MAVNALYSIS: Where Do Mavs Fit In The West?

Chris Sheridan says the Lakers will win 70 games. NBC says everybody in the West but the Lakers and Thunder might as well plan for 2015. An assemblage of big names and the excitement of new names creates the impression that the West will be a two-team - or maybe a 2.5-team race. Where, as of August, do we think the Mavs stack up in a top-heavy conference? The breakdown in Mavnalysis:

From where we sit, the Dallas Mavericks got more dynamic this offseason. And better, too, "Plan Powder'' notwithstanding. This figures to be a superior team to the one fielded last year -- one that despite the Odom-led dysfunction and the CBA/front-office oddity of defending a title in reload mode, did, after all, finish seventh in the West.

But what happened to the rest of the West? What if Dallas hit the gas to move from 65 MPH to 70 ... but their foes are driving 100? Where do the Mavs fall now? A team-by-team look at the top teams Western Conference, as they stand in August.

1. Los Angeles Lakers – As of now they stand as prohibitive favorite, and how could they not be? Their biggest weakness last season was the PG position and all they did there was add a two-time MVP. To the degree that Kobe defers ball control, Nash could bring exactly what the Lakers' offense sorely lacked – intelligent ball distribution. Nash' prowess on the offensive end will be matched by his deficiencies on the other end of the floor, where he was never confused with elite, even in his younger days.

Nash's sins however, can be masked by the freakish abilities of newly-acquired Dwight Howard, a brilliant rim defender and the best big-man defender in the league. Further, a pick-and-roll with Nash and Howard seems nearly unstoppable and a frontline of Howard and Gasol feels almost as tailor-made as a Howard/Nowitzki tandem. Add in the newly-acquired Antawn Jamison to Jordan Hil and Earl Clark and the Lakers boast a nearly-unstoppable frontcourt that's both talented and deep.
Oh, and they still have some guy named Kobe.

This team is not without its questions, though, and that's a prime reason why we tap the brakes on any ‘expert' who mentions the Lakers and "72+ wins" in the same sentence. The backcourt is old and health could become an issue, especially with Nash leaving Phoenix's vaunted training staff. Also, the importance of chemistry cannot be understated and it will take time to find the balance between Kobe/Nash as primary ball-handlers and Pau/Howard will need time to figure out spacing and rotations and the like. And one more: the Lakers do appear thin on the wing and perhaps a bit soft on defense, despite Metta World Peace's presence.

That said, there isn't a team in the league who wouldn't trade situations immediately. In a league where the defending champions are moving towards a model of position-less basketball and big men are increasingly rare, the Lakers' size versus the small-ball approach of their closest competitors will be an interesting subplot of the season.

LA may just leave the rest of the West hoping that Kobe dislikes Dwight, or that everybody's body gives out, or that "names'' don't match "games.''
2. Oklahoma City Thunder -- Interestingly, one of the Lakers' few weaknesses is precisely Oklahoma City's strength: elite wing talent. Led by the still-improving trio of Durant/Harden/Westbrook, the eternally-young Thunder should be expected to take another step forward this season. It still may not be enough to counter the size and depth the Lakers boast, however, with a frontline of still-improving Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, they have as good a shot as anyone.

What OKC does not have: Anything promises to them. This club is young and gifted. And what do they truly have to show for it? Two straight seasons at the lip of the cup. The Lakers' upgrade creates an issue for OKC, which just may have to deal with yet another year of being "one of the best teams'' and not "the best.''

Paert of that future: Decisions on new deals for James Harden and Serge Ibaka. A possible tax-paying future. And maybe some bloom off the rose if the "assumed'' title doesn't hurry up and get here.

3. San Antonio Spurs -- A strange and crafty mix of elder statesmen (Duncan/Ginobili/Parker) and promising youngsters (Dany Green/Kawhi Leonard) means the Spurs seem to never experience the drop-off many have predicted.

Predicted, and in this parts, wished for.

Could this be the year?
Perhaps, with the Olympic mileage on the already-old legs of Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs could take a step back. However, given that many NBA minds have looked foolish in prematurely predicting their demise, we won't add our names to that list just yet.

