NBA Southwest Division Preview

Mark BirdsellContributor IIIAugust 18, 2010

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 29:  Forward Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs greets Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks after a 97-87 win in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 29, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. The Spurs win the series 4-2.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The NBA consists of six divisions, and it’s pretty clear where the power resides.  That is not in either the Atlantic or the Pacific, despite housing the defending Eastern and Western Conference.  Outside the Lakers and Celtics there isn’t much there. 

The Southwest division, however is a powerhouse and has been for years.  Those teams unfortunate enough to be forced to make the Texas three-step rarely come away with multiple victories, and almost never a complete sweep.

Add on top of that the New Orleans Hornets, objectively a team without much outstanding talent, but Chris Paul, arguably the league’s best point guard elevates everyone’s game and makes them a very difficult team to play.

Finally, the Memphis Grizzlies, historically the least talented out of the group, however I’m not sure that will remain the case for too much longer.  The team is young, talented and looking to make some noise this season.


Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks are an enigma.  They are one of only 4 teams in NBA history to win 50 games in 10 consecutive seasons, however, they are the only team to accomplish this feat and not win an NBA Championship.  And every year it doesn’t happen the more and more it looks like it will never happen.

Dallas almost reached the mountain top in 2006.  Dirk Nowitzki was named regular season MVP.  The team finished the year with a 60-22 record, 3rd best, only trailing the Spurs and Pistons. 

The Mavericks reached the NBA Finals and went up 2 games to 0.  Then the series shifted back to Miami and Dwayne Wade turned into a superstar before our eyes.  The Heat won 4 games in a row to take the series and bring Miami its first championship in the history of the franchise.

As for the Mavericks, they never recovered.  The team won 67 games the following season, only to be bounced by the Golden State Warriors in the first-round of the playoffs.

Dallas continues to have regular season success and is a perennial playoff team, but can they really be considered a serious title contender?

This past season at the trade deadline Donnie Nelson took advantage of the Washington Wizards imploding and picked up Brendan Hayward and Caron Butler for almost nothing.  Further to that matter, Nelson turned Erick Dampier’s expiring contract into Tyson Chandler this summer.

Dallas now has a very interesting looking, albeit old, team going into the season.  The depth chart is as follows:

PG: Kidd/Terry/Barea

SG: Butler/Beaubois

SF: Marion/Stevenson

PF: Nowitzki/Mahinmi

C: Chandler/Hayward

The team has historically played a lot of small ball, with both Kidd and Terry in the backcourt, Butler and Marion at the forwards and Nowitzki playing center.  The Mavericks are now in a very enviable position of having too much talent at each position.

Both Chandler and Hayward are starting quality centers in the NBA.  Beaubois is quickly emerging as solid a combo guard off the bench and Rick Carlisle will have to find minutes for him.

The two major concerns for this Mavericks team will be age and health.  Beaubois and Chandler are the only members of the rotation who are under 30.  Chandler also has a history of missing a significant number of games.  Plus his body will not be 100% when the season starts, as Chandler will likely be the starting center for Team USA at the World Championships.

When the season wraps up in April I fully expect the Mavericks to be in the playoffs, fresh off the heels of another 50-win season.  However, that’s as far as I see it going. 

The Los Angeles Lakers are still the best team in the West and the Oklahoma Thunder are coming on strong.  Unfortunately for Mavericks fans the window has closed.  There is no championship coming anytime soon.


San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are the model NBA franchise.  R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have done such a good job that this has lead to numerous teams selecting their disciples to run other franchises.  Sam Presti, GM of the Thunder, and Danny Ferry, former GM of the Cavaliers, both started in the front office in San Antonio.

The Spurs much like the Mavericks have been very successful over the last decade.  San Antonio has won at least 50 games every year since the 1999-00 season.  However, unlike Dallas the Spurs have 4 Championships over that period of time.

San Antonio got lucky in the summer of 1997.  That year David Robinson, then the franchise player, was injured most of the season and the team ended up winning the lottery, getting the luxury of drafting Tim Duncan.  The Spurs haven’t looked back since.

Robinson and Duncan quickly formed the Twin Towers, one of the best front courts ever.  This brought the team its first title in the 1999 lockout season. 

