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The Mavericks have significant new competition in the West's middle tier

In part one of a two part series, we take a look at who the Mavs' competition could be for one of the final playoff spots this coming season.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It's August. Free agency has all but wrapped up, the USA Mens Basketball Team could probably win the gold with me playing center, and we still have two and a half months to go until the NBA season kicks off. Let's pass the time with a survey of the 2016-17 Western Conference landscape.

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks made quite a few substantial changes, most notably swapping Andrew Bogut for Zaza Pachulia at center, adding Harrison Barnes in place of Chandler Parsons on the wing, releasing one of the team's four point guards, and bringing in Seth Curry, best known for being Steph's little brother. There are plenty of unknowns with this new roster, including what happens when Harrison Barnes is asked to carry a heavier burden, Andrew Bogut's ability to stay healthy, and whether Seth Curry will be a gunner or a useful offensive presence on a defense-oriented team.

So what do all these changes add up to?

There's a pretty broad consensus that this team will perform well defensively, but will struggle with playmaking. CBS Sports projects that the Mavericks will have the 13th best starting lineup in the league this season (eighth in the Western Conference), but ranks Dallas's bench at just 20th overall (11th out West).

ESPN's 2017 projections have the Mavericks ending up about where they were last year in terms of wins (40 compared to 42 in 2016) but falling one spot short of the playoffs. It's worth remembering that while some pundits drastically underestimated the Mavs' potential last season, ESPN projected a 41-41 season.

While there's no reason to think that ESPN is being overly pessimistic about Dallas, the Mavs Moneyball staff sees a bigger upside for this line-up, predicting a ceiling of around 49 wins.

Even at the higher end, forty-something wins probably won't put the Mavericks in contention with the Warriors, Spurs, or Clippers, and they don't appear to be in danger of joining the Lakers, the Suns, and possibly the Kings at the bottom of the barrel.

But where do the other middle-tier Western Conference teams stand? And which scrappy young teams may challenge Dallas on their way up? First let's look at the offseason personnel moves (outside of the draft) and what we can expect from the teams that aren't necessarily favorites to make the playoffs, but who have a good shot at being significantly better than they were last year. If things go well for one or more of these teams and poorly for the Mavericks, they could be in competition for one of the final playoff spots down the stretch.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Notable additions: Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill, Brandon Rush, head coach Tom Thibodeau

Notable departures: Tayshaun Prince, Damjan Rudez

Last year: 29-53 (13th place)

ESPN Projections: 39-43 (10th place)

What to expect this year

The Timberwolves are nearing what fans hope is the end of the longest active playoff drought in the NBA (12 seasons) thanks to a talented and athletic young core, including last season's rookie of the year Karl-Anthony Towns. This year's draft pick Kris Dunn is also well-positioned to help this team sooner rather than later. At 22, he's a relatively mature young player who's older than Towns and more experienced than most rookies. Although they may not make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference, the team is inching closer and closer to a winning record.

Dallas swept the Timberwolves last season, but this team's athleticism gave the Mavs a little trouble, pushing one of the games to overtime. As the core continues to develop and new head coach Tom Thibodeau masterminding team defense, this match-up may only get tougher for Dallas.

Additional reading: On Patience

New Orleans Pelicans

Notable additions: Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, Terrence Jones, E'twaun Moore

Notable departures: Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Toney Douglas, Luke Babbitt, Kendrick Perkins

Last year: 30-52 (12th place)

ESPN Projections: 35-47 (11th place)

What to expect this year

New Orleans lost more minutes to injury than any other team in the NBA last season. While many expected Anthony Davis to help the Pelicans take a step forward, he was among the players sidelined by health issues and the team instead took a step back. This summer's moves likely won't make a huge and immediate difference in the team's performance, and many still question Davis's ability to play an entire season.

Dallas split its four games evenly with the Pelicans last season, but even though New Orleans also brought in new big men Hill and Jones, the Mavericks should be better equipped to defend the paint against Davis this season.

Additional reading: The Bird Writes' offseason regrets

Denver Nuggets

Last year: 33-49 (11th place)

ESPN Projections: 34-48 (12th place)

What to expect this year

The Nuggets held steady this season, bringing in new players only through the draft and keeping their existing roster intact. What we see from Denver this season will depend almost entirely on the development of their younger players, including Emmanuel Mudiay and rookies Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley in the back court and Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, and rookie Juan Hernangomez in the front court.

Dallas won three of its four games against Denver last season, with two of those games going to overtime. There's no reason to think this team poses more of a threat this year, but if they're lucky and all their players take a leap, they could become the sort of athletic young team that puts older teams like Dallas through their paces.

Additional reading: Nuggets offseason review

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2!