GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
LAST SEASON: 58-24, NBA champions.
COACH: Steve Kerr (fifth season)
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Stephen Curry (26.4 ppg), G Klay Thompson (20.0 ppg), F Kevin Durant (26.4 ppg), F Draymond Green (11.0 ppg), C Kevon Looney (4.0 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C JaVale McGee, C David West, C Zaza Pachulia
KEY ADDITIONS: C DeMarcus Cousins, G Damion Lee, G Jacob Evans, F Jonas Jerebko
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Once Cousins returns to full health from his recovery after left Achilles tendon surgery, the Warriors could have an all-All-Star starting five. Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney made key contributions during the playoffs and will certainly be more heavily featured in Kerr’s rotations given the departures of McGee, West and Pachulia.
OUTLOOK: With two straight titles and three in the past four years, Kerr has been stressing that his players must enjoy their time together because there are no guarantees of what could come next after this season with unsettled contract situations for Durant, Green and Thompson to name a few. Curry is coming off what he considers one of his best offseason training programs and Durant has captured the past two NBA Finals MVP crowns. With LeBron James now on the Lakers after four straight finals against Golden State with Cleveland, has the West made big enough offseason strides to keep up with star-studded Warriors?
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
LAST SEASON: 42-40, missed playoffs.
COACH: Doc Rivers (sixth season, 20th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: F Tobias Harris (18.6 ppg), G Patrick Beverley (12.2 ppg), C Marcin Gortat (8.4 ppg, Washington), F Danilo Gallinari (15.3 ppg), G Avery Bradley (14.3 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C DeAndre Jordan, F Blake Griffin, G Austin Rivers
KEY ADDITIONS: Gortat, F Luc Mbah a Moute, F Mike Scott, G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G Jerome Robinson
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Harris will look to build on the promise he showed after coming over in the Griffin trade. Gortat takes over from the departed Jordan in the middle. Beverley, Gallinari and Bradley have the most to prove since they missed big chunks of last season.
OUTLOOK: With Jordan, Griffin and Chris Paul cleared out, the Clippers lack a star player for the first time in years. This group’s biggest priority will be to stay healthy after injuries decimated the roster last season and forced Rivers to start an NBA-leading 37 different lineups. Beverley has dubbed this team “Clamp City,” saying the Clippers will hang their hat on defense. They face a tough start to the schedule, with 12 of their first 14 games against teams that made the playoffs last season.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
LAST SEASON: 35-47, missed playoffs.
COACH: Luke Walton (third season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Rajon Rondo (8.3 ppg, New Orleans), G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.4 ppg), F Brandon Ingram (16.1 ppg), F LeBron James, (27.5 ppg, Cleveland), C JaVale McGee (4.8 ppg, Golden State).
KEY LOSSES: F Julius Randle, G Isaiah Thomas, C Brook Lopez
KEY ADDITIONS: James, Rondo, McGee, G Lance Stephenson, F Michael Beasley
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The biggest star in basketball joined this glamorous franchise as a free agent. After appearing in eight straight NBA Finals and winning three titles, the 33-year-old James accepted the challenge of starting over on the West Coast with several fellow veteran newcomers and a fairly talented young Lakers core. His ability to get the most out of this mix will be one of the NBA’s most compelling story lines.
OUTLOOK: James’ ability to carry a team is unquestionable, and he arguably succeeded with less help in Cleveland than he should get from these Lakers. No serious observers believe the Lakers can compete with Golden State or join Houston and Boston as true contenders for the Warriors’ throne, but ending the Lakers’ franchise-record five-year playoff drought would be a promising start to the LeBron era in LA.
LAST SEASON: 21-61, missed playoffs.
COACH: Igor Kokoskov (first season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Devin Booker (24.9 ppg), G Shaquille Harrison (6.6 ppg), F Trevor Ariza (11.7 ppg, Houston), F Ryan Anderson (9.3 ppg), C Deandre Ayton (rookie, 20.1 ppg at Arizona).
KEY LOSSES: F Marquese Chriss, C Alex Len, F Jared Dudley
KEY ADDITIONS: Ariza, Anderson, Ayton, G Mikhal Bridges
PLAYERS TO WATCH: First and foremost is Ayton, the 7-foot-1 multi-skilled big man chosen No. 1 overall in the draft. Kokoskov sees him as a rim protector on defense and he possesses a soft outside touch to go with bruising, athletic inside moves. The question is how he handles the much tougher world of the NBA. Also, Booker. He underwent hand surgery and missed the preseason, athough he did a lot of left-handed workouts. He wants to be back by the season opener and is anxious to prove he was worth that five-year, $158 million contract he signed in the offseason.