Then the Spurs had to wait for the Lakers to complete their 3-peat before San Antonio would taste victory again.  Since then the core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have led the team to three more titles.

The team hoped that bringing in Richard Jefferson would help extend their title run, but he didn’t have the impact that most anticipated.  Despite this the Spurs resigned Jefferson this summer, after he opted out of his contract.

The two key players going into the season are George Hill and Tiago Splitter.  Hill emerged as a solid player last season.  He impressed so much that there have been rumors that the Spurs are looking to move Parker and hand the team over to Hill.

As for Splitter, he largely regarded as the best big man outside of the NBA.  The Spurs drafted him in 2007 and but he decided to stay in Europe.  The speculation was Splitter was waiting until he was no longer bound by the rookie contract scale, but despite that he signed a very reasonable 3-year, $10.9 million contract this summer.

San Antonio’s depth chart isn’t as impressive as the Mavericks, but the team definitely has talent:

PG: Parker/Hill

SG: Ginobili/Anderson

SF: Jefferson/Gee

PF: Duncan/Blair/Bonner

C: Splitter/McDyess

The real question is who starts are shooting guard?  Ginobili has become one of the top sixth men in the league and as he continues to age Popovich needs to monitor his minutes.

The one thing I won’t dare say is that the Spurs are too old.  NBA observers have been saying that for years and every year San Antonio comes out and wins 50-games. 

If Hill continues to develop and Splitter can make the transition to the NBA game I don’t see any reason why this team can’t win 50-games again this year.


Houston Rockets

The Rockets are a very interesting team.  General Manager, Daryl Morey, has done a good job of acquiring talented players. 

Last year at the trade deadline he swapped Carl Landry for Kevin Martin and took advantage of the Knicks attempt to clear capspace for LeBron James.  The Knicks gave up Jordan Hill, the team’s first round pick from 2010, a future first-rounder, and Houston has the ability to swap first-round picks in next year’s draft.

Houston also has a talented, young point guard in Aaron Brooks and a player I personally am a big fan of Chase Budinger. 

Last summer the Rockets essentially traded Ron Artest for Trevor Ariza.  Ariza is on the move again this summer being shipped to the Hornets in part of a four-team-trade, whereby Houston picked up Courtney Lee from the New Jersey Nets.

This was basically a salary-dump for the Rockets.  Lee is cheaper then Ariza over the next couple of seasons and with Martin, Budinger and Shane Battier already under contract there wasn’t enough minutes to go around.

The biggest question going into the season is Yao Ming’s health.  There was a rumor a few weeks ago that if he cannot come back from this injury then Yao will retire.  That would be an unfortunate turn of events.  He came into the league with so much promise this would be a terrible way to end his career.

Ideally, Yao follows a similar path as Zydrunas Ilgauskas.  Ilgauskas had trouble early in his career staying on the floor battling foot injuries.  He was able to overcome that and has been one of the better centers over the last few years.

The Rockets are a young, up-and-coming team, who may not be ready to compete for a championship just yet, but will definitely make a push for the playoffs.  The rotation looks as follows:

PG: Brooks/Lowry

SG: Martin/Lee

SF: Battier/Budinger

PF: Scolia/Hayes/Hill

C: Ming/Miller

Houston had a quiet, but positive offseason.  Resigning Louis Scolia, bringing in Lee and signing Brad Miller.  The team also resigned backup point guard Kyle Lowry, who is solid playing behind Brooks.

This is final step in the Texas three-step and just looking at the rosters on paper, anyone that has to play all three teams in a row this year is going to have a very difficult road trip.

If Yao is healthy, I expect the Rockets, along with the Spurs and Mavericks to make the playoffs this year.  However, I don’t think any of three is capable of beating the Lakers in a seven-game-series.


New Orleans Hornets

The Hornets are having a very eventful summer.  Jeff Bower is out as GM and in comes Dell Demps.  Yet another former Spur, he previously served as the vice-president of basketball operations. 

The team also brought in a new head coach, Monty Williams.  Williams has been an assistant to Nate McMillan since 2005.  This is his first shot as a head coach.

