Additions: Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Josh Green, Wesley Iwundu, Tyrell Terry
Losses: Seth Curry, Delon Wright, J.J. Barea, Courtney Lee, Justin Jackson
2019-20 Record: 43-32, lost in Western Conference First Round
Analysis: The Dallas Mavericks returned the NBA playoffs in 2020 for the first time following a three-year absence. It looks like it will be a while before Dallas misses out on the postseason again. A young team led by burgeoning MVP candidate Luka Doncic and still-a-unicorn Kristaps Porzingis is set up for success for years to come.
For the 2020-21 season, the Mavs made a couple of moves designed to upgrade their versatility and toughness around Doncic and Porzingis. After watching the Los Angeles Clippers, rough up Doncic in last year’s first round, Marcus Morris in particular, Dallas wasn’t going to let that happen again.
In comes James Johnson, who is as known for a willingness to mix it up physically as he is for his basketball skill. If Morris, or anyone else, puts Doncic in a horse collar, Rick Carlisle will call on Johnson to come in and set things straight. And if Johnson can get back to focusing on defense and running the floor, he’ll bring value beyond being an enforcer.
Beyond needing to get tougher, the Mavericks learned in the playoffs that they were overly reliant on Doncic to create almost all of their offense. With Porzingis sidelined, too many possessions ended with Doncic taking a wild shot late in the clock because Dallas had no other option.
To give their young star some help, Dallas traded Seth Curry for Josh Richardson. While Curry’s marksmanship will be missed, Richardson’s ability to create off the dribble will be a welcomed addition. The Mavericks also have high hopes that second round pick Tyrell Terry will be able to add some of the shooting they lost by trading Curry.
Up front, Dallas will be without Porzingis to open the season, but he should return sometime in January. Once he does, the Mavs have a deep and versatile frontcourt. Dwight Powell is back from his Achilles tear and should team with Willie-Cauley-Stein and Boban Marjanovic to give Carlisle solid center minutes. Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith are both back to provide defense and shooting at the forward spots. One will likely start while Porzingis is out, and when he returns, they’ll go back and further fortify a good bench.
Tim Hardaway Jr. opted in for the final year of his contract and makes for an ideal wing partner for Doncic. They’ve developed a sort of quarterback-wide receiver chemistry, where Doncic will throw a pass to a spot, knowing Hardaway will be there to catch and shoot.
All of the pieces are in place for Dallas to make a run in the Western Conference. The additional versatility and offensive creation this version of the team has should get them past the first round. And then it’s on to a summer where the Mavericks have enough cap space to add a max free agent around their young stars.
Additions: Christian Wood, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Sterling Brown, Jae’sean Tate, Rafael Stone (general manager), Stephen Silas (coach)
Losses: Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington, Jeff Green, Austin Rivers, Tyson Chandler, Daryl Morey (general manager), Mike D’Antoni (coach)
2019-20 Record: 44-28, lost in Western Conference Second Round
Analysis: After the Houston Rockets fell in a moderately non-competitive second round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, there was a sense this group had gone as far as they could. Mike D’Antoni was out as coach, followed soon after by Daryl Morey as general manager. Their departures were trailed by trade requests by the team’s two stars: James Harden and Russell Westbrook. As of this writing, Harden remains with the Rockets, while Westbrook was sent to the Washington Wizards for John Wall.
Rafael Stone took over for Morey, and the longtime front office assistant walked into a mess. One of his first acts was to arrange a series of deals that saw Houston trade Robert Covington away to ultimately acquire Christian Wood (via sign and trade) and two first round picks.
This deal had two impacts. First, it was a sign that Stone, and new head coach Stephen Silas, were moving away from the small-ball roster that Morey had built to maximize D’Antoni’s system. Wood is a true four/five and represents one of the Rockets bigger free agent additions in years.
The second part of the Covington deal was Stone beginning to recoup some of the first-round picks that Morey had given up in the Westbrook trade an offseason prior. While both picks Houston acquired are protected, Stone accomplished both parts of his mission with the Covington trade.
Then, as the offseason got started, the Rockets dealt Westbrook for Wall in what amounted to a straight salary swap. Houston also acquired a protected future first in this deal as the offset for Wall’s recent injury history.
