- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Team-by-team preview capsules for the NBA’s Western Conference:

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LAST SEASON: 33-49, finished tied for 12th in Western Conference.

COACH: Rick Carlisle (12th season with Mavericks, 470-416; 18th season overall, 751-627).



PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Luka Doncic (21.2 ppg), G Delon Wright (12.2 with Memphis), G-F Justin Jackson (8.2), F Kristaps Porzingis (sidelined by knee injury), C Dwight Powell (10.6).

KEY LOSSES: F Dirk Nowitzki, G Devin Harris, C Salah Mejri.

KEY ADDITIONS: Wright, G Seth Curry, F Isaiah Roby.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The world will be watching the Euro pair of Doncic and Porzingis, literally. The Mavericks are headliners internationally now that the 20-year-old rookie of the year from Slovenia and the 7-foot-3 Latvian are finally getting to play together. Dallas held Porzingis out for the last two months last season after the blockbuster trade that brought him from New York, even though he could have played. Their debut together is even more intriguing since it’s Dallas’ first season without Nowitzki, the German superstar who retired after setting an NBA record by playing all 21 seasons with the same franchise. The biggest question is who among the role players will emerge. Keep an eye on Wright. The Mavericks liked him in the 2015 draft.

OUTLOOK: The Mavericks wanted to sign a significant piece in free agency after the trading-deadline addition of Porzingis, who had just been named a 2018 All-Star before the knee injury that sidelined him for 20 months. They had to settle on Wright as a restricted free agent in a sign-and-trade with Memphis, so Dallas will lean heavily on Doncic and Porzingis while trying to get back to the playoffs after missing three straight seasons. It’s the longest stretch without the postseason for the franchise since it was among the worst in sports coming out of the 1990s. It won’t be easy in the West. The Mavericks will exceed expectations if they contend for a playoff spot.

DENVER NUGGETS

LAST SEASON: 54-28, lost 4-3 to Portland in Western Conference semifinals.

COACH: Michael Malone (fifth season with Nuggets, 173-155; seventh season overall, 212-222).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jamal Murray (18.2 ppg), G Gary Harris (12.9), F Paul Millsap (12.6), C Nikola Jokic (20.1), G Will Barton (11.5).

KEY LOSSES: G Isaiah Thomas, F Trey Lyles, C Thomas Welsh.

KEY ADDITIONS: F Jerami Grant, C Bol Bol, F Michael Porter Jr.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Porter was the 14th overall pick in 2018 and missed all of last season as he recovered from back surgery. He skipped the Summer League in Las Vegas due to a balky knee. Now, he’s healthy and ready to contribute. A healthy Porter gives the Nuggets another dimension on the perimeter, and another piece to add to the core of Murray, Harris, Jokic and Millsap.

OUTLOOK: The Nuggets have improved every season since Malone took over, going from 33 wins his first season to 40, 46 and 54 last season when they earned the No. 2 seed in the West. They didn’t make any splashy moves in the offseason although they did bring back Millsap, picking up his $30 million option and agreed on a $170 million extension for Murray. Behind MVP-candidate Jokic, the Nuggets are a legit title contender.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

LAST SEASON: 57-25, lost 4-2 to Toronto in NBA Finals.

COACH: Steve Kerr (sixth season, 322-88).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Stephen Curry (27.3 ppg), G D’Angelo Russell (21.1 with Brooklyn), F Draymond Green (7.4), F Alfonzo McKinnie (4.7), C Kevon Looney (6.3).

KEY LOSSES: G/F Kevin Durant, G Shaun Livingston, G Andre Iguodala, C DeMarcus Cousins, G Quinn Cook.

KEY ADDITIONS: G Russell, C Willie-Cauley Stein, F Robinson III.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: All-Star guards Curry and Russell getting in sync with their communication on the court, which might be a work in progress but they seem to be having fun as they shoot together at practice the way Curry and Durant used to do with good-natured competitions. Curry is the oldest player on the team at 31.

OUTLOOK: The new-look Warriors lost two-time NBA Finals MVP Durant to Brooklyn. After five straight trips to the Finals, they will look to find their way in new Chase Center with the leadership of returning veterans Curry and Green as Klay Thompson works back from left knee surgery after he tore his ACL in a Game 6 Finals loss to the Raptors that clinched Toronto its first title. Thompson’s surgery was July 2 and he is expected to be out at least until the All-Star break, leaving Curry and Russell as backcourt mates in the meantime.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

LAST SEASON: 53-29, lost 4-2 to Golden State in Western Conference semifinals.

