Luka Doncic will try to lead a revamped Mavericks back to the postseason. Photo//Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports.

By John Daly, Staff Writer and Ryan Houlihan, Staff Writer

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Last season was the last for future hall of famer Dirk Nowitzki and it was great to see all the love and respect opposing teams showed the NBA legend on his farewell tour. Dirk finished his career as a 14-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA, 2007 NBA MVP, and NBA Finals Champion and MVP in 2011. 

Outside of Nowitzki, rookie Luka Doncic emerged as the next great European star and ran away with the NBA’s Rookie of The Year Award, averaging 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6 assists per game. The  most impressive aspect about Doncic’s game is his maturity and craftiness. He dazzled with plays and shots you do not see from someone who’s only 19 years old. 

While Luka was great, the Mavericks had an otherwise disappointing season, finishing 14th in the Western Conference with a record of 33-49. Dallas had a plethora of transactions this past year. In January, they completed a blockbuster trade by sending lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews to the New York Knicks for superstar Kristaps Porzingis and veterans Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Courtney Lee. 

Porzingis is a bit of a risk because he is coming off an ACL tear and has a history of injuries. He also went through turmoil with New York’s management and was in the middle of numerous altercations off the court. 

At last February’s trade deadline, Dallas sent Harrison Barnes to Sacramento for Justin Jackson. In the offseason, Dallas re-signed J.J. Barea, Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber and signed Porzingis to a new five-year max contract worth $158.28 million. The Mavs also added veterans Seth Curry, Delon Wright and Boban Marjanovic. Porzingis and Doncic are two young stars that have the potential to form one of the NBA’s best duos. 

With a solid supporting cast behind them, the Mavs will be one of the best teams to watch in the NBA as they will be competing for the seventh or eighth seed in the West. This team’s ceiling is a playoff appearance because of how loaded the West is, but they are a few years away from being a contender. 

  1. San Antonio Spurs 

At the start of last season, all that remained from the Spurs 2014 championship team was Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. The Spurs traded superstar Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first round pick.

Even after the retirements of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and the departures of Tony Parker and Leonard, head coach Greg Popovich once again got the most out of his team. The Spurs finished with a 48-34 record, which was enough to take 7th place in the West. LaMarcus Aldridge turned in another great season as he averaged 21.3 points and earned his 7th All-Star Game appearance. He continues to go against the modern NBA analytics and the three-point shot as he remains one of the best mid-range shooters along with teammate DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan averaged 21 points per game, but did not seem like himself for stretches of the season. 

San Antonio took a more talented Nuggets team to seven games before ultimately losing the series. Young guard Derrick White showed bright flashes of his potential against Denver. He is a strong perimeter defender with good driving instincts and sneaky bounce. 

Getting fellow guard Dejounte Murray back from a torn ACL he suffered prior to last season is huge. Murray is an elite defender with great speed and along with White will form a formidable backcourt. The Spurs looked to address forward depth behind Rudy Gay during the offseason. They first resigned Gay to a two-year $32 million contract. 

San Antonio was set to sign former Celtic Marcus Morris and sent away Davis Bertans to the Wizards to clear cap for Morris. Morris backed out last minute and signed with the Knicks as the Spurs sent away one of the league’s best shooters in Bertans for nothing. San Antonio would quickly add three and D specialist DeMarre Caroll and stretch big man Trey Lyles to make up for it. 

Popovich is one the greatest basketball minds the game has seen and will get the most out of his team. That being said, some have predicted that the Spurs will not be playoff bound. However, with White and Murray’s development in the backcourt and all stars Derozan and Aldridge, this team will be dangerous come playoff time. The Spurs will not have enough talent to take down the powerhouses in the West, but they could go as far as the Western Conference Finals. Watch out for the Spurs. 

  1. New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans were lucky enough to receive the highly coveted first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and used it to select young phenom Zion Williamson. They could use him after a 33-49 record last season and finishing in the 14th seed. The Pelicans have plenty of hype this year and will have to work hard to meet those expectations. It’s not likely that the Pels can perform as the fans are looking forward to seeing. 

Williamson, like any rookie, will need time to get accustomed to the challenges of the NBA. That being said, Zion has been performing very well in the preseason, but we’ll have to wait and see how that transitions into true NBA play. As of October 18th, Zion has been diagnosed with a knee injury that should hold him out of play for several weeks. The Pelicans are being extra cautious and Williamson is expected to recover fully. 

New Orleans is unique because it is the only team with six players listed on ESPN’s top 100 players this year:Williamson, guard Lonzo Ball, guard Jrue Holiday, center Derrick Favors, swingman Brandon Ingram and guard JJ Redick. 

Holiday is a great example of a player that got the job done without getting enough recognition. He averaged 21.2 points per game, 7.7 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 threes, 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks each game. That is the kind of production that quietly contributes to winning basketball. 

The next big story for the Pelicans is the departure of superstar forward Anthony Davis who brought an average of 25.9 points, 12 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals each and every game. Davis was a good franchise player, but eventually became tired of losing. He asked to be traded and wanted to join LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Even though Davis was phenomenal, he was injury-prone, and one player can’t bring success by themselves. 

The Davis trade brought solid talent in Josh Hart, Ball, Ingram and more. These three combined for 36 points a game last year. If New Orleans can create some solid team chemistry, they can be a fun team to watch, but it is still much too soon to expect any degree of dominance from them this season. 

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

The past few seasons have not been kind to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The 2018-19 season concluded with a record of 36-46 and an 11th seed. The talent that they have acquired has not performed to their expectations, the first example being young swingman Andrew Wiggins. It’s clear to see that Wiggins has the potential to be an efficient scorer and well-rounded player, but fans have noticed he has some motivation issues. A new-and-improved work ethic for Wiggins could be one of the potential jolts that the Timberwolves need to come alive. He brought 18.1 points and 2.5 assists per night. 