While this trade screams “grass is greener on the other side” it has the benefit of fit as well. Wall is a more skilled off-ball player than Westbrook. He’s been fairly good as a catch-and-shoot, spot-up guy in his career. Playing next to James Harden that’s important, as Harden will have the ball a lot.
Of course, that’s the elephant in the room: How much will Harden and Wall play together? Harden still wants a trade from Houston. The Rockets, rightly so, are asking for a big package in return. They want multiple good, young players under team control and a package of first round picks in exchange for their superstar guard. Thus far, no team has met that asking price. It looks like Harden will at least start the season as a member of the Rockets.
The Harden situation makes the Rockets a tough team to peg. With him, Houston is a playoff team. He’s that good by himself, but this roster has solid role players around him in Wall, Wood, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon and a finally-healthy DeMarcus Cousins.
Without Harden, depending on the return package, the Rockets are somewhere in the Play-In mix and possibly even below that group. For as long as Harden is in Houston, expect them to win enough games to stay in the playoff picture. But how long that will be is anyone’s guess.
Additions: Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman
Losses: Josh Jackson, Marko Guduric, Anthony Tolliver
2019-20 Record: 34-39, 9th in Western Conference
Analysis: The Memphis Grizzlies were one of the surprises of the 2020 season. Widely expected to be one of the NBA’s worst teams, Memphis almost made it to the playoffs, falling in the Play-In game to the Portland Trail Blazers.
In 2020-21, the Grizzlies won’t sneak up on anyone. The entire league knows Ja Morant is a star now. And the rest of Memphis’ young talent has the respect of the NBA.
If anything, the baby bears are starting a bit behind the eight ball. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow are both out to start the season. They are both recovering from injuries suffered during the re-start. Neither is expected to miss significant time, but their absences will test the Grizzlies depth immediately.
Jackson is coming off a historic season for a big man. He was one of only three players that are at least 6-foot-11 to shoot greater than 39% on the volume of three-pointers he took. Jackson is an ideal partner for Morant, as he can pick and pop or pick and roll, giving opposing defenses a headache to prepare for.
In many ways, Winslow is the Grizzlies main offseason “addition”, as he hasn’t appeared in a game for Memphis yet. He was hurt when he was acquired from the Miami Heat and then injured his hip in the bubble. When healthy, Winslow will give the team a wing defender, who can also function as a secondary creator alongside Morant.
At the draft, the team took steps to rectify the lack of wing shooting that has seemingly plagued the Grizzlies since they moved from Vancouver to Memphis. They drafted Desmond Bane, who shot 43.3% from deep during this college career. The Grizzlies hope he’ll eventually develop into a quality 3&D presence between Morant and Jackson.
Beyond Bane, and Xavier Tillman (an intriguing “jack of all trades” second rounder), the roster will look pretty familiar in Memphis. The Grizzlies re-sign De’Anthony Melton, who became a key rotation player last season, and elevated John Konchar, a shooter, from a Two-Way contract. The team also re-signed Jontay Porter, who many had pegged as lottery pick before multiple ACL tears in college. He’s a low-risk, high-reward play for Memphis.
While Jackson and Winslow recover, Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke will be leaned on up front next to Jonas Valanciunas. Anderson has been a terrific depth piece for Memphis, with steady all-round game complementing the flash of the younger players. Clarke was a standout as a rookie and should blossom even more in his sophomore season. He’ll make at least one highlight play per game, along with several other smart, understated plays.
Memphis has done a good job developing talent as Dillon Brooks has become a solid, if inefficient, scorer on the wing. Grayson Allen has also shown signs of being a rotation player with the Grizzlies. Brooks is locked in as a starting wing, and Allen may have two-guard spot to open the year next to Morant.
The Grizzlies could be a better team in 2020-21 than they were last season, but may finish lower in the standings. The Western Conference is incredibly deep. Morant has star written all over him, but Memphis needs Jackson to get and stay healthy, and for other young players to continue to improve. This year might be a minor step backwards before some major steps forward in the future.
New Orleans Pelicans
Additions: Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, Wenyen Gabriel, Willy Hernangomez, Kira Lewis Jr., Stan Van Gundy (coach)
Losses: Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, Alvin Gentry (coach)
2019-20 Record: 30-42, 13th in Western Conference
Analysis: No team came in with more hype last season than the New Orleans Pelicans. Everyone was excited to see Zion Williamson alongside the players acquired in the Anthony Davis trade and some solid veteran pickups. Instead, Williamson got hurt and things never quite came together as hoped for in New Orleans.