COACH: Mike D’Antoni (fourth season with Rockets, 173-73; 16th season overall, 628-499).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Russell Westbrook (22.9 ppg with Oklahoma City), G James Harden (36.1), F Eric Gordon (16.2), F P.J. Tucker (7.3), C Clint Capela (12.0).

KEY LOSSES: G Chris Paul, G Iman Shumpert, C Kenneth Faried

KEY ADDITIONS: Westbrook, C Tyson Chandler, F Thabo Sefolosha, F Ryan Anderson, F Ben McLemore.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Westbrook and Harden as the Rockets try to prove that these two ball-dominant guards can coexist after Houston sent Paul to Oklahoma City in exchange for Westbrook. Harden and Westbrook are longtime friends and played together in Oklahoma City at the beginning of Harden’s career when he was the sixth man for the Thunder and insist that things will work out because they want them to. But things have changed a lot since their Oklahoma City days and it will be interesting to see how Westbrook will adjust to playing a supporting role to Harden after being the face of the Thunder for years.

OUTLOOK: The addition of Westbrook to this team starring Harden gives the Rockets two of the league’s most dynamic scorers and playmakers a year after Houston lost to Golden State in the Western Conference semifinals. If the pairing of is successful it could help the Rockets become an offensive juggernaut in the stacked Western Conference. While Harden and Westbrook will drive Houston’s success, players like Eric Gordon and center Clint Capela will have to continue to improve if the Rockets hope to finally get over the hump and compete for their first title since winning back-to-back championships in 1994-95.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost 4-2 to Golden State in Western Conference first round.

COACH: Doc Rivers (seventh season with Clippers, 307-185; 21st season overall, 894-658).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: F Kawhi Leonard (30.5 ppg with Toronto), F Paul George (23.7 with Oklahoma City), G Patrick Beverley (7.6), G Landry Shamet (9.1), C Ivica Zubac (8.9).

KEY LOSSES: G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, F Danilo Gallinari, F Wilson Chandler, G-F Garrett Temple, G Sindarius Thornwell, G Tyrone Wallace.

KEY ADDITIONS: Leonard, George.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: It’s all about newcomers Leonard and George. They’ll be the top two options on offense. Leonard is coming off a season in which he led Toronto to its first NBA championship (and earned his second ring). Leonard returning home was contingent upon pairing with George, also an LA-area native. George, who finished third in MVP voting last season, can guard nearly any position while being a huge scoring threat. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s top bench-scoring duo last season, will get starter-level minutes again.

OUTLOOK: No more watching other teams go deep in the playoffs. The NBA’s balance of power has shifted to the Clippers, who have never advanced beyond the second round let alone won a championship. All that’s expected to change behind Leonard and George, both regarded as two of the best two-way players in the league. The Clippers had to give up talented veteran Gallinari and star-in-the-making Gilgeous-Alexander, but they kept Harrell, Williams and re-signed Beverley, whose sole job will be using his tenacious D to keep others from scoring. The Clippers are favorites to win it all, a stunning shift for a franchise that has spent much of its existence as a punch line.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

LAST SEASON: 37-45, finished 10th in Western Conference.

COACH: Frank Vogel (first season with Lakers; ninth season overall, 304-291).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Rajon Rondo (9.2 ppg), G Danny Green (10.3 with Toronto), F LeBron James (27.4), F Anthony Davis (25.9 with New Orleans), C JaVale McGee (12.0).

KEY LOSSES: F Brandon Ingram, G Lonzo Ball, G Josh Hart, G Lance Stephenson.

KEY ADDITIONS: Davis, Green, C Dwight Howard, G Avery Bradley, F Jared Dudley, G Quinn Cook.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The evolving chemistry between James and Davis will be at the forefront, but the Lakers’ success in creating an immediate title contender could hinge on the supporting cast. Green must keep the outside shooting proficiency he demonstrated last season for Toronto, while Kyle Kuzma must find a role on a reconfigured roster. The Lakers’ biggest early-season subplot of all might be around Howard, whose return to LA after six seasons away could be greeted by boos or cheers.

OUTLOOK: An aspiring super team takes shape around James and Davis, who joined forces to do a whole lot more than end the Lakers’ franchise-record playoff drought at six years. LA expects to be a title contender with two of the NBA’s best players anchoring a lineup featuring perimeter shooting from Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, fast-break proficiency from Alex Caruso and Kuzma, and sturdy defense from Bradley, Rondo and McGee. Vogel’s ability to fold this talent into a cohesive unit over the next few months will determine whether the Lakers can do something special in the spring.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

LAST SEASON: 33-49, finished tied for 12th in Western Conference.

