Right now, I'd say there are seven teams in the West who are capable of winning the NBA title next season. You have your three obvious favorites—the Thunder, the Spurs and the Lakers—and then you have four sleepers—the Grizzlies, the Nuggets, the Clippers and the Mavericks.
Yes, the Mavericks.
Admittedly, last season was pretty rough for Dallas, as their title defense left a lot to be desired. The team stumbled to an underwhelming 36-30 record in the regular season before being swept in the first round of the playoffs—but this year's team looks to be a lot better.
Granted, improving on last year's team isn't exactly a difficult task. The losses of Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea hurt the Mavericks more than anyone might have guessed, and the team resembled Dirk Nowitzki alongside a bunch of scrubs. Well, okay, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion were decent, but other than that it was pretty rough.
Luckily, the Mavs put together a quietly strong offseason. While they missed out on Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, they improved considerably by adding unheralded players who are better than most people realize.
Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo are the two biggest examples.
People aren't exactly gung-ho about Collison these days, but he's an extremely fast player who is capable of making big plays by himself. His numbers aren't exactly overwhelming, but he adds a considerable edge to any team he's on.
As for Mayo, he fell out of favor with Lionel Hollins in Memphis, but he still has a ton of potential. He averaged 18 points a game in his rookie campaign, and if given the right amount of chances, he can be a scoring machine. Expect his scoring averages this season to look a lot more like they did during his first two years in Memphis.
The additions of Chris Kaman and Elton Brand should help the team considerably as well.
Kaman isn't a particularly efficient player, and he certainly struggled at times for New Orleans last year, but he puts up solid scoring and rebounding numbers on a consistent basis, and he should be a considerable upgrade over Brendan Haywood.
As for Brand, he's lost a fair amount in the athleticism department, but he's still a great close-range shooter, and he was surprisingly efficient for the Sixers last season. His experience, along with the considerable talent he still has left, should make him the leader of the Mavericks' second unit and give the team a solid bench scorer.
Keep in mind that Dirk Nowitzki's down numbers from last season may be a bit misleading. He got off to a very slow start because he didn't condition properly during the lockout, but once he got it together, he pretty much looked like his old self. There's reason to believe that he will go back to putting up a solid 23 and eight for the Mavs next year.
To put it simply, the Big German isn't washed-up just yet.
Can this team really compete for a title? Only time will tell, but they certainly look a lot better than last year's team. Collison and Mayo give them a young, energetic backcourt, while Dirk is still good enough to be the team's anchor.
If the Mavericks' considerable assets are able to come together, they might be able to make a run similar to their 2011 championship season.
This team looks a lot like that one, as it features a supporting cast of secretly good players centered around a superstar, in Dirk. It might be a long-shot to see them having a chance against mighty juggernauts like the Lakers or Thunder, but if they can play with the cohesion of the 2010-11 team, there's no limit to what they can accomplish.