However, the thing that caused the most chatter for Hornets-nation is Chris Paul’s trade-demand.  Shortly after LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami Heat, all three of the player attended Carmelo Anthony’s wedding, where allegedly Paul made a remark about forming a big-three in New York with Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.

Paul subsequently spoke with team management and seems to have backed-off his trade request, for now at least.  He is still under contract with the Hornets until 2012 and as arguably the best point guard in the league management would be stupid to trade him before they absolutely have to.

The Hornets have had a relatively quiet offseason.  The team drafted Cole Aldrich, but traded his draft rights to the Thunder in exchange for Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter. 

New Orleans was also involved in the four-team trade mentioned above, whereby the team sent Darren Collision and James Posey to Indiana and received Trevor Ariza from the Rockets.  Finally, a minor deal involving the Toronto Raptors, sending Julian Wright to Toronto, in exchange for Marco Belinelli.

The Hornets still remain a team lacking in depth, any major injury and they become a guaranteed lottery team:

PG: Paul

SG: Thorton/Belinelli

SF: Stojakovic/Pondexter

PF: West/Brackins/Songaila

C: Okafor/Gray

Despite the immense talent of Paul, I don’t foresee the Hornets being a playoff team this year.  The West is simply too deep. 

I have Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma, Denver, Utah already penciled into playoff spots, with Houston, Portland and Phoenix not far behind.  New Orleans can make the playoffs if every falls into place, but I just don’t see it happening.

This is really unfortunate for Hornet fans because without playoff success the team doesn’t stand any chance of resigning Paul in two years, when he becomes a free agent.


Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are a very young and talented team.  However, there are two glaring weaknesses with their roster: (1) they don’t have an elite point guard, in what is becoming a point guard driven league, and (2) they don’t have a number one option, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and O.J. Mayo all have talent, but none are good enough to lead a team to a championship.

Marc Gasol continues to develop and looks like a solid NBA center.  He isn’t his brother, but is a good player in his own right.  As Gasol continues to develop the trade with the Lakers doesn’t look as lopsided.

The biggest are of strength is depth on wings with Gay, Mayo, Xavier Henry and Tony Allen.

The team drafted Xavier Henry, seen by many observers to be the replacement for Rudy Gay.  To date Henry remains unsigned. 

Chris Wallace then went out and surprised everyone by resigning Gay.  Wallace went on record saying retaining Gay was his number one priority, but most analysts, including myself believed if Gay signed a large offersheet with another team the Grizzlies wouldn’t match it. 

Instead management didn’t even wait for anyone to make an offer and signed him to a 5-year, $80 million deal.  This is probably more then Gay is worth, but Memphis needed to resign him to stay competitive.

The team also brought in Tony Allen from the Celtics, who is defensive minded and should help solidify the wing rotation.

O.J. Mayo surprised many by playing for the Grizzlies summer league team in Las Vegas.  He did this to try and improve his point guard skills, Memphis’ biggest area of weakness.  He turned the ball over too much, and doesn’t appear to be the long term answer at the lead guard spot.

Resigning Randolph was a good move, he is a double-double machine.  This move makes the Pau Gasol trade from a few years ago even more confusing since Randolph had the same contract as Pau and isn’t as talented a player.  If management was willing to spend the money they should have retained Pau.

The player I’m looking for is Hasheem Thabeet.  He was the 2nd overall draft pick in last year’s draft and after one season that move looks like a big mistake.  He played 68 games with the Grizzlies and spent some time in the D-league, but he is not the player they should have taken at 2 last year.

The draft was filled with point guards and that is the team’s biggest weakness. Anyone of Ricky Rubio, Brandon Jennings, Stephon Curry or Tyreke Evans would look great in a Grizzlies uniform.

Going into the season Memphis’ depth chart is as follows:

PG: Conley/Law/Vasquez

SG: Mayo/Allen

SF: Gay/Henry

PF: Randolph/Arthur

C: Gasol/Thabeet

With the exception of retaining their own free agent it was an uneventful summer for the Grizzlies.  Wallace brought in Allen and signed Acie Law as their backup point guard.

Ultimately, until this team can upgrade the point guard position they will never take the next step.  Even though the win total might increase this season, the playoffs don’t seem realistic.



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