OUTLOOK: It’s been a long time since this franchise was relevant and there is more turmoil as this season begins. Nine days before the opener, Suns owner Robert Sarver fired general manager Ryan McDonough. There is no true proven point guard on the roster and who knows whether the team can find one. The hope rests with Booker, Ayton and Josh Jackson, who will come off the bench at least initially. Kokoskov is widely respected. But it’s hard to see that eight-year absence from the postseason ending anytime soon.
LAST SEASON: 27-55, missed playoffs.
COACH: Dave Joerger (third season, sixth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G De’Aaron Fox (11.6 ppg), G Buddy Hield (13.5 ppg), F Justin Jackson (6.7 ppg), F Marvin Bagley III (rookie, Duke), C Willie Cauley-Stein (12.8 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G George Hill, F Garrett Temple, G Vince Coleman
KEY ADDITIONS: Bagley, G Ben McLemore, F Nemanja Bjelica
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Joerger declared Fox to be Sacramento’s franchise player and is building the offense around the young point guard. Fox had flashes of brilliance during an up-and-down rookie season but has more scoring help around him this year. Bagley is the wild card who will start at power forward and may see significant time in the post when the Kings go with a smaller lineup.
OUTLOOK: The Kings have a lot of work to do to end their 12-year postseason drought. There are question marks across the board, specifically regarding defense and rebounding. Hield and McLemore will split time in the backcourt alongside Fox until Bogdan Bogdanovic returns from a pair of offseason knee surgeries but the key will be down low. Bagley provides a little more scoring which should help offset Cauley-Stein’s inconsistencies.
LAST SEASON: 46-36, missed playoffs.
COACH: Michael Malone (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Gary Harris (17.5 ppg) G Jamal Murray (16.7 ppg), F Will Barton (15.7 ppg), F Paul Millsap (14.6 ppg), C Nikola Jokic (18.5 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Wilson Chandler, F Kenneth Faried, F Richard Jefferson, F Darrell Arthur, G Devin Harris
KEY ADDITIONS: G Isaiah Thomas, F Michael Porter Jr.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: In the offseason, Jokic signed a max deal contract worth around $147 million for five seasons. He’s one of the top big men in the game. The Serbian standout turned in 10 triple-doubles last season, including the fastest triple-double in NBA history. He needed just 14 minutes, 55 seconds to reach the accomplishment at Milwaukee on Feb. 15. Jokic is the centerpiece for an organization trying to get to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.
OUTLOOK: The addition of Thomas gives the Nuggets even more veteran leadership. They’re stacked, but so is the rest of the Western Division. Denver has improved each season under Malone, going from 33 wins his first year, to 40 in 2016-17 and 46 last season. The Nuggets lost out on the eighth and final playoff spot in ‘17-18 when they lost in overtime at Minnesota on the final game of the regular season.
LAST SEASON: 47-35, lost in first round.
COACH: Tom Thibodeau (third season, eighth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jeff Teague (14.2 ppg), G Derrick Rose (8.4 ppg) OR Jimmy Butler (22.2 ppg), F Andrew Wiggins (17.7 ppg), F Taj Gibson (12.2 ppg), C Karl-Anthony Towns (21.3 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Jamal Crawford, F Nemanja Bjelica
KEY ADDITIONS: F Anthony Tolliver, G Josh Okogie, F Keita Bates-Diop, F Luol Deng
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Butler requested a trade less than a week before the beginning of training camp. Thibodeau has said the Wolves will only grant his wish if they find a deal that makes sense for them, but the likelihood of Butler joining them on the floor after all the bluster is low. Assuming a trade is consummated, the Wolves would almost certainly receive a starter as part of a package. For now, Rose is playing the shooting guard spot after a decent showing down the stretch last season as yet another former Chicago Bulls player to reunite with Thibodeau.
OUTLOOK: Though the Wolves were able to celebrate their return to the playoffs last spring after a 13-year absence, they were already facing a rough road back in a rugged Western Conference that only got deeper over the summer. Then Butler’s unhappiness came to a head. The good news for the Wolves is that Towns has continued to improve into one of the game’s best big men with a smooth 3-point shot to boot, and at age 22 he already has his super-max contract signed. Even if this season proves to be a step back, Towns will be the franchise cornerstone for years to come.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost in first round.
COACH: Billy Donovan (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Russell Westbrook (25.4 ppg, 10.3 apg, 10.1 rpg), G Dennis Schroder (19.4 ppg, 6.2 apg, Atlanta), F Paul George (21.9 ppg), F Patrick Patterson (3.9 ppg), C Steven Adams (13.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
KEY LOSSES: F Carmelo Anthony, C Nick Collison
KEY ADDITIONS: Schroder, C Nerlens Noel, G/F Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Schroder. He was a dynamic scorer in Atlanta with a less talented team around him. He’ll begin the season as a starter as Andre Roberson recovers from a knee injury and he’ll get a chance to seize the job, especially if he can improve defensively. He has been outstanding as a scorer and as a facilitator in the preseason. He could have a big season with Westbrook and George drawing most of the attention. His addition means the Thunder will have five capable scorers in the starting lineup, a rarity for the franchise in recent years.