COACH: Taylor Jenkins (first season).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: F/C Jaren Jackson Jr. (13.8 ppg), G Ja Morant (rookie), C Jonas Valanciunas (15.6), G/F Dillon Brooks (7.5), F Jae Crowder (11.9).

KEY LOSSES: G Mike Conley, G Jevon Carter, G Delon Wright.

KEY ADDITIONS: Morant, G Grayson Allen, F Brandon Clarke, Crowder, G Marko Guduric, F Solomon Hill, G Tyus Jones, G/F Jon Konchar, G De’Anthony Melton, C Miles Plumlee.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Jackson is fully recovered from the bruised right quadriceps muscle that limited his rookie season to 58 games, and the No. 4 pick overall in 2018 has even grown a little bit. Morant played his way into the No. 2 draft pick overall in June, and now the 6-3 guard will get to showcase his speed, passing skills and court vision surrounded by players closer to his talent level than he did in college at Murray State. Valanciunas earned an extension from Memphis and now must prove he can keep producing double-doubles regularly.

OUTLOOK: Marc Gasol and Conley both are gone, and it’s up to Jackson and Morant to lead this rebuilding process for Memphis after the Grizzlies revamped the roster as much as possible in one offseason. This season may not be pretty at times, but at least the Grizzlies have hope for the future based on a duo they hope will become big stars. The franchise just may have to wait a couple seasons or more for a return to the postseason.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

LAST SEASON: 36-46, finished 11th in Western Conference.

COACH: Ryan Saunders (second season, 17-25 as interim coach last season).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jeff Teague (12.1 ppg), G Andrew Wiggins (18.1), F Jake Layman (7.6), F Robert Covington (14.5), C Karl-Anthony Towns (24.4).

KEY LOSSES: G Derrick Rose, G Tyus Jones, F Taj Gibson, F Dario Saric, F Anthony Tolliver, G Jerryd Bayless, F Luol Deng.

KEY ADDITIONS: Layman, G Jarrett Culver, G Shabazz Napier, G/F Treveon Graham, F Noah Vonleh, F Jordan Bell, G Jaylen Nowell, C Naz Reid.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Towns is as versatile of a big man as there is in the league, but he can’t carry the scoring load alone so the pressure will be on Wiggins to take a step forward under Saunders in the second year of his max contract extension carrying a $27 million salary cap hit. Having a healthy Covington, the team’s best defender who arrived in the Jimmy Butler trade from the Sixers last season but missed the last 45 games because of a bone bruise on his knee, will be a critical factor. Culver, the sixth overall pick in the draft out of NCAA runner up Texas Tech, ought to provide more of that valuable perimeter defense along with Josh Okogie off the bench. Either of them could crack the starting lineup at some point, too.

OUTLOOK: The Timberwolves have started fresh, yet again, with Saunders, the youngest coach in the league, beneath an overhauled front office headed by new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas. With Towns and Wiggins, they have a pair of under-25 standouts locked in, and a quiet offseason relative to the rest of the NBA yielded some useful role players in Layman, Vonleh, Bell, Napier and Graham. The first steps are to establish themselves as a far more consistent and efficient team on defense and shooting from the outside. With the Western Conference even more loaded than before, though, it will be tough to measure progress in the standings. Increasing their win total will be a tall order.

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

LAST SEASON: 33-49, finished tied for 12th in Western Conference.

COACH: Alvin Gentry (fifth season with Pelicans, 145-183; 17th season overall, 480-553).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Lonzo Ball (9.9 ppg), G Jrue Holiday (21.2), F Brandon Ingram (18.3), F Zion Williamson (rookie), C Derrick Favors (11.8).

KEY LOSSES: F Anthony Davis, F Julius Randle, G Elfrid Payton.

KEY ADDITIONS: F Williamson, F Ingram, G Ball, C Favors, G J.J. Redick, G Nickeil Alexander-Walker, C Jaxson Hayes.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Williamson was the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, was a highlight machine at Duke and has looked fearless in his first NBA preseason - taking the ball to the hoop against the best interior defenders in the league and scoring more than 20 points in multiple games. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound rookie is a social media phenomenon and filling arenas everywhere he goes. But the additions of Ball and Redick will be important to New Orleans as well.

OUTLOOK: Of the Pelicans’ four new starters brought in by Griffin, one was picked No. 1 overall this summer and two Ingram and Ball were picked second overall within the previous three years by the Lakers before being packaged with Josh Hart and draft picks in a trade sending Davis to Los Angeles. Combined with savvy veterans like Holiday and Favors, not to mention Redick off the bench, there are high hopes in New Orleans that the Pelicans are trending upward and might even contend for a playoff spot this season. The Pelicans also expect 2019 first-round picks Alexander-Walker and Hayes to contribute this season.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

LAST SEASON: 49-33, lost 4-1 to Portland in Western Conference first round.