The Timberwolves had their entire organization turned upside down by their addition of superstar Jimmy Butler and haven’t been able to play efficiently since. Shooting guard Zach LaVine was traded away for Butler and wound up being more critical to the Wolves’ system than once thought. Butler also brought more locker room drama than anyone else in recent years. 

The even greater question mark for Minnesota is the massive potential of Center Karl-Anthony Towns. He became a shell of himself while Jimmy was on the roster and finally came alive again after Butler left. KAT spent time in the offseason training with NBA and Timberwolves legend Kevin Garnett to expand his offensive and defensive skills. He averaged an incredibly valuable 24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1 steal each night. Towns’ prospective leap into the upper echelon of players would hopefully propel the Timberwolves forward. In theory, that advancement would attract the additional talent that Minnesota needs. 

In his short time with the Timberwolves, forward Robert Covington brought a considerable amount of steals and solid play before an injury cut his season short. 

We’ll see how he contributes this season. The Timberwolves can have a lot of potential if they can attract another key piece and unlock the talent that they already have in their young core. For now though, they’ll hang around the lower tier of teams. 

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder will come into the 2019-20 season as one of the most changed teams. They finished last year with a 49-33 record and a spot in the 6th seed. However, everything changed when the Trail Blazers attacked during the playoffs. Damian Lillard sent chills down spines with a buzzer beating three pointer in game five to send the Thunder home for the season. They soon said goodbye to their franchise player Russell Westbrook after 11 years and sent him to the Houston Rockets. In return, the Thunder received guard Chris Paul and draft picks. Over his 11 years with the Thunder, Westbrook averaged 23 points, 8.4 assists, 7 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game. 

Star small forward and MVP candidate Paul George was traded to the Clippers for a massive four unprotected first round draft picks, one protected first round pick, two pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. Westbrook and Paul George averaged an incredible combined 50.9 points a night. The downside for Thunder fans (besides losing two stars) is that Chris Paul is aging quickly and has been known to get injured. A healthy Paul would add even more value to center Steven Adams. He is emerging as a valuable rebounder and defensive anchor. He was also among the top in steals for centers and power forwards last season. Whether Paul contributes or not, Adams will be taking over a new chunk of the offense and should see a considerable uptick in points. The Thunder could use of few more of Adams’ 17 siblings on their roster to really make an impact. Gallinari can also be a quietly valuable addition to the Thunder starting lineup. Oklahoma City will more than likely begin an epic rebuilding process with the draft picks from the departure of their two stars. They should be expected to finish low and outside the playoff teams.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies 

Last season saw the end of the Grit and Grind era with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol that had been so successful for the last decade. The franchise took a huge step towards rebuilding as Gasol was traded to the Raptors at last February’s trade deadline for Jonas Valanciunas, while Conley was dealt in the offseason for Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen. Valanciunas is a solid starting center in the league who can give you a double-double on any night, while Crowder is a strong three and D player. 

The Grizz finished 33-49 on the year, but shockingly won the second overall pick in the draft lottery. Memphis selected highly touted Murray State point guard Ja Morant. Morant can score at all three levels and is an excellent distributor. Ja put up crazy numbers his final year of college, averaging 24.5 points. 10 assists and 5.7 rebounds. The Grizzlies then traded up two spots to draft Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke with the 21st overall pick. Clarke is a freak athlete with pogo-like bounce. It has been proven to be one of the steals of the draft as Clarke was named NBA Summer League MVP, averaging 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in only 21 minutes of action a night. 

Last year’s lottery pick Jarren Jackson Jr. also had a strong rookie campaign, showcasing he can stretch the floor and be a shot-blocking force. Memphis fans should be excited about the team’s future centered around Morant, Jackson and Clarke. With a strong supporting cast around these bright stars, I see the Grizz being a sleeper team that can contend for the 8th seed in the West. 

  1. Phoenix Suns

It cannot get much worse for the Suns than it has been the last few years. Last season, the Suns finished 19-63, which was tied for the second worst record in the NBA. A big reason for the losing record was because their defensive ratings were some of the lowest in the league. However, there were some positives and there is reason to look forward to the future. Devin Booker increased his scoring up to almost 27 points a game, while Deandre Ayton quietly had one of the best seasons out of the rookie class, averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. During this summer’s NBA draft, the Suns originally held the sixth pick. They drafted Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, but traded him to the Timberwolves for Dario Saric and the 11th overall pick, which became UNC forward Cameron Johnson. 

The Suns then shipped a 2020 protected first round pick to the Celtics for backup center Aron Baynes and draft pick Ty Jerome from Virginia. Johnson is a lethal three-point shooter, which should help as the Suns rank near the bottom in three pointers in the NBA. Jerome is a proven winner with great passing skills. The Suns also traded T.J. Warren and a 2019 second round pick to the Pacers to free up cap space. 

During free agency, Phoenix filled a huge need at the point guard position by signing Ricky Rubio to a three-year $51 million dollar deal. The Suns also dealt Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and draft picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Kyle Korver and former West Virginia standout Jevon Carter. 

The best move the Suns made was resigning Kelly Oubre Jr. to a two-year $30 million dollar deal. Oubre had a breakout year last season, averaging almost 17 points a game. While Suns fans can look forward to the development of Johnson and Jerome and a future with Booker, Ayton, Rubio and Oubre. Regardless, this team is still a few years away from being relevant.

Before the Suns can be good, management needs to prioritize finding a good head coach. Phoenix experienced a significant amount of turnover with five head coaches in five years. Expect another finish towards the bottom of the standings and another lottery selection for the Suns in next year’s draft.