This season, excitement is still high, but expectations are tempered. Williamson is healthy and has no restrictions to start the season. That should allow him to build on a short, but excellent rookie campaign. Williamson remains explosive, powerful and plays in such sudden bursts that you can miss them if you blink.
The Pelicans re-signed Brandon Ingram, who became the jewel of the Davis trade. He broke out for his first All-Star appearance and looks poised for another big season. Ingram can score at all three levels and is a better-than-you-think passer. He’s the ideal partner for Williamson long-term.
As part of their mini-rebuild (retool?), New Orleans traded mainstay Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks in the offseason. The Bucks offered a package of picks that was simply too good for the Pelicans to pass up. In that same trade, New Orleans added Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe.
The two veterans will give new coach Stan Van Gundy the kind of players he can build a foundation around. Adams will anchor the team’s often porous defense. He’ll also clean up some of the surprising rebounding woes the Pels had at times last season. And he’ll set his usual array of bone-shattering screens to free up his teammates on offense.
Bledsoe will take over Holiday’s role, at least to some extent. He’s not the versatile defender that Holiday is, but Bledsoe may be a slightly better creator off the dribble at this point. He should pair nicely in the backcourt with Lonzo Ball, who had a good season as a shooter and playmaker.
New Orleans should have a decent bench this year, provided they have better health up and down the roster. JJ Redick and Josh Hart bring shooting and versatility to the wing. Nicolo Melli is a solid reserve and brings some spacing to the frontcourt. Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker should both be improved in the second seasons. That should give Van Gundy a 10-man rotation with some decent versatility to mix and match with.
Last year, many had the Pelicans tabbed as a playoff team. This year, those predictions are more tempered. Most have New Orleans in the 7-10 Play-In range, which feels right. The upside is there for a top-six seed, if Williamson is healthy and Van Gundry can improve the defense. Bet on the first, but the second is likely what has the Pelicans fighting for a playoff spot at the end of the year.
San Antonio Spurs
Additions: Devin Vassell, Tre Jones
Losses: Bryn Forbes, Marco Belinelli, Chimezie Metu
2019-20 Record: 32-39, 11th in Western Conference
Analysis: It’s been so long since the last time the San Antonio Spurs were starting the year following a non-playoff season, that rookies Devin Vassell and Tre Jones weren’t born yet. The Spurs missed the postseason for the first time after a 22-year run of playoff appearances. San Antonio faces an uphill battle to avoid missing out for a second consecutive time in franchise history.
The Spurs return their roster almost intact from last season. Out are veteran guards Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli and in are rookies Vassell and Jones. San Antonio is flush with young guards, which pushed the team to move on from Forbes and Belinelli to free up playing time for the kids.
In the bubble, the Spurs used the games as a playground of sorts. They played lineups that resembled a mid-major college team with four guards around one big. They also made sure their young players saw the lion’s share of the minutes. It’s a strategy that almost worked in getting San Antonio into the Play-In game.
This season, lineups are likely to be slightly more traditional, but Gregg Popovich won’t abandon the small-ball groups that worked so well during the re-start. LaMarcus Aldridge is back healthy, so he’ll hold down one of the starting big man spots. The Spurs will also have Trey Lyles, who missed the bubble. Lyles started most of last season, but will have to hold off a re-signed Jakob Poeltl for the second big spot alongside Aldridge. Whoever loses that battle will team with Rudy Gay to provide the big man minutes off the bench, with Drew Eubanks, who was elevated from a Two-Way contract, the wild-card in the frontcourt.
The wing and backcourt are where it gets really interesting for the Spurs. San Antonio is bringing back DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson as primary options 1-3. Erstwhile veteran Patty Mills is still around as well, and will assuredly play a role as a scoring point guard. Add the rookies, Vassell and Jones, to that mix and you can see why Popovich will embrace playing small this year.
In many ways, despite not being title contenders this year, the Spurs may be more interesting than they usually are. It’s going to be fun to watch Pop head to the laboratory to invent new lineups. It might not result in a lot of winning now, but it should pay off in future years, while being entertaining this season.