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 success, starting with a return to the playoffs.
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 this span, 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.
We started with the Northwest Division, arguably as stacked as any in the NBA. Now we move on to the Pacific Division, which may not be as deep as the Northwest, but certainly has star power at the top.
The epicenter of the NBA has a lot in common with most of the earthquakes that have happened lately. It’s smack in the middle of southern California.
Los Angeles has the Lakers and Clippers and really, you can stop right there and have a pretty formidable division. The Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings will be tough outs, as well. Phoenix? Well, let’s just say the Suns are setting themselves up for most-improved in a season or two.
The interesting thing about the Lakers and Clippers – and honestly, all the top-shelf teams in the league – is that they are built around two superstars. Not three.
That sets up a bloodbath in the Western Conference, with no clear favorite.
The same can be said for the Pacific Division, which we break down here:
1. Los Angeles Lakers.
Impact additions: C Anthony Davis, C DeMarcus Cousins, G Quinn Cook, G Danny Green, F Jared Dudley.
Regrettable subtractions: G Lonzo Ball, F Brandon Ingram, F Reggie Bullock, G Josh Hart.
What the moves mean: It won’t exactly be like a worst-to-first scenario, but the Lakers do figure to go from the lottery to at least a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. And by the way, it’s interesting that LeBron James got to check off that “lottery” box on his bucket list of basketball accomplishments for the first time other than his rookie season.
Davis is nothing short of a superstar in every sense of the word. He’s a great scorer and rebounder and has emerged as a 3-point threat on top of being a very good shot-blocker. Plus, you can run the offense through him as he averaged nearly four assists per game last season. This is a Hollywood pairing of stars with James and Davis. Health will be the only problem that can derail them.
Speaking of health, nobody knows what to expect of DeMarcus Cousins these days. His body has betrayed him the last couple of seasons. But if he’s healthy later in the season, he can be a difference-maker. Plus, he has paired well with Davis in the past at New Orleans.
Green and Cook will provide shooting, which is what you need around James and Davis.
What the Lakers lost was youth and athleticism in Ingram and Ball, but they got off light in the Davis trade by not having to surrender Kyle Kuzma. What the Lakers did was give up a bunch of good players, but none of them are great players. Not yet, at least. And they got one of the best in the game in return. You can’t argue with that offseason.
Bottom line: These Lakers are back where the franchise and James always expect to be – smack in the middle of the championship conversation. They are not a perfect team. But they may have timed their run at a title very well. If they had this team assembled a few years ago when Golden State was in the middle of their dynasty time, the Lakers would still be long shots to win everything. But with the Warriors in a time of transition, you can’t point to any team in the Western Conference that has an advantage on the Lakers.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Impact additions: F Kawhi Leonard, F Paul George, F Maurice Harkless.
Regrettable subtractions: F Danilo Gallinari, G Avery Bradley, G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
What the moves mean: The Clippers successfully beat out the Lakers and Raptors for the services of Leonard, who already has cemented his legacy as an NBA champion with different teams, including Toronto last month. If he could do so with a third team that he essentially put together by recruiting George with him, he would go down as one of the greatest winners in the game. One thing you can bank on? The Clippers will be far better defensively with Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley than they were last season, when they were 25th in the league in points surrendered.
It’s important to remember that the Clippers were a 48-win team last season and that was before George and Leonard arrived. They retained sixth man of the year Lou Williams and emerging big man Montrezl Harrell, as well as defensive pit bull Patrick Beverley. They also have a young shooter in Landry Shamet.
Harkless spent the last four seasons of his seven-year career in Portland and he’s been a serviceable wing player throughout his career. Plus, he’s only 26 and should give coach Doc Rivers more options in regard to his starting unit and playing rotation.
What the Clippers gave up was one of their most promising young players in Gilgeous-Alexander and their leading scorer in Gallinari. It’s the price of doing business when you go all-in with a couple of star players.
Bottom line: Give the Clippers credit for putting together a legitimate contender. However, even though he’s won two titles and been MVP of the NBA finals with the Spurs and the Raptors, Leonard has the pressure squarely on his shoulders. He recruited good pal Paul George and if they don’t produce major results, then this marriage ultimately will be viewed as a failure. But if they can ride the two stars and a very solid surrounding cast to greatness, Leonard will be etched in stone as one of the greatest in the game’s history, no matter what happens from here on.
3. Golden State Warriors.
Impact additions: C Willie Cauley-Stein, G DeAngelo Russell, G Alec Burks.
Regrettable subtractions: F Kevin Durant, C DeMarcus Cousins, F Andre Iguodala, G Quinn Cook, G Klay Thompson (injured).