COACH: Billy Donovan (fifth season, 199-129).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Chris Paul (15.6 ppg with Houston), G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10.8 with Los Angeles Clippers), F Danilo Gallinari (19.8 with Clippers), F Andre Roberson (5.0), C Steven Adams (13.9).

KEY LOSSES: G Russell Westbrook, F Paul George, G Jerami Grant, F Markieff Morris, F Patrick Patterson.

KEY ADDITIONS: Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, Darius Bazley, Justin Patton, Mike Muscala.

PLAYERS TO WATCHL Even though the Thunder will be widely expected to struggle this season, the backcourt of Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander - assuming health - is certainly good enough to help Oklahoma City contend for a postseason berth. It’ll be interesting to see if Paul is energized by the trade, Gilgeous-Alexander is a budding young talent and Gallinari (coming off his best scoring season) is a veteran presence who fits very nicely into today’s perimeter-based NBA game.

OUTLOOK: The Thunder went all-in on title-chasing in recent years, and now they’re all-in on a reset after trading away Westbrook and George. But this isn’t anywhere near a tank; there are plenty of good players on the Thunder roster, and GM Sam Presti has accumulated more than a dozen first-round picks over the next seven years to play with if he’s inclined to make a big move. If they can trade Paul, which may still be an option despite the veteran’s massive $44 million player option for the 2021-22 season, that would only add more pieces to Presti’s plan for an OKC reload.

PHOENIX SUNS

LAST SEASON: 19-63, finished 15th in Western Conference.

COACH: Monty Williams (first season with Suns, sixth season overall, 173-221).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Ricky Rubio (12.7 ppg), G Devin Booker (26.6), F Kelly Oubre Jr. (15.2), F Dario Saric (10.6), C Deandre Ayton (16.3)

KEY LOSSES: F T.J. Warren, G/F Josh Jackson

KEY ADDITIONS: Rubio, Saric, G/F Cameron Johnson, F Frank Kaminsky III, F Cheick Diallo, G Ty Jerome

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Suns are trying to build a winning team around the core of Ayton and Booker, who are both still young and put up big numbers last season. The 7-foot-1 Ayton averaged a double-double in his rookie season while shooting nearly 59 percent from the field. Booker averaged 26.6 points per game and nearly seven assists. Oubre was a pleasant surprise after joining the team midway through last season, scoring nearly 17 points per game after the trade and playing good defense. Rubio gives the Suns an experienced point guard who should help Ayton, Booker and Oubre get better scoring chances. Rubio’s presence also allows Booker to play off the ball and focus on scoring.

OUTLOOK: The Suns should be much better than the 19-win version of a year ago. Rubio’s presence along with the input first-year coach Monty Williams should give the starting lineup some discipline and structure. Phoenix’s ceiling depends on the development of Ayton and Booker. If the two can develop into All-Star caliber players than there might be something brewing in the desert. The major problem is the Western Conference is still stacked with good teams, so a move into the playoffs feels a little far-fetched this season.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

LAST SEASON: 53-29, lost 4-0 to Golden State in the Western Conference finals.

COACH: Terry Stotts (eighth season with Trail Blazers, 325-249; 12th season overall, 440-417).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Damian Lillard (25.8 ppg), G CJ McCollum (21.0), F Rodney Hood (11.2), F Zach Collins (8.6), C Hassan Whiteside (12.3 with Miami).

KEY LOSSES: F Al-Farouq Aminu, F Evan Turner, F Maurice Harkless, C Meyers Leonard.

KEY ADDITIONS: Whiteside, C Pau Gasol, F Anthony Tolliver, G Kent Bazemore.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Blazers will count on Whiteside at center while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from a broken leg he suffered during a game in March. Nurkic probably won’t return until January, at the earliest. The Blazers added some insurance at the position by signing Pau Gasol, who is also making his way back from surgery. Portland will look to Zach Collins to take the next step in his third season in the league. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum form one of the best backcourt duos in the league.

OUTLOOK: In the loaded Western Conference, the revamped Trail Blazers, with a total of seven new players, will have to come together sooner rather than later. A key will be how Whiteside gels with the rest of the team. The 7-footer was acquired in a trade with the Miami, where his production fell off last season after three strong seasons. The Blazers will again emphasize defensive improvement going into the season, something Stotts has routinely preached each fall camp. Lillard signed a supermax extension in the offseason, and appears to be a Blazer for the long haul. Expectations are high for Portland after making the Western Conference finals last season, and players say they’re not going to be satisfied with simply making the playoffs, the goal now is to go deep into the postseason.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

LAST SEASON: 39-43, finished ninth in Western Conference.