OUTLOOK: The Thunder shocked many when they were able to keep George this summer, and they also kept versatile, athletic forward Jerami Grant. By making the deal to move Anthony and add Schroder, the Thunder became younger, more athletic and more dynamic. If they can find some outside shooting this season to take advantage of their multiple shot creators, they could make a deep run in the West.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
LAST SEASON: 49-33, lost in first round.
COACH: Terry Stotts (seventh season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Damian Lillard (26.9 ppg), G CJ McCollum (21.4 ppg), F Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3 ppg), F Maurice Harkless, (6.5 ppg), C Jusuf Nurkic (14.3 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Ed Davis, G Shabazz Napier
KEY ADDITIONS: G Seth Curry
PLAYER TO WATCH: Zach Collins. Now in his second year, the 7-footer out of Gonzaga appears poised for a breakout. He’ll be watched after the departure of Davis, who was the spark off the bench for the Blazers last season. Davis was prized for his defense, and Collins seems to have the same impact. A plus was Collins’ performance in the NBA Summer League.
OUTLOOK: The Trail Blazers have one of the best backcourts in the league with Lillard and McCollum, but they’re up against a Western Conference field that includes the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, as well as the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers. The Blazers are likely still a playoff team, but they’re in a crowded group sitting just below the sure-bets. Like last year, a lot will depend on how the core of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic perform.
LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost in Western Conference semifinals
COACH: Quin Snyder (fifth season)
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Ricky Rubio (13.1 ppg), G Donovan Mitchell (20.5 ppg), F Joe Ingles (11.5 ppg), F Derrick Favors (12.3 ppg), C Rudy Gobert (13.5 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Jonas Jerebko
KEY ADDITIONS: G Grayson Allen
PLAYER TO WATCH: Mitchell. His emergence keyed Utah’s dominant run to close out the regular season a year ago. Can Mitchell continue to elevate his game in his sophomore NBA season? His rookie season exceeded all expectations as he carved an identity as an electrifying scorer. The Jazz benefited from his scoring punch late in games. Mitchell finished the season averaging 20.5 points while shooting 43.7 percent from the field.
OUTLOOK: Utah appeared headed for the lottery until putting together a dramatic turnaround over the final 35 games last season. With all of last season’s key players back in place, the Jazz are counting on continuity and chemistry to help them become a serious postseason threat among Western Conference teams in 2018-19.
LAST SEASON: 24-58, missed playoffs.
COACH: Rick Carlisle (11th season, 17th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Dennis Smith Jr. (15.2 ppg), G Wesley Matthews (12.7 ppg), F Harrison Barnes (18.9 ppg), F Luka Doncic (rookie), C DeAndre Jordan (12.0 ppg)
KEY LOSSES: G Yogi Ferrell, F Doug McDermott
KEY ADDITIONS: Doncic, Jordan
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Doncic, the third overall pick, is set to be the second straight teenager to start on opening night for the Mavericks, following Smith. The former Euroleague MVP is also expected to contribute right away, perhaps even more than Smith did in a solid rookie season. Jordan’s rebounding is a component the Mavericks have lacked. They needed it badly enough that they happily welcomed the player who infamously agreed to join Dallas join three years only to change his mind before he could sign. That saga led to a two-year rebuilding job the Mavericks hope is over.
OUTLOOK: Carlisle is tired of losing coming off consecutive sub-.500 seasons for the first time in his 16-year coaching career. If Doncic makes the transition from Europe fairly smoothly and Smith continues to improve, the Mavericks should have a shot at a winning record. The playoffs might be a stretch, but it says something that Dirk Nowitzki is set to come off the bench for the first time since he was a rookie 20 years ago. The 40-year-old is gearing up for his 21st season with the same franchise, a record, but looks iffy for the opener because of lingering issues from ankle surgery at the end of last season.
LAST SEASON: 65-17, lost in Western Conference finals.
COACH: Mike D’Antoni (fourth season, 15th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G James Harden (30.4 ppg), G Chris Paul (18.6 ppg), F P.J. Tucker, (6.1 ppg), F James Ennis (7.1 ppg), C Clint Capela (13.9 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Trevor Ariza, F Ryan Anderson, F Luc Mbah a Moute
KEY ADDITIONS: F Carmelo Anthony, Ennis, G Michael Carter-Williams
PLAYERS TO WATCH: A year after Anthony was not amenable to coming off the bench in Oklahoma City, the 10-time All-Star seems ready to accept a reserve role in Houston if it means helping the Rockets to a title. The addition of the talented Anthony, along with Ennis to pick up the slack on defense Houston lost in Ariza leaves the Rockets slightly better than they were a year ago when they lost to Golden State in the conference finals.
