George is a star on both ends of the court, and Anthony is a truly gifted scorer, so if Coach Billy Donovan can come up with a rotation that maximizes those two players while getting Westbrook some rest, the Thunder could be at the top of the West alongside Houston and below Golden State.
Status: No more excuses
31-51 last season
Key newcomers: Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford
Key departures: Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Nikola Pekovic
Outlook: Coach Tom Thibodeau is known as a great teacher, but he struggled to turn his lessons into results last season despite having one of the game’s best young players in Karl-Anthony Towns and a potential star in Andrew Wiggins. Now Thibodeau has added two of his favorites — Butler and Gibson, who can simultaneously produce at a high level and help their coach break in the younger players. Teague and Crawford can chip in consistent veteran production, and Minnesota did not have to give up much to put this new team together.
Chemistry is always a question with a club that had a great deal of turnover, and no one really knows what to make of Wiggins, but the combination of Towns and Butler should be enough to make Minnesota a team that no one will want to play.
Status: On the way up
Portland Trail Blazers
41-41 last season
Key newcomers: Zach Collins (draft)
Key departures: Allen Crabbe, Festus Ezeli
Outlook: Portland is desperately hoping that its strong play after Jusuf Nurkic was acquired last season was not a mirage. Impassioned debates have arisen over whether Nurkic’s production really was behind the team’s 14-6 regular-season record when he was on the court, and he has become a totem of sorts for those who argue that the Blazers are to be reckoned with this season.
The reality is probably that the Blazers have a terrific backcourt in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum but not enough other talent to be considered one of the topteams in the West. With Lillard squarely in his prime, Portland needs some more help soon or it will have wasted the talent of a special player.
40-42 last season
Key newcomers: Paul Millsap, Josh Childress
Key departures: Danilo Gallinari
Outlook: Nikola Jokic is probably the best player that you have never seen play. A 6-foot 10-inch passing wonder from Serbia, Jokic, 22, is an absolute machine on offense. He can create plays out of thin air and knock down jump shots if teams try to cheat against him. Because he does not have elite athleticism, there has been a consistent belief that he is a poor defender, but he has worked hard on that element of his game. If he can keep improving in that area, he will be one of the best players in the N.B.A.
It says a lot about Jokic that a free agent like Millsap would choose to join Denver, and they seemingly form a great offense-defense combination that could pay huge dividends for the team, especially if Jamal Murray and Gary Harris can coexist in the backcourt.
Status: A sneaky-fun League Pass team
51-31 last season
Key newcomers: Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell (draft), Tyler Lydon (draft), Josh Hart (draft)
Key departures: Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Boris Diaw
Outlook: There is no getting around the fact that Utah was wounded deeply by the defection of Hayward to Boston. The Jazz had developed him into a star, and many expected him to stay. Utah also lost its second-leading scorer in Hill. So who’s left? Well, Rudy Gobert, who is one of the N.B.A.’s best defenders; Joe Ingles, an entertaining role player; and Mitchell, who could be a breakout rookie.
That’s not enough to prevent a dramatic downturn, but Utah has shown in recent seasons that it knows how to build a team. So the exile to Lotteryville might not last long.
Status: Plummeting, for now
55-27 last season
Key newcomers: Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker
Key departures: Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams
Outlook: The N.B.A. is littered with people who have underestimated Mike D’Antoni and lived to regret it, but this year presents a special challenge for a coach famous for his offensive vision. He now has a team with Paul and James Harden, two ball-dominant point guards who are used to having absolutely everything run through them. On top of that, Paul, at 32, is not exactly suited to the lightning-fast offenses that D’Antoni and Harden prefer.
Still, this is a gamble the Rockets had to take. They now have two of the game’s best players and a chance to create something special. But it is going to involve some serious creativity from D’Antoni and a total buy-in from Paul and Harden to make it work.
Status: Learning to share
San Antonio Spurs
61-21 last season
Key newcomers: Rudy Gay, Derrick White (draft)
Key departures: Jonathon Simmons
Outlook: The Spurs are the Spurs. They lose players every year and end up fine. They bring in players who do not seem like much and those players suddenly have their best season in years. Gay can probably already be counted on for a surprising resurgence under Coach Gregg Popovich’s tutelage.
The one exception to the Spurs’ magic seems to be forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He came over from Portland a few years ago with great fanfare, but he has not lived up to the difficult task of replacing Tim Duncan. But even without Aldridge having a major impact, a team led by Kawhi Leonard is going to be just fine, at least until the playoffs start.
Status: Quietly thriving
New Orleans Pelicans
34-48 last season
Key newcomers: Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, Ian Clark, Frank Jackson (draft)
Key departures: None
Outlook: Pairing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins is unapologetically weird in the modern N.B.A., so adding Rondo in the mix makes perfect sense. His potentially divisive personality comes with a huge amount of on-court creativity, and the Pelicans will hope that he is the player who can figure out how to make their big men thrive. He was expected to start alongside Jrue Holiday, but that will have to wait; Rondo is out for four to six weeks after having surgery for a sports hernia.
Allen is past his prime but can still contribute on defense, and Clark is capable of knocking down the open jumpers that the clogged frontcourt should create, so a serious improvement is reasonable once Rondo is back.
Status: Too weird to fail?
33-49 last season
Key newcomers: Josh McRoberts, Dennis Smith (draft)
Key departures: A.J. Hammons
Outlook: The Mavericks will be a delight for as long as Dirk Nowitzki sticks around, though their roster does not seem deep enough to compete in a crowded West. A lot of players would seem frustrated by this situation, but Nowitzki has always seemed to have a good attitude about it, even posting a tweet thanking a fan whosent him $20 to offset some of the money Nowitzki has left on the table over the years to help Dallas try to build a winner.