COACH: Luke Walton (first season with Kings, fourth season overall, 98-148).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G De’Aaron Fox (17.3 ppg), G Buddy Hield (20.7), F Harrison Barnes (14.3), F Marvin Bagley III (14.9), C Dewayne Dedmon (10.8).

KEY LOSSES: C Willie Cauley-Stein, F Corey Brewer.

KEY ADDITIONS: Dedmon, F Trevor Ariza, G Cory Joseph, F Richaun Holmes.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Kings are building around emerging stars Fox and Bagley. Fox took a major step in his second season to become one of the most complete point guards in the NBA. His speed fuels Sacramento’s up-tempo attack and Walton hopes to get improved defense and 3-point shooting this season out of Fox to make him a more complete player. Bagley started only a handful of games as a rookie but took big strides in the second half when he showed the ability to be a top scorer. He increased his scoring average more than five points per game after the All-Star break to 18.5 and the Kings hope be builds on that this season.

OUTLOOK: The Kings extended the longest active playoff drought in the NBA last season when they missed the postseason for the 13th straight season. But they won their most games of any season during that stretch and finished ninth in the conference. The players view getting into the playoffs as a benchmark for a successful season but that will be hard in a deep Western Conference that only got stronger with moves this offseason.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost 4-3 to Denver in Western Conference first round.

COACH: Gregg Popovich (24th season, 1245-575).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Dejounte Murray (missed last season with knee injury), G Bryn Forbes (11.8 ppg), G DeMar DeRozan (21.2), F LaMarcus Aldridge (21.3), C Jakob Poeltl (5.5).

KEY LOSSES: None

KEY ADDITIONS: F DeMarre Carroll, F Trey Lyles, G/F Keldon Johnson, F Luka Samanic

PLAYERS TO WATCH: DeRozan spent most of last season processing a trade that unexpectedly sent him to the Spurs and away from the Toronto Raptors, the franchise he pledged his devotion to - then watched them win a title. Murray’s injury also forced DeRozan to become the team’s main distributor for the first time in his career. DeRozan set a career high with 6.2 assists per game but also had his second-lowest scoring average in six seasons. Murray is back and spent the offseason sending video of specific plays to show the 30-year-old guard how he could help him score more easily.

OUTLOOK: The Spurs continue to get younger and faster while trying to maintain their veteran presence and corporate knowledge. The latter received a huge boost with the addition of Hall of Famer Tim Duncan as an assistant coach. Duncan’s knowledge of the Spurs’ system, work ethic and camaraderie should help the team’s development as it attempts to an establish an identity separate from but similar to the Big Three era spearheaded by Duncan that led to five NBA championships. Murray’s return along with the return of White, expected emergence of Lonnie Walker IV and addition of Carroll should make the Spurs among the best wing defenses in the league.

UTAH JAZZ

LAST SEASON: 50-32, lost 4-1 to Houston in Western Conference first round.

COACH: Quin Snyder (sixth season, 227-183).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Mike Conley (21.1 ppg), G Donovan Mitchell (23.8), F Bojan Bogdanovic. (18.0), F Joe Ingles (12.1), C Rudy Gobert (15.9)

KEY LOSSES: F/C Derrick Favors, G Ricky Rubio, F Jae Crowder, G Kyle Korver.

KEY ADDITIONS: Conley, Bogdanovic, F Jeff Green, C Ed Davis, G Emmanuel Mudiay.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Mitchell to see if he can emerge as a true All-Star this season. The third-year guard, who averaged at least 20 points in each of his first two seasons, won’t have to shoulder as big of a load in creating the offense with Conley now sharing the backcourt. Gobert is a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and will anchor one of the league’s best defenses again. He posted career-highs in points (15.9) and rebounds (12.9) per game a year ago. Bogdanovic adds a valuable shooter on the wing with Ingles that should give the Jazz an improved outside scoring punch. He shot a career-high 42.5 percent from 3-point range last season.

OUTLOOK: The Jazz are well positioned to take a step forward and become a Western Conference title contender. Conley gives Utah a veteran point guard who is a legit scoring threat in addition to a strong passer. Bogdanovic and Green will also shore up shooting and help Conley take away some of the pressure from Ingles and Mitchell to get it all done on offense. Utah’s fortunes, ultimately, will rise and fall on the continued progression of the central star duo of Mitchell and Gobert. If the Jazz offense can catch up to the team’s elite defense this season, few teams will be able hang with Utah as the season progresses.

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