OUTLOOK: Harden, last year’s MVP, and Paul should be even better in their second year together and Anthony adds a new dimension which greatly upgrades Houston’s second unit. Ennis will have to pair with Tucker to provide a defensive presence and Capela must take another step this season after signing a $90 million contract this offseason if the Rockets hope to finally get past the Warriors and win their first title since back-to-back championships in 1994-95.
LAST SEASON: 22-60, missed playoffs.
COACH: J.B. Bickerstaff (first season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: C Marc Gasol (17.2 ppg), G Mike Conley (17.1 ppg), F Kyle Anderson (7.9 ppg, Spurs), F JaMychal Green (10.3 ppg), G/F Dillon Brooks (11 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Tyreke Evans, G Mario Chalmers, G Ben McLemore, F Jarell Martin, F Deyonta Davis
KEY ADDITIONS: F/C Jaren Jackson Jr., Anderson, G/F Garrett Temple, F Omri Casspi, G Shelvin Mack
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Conley is healthy after surgery to fix his left heel, an injury that limited him to 12 games last season. Jackson just needs to follow up his summer league play that had people ready to re-rank the June draft order and move him up to No. 1 overall. Anderson must show he can do more after starting 67 games with the Spurs. And whether Chandler Parsons really, finally, is healthy is a big question.
OUTLOOK: A healthy Conley and Gasol gives the Grizzlies their key leaders and the chance to compete in the West. The Grizzlies started 5-1 a year ago with big wins over Golden State and Houston before injuries attacked the roster. Now they’ve retooled, bringing in more experience to help Conley and Gasol. Memphis will need those veterans to do a bit more. A healthy Parsons helps. The goal is reaching the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons after snapping their franchise-best streak of seven straight berths last spring.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost in Western Conference semifinals.
COACH: Alvin Gentry (fourth season, 16th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Elfrid Payton (12.7 ppg, Orlando/Phoenix), G Jrue Holiday (19 ppg), F E’Twaun Moore (12.5 ppg), F Anthony Davis, (28.1 ppg), C Julius Randle (16.1 ppg, Lakers).
KEY LOSSES: C-F DeMarcus Cousins, G Rajon Rondo
KEY ADDITIONS: Randle, Payton
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Davis and Holiday played the best basketball of their careers last season and provide the Pelicans hope of returning to the playoffs. Davis has continued working on building his physique and strength with the expectation that he might have to play more at center now the Cousins is out of the picture. Davis also says his goal is to prove he is the most dominant player in the NBA. Holiday thrived last season when he was able to play more at shooting guard, allowing him to focus more on scoring and crunch-time defending than setting up the offense. The acquisition of Payton should allow Holiday to resume that role.
OUTLOOK: While it’s hard to replace Cousins and Rondo, general manager Dell Demps is hoping Randle and Payton wind up being better fits because of their relative youth, defensive play and ability to thrive in an up-tempo offense. Gentry has said he wants the Pelicans to play even faster than their NBA-leading pace last season. It just might work. New Orleans’ top three front court players -Davis, Randle and Nikola Mirotic- all have shown they can be effective playing that way.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
LAST SEASON: 47-35, lost in Western Conference first round.
COACH: Gregg Popovich (23rd season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Patty Mills (12.0 ppg), G DeMar DeRozan (11.5 ppg, Toronto), F Rudy Gay (10.5 ppg), F LaMarcus Aldridge, (18.0 ppg), C Jakob Poeltl (7.2 ppg, Toronto).
KEY LOSSES: F Kawhi Leonard, G Manu Ginobili, G Tony Parker, G Danny Green
KEY ADDITIONS: DeRozan, Poeltl, F Marco Belinelli, G Lonnie Walker, C Chimezie Metu
PLAYERS TO WATCH: San Antonio’s backcourt will be key in determining how the team fares this season after PG Dejounte Murray tore his right ACL. DeRozan comes to San Antonio along with Poeltl after an unexpected trade by Toronto for Leonard and Green. DeRozan wanted to remain with the Raptors his entire career, so he felt betrayed and was upset by the trade initially. The 6-foot-7 guard has since embraced San Antonio and stated he will take his revenge out on the league this season.
OUTLOOK: The Spurs were third in the West most of last season despite not having their leading scorer and defender in Leonard for all but nine games last season. San Antonio adapted throughout the season in preparation for Leonard’s return, which never happened. In Leonard’s place is DeRozan, a four-time All-Star, who should provide Aldridge with the additional scoring punch the team lacked at times in the starting lineup. The addition and maturation of young stars like Walker, Poeltl, Metu, G Derrick White and G Bryn Forbes along with DeRozan and Gay also provides the Spurs with one of the most athletic teams they have had in years.
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