The Spurs can easily convince themselves that they were oh-so-close last season and that therefore, sticking with a similar cast is justified. Note, too, that while some in Dallas make fun of "Plan Powder,'' SA is yet another franchise trying to retain some flexibility, with the avenues that allow them to part ways next summer with Stephen Jackson and even with Manu Ginobili.

The Spurs are, in many ways, in similar circumstances as the Mavs are in ... and maybe not that much separates the two clubs from here.

4. LA Clippers -- The winners of last offseason in landing Chris Paul, the Clippers enter this season relatively unheralded ("The Other LA Franchise'' again) but should be expected to take a step forward with Paul at the helm.

It is typically in the second year that big trades/acquisitions show substantial on-court results and this season is Paul's second in LA. Also with Chauncey Billups' return from Achilles tendon injury and the additions of Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Lamar Odom, the Clippers boast a deep and versatile roster akin to their Staples Center neighbors.
Smile Much depends on the development of Blake Griffin, a high-quality person with a high-wire game who will need to achieve another level as an all-around offensive player if his team is to achieve another level.

5. Where do the retooled Mavs fit? The teams mentioned above, we would argue, seem clearly superior to the Mavericks -- at least according to the fallible "on-paper'' argument. Then again, Dallas, on paper, could have/should have lost every series in the 2011 playoffs, and that didn't turn out so badly.

But "unpredictability'' isn't much of a way to build a pro-Mavs case here. Thus, suggests that the teams on the Mavs' level might as well check it in until 2015.

We will contend that telling the likes of Elton Brand and Chris Kaman that they should get comfortable in Dallas because it's a lovely place to enter semi-retirement will not sit well with them.

So no concessions in this space ... unless you consider a prediction of "fifth in the West'' a concession.

We're not delusional here; Dallas, while improved from the seventh-seed edition of the club from a year ago, still finds itself a tier below the elite in the conference.
A fifth seed in the playoffs would not be an unreasonable expectation, and they could ascend even higher ... while almost certainly spending the first half the season restating their organizational belief that they "just want to make the tournament'' and take their chances from there.

6. Denver Nuggets -- We struggle to place both Denver and Dallas because of the re-made nature of both clubs. Maybe these two could battle for the fifth seed all season long. ... and whether you view that as "exciting'' or an "accomplishment'' is completely up to you.

Denver has been involved in two major superstar trades in the last few seasons, (Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard), and emerged with the superstar in neither deal. However, if any one team is poised to challenge the old adage that ‘whoever gets the superstar wins the trade,' it is the Nuggets. Indeed, the haul they received in the ‘Melo deal rivals the Herschel Walker and Mark Texiera trades in terms of team-building return.
This season, with the arrival of Andre Iguodala and last year's pickup of JaVale McGee, the Nuggets have positioned themselves in the "Dark Horse" category with Dallas to make noise in the post-season.

7. Memphis Grizzlies -- The core of Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph/Rudy Gay likely keeps this squad in the postseason for another season. They will be capable enough on defense when Mike Conley and Tony Allen are added to those three. However, offense will be a different story for the Grizz.

Their offense was worse than Dallas' last season and they just lost their biggest perimeter offensive weapon to Dallas. It's unlikely they will miss O.J. Mayo too much, given how he was increasingly marginalized in each of his four seasons in Memphis. However, last season he was the best 3-point shooter on a team that was bottom-five in the league in the category.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves -- With Ricky Rubio's return from ACL injury and the continued development of Kevin Love, the T'Wolves will once again be in the playoff discussion. They have a few other useable pieces in JJ Barea, and the newly-acquired Andrei Kirilenko, but we think not nearly enough to advance past the first round, especially if the Lakers end up with the top seed.
In summary, where we see the Mavs is bunched up with a group of clubs behind the Lakers, the Thunder and arguably, the Spurs. ... and in that bunch are teams that, unlike Dallas, have never emerged beyond the "promising'' stage.

Putting aside for a moment the longing to join LA and OKC among the elite: Among the hopes for the Mavs is a separation from the never-done-it pack because of what Dirk and Carlisle and this era of Mavs have done.

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