What the moves mean: The Warriors quickly became yesterday’s news when Durant bolted for Brooklyn – and after he tore his Achilles, which sabotaged the team’s hopes in the NBA finals against Toronto. That was about the same time as Thompson went down with a major knee injury. He’s expected to miss most, if not all, of the coming season. Throw in the departures of Cousins, Iguodala and Cook and this team is going to look way different this season.
What they did to compensate is pick up two smart additions. Russell had a breakout all-star year with Brooklyn and he appears poised to be a big time player for years to come. He’s only 23. He averaged 21.1 points and 7 assists last season and clearly can take some of the ballhandling pressure off of Steph Curry. Russell got a huge payday to join the Warriors and the hope is that he will continue to blossom as a cornerstone to the franchise’s future.
Cauley-Stein got steadily better in his four seasons with Sacramento and he could be on the verge of becoming a solid double-double performer. He wasn’t far from that last season when he averaged 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds. He’s not a great rim protector, but he gives them a reliable, healthy big man who has room for growth.
Bottom line: Anybody who says you can’t win big with offense in the NBA is wrong. The Warriors had the best field-goal percentage and the second-most points in the NBA last season. What goes unsaid a lot of times is that they also had the third-best field-goal-percentage defense. Keeping that level of defense won’t be easy with the departure of Iguodala and Durant. The Warriors, however, still have Curry and Green. And that alone gives them a puncher’s chance against anybody in the Pacific Division or anywhere else, for that matter.
Impact additions: F Trevor Ariza, C Dewayne Dedmon, G Cory Joseph.
Regrettable subtractions: C Willie Cauley-Stein, F Skal Labissiere, G Alec Burks.
What the moves mean: The Kings like their young nucleus of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Marvin Bagley and Harrison Barnes. They wanted to augment those pieces and while their only hope for star power might be Fox (or perhaps Hield), they do have strength in numbers. They are deep as any team in the league.
In Ariza, the Kings are getting a good defender, a good 3-point shooter and a player with more than 100 games of playoff experience, all of which should be good assets for the Kings. He should especially help on the defensive end. The Kings were in the bottom third of the league in virtually every defensive category last season. Slowing down opponents will be critical if they want to nose above .500 (they were 39-43 last season).
They also need rebounding. They surrendered more rebounds to opponents than any team in the league last season, which happens when you play a fast tempo. They are hoping that Dedmon can supply some punch in that department.
Joseph should provide good depth in the backcourt. He’s been a hard-playing contributor throughout his career in San Antonio, Toronto and Indiana.
Bottom line: The Kings are hoping that the growth of their young players pushes them to the next level. They especially are excited about the second season for forward Marvin Bagley, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds as a rookie and flashed the 3-point shooting ability. And the Kings do have great role players in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica and Yogi Ferrell. The question will remain whether they can all take the next step up the ladder. There was a temptation to push the Kings above the Warriors in our offseason rankings. But until they prove they can handle the big time, you have to respect the team that has already done it.
5. Phoenix Suns.
Impact additions: F Dario Saric, PG Ricky Rubio, C Aron Baynes, F Frank Kaminsky, F Cameron Johnson.
Regrettable subtractions: F Trevor Ariza, F Josh Jackson, G Jamal Crawford.
What the moves mean: Nobody’s quite sure what the Suns’ game plan is going forward, other than to put Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker on the court together as much as possible and hope that they can develop into a potent one-two punch that can rival the other young star tandems around the West.
Rubio is a curious addition. He’s a veteran point guard who does a lot of things well. But he doesn’t seem to fit with a young, rebuilding team. But the Suns signed him to a multiyear contract and while Rubio is only 29, he will increase the average age on this young team.
Saric makes a little more sense because he’s a terrific shooter and is only 25. He hit 38.3 percent from 3-point range with the Timberwolves last season. He’s also a decent rebounder, but he needs help around him to be at his best. The Suns traded their draft pick, No. 6 Jarrett Culver, to get Saric and the 11th pick, Cameron Johnson.
The Suns’ losses weren’t devastating. But the simple fact is that the Suns won 19 games last season and the prospects for more than marginal improvement seem slim. Then again, Rubio knows how to lead a team and his veteran savvy might help fast-track the Suns’ rebuild.
Bottom line: If Booker continues to build on his 26.6-point, 6.8-assist season last year, and Ayton becomes the big man they expect, the Suns have two super young stars in the making. What they lack is quality depth. Rubio will be helpful at the point, but rebounding will continue to be a problem. They were dead last in the league in 2018-19. This team needs major improvements in a lot of areas. But if they can take some baby steps this season, there may be a finish line in sight to their rebuilding process.