San Antonio Spurs Are Still the Best in the Southwest Division
The NBA landscape was dramatically altered over the offseason, and entering the 2013-14 NBA season, the Western Conference is as competitive as ever.
The Southwest division in particular bears little resemblance to its 2012-13 self, as numerous transactions have improved the division's collective state.
However, despite the vast improvements across the board, the San Antonio Spurs stayed quiet, apart from a handful of under-the-radar signings. Even with increased competition, however, the division's top squad of yesteryear is in store for another first-place finish in the upcoming campaign.
Here's a look at how each Southwest opponent matches up with the Spurs.
Though likely the most enduring one, the team name isn't the only change that occurred in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Pelicans took advantage of a tanking Philadelphia 76ers squad, stealing away 2013 All-Star Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel, an unestablished rookie whose pre-draft hype has slowly dwindled as more red flags emerge regarding his potential to dominate in a bigger and stronger league.
Not to say that the deal will set the Sixers back a few years—in all actuality, it was likely the most beneficial transaction that the struggling franchise has made in recent history—but the Pelicans definitely were the "winners" in the trade through the acquisition of an emerging top talent.
Similarly, a trade that brought in Tyreke Evans helped to round out a young franchise whose centerpieces—Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis—are on the rise.
That said, despite the potential for the Pelicans to one day make noise, their ceiling in 2013-14 is limited to an eighth—maybe seventh—seed in the playoffs. On talent alone, the San Antonio Spurs still get the nod against an inexperienced squad whose 27-55 record last year left plenty of fans asking for more.
Though they will earn more wins this season, it would be foolish to predict that the Pelicans will enter the Spurs' tier. Tony Parker is simply more talented than Jrue Holiday, and despite Davis' upside, he has ways to go before he can be mentioned alongside Tim Duncan.
It's been a steep, downhill journey for the Dallas Mavericks, whose 2011 NBA title has been followed by a series of disappointing finishes.
Two years ago they were swept in the opening round of the playoffs; last season they failed to make an appearance.
Needless to say, the franchise is in need of a fresh start.
However, the obvious answer—Dwight Howard—fell beyond their reach, and the Mavericks were forced to look elsewhere.
They signed both Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to constitute the backcourt, as well as Samuel Dalembert to be their primary rim-protector.
Despite Dalembert's defensive prowess, an evident defensive ineptitude exists in the backcourt that will prevent the team from reaching the Spurs' echelon.
Tony Parker is one of the league's best point guards; his vast repertoire makes him virtually impossible to shut down. When given the opportunity to exploit a guard duo whose defense, or lack thereof, is such a liability, the MVP candidate should be able to singlehandedly carry his squad to victory.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Duncan—currently winning in the Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki battle—and Kawhi Leonard, who has emerged as an improved version of Shawn Marion. The rest of the team is more balanced too.
It was never truly a question, but for those Mavericks supporters blinded by fandom, December 26—the teams' first meeting—will be quite the wake-up call.
Here's where things become a bit more debatable.
The Grizzlies, like the Spurs, remained distant from the rumor mill in the offseason. Aside from a new head coach, David Joerger, their most newsworthy transaction was the signing of Mike Miller.
Also like their Spurs, their decision to stay inactive can be largely credited to the fact that they were already a top-notch squad.
The team bested the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals before falling to the Spurs in the next round after a quick four games.
As evidenced by their playoff run, the Grizzlies were the second-best team in the West last season, second only to the Spurs. However, it doesn't appear as though they'll be overtaking their San Antonio rivals anytime soon.
By staying quiet, Memphis assumed that their 2012-13 team would be talented enough to contend again—and rightfully so; they fell just one series short of a Finals berth. However, against the Spurs, a low-key offseason ensured that the team wouldn't have the talent to magically overpower the very squad who swept a similar group of players last year.
They failed to fill their most pressing need—a scorer who can be trusted with the ball at the end of games—and while Miller's three-point shooting was indeed needed, the addition of Marco Belinelli to the Spurs ensures that San Antonio hasn't fallen behind.
In a matchup of two unchanged teams, look no further than last year's results for a projection of what is to come.
The Houston Rockets were undoubtedly the winners of the 2013 offseason, bringing in the league's most coveted free agent.
Dwight Howard's arrival marks a new era in Houston—assuming that Howard doesn't demand a trade if things don't go as planned.
The Rockets, who just slipped into the playoffs last year, have become a title contender. Howard joins James Harden and Chandler Parsons to form an effective Big Three, and will team up with Omer Asik to become one of the deadliest defensive big-man pairings in the league.
So why, then, does the Association's most improved roster fall short of their Texas counterparts, as the rest of their division does?
It's because the Spurs enter 2013-14 with experience, chemistry and a comforting track record. Dwight Howard, though unquestionably talented, brings with him numerous red flags concerning his character and ability to integrate seamlessly into an offense.
What happens to James Harden now that Howard will demand the spotlight? And how can one predict that a tandem of Howard and Asik will be able to coexist? Neither has a jump shot; their similar skill sets make for redundancy.
The Spurs, on the other hand, are predicated on consistency. They have the league's best chemistry as well as the star power to rival that of Houston. Duncan is aging, but he's still among the best post options in the league and will always give Howard a run for his money. Parker is better than any Houston guard, as is Kawhi Leonard in comparison to the Rockets' forwards.
San Antonio's bench is stronger, and while it may not have an individual who can compare to Asik, it is undoubtedly deeper.
The Rockets will make strides this season; that much is inevitable. But while they'll overtake a handful of Western Conference powerhouses, they will have to develop and work out the kinks before competing with San Antonio.
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