in March. Whiteside has been an unpredictable sort of player. He burst onto the scene with Miami several years ago but has been hot and cold ever since, mainly because of injuries. However, when he’s been healthy, he’s been a double-double machine. Also, Skal Labissiere was acquired in February and should provide some relief for the loss of Kanter, who saved the Blazers in the playoffs when they were without Nurkic.
Hezonja may or may not be able to crack the Blazers’ rotation and contribute the way Harkless or Curry did. He was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 draft but has yet to make a serious impact in three seasons with Orlando and one with New York. And though the Blazers have brought in some interesting pieces, they may end up missing the contributions of Aminu.
Bottom line: Portland had the misfortune of running into a Golden State team that proved their superiority by dousing the Blazers in four games. And that was without Kevin Durant. The Blazers did a great job getting to where they got. But they will have a hard time riding their two-headed backcourt monster to another trip deep in the playoffs. For now, they are going to have to prove that they can repeat the past season and keep pace with the Jazz and Nuggets.
Impact additions: F Jarrett Culver, F Noah Vonleh.
Regrettable subtractions: G Derrick Rose, F Taj Gibson, F Dario Saric, G Tyus Jones.
What the moves mean: Mostly, they mean that the Timberwolves continue to be hamstrung by their aggressive spending of the past. They gave major long-term contracts to Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng. While all are solid players, only Towns has blossomed as a superstar and the Wolves are hard-pressed to lure free agents to join them.
In Culver, they have an interesting prospect. They traded Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick to move up five spots and nab the Texas Tech product. Culver likely will be asked to fill at least a rotation role and possibly be a starter at some point in his rookie season. Without question the Wolves will feel the loss of Gibson.
Vonleh has been a journeyman so far in his career who has been mostly a fringe rotation player, although he did start a lot of games with New York last season.
What the Wolves will have to hope for is good health for Teague. They are woefully thin in the backcourt. Losing Rose, who has fought significant injury issues for much of his career, and Jones, who was an interesting up-and-coming point guard that signed an offer sheet with Memphis that the Wolves elected not to match, is going to sap their depth at point guard.
Bottom line: The Timberwolves have hitched their wagon to the Towns-Wiggins combo and nobody in the NBA is in the bail-out business. Every team has its own set of problems. The good news for the Wolves is that they have good talent that still is young. And they have added a player in Culver who may become a cornerstone in time. The young core they had of a couple years ago didn’t develop with Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robert Covington last season, when they were last in the division by 13 games. The Wolves will have a hard time reaching .500 this season, but they should be entertaining.
Impact additions: PG Chris Paul, G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, F Darius Bazley, 12 first-round picks in the next seven drafts, plus the option to swap four other picks.
Regrettable subtractions: PG Russell Westbrook, F Jerami Grant, F Paul George, PG Russell Westbrook.
What the moves mean: Oh wait, did we mention Westbrook twice? The Thunder have given their fans quite the ride over the last dozen years under GM Sam Presti’s watch. For that, he gets loads of credit. But he’s also been responsible for losing Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Paul George, not to mention trading James Harden to Houston, too. The Thunder had one trip to the NBA finals while having all those superstars on the roster at one time or another.
Then again, Presti was smart enough to draft all those stars, too, and Steven Adams as well. And trade for George. Plenty of NBA franchises would like to have that track record. They’ve enjoyed great successes. Now, they brace for a rebuild, not unlike the Mavericks have done for the last three seasons. The major difference, of course, being that the Mavericks won a title.
Paul may have some injury issues, but at least the Thunder managed to fetch a high-quality point guard who still is close enough to his prime to be a contributor and help keep the franchise afloat. That was their prime return in the Westbrook trade, although they value the cache of picks more. When he’s healthy, Paul still is a good overall point guard.
Gilgeous-Alexander was a nice acquisition in the Paul George situation. The Thunder will be able to watch him and, perhaps, Bazley, grow into solid NBA players.
But the real gold mine of their acquisitions this summer has been all those draft picks. If you’re going to rebuild, best to give yourself every opportunity to do so through the draft. And the Thunder will have that chance now.
The Thunder also will get Andre Roberson back after he missed all of last season to injury. He was a pretty solid defender and improving offensive player two seasons back before the knee injury.
Bottom line: The Thunder will take a step back in the standings, no question. But they have set themselves up on a clear path for the future. There’s no doubting what they are trying to do. It’s sort of a “Process 2.0,” if you will. Patience will be the key to their future.